By Robert Heide

Note: How a trip to Florida to a Book Fair at Disney World in Orlando, followed by visits to Miami, the Everglades and Key West inspired me to write my play Tropical Fever in Key West which was produced by George Bartenieff and Crystal Field at Theater for the New City.

Tropical Fever in Key West is the rubric I used to cover two interrelated playsBoth plays take place in Key West. 

Poster of Tropical Fever in Key West was designed by John Eric Broaddus. Heide/ Gilman Files.

In The Cake, a curtain raiser for the second longer play, we are at the upscale villa of a famous, dissipated, aging writer, a character that blends some myths and some truths about several well-known American authors including Tennessee Williams and my friend and mentor Edward Albee. The confrontation here is between the writer, who either is or is not played out; his young, new assistant, whom he either does or doesn’t intend to make his lover and the new course of his creativity; and his current, alcohol-wrecked lover, who is apparently trying to destroy himself, the writer, and the new assistant in turn, and who either has – or has not – poisoned the birthday cake which he and the writer are munching cheerily as the curtain falls.

In An Old Tune, we are on the downscale side of the street, where a worn-out New Jersey band singer and her birdseed wholesaler husband live in the emptiness of early retirement, trying vainly to buoy their spirits with drinking Red Parrot Vodka Zombies and talking agitatedly of large free-roaming Florida alligators while also swallowing the pills prescribed by a malevolently cheery local doctor. The action here, seemingly more static than in the curtain-raiser, is also more violent when the characters intermittently rouse themselves to life. Their fantasies about dying, doing each other in, her glamorous past, and the recently deceased drunken, falling-down playwright across the street are interrupted by an attractive uniformed sailor who walks into the scene and wants to know where Hemingway’s house was and then in came the Doctor to look in on the couple but – captivated – he runs off with the sailor leaving his patients, again to ponder their existence over another Zombie. A critic from the Christian Science Monitor referring to the exiting of the doctor with the sailor wrote, “…and now we know what Mr. Heide is up to.” 

The inspiration for Tropical Fever in Key West came after a trip to Orlando with John Gilman where he and I were to be part of a book fair and promotion for our co-authored Disneyana – Classic Collectibles 1928 – 1958 published by Hyperion Press. The focus of this lavishly illustrated coffee-table book was a man named Herman ‘Kay’ Kamen who in 1933 became Walt Disney’s sole licensing and merchandising agent. Kamen’s ingenious methods made the already famous Mickey Mouse a superstar – that year, 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, Kamen connected Mickey to the WWI surplus watches in bins in the cellars of the going-into-bankruptcy Ingersoll/Waterbury Clock Company – Mickey wristwatches and pocket and lapel watches, and alarm clocks sold like hot cakes during the Christmas season of 1933.  Mickey was everywhere on everything from toy trains – he saved the Lionel Train Company from bankruptcy also with a ninety-eight cent handcar – dolls, tin wind-up’s, clothing, handkerchiefs, toothbrushes, comics, Big Little Books, jam, bread, milk, soda, chocolate candy bars, school pencil boxes and just about anything else imaginable. It was the genius of Kay Kamen that kept the Disney Studio afloat with the requisite cash needed to produce Mickey and Donald Duck and Goofy and Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow cartoon shorts, award-winning Silly Symphonies (like The Three Little Pigs) and eventually the animated features Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Fantasia.  Kamen’s last national merchandising campaign was for Cinderella (1950). Tragically he and his wife died in a plane crash in the Azores in 1949. 

Mickey Mouse – The Evolution, The Legend, The Phenomenon! by Robert Heide and John Gilman, Disney Editions

John and I were put up in a fancy house at Walt Disney World for a week, sold and signed books at the book fair daily, swam in the country club pool and rode all the rides for free. We were assigned a spiffy new car with no time limits and decided to tour Art Deco Miami Beach and ogle the scary alligators in the Everglades. We also drove down to Key West stopping frequently to eat conch fritters and home-made Key Lime Pie. I should add that since then we have written two more key books about Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney including The Mickey Mouse Watch – From the Beginning of Time, and Mickey Mouse – The Evolution, The Legend, The Phenomenon! – the latter Mickey’s official biography. With all this we later wound up talking Disney on the Today Show with Katie Couric. I sported an original 1933 Ingersoll Mickey Mouse wristwatch showing it off to Katie and her 40 million viewers. 

Rita, the retired band singer in An Old Tune, played by Regina David, is mixing Red Parrot Zombies. Heide/Gilman Files

Once in Key West we checked into an old-time gay guest house. With all the travel and the in and out of the air-conditioned car and then suddenly languishing in the hot tropical atmosphere, I found myself passing out – quickly the two gentlemen hosts of the guesthouse took me to their doctor who turned out to have been Tennessee Williams’ doctor when the playwright was in town. He gave me all kinds of tests, including an electro-cardiogram, finally pronouncing that my heart was okay but declaring in his broad southern accent “you’re sufferin’ from exhaustion. Watcha been doing? You need to sit under a palm tree for a while.”  He went on talking about Tennessee’s drinking and about his cousin, also a doctor, who had treated Elvis. “That boy was on so many drugs….” 

Later I wandered around Key West with John and we watched amazing Pelicans diving into the water, perched on the piers and soaring in flight. It was after we found Tennessee’s house, unoccupied almost a year after his death, that we encountered the couple across the street on their lawn, waiting for the official start of ‘Happy Hour’ pouring drinks from their bar which was a converted ironing board.  They pointed to his house saying “Oh, he was always falling down dead drunk on the stairs.” I thought to myself, ‘these people themselves are right out of a Tennessee Williams play.’ Later, I met a sailor on the train trip back to New York who had also gone on a pilgrimage to visit the storied Hemingway house. This trip to Key West somehow later entered my mind as a play. The characters demanded to be written. I hoped that if it worked it might be seen as a tribute to Tennessee. As it turned out the character of the playwright In The Cake, was a combination of my good friend Edward Albee and Tennessee himself whom I had met with his sister Rose at Robert Patrick’s Broadway opening night party at Sardi’s for his play Kennedy’s Children. “Would you like to meet my sister Rose?” he asked, is a moment not to be forgotten. When Williams himself appeared onstage with Candy Darling, a good friend, in his off-Broadway Small Craft Warnings, I got to hang out with him and Candy at bars on the Upper East Side. I always thought Candy, who was sensational in the play opposite the author, could have been a wonderful Blanch Dubois in Streetcar

When it came time to cast Tropical Fever an actor named John Uecker showed up at TNC to audition for the part of the playwright. It turned out he had been staying with and watching over Tennessee at the Hotel Elysee when he died succumbing to a combination of too much alcohol, drugs, and medication including sleeping pills. I felt Uecker did well in the part – he gave the actor J. P. Dougherty Tennessee’s Panama hat to wear as the doctor in the play. Regina David as the retired band singer was perfect and when Mel Gussow, the New York Times critic, came to see it he pronounced her performance “sublime.” I felt all of the actors in this were just perfect. The director, Sebastian Stuart, brought it all together and understood what the plays were about. An actor himself he let the actors “do-their-own-thing” to use a Joe Cino phrase and with that everyone seemed to come together in the sense of ensemble. 

Robert Heide’s plays entitled Robert Heide 25 Plays are published by and are also on Amazon.

Dorsey Davis as Brian the sailor and J. P. Dougherty as Dr. Van Reve in An Old Tune. Heide/Gilman Files.

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