Historian on the Set: The Filming of
Three Sovereigns For Sarah
Have you ever been watching a movie or television program set in the historic past when you notice an electric light switch on the wall in President Lincoln’s office or observed that George Washington is wearing a pair of breeches with a steel-zipper fly? I usually mutter a curse at the unknown person responsible for shattering the illusion of times gone by and smugly assure myself that if given the chance, I would certainly do a better job at visually re-creating the past. Well, back in the early 1980s I got my chance.
As Archivist for the Town of Danvers, Massachusetts, known prior to 1752 as Salem Village, I live and work where in 1692 the most infamous American witchcraft outbreak began. During eight months of that year more than one hundred sixty Massachusetts men, women and children were accused of practicing witchcraft, resulting in the hanging of nineteen persons. For several decades I was also a member of a re-created 1774-75 militia reenactment unit, the Danvers Alarm List Company, and served as curator of its twenty-seven-acre Rebecca Nurse Homestead, which was the home of one of the more famous of the 1692 witchcraft victims.
Because the Danvers Archival Center houses the largest collection of imprints concerning that witch hysteria, it was not surprising when back in 1981 a polite, self-assured, curly haired young man named Victor R. Pisano visited the archives looking for witchcraft material. Pisano explained that he was interested in the witch era and wanted, through a film, to tell the story of some of the witchcraft trials’ victims. My enthusiasm was not overflowing. Several film groups had visited us before, and I had usually been disappointed with their finished product.
Pisano indicated an interest in Rebecca Nurse and asked if I could suggest other victims whose lesser-known stories would also have dramatic interest. I said that he might look into the story of one of my ancestors, Mary Esty. Though she was executed as a witch, her written plea to the court – not for her own life, but to save others – is a selfless document that is dramatic in its wording even centuries later.
Though I had my doubts that I would ever see Mr. Pisano again, several months later he returned with a script outline and a request that I comment on it. As I read the outline, my enthusiasm rose. He had not chosen to write principally about Mary Esty or about her better known sister Rebecca, but instead he had focused on their youngest sister, Sarah Cloyce.
Although she also was accused of being a witch, forty-seven-year-old Sarah lived through her ordeal, unlike Rebecca and Mary, who were hanged. Though not much about Sarah has come down to us in history, interesting glimpses do survive. Sources reveal that she created a stir during religious services on a day following the witchcraft examination of her sister Rebecca. When village minister Samuel Parris announced the text of his sermon, which alluded to devils in Christ’s church, Sarah could not bear the vicious comparison. She rose from her pew and walked out on the minister and congregation, purportedly slamming the door. As Pisano later would comment, “The more I looked into it, the more Sarah’s story leaped out at me.”
That Pisano had been doing his homework was evident from his story outline. A first-draft screenplay followed in early 1983. I read it one Sunday in my 1681 home, only a few hundred feet from where the witchcraft hearings had actually taken place.
Since much of what occurred during the 1692 witchcraft is not known, gaps in Pisano’s story would have to be filled. On the whole, the story kept faith with history. The film’s title, Three Sovereigns for Sarah, comes from a key fictionalized scene Vic created that allowed for the surviving sister, Sarah, to tell her story. In it magistrates award Sarah three gold sovereigns as symbolic compensation for her own suffering and the death by hanging of her two sisters. Except for this fictionalized vehicle used to introduce and conclude the story, all the other events were done true to the facts or similar to other events that are documented to have happened. The focus, however, was on one woman’s preoccupation of what was happening and how she faced these events.
I later explained to Pisano that I found the screenplay entertaining and stimulating. If the cultural and historical aspects of the film were treated carefully and authentically, I added, he would also have the first serious treatment on film of the 1692 witchcraft crisis. He assured me that he was committed to authenticity, and I enthusiastically agreed to his offer that I participate as historical consultant.
