University of Denver alumna Mary Coyle Chase, who was born in the Mile High City, was a journalist, children’s novelist and playwright. She’s best known for writing “Harvey,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play about an eccentric man whose best friend is an invisible rabbit. The celebrated play was made into a Universal Studios film starring Jimmy Stewart.
Mimi Pockross’ new biography of the playwright, “Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) not only tells Chase’s story, it also provides a history of the Denver theater industry. In a conversation with the University of Denver Magazine’s Lorne Fultonberg, Pockross explains why Chase was such an interesting subject and why her famous play has proven so influential.
How did you find Mary Chase?
I found Mary Chase kind of by accident, but I think she was always in the back of my head. When I went to high school, my high school did a production of “Mrs. McThing,” which she wrote, so I must have known her name. I was born and raised in Chicago. I was educated in Chicago. I came from such a different culture. And I’ve always been interested in the history of Denver and how it got to be what it is.
Because I was an English and speech major, I was always interested in the literary aspect. In the process of freelance writing, I was interested in the literary community and eventually her name came up. The book was supposed to be about the literary community, because Eugene Field lived here and Damon Runyon lived here; Katherine Anne Porter lived here, but I thought it was too broad. When I came across Mary Chase’s name, it just kind of clicked.
Of all of those famous writers you just mentioned, what made Mary Chase the most fascinating for you?
Primarily, I was interested because she and Thomas Farrow were the only [writers] who stayed in Denver and made a life for themselves and were able to get a national audience and remain here. And that interested me because I wanted to do the same!
I think I allied with her because she was a woman. The other thing that I found fascinating about her is that she lived in Denver all her life and that she only wrote as a hobby. She was a journalist but retired once she had children, so I almost channeled her because she was a wife, she worked, her husband had long hours. There were so many similarities. And of course, “Harvey” is iconic. Everybody knows “Harvey.”
Don’t tell on me, but I’ve actually never seen “Harvey.” I guess I’m one of the few.
No, you’re young! What I find so interesting is … that the story still has appeal. The other day, I was on a salon [session] for the Denver Women’s Press Club, and they had all these young people on who were just beginning their careers. They hadn’t heard of “Harvey” either. But when I said he was mentioned in “Field of Dreams” and “Shawshank Redemption” and “Danny Darko” — that was the one that really got them — then they said, “Oh, I want to know more about him.”
What do you think makes “Harvey” so timeless?
Half of my book conjectures about that. No one can figure it out. But I think it’s an element of fantasy — everybody loves escape, especially right now — and it’s also very funny. It’s always on the list of the American Film Institute’s best comedies because there’s an element of truth to it and humanity. People love that.
What was the Denver theater scene like during Mary Coyle Chase’s lifetime (1906–1981)?
For a while, the theater was very active. And then when the Depression came and movies came, that disappeared. There were 66 theaters at that point between 14th and 16th and Curtis. They all tanked when the movies came in, and the only theater that was around was the DU Civic Theater (housed in what is now Margery Reed’s Reiman Theater). It was started by Helen Bonfils. Mary was never able to get a play there — she was young and was still working for the Rocky Mountain News. The Denver Theater Project, which was part of FDR’s New Deal, [housed] her first play (“Me Third”). And once that was produced, then the Civic Theater took several of her plays.
How did DU factor into the writing of your book?
I did half of my research at DU. Her original manuscript for “Harvey” is there, and I’ve spent hours and hours and hours in Special Collections and Archives. I would park my car every day and walk across the street. There’s a thesis by Maurice Berger that was an essential part of my research that also is stored in the special collections section of DU.
It’s really fun because you can see all the Xs, what she crosses out and then she pencils in, what she changes. The one that always comes to my attention the most is Josephine Hull, the woman who played Vita, Elwood’s sister, on Broadway. She was in her 60s when she did this play, but originally she’s called for in the script as being 40, and Mary Chase crossed it off and put in 48 instead.
What was it like to interact with this piece of history that was the product of this great woman you spent so much time studying?
I was in awe. I was in awe. Every page. I could picture her. She would sit at her typewriter, and she made a stage out of boxes where she had spools of thread [as characters] that she would move around, and I could just imagine her doing that. What a mind to be able to do that.
She also taught a playwriting course at DU in 1964. And in my book, there’s a lot about how she thought about the craft and her interaction with DU students.
What else would you want people to know about Mary Chase?
She had struggles, and she overcame them. She came from a very modest background, but I loved her perseverance and her tenacity and her ability to adapt. And she loved people. There’s a great story — and this is in the book — about how she took her children to be photographed, and then it took her three years to pay off what it cost. She became very friendly with the woman in the photographer’s office, and at the end [of the repayment], the woman wanted to keep talking to her because they had had such a good relationship and had so much fun together. I think she could talk to anybody. Even growing up in [the] Baker [neighbohood], she had an interest in every level of life. She could relate. I think that’s pretty special.