Fly! Into the real life of Margaret Hamilton
Margaret Hamilton. What’s the first thought that pops up when you hear her name? The Wicked Witch of the West, of course. What’s the first phrase you think of once you’ve conjured the character in your mind’s eye? Most likely it’s “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too!” Chances are you’ve just read that quote in Hamilton’s witch voice.
For an upcoming staged reading of the play “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories” at Portland Ballet Company in Portland, actress Jean Tafler has been working hard to imitate Hamilton’s voice – not the witch voice, but Hamilton’s natural speaking voice. Tafler is an accomplished actress who has portrayed characters on stage, in films and on television, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen.
“My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories” was written by her husband, the actor and playwright John Ahlin. Ahlin’s acting creds are as impressive as Tafler’s. He was initially inspired to write “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories” after reading a review of one of his wife’s plays in which her female Scrooge-type corporate boss was compared to … yes, the Wicked Witch of the West. While Tafler had mixed feelings about the comparison, Ahlin was impressed, by the review. “I thought to be likened to that iconic character was a good review! It always stuck in my head,” Ahlin said.
Ahlin had been thinking about writing a one-woman show for his wife at the time this particular review came out. With the comparison in mind, Ahlin visited a local bookstore near their home in New York City in search of a biography on Margaret Hamilton. He didn’t find a biography. Not one. He found a lead. Turned out the man behind the counter had worked with Hamilton during the many years she and her son Hamilton W. Meserve lived in the City.
“Margaret was a maven of New York theater,” Ahlin said. “A lot of actors had stories to share about her. Margaret was kind and well-liked.”
The guy in the bookstore told Ahlin about Hamilton’s summer home in Maine “ … on an island somewhere near Boothbay Harbor.” The phrase it’s a small world comes into play right about now – it turns out Boothbay Harbor resident Wendy Matthews is a friend of Tafler’s! Ahlin gave Matthews a call. Wendy verified the intel for Ahlin, adding that her husband had just been playing tennis with Hamilton Meserve.
“I called Hamilton and he was very gracious – and straightforward,” Ahlin said. “I told him about my idea to write a play about his mother.”
Hamilton Meserve, a retired financier and newspaper publisher, recalled that initial conversation. “People are constantly asking to do a biography, an autographed photo, or something that belonged to her - and most are looking for a fast buck,” Meserve said. “I thought it was the most ambitious project I’d ever heard. (My wife) Helen and I thought it sounded interesting – and it was legit. We encouraged John and Jean to do it.”
And the more Ahlin learned about Margaret Hamilton – her kind, gracious and hardworking nature, her years as a kindergarten teacher, the two kindergarten schools she founded – one in Cleveland where she was born and raised, and another in Los Angeles, the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Children’s School now called the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Preschool and Kindergarten, he learned the woman couldn’t have been more different than that Wicked Witch of the West character she was universally known for, and the more his idea of a play began taking real shape. That was four years ago.
Ahlin and Tafler came here and visited with Ham and Helen Meserve who brought the couple to Cape Island to explore Margaret’s summer house. Back at their home on Southport Island, the Meserves shared memorabilia once owned by the actress. The visit to Cape Island provided Ahlin with a setting for the one-woman show.
Ahlin’s other sources for insight into the actress’ life and career included her grandson Scott Meserve (Ham and Helen’s son) who also lives in New York City, other relatives, her agent Michael Thomas, lobstermen in the Boothbay region, and actors who worked with her. The couple also watched many of Margaret Hamilton’s movies and listened to radio interviews – everything they could find.
Tafler, who stars in “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories,” said, “I feel like I know her from all the research we've done. I've even read some of her letters and one of her favorite books … What I love about her is her directness, a very straightforward kind of person, with a keen sense of humor. She is passionate about her art and about the things she believes in. Kind, loving, interested in people, and especially children; the sort of person who makes friends with everybody. She's a person with a real backbone, a woman with amazing inner strength (and great posture!)”
“Margaret navigated a successful career in show business with her distinctive look, talent and determined will,” Tafler said. “She did this as a divorced single mom .. and she had boyfriends! I love playing her. This is just the beginning of my journey in creating this character. I'm looking forward to learning more about her, perfecting my portrayal.”
The Portland show will be the second time “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories” has been performed. It premiered Nov. 12 at Ahlin and Tafler’s Fat Knight Theater in the City, and was directed by their friend Andrew Glant-Linden.
Both playwright and actor are very happy about how enthusiastically the audience responded to the 90-minute staged reading. “I honestly have never experienced anything quite like it. Something about Margaret Hamilton seems to resonate with the audience,” Tafler said.
“We let people meet her first as a single mother with a full theater and film career,” Ahlin said. “Her favorite actor to work with was W.C. Fields. She was in “My Little Chickadee” with Fields and Mae West. Margaret thought he was the most wonderful man – funny and always ad-libbing. That was a surprise. Unexpected.”
The Meserves were unable to attend the first show, but they will be at the Portland show. At one point, while Ahlin was writing the play, he and Tafler went back to Southport to read what had been written at that point.
“We thought it sounded good,” Merserve said of his and Helen’s reaction that day. “We’re looking forward to seeing the show in Portland.”
Through the insight gained from these sources, Ahlin and Tafler bring an audience into Margaret’s life as daughter, actor, wife, single parent, and teacher.
“Mom loved children. She was split between her love of education and her pure love of acting,” Meserve said.
“My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories” performance will be slightly abbreviated, down to 75 minutes or so for the Friday, Dec. 7 performance in Portland due to its being part of a fundraiser for the Snowlion Rep Theater, co-owned by Ahlin’s sister Margit and her husband Al D’Andrea. Doors at the Portland Ballet, 517 Forest Ave., Portland open at 6 p.m. and the featured performance starts at 7. Fundraiser tickets are $35 (discounted tickets for two are $60). Buy yours at www.snowlionrep.org or by calling (207) 518-9305.