Pisano’s newly established production company, NightOwl, pursued funding sources. Initially, Vic was thinking of an independent feature for theatrical release which would be confined to a running time of about 80 minutes. His script was quite long, however, and another avenue presented itself. The quality and serious treatment of his story resulted in the largest grant for a film ever given by the National Endowment for the Humanities, followed up by another grant obtained through the Public Broadcasting Service. The prestigious weekly drama series, American Playhouse, eventually committed to air the program, which came in at 171 minutes, and was divided into three parts. The total budget for the production was over $1.5 million.
Eminent historian Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and coauthor of the award-winning book, Salem Possessed, joined as the other historical consultant, concentrating primarily on character development and interpretation. I was mainly responsible for historical detail and accuracy. Stephen Nissenbaum has an intellect and inquisitiveness of the highest order, yet matches it with a kind and gentle spirit. He was both a joy and inspiration, and I was honored to work closely with him.
In the months leading up to production, Vic knew he could call me at any time concerning the script. As an example, one weekend I was at home mowing my lawn when my wife, Ethel, called out to me saying, “Richard, Vic’s on the phone – he wants to know how to hang someone.” At one point during filming, Vic allowed me to rewrite a page of dialogue relating to witchcraft torture victim Giles Cory, to get it the way I thought was most accurate. That was quite magnanimous on the part of the screenwriter.
During the ensuing months, Pisano, who now served both as writer and producer of the film, met with Nissenbaum and me on numerous occasions for page-by-page examination of the script, picking up on inaccuracies of speech, objects, settings and facts. Our comments went like this: “This date in the script for Rebecca’s preliminary hearing is incorrect;” “During scenes of Sunday attendance at the meeting house, the men and the women must be separated into men’s and women’s sides of the building;” “Sarah should not drink tea in a china cup, but cider in an earthenware mug;” “You can’t call a farmer’s wife ‘Madame’ because her status would not allow it, you must call her ‘Goodwife’ or ‘Goody.’”
Yet suggestions on paper came easy compared to actually filming a scene in which literally scores of objects must look correct and the actors’ lines be spoken accurately and in a realistic context. A director unsympathetic to nit-picking historians, and too concerned about time and money constraints could decimate much of our work. Lucky for us Phillip Leacock was selected as the director. A London-born veteran of documentary and feature films, as well as television, including directing episodes of Gunsmoke, The Waltons and The Defenders, Mr. Leacock had a lovely English accent and exuded a gentlemanly quality. Always in control and with a quiet assurance that made all feel comfortable, Phillip was always cooperative and usually appreciative of Steve’s and my comments as scenes were set up and rehearsals made. He had a professional reputation of working well with young people, many of whom made up the cast for Three Sovereigns.
Leacock, the actors, and veteran director of photography Larry Pizer were sensitive to the historical integrity of the film. Thanks to this commitment, the historians, though not winning every point, won far more than we lost. It was only later that I found out that on this project the historians actually did have a major voice in decisions (thanks in part to the National Endowment’s financial support), which is seldom the case with commercial films.
For several days Pisano, Leacock, associate producer Ann Gaydos, and I drove around scouting for authentic film locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. I envy location scouts who do Victorian or even eighteenth-century locations, for there are hundreds; but just try to find a legitimate-looking cluster of seventeenth-century buildings. Also, no simple mid-seventeenth-century two or three-room cottages survive; most houses look too grand to have belonged to a Salem Village farmer.
We finally settled on a number of period locations in Massachusetts, including the ca. 1678 Rebecca Nurse Homestead, the Saugus Ironworks National Park (a seventeenth-century ironworks restoration in Saugus, Massachusetts), a space used as a sound stage at Pickering Wharf in Salem, the 1683 Parson Capen house owned by the Topsfield Historical Society, the 1684 John Ward house on the grounds of the old Essex Institute property in Salem, the ca. 1675 Hoxie house in Sandwich, the ca. 1730 Choate house and surrounding land on Hog Island in the Essex River estuary, the ca. 1677 John Whipple house in Ipswich, and the Bradford Estate in Hamilton.
