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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Meet-up in Pottsville

An Outing with O'Hara

By Robert Saliba
Pottsville, Pennsylvania
On July 19-20 my wife, Jenny, and I revisited Pottsville and the surrounding area to do field work on John 'Hara and see four plays adapted from O'Hara's short stories.



We left Randolph, New Jersey, and drove west on Route 78 into Pennsylvania, past Easton and Allentown, and then took Route 61 north to Pottsville. First stop was the Country Club, where all those marvelous dances took place, where Pat Collins and Whit Hofman sat in the locker room in their underwear drinking gin and ginger ale and swapping family secrets (Pat Collins), and of course, most memorable of all, where Julian English, in a crowded smoking room on Christmas Eve 1930, threw that drink in Harry Reilly's face (Appointment in Samarra).
We drove north and saw a golf course on the right, but no "long drive which opened upon the highway at gate posts.
We turned right at the first chance, drove to the end of the road and turned right again and found the entrance, a concrete post with the plate: 'Schuylkill Country Club.' We took a sharp right and headed up a steep narrow drive and saw the clubhouse. Since the club is private, we didn't feel right about getting out and exploring, but at least we had a beginning point.
We retraced to Route 61 and continued north and drove straight into the pages of Appointment in Samarra. I was Al Grecco, behind the wheel of a V-61 Cadillac coach loaded with bootleg whiskey, getting passed by 'another Cadillac, a big sedan job,' driven by Julian, who 'had his hat on the back of his head,' with Caroline, 'slumped low in the front seat, low and as far away from English as she could get.'
We followed them to Gibbsville, turned up Lantenengo Street and drove to 20th Street, then turned left up the hill, only to find no Twin Oaks Road, no house.
Back to reality: I'm not Al Grecco and this is not Lantenengo Street, it's Mahantongo Street.
We returned to the bottom of Mahantongo and worked our way slowly up the hill, at times getting out to walk around and to take in as much as we could. It was one of the hottest days of the year, and we felt like the young Caroline at 'Jones's Beach' -- '…the heat was awful; it got up her nose….'
On the left, next to each other, are the Necho Allen Hotel (John Gibb Hotel), the Pottsville Republican (Bob Hooker's Standard), and the house where John O'Hara (Jimmy Malloy) was born and where his father had his medical office. A little farther up is a parking lot, where once stood the Pottsville (Gibbsville) Club, where Julian had the fight with Froggy Ogden.
Across Mahantongo is the Coal and Iron Building, now offices, but still looking like it did in 1908. Back again to the other side there's St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, where John O'Hara was once an altar boy. In John O'Hara's world, this was the Church of SS. Peter & Paul, whose pastor was Monsignor Creeden, who once told Julian: 'I think Harry Reilly is a horse's ass,' (and threatened to break his feet if he ever repeated that).
Two blocks up on the other side is No. 606, John O'Hara's boyhood home from 1916 to 1928. It's old, faded white, perhaps stucco. I have no idea who lives there now, if anyone.
Jenny stood on the pavement, taking pictures. I walked to the centre of Mahantongo, which is not very wide, and just stood there.
It's Christmas Eve 1930, and a 'car with a lone cross-chain banging against the fender…is coming slowly up or down Lantenengo Street…cack,thock,cack, thock.' It's 1901, and Percy Shields (Afternoon Waltz) is drunk, being driven in his carriage up the hill to his home at No. 1010.
It's 1922, and Natalie (Winter Dance) -- perhaps the Natalie Benziger in From the Terrace is being chauffeured up the hill in her family's big Packard Twin-Six. It's 1927, and Jimmy Malloy leaves No.606 and runs down the hill to The Standard.
Then I looked back at No. 606 and remembered the first paragraph from The Doctor's Son: 'My father came home at four o'clock one morning in the fall of 1918, and plumped down on a couch in the living room…When he got awake he went out front and shut off the engine of the car, which had been running while he slept, and then he went to bed and stayed, sleeping for nearly two days." That was this house. There, out front, that was where Doctor Malloy's car was parked.
The next block up, on the same side, is No. 716. The brochure from the Pottsville Commission on Tourism tells us Miss Cartwright lived there. There was an Alice Cartwright, the young society reporter from The Standard, the girl with the glasses whom Julian tried to make, the last person to see him alive. But I don't recall anything that said she lived at No. 716.
In Afternoon Waltz, John Wesley Evans lived at No. 1008 and Harriet Shields lived at No. 1010, but neither of those houses still exist. Instead the block is a mini-park and garden surrounding a spring house which used to feed the Yeungling Brewery at No. 5.
However, I did see the steep 10th Street hill, where John's cook and housekeeper, Sarah Lundy, tired herself walking up and down three or four times a week to do the marketing.
The brochure claims that No. 1443, an old impressive red brick home, is where Whit Hofman lived, but I don't remember anything about that.
Follow Mohantongo out of town and you get to Frackville, John O'Hara's Mountain City, where Alfred met Natalie (From the Terrace). But we didn't do that. Instead, Jenny and I drove back down Mohantongo, parked and toured the Yeungling Brewery, which has stood at No. 5 since the 1830's. I don't believe John O'Hara ever mentioned the brewery.
We drove several miles west on Route 443, passing through farm country, to the Econo-Lodge in Pine Grove, John O'Hara's Richterville, home to the Hofner family (In the late 1800s, Adelaide Hofner married Abraham Lockwood from Lyons (The Lockwood Concern).
At six o'clock, we drove five miles east on Route 443 to Sweet Arrow Lake Park to watch four plays adapted from The Victim, Afternoon Waltz, The Hardware Man, and The House on the Corner, performed by The Actors Guild of Schuylkill County.
We were looking forward to this very much, but we had our reservations. Having seen those Hollywood movies which had mutilated John O'Hara's novels, I felt that his works should never be put on screen or stage, that at the very most people should sit in chairs and do readings -- nothing more.
However, the evening's experience proved me wrong: It was a wonderful, enjoyable surprise, and in October we're going back to see From the Terrace.
These stories do lend themselves very nicely to transition to stage. Credit goes to Cathy Fiorillo, the director, who adapted these stories in such an intelligent and common sense way -- giving the right balance to narrative and dialogue -- that the power and spirit of John O'Hara came through big time. Thanks also to Erica Ramus and John O'Hara fans for their efforts.
The actors did a great job. Some gave different interpretations to the roles than I would have, such as Lou Mauser and Percy and Harriet Shields, but in no way was the quality of their performances diminished.
(Note that not everything makes the transition to stage: no descriptions of the display window from The Hardware Man, nor the cleaning of the chandelier from Afternoon Waltz).
The next morning we returned to Pottsville, then drove 14 miles east on Route 209 to Tamaqua (John O'Hara's Taqua). This was the road to the infamous roadhouse, the Stage Coach, described as being four miles beyond Taqua. But there was no Stage Coach. Instead there was an old anthracite mine, which we toured. In the museum we also saw a DVD documentary on the mining industry at the turn of the 20th century with fantastic old film footage. We gained a deeper understanding of the background and history of the area. And this meant more of an insight into John O'Hara and his works.
(Robert and Jenny Saliba are John O'Hara Society members).

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