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The Writer Behind Nero Wolfe

When I learned that Park Square was going to be producing Might as Well be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (June 16 – July 30), I was excited for the chance to do some sleuthing myself into the background of this character and series of stories that were published between 1934 and 1975. That’s a remarkable span of time for one detective, really only comparable to Sherlock Holmes (who appeared in novels and short stories between 1887 and 1927).

A portrait of Nero Wolfe by Kevin Gordon.

With such a rich history then, where are the countless movies and television series’ to depict Nero Wolfe? I believe it would be because the appeal of these stories are found in the pages of a book, the stage of a theatre, or even the homey atmosphere of a radio broadcast. Indeed, many of the Nero Wolfe mysteries have been adapted to those formats (and to be fair, there have been several successful incarnations for TV). Nonetheless, even with all the various media formats, Nero Wolfe is a flavor of detective fiction best-suited for the thinking man. Philip Marlowe, he is not, as he and his sidekick Archie Goodwin prefer to solve their crimes from the comforts of their New York City brownstone.

Like I stated in the beginning, the chance to dive deeper into the history of Nero Wolfe excited me, but even more so I wanted to get to know the man behind the character. Just who was the author and how might that real life have affected the fictional persona?

Writer Rex Stout (biography.com)

Well, to begin with that author is Rex Stout and he was an American born in Indiana in 1886 (what do you know, a year before Mr. Holmes debuted) and died in 1975 in Connecticut. While he was a lifelong writer, he actually took a number of years off from the profession to simply just make some money. His money-making venture was actually through an invention all of his own by which schools could keep track of money saved by students in accounts at the school. That made him enough money that he could then devote his full-time to the writing of short stories. I certainly know a few artists who wouldn’t mind that kind of income source! I can also see that Stout was definitely an intelligent man, who’s mind was mirrored in that of Wolfe’s.

Another element mirrored in the stories would be the captivating real life adventures of Rex Stout. As a young man he served as a yeoman in the Navy for two years, even serving aboard Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. I am sure that seeing the world in such a way, with so many colorful real-life characters inspired Stout in his writing of adventure, crime and fantasy stories.

All of those stories were written and serialized in pulp magazines such as All-Story Magazine (later Argosy). Between 1912 and 1918 he honed his skills for the Nero Wolfe stories to come. Then, even when they did come, he again wasn’t afraid to take time off of writing for pursue other interests – this time to write propaganda is support of the war effort of World War II.

For so many achievements, Rex Stout will always be defined by his greatest creation, Nero Wolfe. It turned out all right for him, for sure, and he is up there with Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to the Mount Rushmore of fictional crime writers. Good of Park Square then to produce a show featuring such a legacy this summer! Might as Well be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery plays from June 16 to July 30 on the Proscenium Stage and features E.J. Subkoviak is the title role.

Park Square at the Ivey’s

Here we are, a week later and the 2016 Ivey Awards are already in our rear-view mirror as we hurtle down the highway towards a new and promising season of theatre in the Twin Cities. Park Square certainly has a full lineup including The Liar, The Realistic Joneses, A House on Mango Street, A Raisin in the Sun and The Soul of Gershwin. Who knows if those or any other Park Square shows will be featured at the ceremony next year. All we can talk about for now are the ones we had the pleasure to see from last year’s remarkable season.

Everyone's favorite blogger (on the right).

David Beukema (left) and some blogger (right).

It started with me taking my seat at the beautiful State Theatre in Minneapolis and pulling out my phone to make sure I had everything ready for the tweets to come. I assured those around me that my texting was for the greater good and I was 100% paying attention to the entertainment on stage (those friends, by the way, were the Girl Friday Productions gang whose play, Idiot’s Delights, will be taking over the Boss Stage next summer!).

The evening’s entertainment started off with a bang, with Regina Marie Williams and Mark Benninghofen hosting the show. Benninghofen was in Shooting Star at Park Square in 2015; and Williams, most recently as Nina Simone in the eponymous smash hit. The house rocked later on when Williams, Thomasina Petrus and Aimee K. Bryant came out and performed a number from the show.

Hosts Mark Beninghofen and Regina Marie Williams. Photo credit: Ivey Awards

Hosts Mark Beninghofen and Regina Marie Williams.       Photo credit: Ivey Awards

While all of those performances serve to break up the flow of acceptance speeches, occasionally it seems to work the other way around. One of the best was from Park Square veteran Warren C. Bowles, who won an Ivey Award for his direction of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at Minnesota Jewish Theatre (hooray St. Paul!), who was so shocked he was begging the band for his cue-to-exit music.

My personal favorite moment of the night, however, was costume designer Trevor Bowen accepting his award for emerging artist. Having met Trevor in the halls of Park Square (where he designed the costumes for My Children! My Africa! and Nina Simone: Four Women), I can attest to the bright warming light of human being that he is. He had me cracking up through misty eyes as he could barely get through his speech, overcome with emotion on several occasions.

Example of Bowen's costumes in My Children! My Africa! featuring Ivey Recipient Warren C. Bowles.

Example of Bowen’s costumes in My Children! My Africa! featuring Ivey Award recipient Warren C. Bowles (left).   Photo credit: Petronella J. Ytsma

Bowen’s speech was definitely a highlight of a night where everyone deserved their spot in the sun. While Park Square itself wasn’t specifically recognized for any one thing, it was clear that the theatre has a far-reaching influence on the Cities. Even the co-writers of the ceremony, Shanan Custer and Zach Curtis, are frequent performers at Park Square and can currently be seen in The Liar. That to me is just as consequential as any trophy and echoes the spirit of the Ivey Awards. No nominees, no categories, no egos; just a gathering of friends and collaborators to celebrate the miracle of live theatre, because when you consider what it really takes to produce such art… whew, you wouldn’t believe it!

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Well, Park Square and its patrons believe it and we’re all looking forward to a brand new season and getting dressed up for next year’s theatre prom.

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