A key location, needed for many interior and exterior shots, was the Salem Village Meetinghouse, where the Reverend Mr. Parris preached and where many of the preliminary witch hearings took place. The problem was that no pure seventeenth-century meetinghouse exists in New England, and a flimsy mock-up or sound stage just would not do. Vic Pisano finally came up with a daring solution – We would build one ourselves!
I knew from reading the 1672 church records that the villagers had “voted that we will build a meetinghouse of thirty-four foot in length, twenty-eight foot broad and sixteen foot between jointes.” My research turned up numerous other facts about this building, including seating plans and when plastered walls and galleries were added. By visiting a 1714 Lynnfield, Massachusetts, meetinghouse and using original documents and educated guesses, I came up with a description of how the original meetinghouse probably looked, and made sketches of the layout. Mark Petri of Plimoth Plantation translated my sketches into building plans, and the production company hired Stulgis and Pigott Builders of Charlestown, Massachusetts, to erect the structure within the next two and a half months.
Following an agreement to use the Danvers Alarm List Company’s 30-acre Nurse Homestead, as well as the members of the company being willing to serve as extras, it was also agreed to build a substantial reproduction meetinghouse on this property, with the building to be given to the Alarm List Company at the conclusion of the filming as a legacy of the film production.
The $45,000 budget for the meetinghouse was augmented by donated supplies and volunteer help, including the Alarm List Company’s Curt White, who fashioned from metal a period weather vane. Jim Pigott, Biff Stulgis, and a crew of about ten men worked twelve-hour days on the construction, through stifling heat and torrential downpours. Massive oak timbers twelve inches by twelve inches by twenty-eight feet were obtained, and two roof support systems, including slightly curved truss supports, were created. Because of code requirements, the wall frames had to include two-inch-by-six-inch studs; but all main beams, including the entire roof frame, were beautifully mortise-and-tenoned together in the seventeenth-century manner.
The open beam roof system was a marvel. Several times in 1692 afflicted children would point to the massive horizontal beams and exclaim that the accused witch’s spectre, visible to no one but them, was sitting on the ceiling beam. For all of the time and money spent on this accurate roof system, I don’t think a frame of film was ever shot of this area!
Although every minute detail was not an exact reproduction of the period, the overall look would be accurate for the camera lens. For example, the floor of the meetinghouse had to be poured concrete so that the camera dolly could roll smoothly over it. The art people, however, painted it so cleverly that many of us actually had to touch it before we could be convinced that it was not rough wood flooring. Any circular saw marks on wood was removed, and the “plywood” pews were dressed to appear as riven oak. Outside was dressed with a meetinghouse notice post set in place and a long run of 4-rail, split rail fencing added.
One of my difficult early suggestions concerned Tituba, and John Indian, the two slaves owned by the Reverend Mr. Parris. Tituba had much to do with the beginning of the witchcraft hysteria and later was accused of being a witch herself. Mid 20th-century screenplays and books depicted the two as blacks, and the production company intended to fill the roles with two local black actors. The trouble was that Tituba and John Indian were actually Carib Indians acquired from Barbados in the West Indies. When I explained that Indians should be used for the part, the producers went to a great deal of trouble to locate two talented actors with aboriginal facial characteristics, Sylvia Anne Soares and Rino Thunder, to play the roles. The fact that the production company did more than simply pay lip service to my suggestion convinced me that it was serious about historical accuracy.
Costuming was another problem. By searching books, visiting museums, and scanning contemporary European art work of the period, costume designer Carol Ramsey and her staff were able to put together costumes for some thirty-five principal actors and more than one hundred extras. Some costumes were rented from Plimoth Plantation, but those had the segmented look of the 1620s – close-fitting doublets, shoulder wings, and falling bands, for example – which divided the body visually into distinct parts. By the 1690s, fashionable men’s clothing had a more unified look, so Carol and her crew added full-cut breeches and large waistcoats that disguised the segmented design. Supplementing her clothing supplies were the reproduction clothes worn by members of the Danvers Alarm List Company, who typically portray 1774 civilians. The Company members could utilize much of their own clothes, altering them slightly to look like 1692 Salem Village farmers. I was pleased that my aunt Carolyn Esty (Trask) Foster, who often assisted in Alarm Company activities, was also excited to participate as an extra in the film about her ancestor Mary.
