Heather Massie’s one-woman show at BB’s Stage Door Canteen examines Hedy Lamarr’s dual roles as screen icon, scientist
By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
It may surprise several devotees of classic film that Hedy Lamarr, the screen legend once considered “the most beautiful woman in the world” was born Jewish. Given the period of anti-Semitism promoted by fellow Austrian Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, it’s not very hard to understand why she hid that fact as a young woman living in Nazi Europe.
But according to Heather Massie, the actress playing her for one final weekend on the stage of BB’s Stage Door Canteen, Lamarr was forced to continue to hide her religious background once she arrived in America at the behest of MGM Studio head and fellow Jew, Louis B. Mayer.
But just who was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler? Was she an alluring and stunning European beauty who was courted by Hollywood to become a movie star? Or was she a scientist, possessed with a naturally curious and inquisitive mind? Just who was this woman, a wife six times over and a mother to three?
“Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” a one-woman show, begins in black and white as movies display the real Hedy on screen in several snippets accompanied by images of Massie personifying the cinematic legend. Then the backstage is lit up with brilliant, blinding light. With her back to the audience, the silhouetted figure of Massie speaks to us with an Austrian accent.
Eventually, when the backlighted stage is dimmed and the spotlights come on, we see a raven-haired Massie in a spectacular full length burgundy evening gown highlighted by several sparkling beaded brocade and rhinestone designs. She is every bit the Hollywood legend we have come to know in films like “Algiers” opposite Charles Boyer and “Samson and Delilah” opposite Victor Mature.
Yet, when she speaks, we know she is more than just the “simple Austrian girl” she claims to be. She has a sophistication about her that belies her beauty. She is the narrator of the story of Hedy Lamarr’s life, but she incorporates into that narrative more than a dozen other voices of others. Among the men she personifies with different inflections are her beloved and doting father, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and fellow actor Jimmy Stewart.
Massie, who wrote and researched Lamarr’s story, personalizes the story for each locale by breaking the fourth wall and making inquiries of the audience members, as if she has woken from some long slumber with all of her memories intact. She uses this ploy while performing at the National World War II Museum here.
While Lamarr’s Jewish background was not well documented during her lifetime, it has become part of Massie’s storyline now. She acknowledges the deception of her Jewish roots began as far back as when she married her first husband, Fritz Maidl, an Austrian arms dealer. They both listed their religion on the marriage license as Roman Catholic.
Massie’s own love for science and dedication to the craft of theatre led her to take on this project, which has mushroomed from short festival presentations into a major 90-minute version showcased on international tours to faraway places such as Iceland, Italy, South Africa, Sweden, Ukraine and Zimbabwe. Her studies in astrophysics and theatre at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech set the foundations for her own academic research and resulted in Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr.
In her research, Massie determined it was not only Lamarr’s Jewish background that made her hate the Nazis, but also her love for children – unfortunate victims of Nazi torpedoes – as a major factor for her turning to science to find a way to prevent the Allies torpedoes from being jammed. The Allies torpedoes were guided by a single radio frequency, which could be jammed by the enemy, if discovered.
Lamarr, along with avant garde composer and jack-of -all-trades George Antheil developed a method of sending the signal across a wide broadcast spectrum, allowing frequency hopping.
Today, frequency hopping is considered the basis for wifi communications and Bluetooth connectivity. As Lamarr notes in the show, she gave the patent to the U.S. Navy, but had she held onto it and had it not expired, it would have been worth billions today.
But, as Massie notes in the show, the original reason she contacted Antheil was not to resist the Nazis, but to find a way to enlarge her breasts to answer the criticism of Mayer and other studio producers. Antheil’s work as an amateur endocrinologist was the spark that made their partnership happen. As Lamarr, she notes: inventing “‘unjammable’ torpedoes and how to make this work was quite a step up from my mammary glands.”
As she indicates, Antheil’s work as a music composer led him to compose a work for player pianos and the piano roll, which controlled each of the keyboards, was used as a basis for their mutual work for realizing frequency hopping. Although the research and patent were granted during World War II, the technique was never officially employed by the U.S. Navy until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Nevertheless, her contributions have improved the world significantly, Massie insists in the show.
As a fellow scientist, Massie also proudly trumpets Lamarr’s belated accolades such as 1998’s Austrian Volpe Prize and her eventual induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2000.
The level of intense research by Massie into peeling back the layers of this remarkable woman is palpable. Lamarr is an inspirational figure determined to help defeat the Axis powers, so it made sense for the entertainment staff at the National World War II Museum to present her show at their main performance stage, BB’s Stage Door Canteen.
Massie hopes to make this show the initial part of a trilogy of science-inspired shows. She also plans to highligh the work of primatologist Jane Goodall and pioneering astronaut Sally Ride. If anyone can do justice to these other two remarkable women, it will be Massie. Her dedication to science and its application to powerful storytelling in theatre is without parallel.
Blake Walton is credited with the direction and artistic consultations along with Leslie Kincaid Burby. The projection design team is by Jim and Charley Marlowe and sound design is by Jacob Subotnick and andy Evan Cohen. Massie’s incredible dialect work and effortless switch from female to male genders was also accomplished with the help of Page Clements as dialect coach. Audio and lighting engineers were Ben Ross, Christopher Hornung and Theo Fogleman.
Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, written by and starring Heather Massie, continues at the BB’s Stage Door Canteen at the National World War II Museum, 925 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA. For tickets, click here. More information call 504-528-1943.