These Evanston librarians know a good story when they hear one. And, the one they happened upon during their honeymoon was so good they turned it into a play.
That play, “Ten Dollar House,” will be performed all of January at Piccolo Theatre on Main Street.
Evanstonians Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer are the playwrights. They are also long-time children’s librarians at the Evanston Public Library, at least they were until last year when Mr. Kinnebrew retired early to write full time.
The play takes place in Wisconsin, but for the Kinnebrew-Meyer duo, it clearly has an Evanston stamp. First off, Ms. Meyer has lived in Evanston since she went to Haven Middle School in the mid-1970s; Mr. Kinnebrew has lived here since 2001. They met while working at the Evanston Public Library. They were honeymooning in Spring Green, Wis., attending plays and touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen, when they ran into Evanstonian Marsha Barnett, who encouraged them to check out nearby Mineral Point, Wis., where they “learned about Bob and Edgar,” the protagonists of their play.
“Ten Dollar House” is what the playwrights bill as “a true story about love and historic preservation.” The ten dollars refers to how much the real-life Bob Neal paid in 1935 for a crumbling, century-old miner’s house in Mineral Point. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and he had returned from years abroad as a successful interior decorator in London, only to find his hometown dying.
The underground assets of lead and zinc that put Mineral Point on the map had long ago been played out, and by the 1930s its above-ground assets, the abandoned cottages of early 19th-century miners, were being torn down by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Mr. Neal set about to stop this trend one structure at a time.
He did it with the help of a young hired man, Edgar Hellum, and therein lies the love story and historic preservation. The two men restored Ten Dollar House and, as business partners for 35 years, served as the key to Mineral Point’s revival. They also became domestic partners for the rest of their lives, gay men living as a couple amidst a conservative Midwest community.
The play hints at their intimate relationship early on. Soon after Bob Neal hires the young drifter, he allows that there’s “not many of us around here.” Edgar Hellum asks “Us?” Mr. Neal slyly explains, “Men who like – old houses.”
The house itself was a limestone cottage built in the mid-1800s to look like cottages the immigrant miners
remembered back in Cornwall, Wales – small stone cottages with no electricity or plumbing but plenty of charm.
As soon as Ten Dollar House was restored, Messrs. Neal and Hellum renamed it with a traditional Cornish name, Pendarvis House, and turned it into a restaurant to fund future preservation projects next door and up the street. The restaurant offered traditional Cornish foods like pasties and lasted from 1935 until the men retired in 1970.
The story of Mineral Point and the two men who brought it back to life is told with humor and empathy by Mr. Kinnebrew and Ms. Meyer. They originally conceived the project as a screenplay, but after several stage readings, decided it would work better as a play.
How the co-authors work together might baffle some bickering husband-and-wife bridge or tennis teams. She is a self-proclaimed extrovert and loves library work because of all the interaction with kids, parents and colleagues. He is more of an introvert, seeking quiet time to ruminate and write, although he often does his writing in public spaces like the library.
Their writing process started with months of research and conversation about the story. Together they wrote an early draft that included everything they could think of. Then, over time, they whittled it down to essentials. For example, “Ten Dollar House” started out covering more than a decade “It was longer than ‘Gone with the Wind,’” Mr. Kinnebrew said. Now it spans only two years, 1934-35.
Before re-writing, they made cards for all the possible scenes, talked out the story “again and again, shuffling the order of the cards, combining scenes and characters.” Then Mr. Kinnebrew took the first crack at writing the script, writing “the scenes and all the dialogue from the cards.” Even then he calls it still another “crummy” draft. That’s when Ms. Meyer got into the act. He says, “Martha’s job is to feel the story as the audience would, to watch the emotional pulse. … She keeps it honest.”
He admits he sometimes sells characters short “for a juicy plot turn or a good joke.”
“That’s OK,” she says in his defense. “Rick has a special talent for humor.”
“Ten Dollar House” was first performed in Madison, Wis., at the Broom Street Theatre in spring of 2015. The January 2016 performances at Piccolo Theatre will be its premiere production in the Chicago area. It will be produced by Pride Films & Plays and directed by Piccolo’s new artistic director, Michael D. Graham.
The two playwrights got a boost from the Evanston Arts Council, which pitched in with a grant to cover rent for the theatre. After a $10,000 fund-raising campaign that included events with two Evanston companies, Sketchbook Brewing and Hoosier Mama Pie, their show is set to go on.
Come January at Evanston’s own Piccolo Theatre, all attendees will get a taste of southwest Wisconsin, where the story’s Ten Dollar House is now a historic landmark. So is its next-door neighbor on Shake Rag Street, another Neal-Hellum fix-up.
Why Shake Rag Street? Because at lunchtime, the miners’ wives would call their men home to eat by opening the cottage door and shaking a house-rag up and down, a welcome signal to the hard-working men up the hill at the mine.