I was required to be on set during most of the filming, and spent much of the time hanging around waiting to answer questions or assist with a setup between takes. Vic offered that I might get a kick out of being an extra during shooting in the meetinghouse, as it should not interfere with my other work. I thus became an extra, acting as a guard during the examinations and holding a long pole weapon known as a pike. I transformed my reproduction eighteenth century long blue coat, breeches and accoutrements which I wore in the Danvers Alarm List Company into the seventeenth century style. The make-up department gave me long flowing hair. As a result of this job in which I was paid an additional $60 a day, I also had to join the Screen Actors’ Guild, though even with an authentic union card, Hollywood did not later come knocking.
The only complaint I had about the clothing used in the movie concerned hats. Men’s wide-brimmers were typical of the period, but the director felt that those hats covered too much of the actors’ faces creating shadows, and insisted that they wear narrow-brimmed hats instead. Whenever I could I had members of the Danvers Alarm List Company, who served as extras, wear or carry wide-brimmed hats so that the film would show their use as typical.
Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the early 17th century settlement, lent some of its animals, including lineback cows, an old strain of odd-looking cattle with a white line running up the back. Oxen and carts were acquired through Les Barden, a New Hampshire handler. Glassware, woodenware, and pottery came from sources as far away as Virginia and Ohio. Where objects could not be found to purchase, they were made. I researched the type of chains used during the period, and a local blacksmith made up two dozen pairs for the jail scenes.
As prop master and set dresser, Debbie Wierum and Stephanie Carroll were responsible for locating, buying, borrowing, placing, and using all the objects on the set, and making sure that there was continuity in their use and placement. Howard Cummings, as Production Designer, was responsible for creating the physical sets. When it came time to put together the various sets, I was pleased to find that they appreciated my nitpicking.
One long but very helpful research project I had done early on was a read-through of the 900 or so witchcraft documents making note of all the references to objects, descriptions of buildings and settings, colloquial phrases and other cultural and social references. It was a slow process, but served me and the film very well in adding to the richness and authenticity of details and settings.
Most rooms in historic houses are arranged to show off the furniture to advantage. Debbie, Stephanie, and Howard, on the other hand, set up the rooms to reflect their function. Casks, linen sacks, storage vessels, and other bits of period clutter were placed about as though people were living there. Those valuable lessons in room arrangement were not lost on this curator of a historic house. Along with helping to set up the various rooms, I also took on the ‘important” jobs of cutting quill pens, aging clay pipes, and writing notices for the church post. With watchful eyes I allowed a few beautifully restored seventeenth century witchcraft books and a few documents to be used in certain scenes, augmented by facsimile witchcraft documents that Debbie had created.
We had many meetings to discuss objects and their placement. It was like Christmas to be able to find and order reproductions for the film from places including New York, Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. Some of the pottery used came from artifacts I had excavated at the original Samuel Parris Parsonage site discovered in the early 1970s, and replicated by potter Paul Lynde of Connecticut. Antiques were also borrowed from dealers and historic sites, including the Nurse Homestead. All the actors and crew were told to respect and take care of these precious “props,” and with the only exception of one William & Mary Style chair needing a repair, all fared well. In one key scene, a reproduction oak stool I personally brought for use from my home was used by “Sarah Cloyce” at the actor’s inspiration, to dramatically step up on during her witch examination.
