A Dwindling Breed: Survivors of the Hollywood Blacklist

By Fredric Dannen

Lola Smith

A few months ago, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a one-character play for the actress Lola Smith, who recently turned 92. Over the past decade, while living in San Miguel de Allende, I had worked on a movie script with Nick Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino), developed a TV series with producer Michael Jaffe, and seen my New Yorker article on a Chinese gang turned into a rather bad feature film despite the involvement of Martin Scorsese as co-producer. For me, film and television take a backseat to theater. For those who do not know her, Lola Smith is the doyen of San Miguel Theater, a local legend. She has been doing more directing than acting in recent years. There are simply not many roles for women her age.

So I started casting about for a character to write for her, an American woman in her nineties. The idea struck me pretty quickly: a former Hollywood screenwriter, branded a Communist during the Red Scare of the 1950s, blacklisted and sent to prison, finally confronting her past after decades of silence. The one-act play I wrote for Smith is called The Cauldron of Fire and runs from Thursday, January 25 through Saturday, January 27, and Sunday, January 28, at 2pm, at the San Miguel Playhouse. It is paired with a second dramatic monologue, 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti, by Jeffrey Hatcher, performed by Judy Newell. Advance tickets are 200 pesos, at Solutions, Recreo 11, or online sanmiguelplayhouse.com, and 250 pesos at the door, starting one hour before show time.

Helen Goldman, the character I created for Smith, is not based on an actual person, but the events she describes in the play are historically accurate. In 1945, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) became a permanent congressional body, and two years later began its ill-motivated and spurious assault on the movie industry. Ten men, including screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo, were sent to prison for refusing to answer questions. Scores of other men and women were blacklisted and no longer able to work in Hollywood. A surprising number of people cooperated with HUAC by giving up the names of other purported Party members and kept their jobs.

In Cauldron, Helen Goldman, who had gone to prison for contempt of Congress, is about to have a fateful meeting with a director she has not seen in over sixty-five years, a man who named names and kept on working. In the course of research, I tried to determine whether any victims of the Hollywood blacklist were in fact still living. I came up with five people: screenwriter Walter Bernstein, 98; actress Lee Grant, 92; actress Marsha Hunt, 100; screenwriter Norma Barzman, 97; and actor Norman Lloyd, 103. Actor Kirk Douglas, 101, meanwhile, claims he ended the blacklist in 1959 by securing a parking pass for Dalton Trumbo on the Universal Studios lot.

 

Theater

The Cauldron of Fire, starring Lola Smith

13 Things About Ed Carpolotti, starring Judy Newell

Fri–Sat, Jan 26–27, 7pm

Sun, Jan 28, 2pm

San Miguel Playhouse

Avenida Independencia 82

200 pesos advance

Tickets at Recreo 11, sanmiguelplayhouse.com

250 pesos at the door one hour before the performance

 

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