By John Lyle Belden
A couple of things I learned about Hedy Lamarr: Her first name (derived from Hedwig) is supposed to be pronounced with a long “E” – “heedie.” Also, she was not amused at all by her name being used as a running gag in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”
Actually, the “Hedley” joke was all I knew of her growing up, as her classic films like “Samson and Delilah” weren’t in movie houses at the time. By then, the actress had retreated from Hollywood and the world in general. Later, I found out about her invention – “frequency hopping” technology meant to help the military in World War II that now serves everyone in our WiFi and cell phones. So, I always thought of her as a genius first, then a movie star.
For an earlier generation, she was “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (a fitting title hung on her by movie mogul Louis B. Meyer), the sexy Austrian in the controversial film “Ecstasy,” and later numerous leading roles with stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, and as Delilah with Victor Mature. It also seemed there were nearly as many marriages as hit films.
So where did I learn the facts at the top of this story? From the lady herself – sorta.
“HEDY! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” the one-woman show written and performed by Heather Massie, returned to Indianapolis recently for a brief engagement at The District Theatre on Mass. Ave. The original under-an-hour production was featured in the 2016 DivaFest and won the audience award at the 2017 IndyFringe. Massie also performed it to widespread acclaim across the U.S., Europe and Africa. Massie has since added more well-researched material to give us the 90-minute performance Indy audiences saw March 18-20.
From Beyond, Ms. Lamarr comes to visit us. She is drawn by our curiosity – not about all the unsavory elements of her biography (though she gives us a bit of those) but about how a part of her came to live in every person’s pocket or purse.
She tells of childhood in Vienna, where her father Emil would interest his “ugly duckling” in the workings of machines and encourage her to think for herself. Of course, doing so resulted in her headstrong insistence in becoming a film actress. After being “tricked” into an infamous movie nude scene, she sticks to stage work, where she is wooed and wed by a rich arms dealer. Her husband’s customers, including Italian and German officials, ignore the beautiful girl in the room as they talk openly about “the torpedo problem,” something she will remember after escaping Austria, just ahead of the Nazi takeover, to Hollywood, with a new name, glamour and fame.
As for glamour, she says all one has to do is “stand still and look stupid.” She definitely does neither as she tells her story.
Massie also channels notables from Hedy’s life including Mayer, Gable, good friend Stewart, and a starstruck G.I. who dances with her in the Hollywood Canteen – all in entertaining fashion.
We get the story of the Secret Communication System, created with composer George Antheil – it uses 88 radio frequencies, a salute to George’s piano – which is awarded a U.S. Patent that she turns over to the U.S. Navy. The military does use the technology – in the 1960s. During World War II, they thought the pretty starlet was better suited to selling War Bonds, which she also did in genius fashion.
This show is gloriously entertaining and inspiring, while presenting a very human woman with her own flaws and setbacks. Even showing this side of Hedy, Massie manages to make endearing. Whether you have never heard of Lamarr, or been a lifetime fan, you will adore “HEDY!”
For more information on the show and upcoming performances, visit www.HeatherMassie.com. In a continuing salute to women in science, Massie is also working on a show on the life of astronaut Sally Ride (the first American woman in space). Given her good relationship with Indianapolis, here’s hoping we will be seeing it soon.