The last major historical crisis arose just a few days before filming was to begin, when Steve Nissenbaum and I learned that the well-known actor, Alexander Scourby, with his deep and resonant voice, had been chosen to play the role of an important English magistrate. As his 20th century beard was part of his persona, Scourby refused to shave it off. Beards in the 1690s were unusual, although some older men living in 1692 might still have worn pencil mustaches and goatees. Steve and I saw our credibility suffering badly if a late seventeenth century upper-class magistrate were to be seen wearing a full beard. That would be about as likely as a judge in a contemporary American higher court wearing a multi-colored, spiked punk hair-do. I strongly explained our position, telling Vic that if he allowed such a beard to appear right at the beginning of what was supposed to be an authentic version of 1692, he would lose his credibility with the 4 or 5% of the audience who knew better. After consulting with Steve, we told Vic that if the beard stayed we would honor our contract, but would absolutely not want our names listed in the credits as historical consultants.
Although our stand necessitated some quick moves on their part, to the credit of Vic and the production, a new actor was found. Their choice, Patrick McGoohan, could not have been better, as his voice, his air, and his face were just right for the part. A veteran of stage and screen, McGoohan had starred in the 1960s British television series exported to the United States under the title Secret Agent. He had also co-created what became a cult classic series – The Prisoner. I thought him a marvelous choice, and enjoyed watching him work.
Hair continued to be a minor problem. Long hair was fashionable for well-to-do men at the time. Many of the actors had to be urged into wearing shoulder length wigs, and Steve and I found a solid ally in Nancy LaBracque Baker, the production hair stylist. One key actor was quite reluctant to wear long hair, which besides being a little uncomfortable, took much preparation time each day to achieve the correct look. Nancy arranged for me to have my long hair styled first each day, while his was being applied, and we both would indicate how very well the actor looked in long hair for the part he portrayed. As the production progressed, a few actors requested eyeglasses as props for their roles, thereby necessitating another decision. Although eyeglasses were known in the seventeenth century, they were uncommon, so we decided to prohibit them for all scenes.
By the first of August 1984, about 60 crewmembers had been hired from almost slave-labor interns who were the “go-fers” for everything, to the assistant directors who at times acted like the cast and crew’s best friend, only to turn into storm troopers when necessary in order to continue the smooth flow of the production. Also on hand were the talented director of photography, Larry Pizer, and his assistants including Ed Pei and second camera Doug Miller, who combined both technical skills and artistic creativity. Mr. Pizer had done three previous films with Vanessa Redgrave, and Doug took many beautiful black & white photos during the shoot.
Also essential to the production was sound recordist Tom Brandau, with his recorders, boom mikes and sophisticated gadgetry. I learned about the jobs of the electricians, key grips, gaffers, make-up people, stunt supervisor, extra coordinators, the script supervisor, location manager, production photographer, animal wrangler, casting supervisor and property assistants. Food and snacks were always plentiful and delicious provided under tents by the production caterer. When filming on Hog Island, Ipswich, cast, crew and equipment had to be ferried by water to the location, one barge, its occupants and equipment having to be saved from sinking into Ipswich Bay.
On several occasions Executive Producers Lindsay Law and Benjamin Melniker, as well as other funding VIP’s visited, and Vic was pleased how Steve and I were attentive to them and gave accolades about how serious the production company was to make this an accurate period portrayal.
Filming commenced on August 20, 1984, at Saugus Iron Works National Park and continued over 40 full shooting days using six principal locations. No matter how hard and well we and the others had worked, if the acting was not convincing the project would have been a flop. We were lucky to have such an excellent cast and a fine pool of extras. Vic’s script called for 36 speaking roles and dozens of extras. Twenty-four of the actors were from the Boston area.
Among the principal players were Ronald L. Hunter as Rebecca’s son, Samuel Nurse; Donald Symington playing Sarah Cloyce’s husband, Peter; Will Lyman portraying Rev. Mr. Samuel Parris; John Dukakis (adopted son of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis) as Joseph Putnam, a friend of the Cloyce family even though his half-brother’s family were accusers; Shay Duffin and Bob Colonna portraying Salem magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, who examined the accused; Daniel von Bargen as Thomas Putnam: and Maryann Plunkett as Anne Putnam, Sr. I thought it significant to the quality of Vic’s screenplay that several actors who could demand hefty pay for their participation in a film were willing to accept a much lower PBS pay scale to work on this project.
