Untrumpeted page from history marches onstage as 'Parade'

Friday, September 22, 2000


According to his own reckoning, Alfred Uhry was a completely secular, unaffiliated Jew when he was growing up in Atlanta. Yet he is probably the world's best-known authority on Atlanta Jewry.

His internationally celebrated play (and movie) "Driving Miss Daisy" is a much-loved glimpse into three decades in the life of an Atlanta Jewish grande dame, Uhry's grandmother. His 1997 play "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," produced last year by Intiman Theatre here, dramatizes scenes from the lives of an affluent and prominent Jewish clan for whom Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts were an accepted part of life.

"Hal Prince asked me how come Atlanta Jews were so non-observing, so assimilated," Uhry said in a recent phone interview from his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I told him that I thought it went back to the Leo Frank case. He says, 'I remember a little about that. But fill me in. What was it all about?'

"So I explain it to him. And he says, 'That's a musical!'"

And so it is. After six years of research and writing on Uhry's part, the $5.5 million musical "Parade," which is about the Leo Frank case, opened Dec. 17, 1998, on Broadway. It won lots of awards. But it closed after only three months, partly because one of the producers, Livent, went bankrupt just at that time.
Chris Manos, an enterprising producer from Atlanta, liked the show, however, and was determined that it should receive national exposure. A touring production opened in June at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.

"Just at that time, various lists of the men involved in the Frank lynching finally became public," Uhry says. "They were front page news. So 'Parade' was front page news. That publicity helped, for sure."

Next week the "Parade" tour comes to Seattle. The show opens Thursday at the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre.

Producer/director Prince is noted for successfully placing sinister subjects on the musical theater stage. "Sweeney Todd," "Chicago," "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "The Phantom of the Opera" showcase serial murder, political and media corruption, torture and oppression in Argentina and horror amid beauty, respectively.

"Hal and I are friends," Uhry says. "We wanted to do something together. We were kicking ideas around when the Frank case came up. Hal didn't explain to me exactly why the material would make a good musical. He just goes with his gut. And I went along with him."

Like Prince, many of us are ignorant, or at least a bit vague, about the Frank case. It involved what was called "The Crime of the Century!" The century was pretty new then. The year was 1913.

Leo Frank, 29, was the manager of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. He was a Jew from New York, an engineer trained at Cornell University. His uncle Moses Frank was a part owner of National Pencil.

On April 26, the day of Atlanta's annual Confederate Memorial Day parade, Mary Phagan came to the factory to pick up her pay packet, which contained $1.20 for the week. Mary, 13, ran a knurling machine that inserted erasers into metal strips at the ends of pencils. She was found the following day, strangled and sexually mauled, in the factory basement.

Frank was charged with murder and convicted. Human rights activists, particular American Jewish organizations, challenged the many irregularities committed in Frank's trial. Eventually Georgia's governor, John Slaton, commuted the sentence to life in prison. Ambitious politicians and journalists stoked the community's latent anti-Semitism. On Aug. 17, 1915, Frank was taken out of his Marietta jail cell and hanged. In 1986, he was posthumously pardoned.

Uhry, 63, has a family connection with the case. His mother's uncle Sigmund Montag was one of the owners of the National Pencil Co.

"When I was growing up," Uhry says, "I heard tiny references to the case. But it was always hushed up immediately -- something one didn't talk about. What could be more fascinating to a nosy kid like me? When I was 12 or 13, I took the bus into town, went to the public library and found out whatever I could about the Frank case. I didn't come up with much. I got the impression that he was some kind of sex pervert."

Eventually popular and scholarly works were published about the case. A 1937 movie, "They Won't Forget," presents a fictionalized version of the real events. It is available on cassette. A four-hour TV special, "The Murder of Mary Phagan," dealt more realistically with the case. A couple of years ago, a non-musical drama, "The Trial of Leo Frank," opened in Chicago. When he started his research and writing, the mature Uhry had much more information at his disposal than did the "nosy kid" in the Atlanta public library.

As an assimilated Jew, Uhry married a "beautiful Episcopalian woman." Their four daughters were brought up "sort of Unitarian." But now Uhry considers himself a "better Jew." At his wife's suggestion, the family even celebrates Passover in their home.

At the moment, Uhry's Jewish perspective is stretched far beyond Atlanta. He just finished a play about another celebrated case, the kidnapping of Edgardo Montara 150 years ago in Bologna. "He was born into a Jewish family," Uhry relates. "A maid secretly baptized him. When he was 6, Pious IX's papal guards came and simply kidnapped Edgardo. It was illegal for a Christian child to be brought up by infidels.

"Now there's a movement to make Pious IX a saint. At the time, the case was one of the scandals that fed the Risorgimento, the uniting of Italy. Giuseppe Garibaldi used it as one more reason to abolish the Papal States. And, of course, they soon disappeared."

Uhry's new, and as yet unnamed, play was commissioned by the four women who produced "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." Uhry figures it will make its way to the stage within a year or two.

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