By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
When Heather Massie arrived on the stage of BB’s Stage Door Canteen after 14 months of postponed performances from COVID safety protocols, she did so in silhouette against a brilliant bright white background.
With her back to the audience, one could only perceive a shadowy figure speaking with an Austrian accent. This mysterious figure soon identifies herself as Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr, once considered “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
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? 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 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.
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 had 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 who marked her life: among them 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.
While Lamarr’s Jewish background was not well documented during her lifetime, it has become part of her storyline now and Massie incorporates it into the show. She does acknowledge the deception of her Jewish roots began as far back as when she married her first husband, Fritz Maidl, an Austrian arms dealer when both listed their religion as Roman Catholic on the marriage license during the era of the Nazis rise in Germany and Hitler’s native Austria.
Massie’s own love for science and dedication to the craft of theatre making 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 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. His work as an amateur endocrinologist was what 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. With Lamarr’s research inspired as a means to help defeat the Axis powers, it made sense to present her show at BB’s Stage Door Canteen, the showcase stage for the National World War II Museum.
She hopes to make this part of a trilogy of science-inspired shows highlighting 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.