When I first met the six talented girls who played the afflicted children, I wondered if they could portray the girls’ torment convincingly. My doubts were erased the first time they broke into wild pandemonium in the meetinghouse. Jennifer Dundas portrayed Ann Putnam, Jr. Steve Nissenbaum worked with the young actors on the nature of the afflictions in 1692. Between takes the girls had school lessons with a tutor hired by the production company.
The three sisters, however, were the principal characters. Veteran actresses Phyllis Thaxter, Kim Hunter, and Vanessa Redgrave gave Vic Pisano’s and history’s words true life as they acted and reacted to one another and their plight.
Maine native Phyllis Thaxter played Rebecca Nurse. Making her Broadway debut at 19, Miss Thaxter signed a contract in 1944 with MGM and appeared in the acclaimed movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. A bout with polio in 1952 was eventually overcome, and Thaxter became a fine character actor on stage, screen and television. In 1978 she played Superman’s earthly Mom opposite Glenn Ford as the father in the first of highly successful Superman movies.
Kim Hunter had an active early career. In 1947 she played “Stella” opposite Marlon Brando in the Elia Kazan Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1951 she reprised the role in the toned-down Hollywood movie version of the play. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year, as well as the Golden Globe in 1952. During the McCarthy “Red Scare” of the 1950s, Miss Hunter was blacklisted, having to slowly regain her acting career from the 1960s on. In 1968 she took the role of Dr. Zina, a chimpanzee psychiatrist, in the science fiction classic Planet of the Apes, having to spend hours each day in make-up. She reprised the role in sequels in 1970 and 1971.
London-born Vanessa Redgrave came from a distinguished British theatre family. Prior to her work on Three Sovereigns, Miss Redgrave had become one of the premier actors in film and stage. Tennessee Williams had called her “the greatest living actress of our time.” In 1966 and 1967 she had appeared in the iconic films A Man for All Seasons, and Camelot, in which she played Guinevere, opposite Richard Harris as King Arthur. By 1985 Vanessa had received 5 Academy Award nominations, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia in 1977. She had also received 6 Golden Globe nominations, winning one also for Julia. In 1980 she won an Emmy for the television film, Playing for Time, about a Jewish orchestra in a Nazi Concentration Camp, though the award generated controversy due to her support of Palestinian rights.
Phyllis Thaxter was poignant as the pure-hearted Rebecca Nurse, with expressions deep and hurting. Kim Hunter played selfless Mary Esty as the strong but gentle character I imagined my ancestor to be. Vanessa Redgrave’s Sarah was a strong survivor vigorously standing up to authority. Miss Redgrave had her own concept of how to play Sarah, which sometimes brought about serious discussions with Vic as screenwriter/producer, Steve and me as historical consultants, and Vanessa as principle actor. We usually came to a compromise accommodation, though Steve and I often referred to Vanessa’s version of Sarah Cloyce as “Super Sarah.”
I found Vanessa to be one of the most genuine persons I had ever met. When working, her concentration and concern for detail were immense. She had studied the script, read on the subject and was determined to play Sarah as she felt her to be, though always open to facts and new ideas. Given her recent controversy and lawsuit against the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she was careful not to discuss politics with strangers, and was always leery of the press. There was not a hint of a Prima-Donna within the actress. She was an unpretentious person around the extras, cast and crew, avoiding attention, but often engaging in chit-chat or passing around candy.
One of the most vivid memories I have of the filming of Three Sovereigns was watching the three talented ladies acting and reacting with one another in a poignant scene. It took place in the ancient Nurse house bedchamber, when Rebecca is first informed of her being accused of witchcraft. The 17’x17’ room was only large enough to allow the director, cameraman, soundman and actors to inhabit it. Cameras and equipment were everywhere and large filtered lights supported by two-story tubular scaffolding were clamped outdoors shinning through the windows. Philip kindly invited me into the crowded room to watch as these talented actors created a scene so rich and empathetic. I so respected their gift of the acting craft and its being so poignantly displayed in the same space as the original event of almost 300 years earlier.
Another treat occurred when we were filming in early October at the 1683 “Parson” Joseph Capen House in Topsfield. The lovely interior of this architectural-gem of a house was used as the setting of the Salem Village Parsonage. One day Philip Leacock introduced me to his friend who was visiting him, and I had an enjoyable conversation with Howard E. Koch. Mr. Koch wrote for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre of the Air, including the 1938 radio drama adaptation of War of the Worlds, which program is now an iconic broadcast leading to panic in some parts of the country when it was broadcast in real time as if aliens were invading earth. Mr. Koch also co-scripted the 1942 Bogart/Bergman classic Casablanca, for which he earned an Academy Award in 1944. He was writing scenes for the movie on-set, including the ending, while the movie was actually being filmed. In the early 1950s Mr. Koch was caught up in the “Red Scare” and was blacklisted. It was an honor to meet him. Also while at the Topsfield Historical Society location, I was able to have members of the Danvers Alarm List Company, in 18th century Revolutionary War militia attire, go through our manual exercise and firing demonstration as a little break for the cast and crew working there one Saturday.
My seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, had become particularly smitten with Ms. Redgrave, when she had met her late one afternoon early in the shooting at the Nurse Homestead. Vanessa had been very warm with Elizabeth. Wanting our daughter to experience a bit of the magic of filming, but not missing too much school, her mother Ethel and I allowed “Biz” to miss two days of school. Vic Pisano was gracious to let Elizabeth be an extra in a dramatic scene when Sarah Cloyce walks out of the meeting house during a sermon being preached by Rev. Samuel Parris. Elizabeth came to work with me that morning dressed in her personal 18th century period clothing her Mom made her for participation in the Danvers Alarm List Company. In make up, she was given a correct head cap and apron, and then stuck by my side.
Just after a blocking rehearsal in the meeting house when the actors were finding their marks for a scene, I had Elizabeth sit down in a pew while I spoke with Philip and others about the scene. I noticed Elizabeth shortly after went over to Vanessa, and they began talking. I thought, “Oh, how cute.” Several minutes later the two of them came over to me holding hands. Vanessa informed me that she had just been invited over to Elizabeth’s house for supper. If Mom and Dad said it was all right, she would be pleased to come. I was flabbergasted but excited, and said “of course!” A few nights later, I drove Vanessa to my house and she joined Elizabeth, Ethel, and me for supper.
Ethel and I decided we would try to give Vanessa a relaxing evening. Everywhere she went people wanted to ogle her. She was constantly being invited to events, dinners, etc., so her coming over to our house should be treated as undramatically as possible. Though we did not tell anyone outside our family, “guess who’s coming to dinner?” a number of people found out and wanted to join us, or at least be there when she arrived. We warded off those requests, and decided we would not ask about her career or personal life unless she brought it up. We would also not take any souvenir pictures of the evening, a decision I later regretted. It would be as relaxing as possible, though the evening before she arrived we scampered to clean our antique 1681 house, still under slow restoration/renovation, and with our possessing little in the way of new or fine furniture. Our dining room table was an outdoor, six-foot-long folding table made by my Dad in the 1930s for family bean suppers. A long tablecloth covered the rough simplicity of the table, but could not quite disguise the slight warp in its center. Candlesticks and flowers dressed the table, and a four-candle, wrought-iron chandelier spiked into the oak beam above gave off soft light. Four third-hand chairs were set around the table.
Ethel made a delicious supper and dessert, followed up by strong Turkish coffee, as we knew Vanessa liked exotic coffees. Ethel had a brass family coffee pot called a “jazzve” and demitasse cups in which to enjoy the traditional thick concoction. Vanessa was very open in talking about her career and family and was a great conversationalist. Elizabeth brought out a pack of childrens’ movie trivia cards, which I tried to discourage, but Vanessa was happy to play. There was much laughter and Vanessa began singing songs for Elizabeth.
Several times our daughter briefly excused herself from the table; and it was much later that night after all the activities that Ethel and I discovered that placed on a step on the stairway next to the dining room was Elizabeth’s plastic children’s Fisher-Price tape recorder. That sweet little girl had surreptitiously placed the recorder there, put it on, and then later changed the cassette tape to side two, recording our conversation. We were mortified she had done this after we had tried to have a relaxing, no-pressure get-away for Vanessa. The next day we told the little sneak this was not appropriate, though it was difficult to keep a straight face. Vanessa’s co-star, Patrick McGoohan, in his famous television role as “Secret Agent Man” might have appreciated our seven year old’s stealthy work, but we were chagrined and told no one. Of course we listened to part of the tape, but the voices were distant and garbled, as the toy’s built-in microphone left something to be desired.
I had known that Vanessa had a commitment to a party at an estate in up-scale Hamilton, Massachusetts, after supper, but she was not quick to leave. About three hours after Vanessa arrived, she said all four of us should go to the party, she could make an appearance and we could leave before it got too late. So all four of us piled into my tiny Toyota, stayed at the ritzy event where Elizabeth was quite a hit, and began the drive to take Vanessa back to the Hotel Hawthorne in Salem, where many of the movie cast were staying.
So there we were riding down Route 1A. Elizabeth was getting sleepy and Vanessa put Elizabeth’s head on her shoulder and began to sing lullabies and songs from Camelot to our young daughter. It was a very special, almost magical, night for us, and I will always be grateful and have a warm place in my heart for Miss Redgrave.
Most of the filming was completed by September, 1984. On a snowy Saturday in January of 1985 a small crew met at the Nurse Homestead to film a winter scene in which the jailed Sarah Cloyce views from her place of confinement several children playing in the snow. Nepotism was in high order, as my daughter; Vic Pisano’s daughter, Jessica; and Steve Nissenbaum’s son were cast as the children. Phillip Leacock explained how he wanted them to frolic in the snow, which they did beautifully, and then it was hot cocoa for the kids and hot buttered rum for the crew. Filming was completed – It was a wrap!
Then began the process of editing of the super 16mm film by the editors and Vic, and the introduction of a musical score. An article written be me (much of it reappearing here) was published in the May issue of Americana, with its half million readership. The television program premiered to good reviews on May 27, 1985, as a three-night series on PBS’s American Playhouse. It was also released as a feature movie in Europe, and became available in VHS and later in DVD formats, NightOwl retaining the copyright. The meetinghouse at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead property, which I had designed for the film, was transferred to the ownership of the Danvers Alarm List Company during a cast and crew party in 1985. Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis and Vic Pisano presented me with a plaque to that purpose, which plaque now hangs in the meetinghouse. In 1992 we created a 17-minute Sight & Sound program in the meetinghouse as an introduction for visitors to the property.
Back in 1985 I believed that Three Sovereigns for Sarah – the product of many people with varied backgrounds, skills, and talents – was the best film created concerning the Salem witchcraft trials. A generation later, I still hold that belief.
So much of my own work is so obscure in the film that it is often virtually unnoticeable. Yet I believe that Steve Nissenbaum’s and my efforts helped create the correct mood and setting within which the actors performed. I’ll always be grateful to Victor Pisano for his great talent and perseverance to accomplish this production and for giving me an opportunity to assist and witness the creation of 1692 on film. If, as you watch the film, you glimpse what appears to be an object inappropriate for 1692, please don’t blame the historians. I’m sure that the object was slipped into the scene on a day when we were not on location to spot it. As for me, from now on I am going to have much more sympathy for the people who work on historical dramas.
Online beginning July 2014