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The original girl monster


Performer Charlotte Booker is crazy about Elsa Lanchester.

So crazy, in fact, that she wrote a solo show called “Elsa Lanchester: She’s Alive,” all about the actress best known for her lead in the 1935 classic film “Bride of Frankenstein.”

Except Elsa Lanchester is dead — and she has been since 1986. Call it a play on words.

“Elsa Lanchester: She’s Alive” will be performed one night only at the Theater at Innovation Square on Wednesday, September 20 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Rochester Fringe. And then, it’s headed for a month-long off-Broadway run.

Booker, who has an Emmy nomination for “Born Yesterday,” was first introduced to Lanchester as a child watching “Bride of Frankenstein,” long before Marvel was making movies about characters like Rogue and Superwoman.

“Now we have girl superheroes and girl monsters, but she was playing the original girl monster, and she was wonderful looking, and it was all about her,” said Booker. “And then I realized she also played the old lady in “That Darn Cat,” it was like, how did that happen? Who was she, really?”

Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger in "Bride of Frankenstein." - PUBLIC DOMAIN.
  • Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger in "Bride of Frankenstein."

It was reading “Elsa Lanchester Herself,” the actress’s second memoir, in 1983 that solidified Booker’s fascination with the actress, though creating a show wouldn’t come to fruition for almost 30 years. A few years ago, it was time.

“I’ve been an actor all my life, and you get to a point where you’re like, ‘I wanna do what I wanna do,’” said Booker.

As she advanced in her career, Booker began to relate more to Elsa Lanchester’s changing roles throughout her career: from the temptress “Bride of Frankenstein” in 1935 to the frazzled Katie Nanna in Disney’s 1964 “Mary Poppins.”

Writer and performer Charlotte Booker plays Elsa Lanchester in the solo show. - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • Writer and performer Charlotte Booker plays Elsa Lanchester in the solo show.
“I was always fascinated by Elsa, and she became more vivid to me as I got older,” said Booker. “It was hard for me to imagine the younger her, in the same way I couldn’t imagine the younger Judy Garland, as the older characters she played. But as I get older I can — maybe because I’m at that point now.”

Booker had the chance to workshop “Elsa Lanchester: She’s Alive” at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in 2022. When a former collaborator and fellow classic movie fanatic, Chip Duckett, saw her sharing about the show on Facebook, he reached out and asked if she’d like to perform in NYC. Duckett owns Spin Cycle Productions, Joan Rivers’ exclusive New York producer for live dates for 17 years, and has worked with countless TV, film and Broadway stars over the years.

“Elsa Lanchester: She’s Alive” just concluded in Chicago and plays at Rochester Fringe before moving off-Broadway to the Laurie Beechman Theatre, where it will run Fridays October 6 through November 3.

The show “recreates a bawdy cabaret/nightclub act that Lanchester toured with late in life, and includes some of the original ribald songs she performed, intermixed with backstage memories of her colorful life.”

A seemingly perfect fit for Fringe.

“Elsa was so Fringe-y that she had an underground nightclub in the 1920s when she was a teenager,” said Booker. “She made her own costumes out of crepe paper, and she was bawdy and irreverent the way Fringe can be.”

Aside from the bawdiness, one of Booker’s favorite parts of the show is being able to tour with her husband, pianist Mark Nutter, who co-wrote “The Bicycle Men,” which performed at Rochester Fringe in 2012 and 2017.

“He said it was one of his favorite Fringe experiences, because it was so well-curated and organized,” she said.

And though she hasn’t performed at Fringe herself, this isn’t Booker’s first time on a Rochester stage. She was here in 1981 as a cast member in “Agnes of God,” which caused quite a stir at the time. (Another connection: Adele Fico, who runs PR for Rochester Fringe, was Geva's PR director then.)

The "Agnes of God" plot is about a nun who gives birth but doesn't believe she has given birth, and after the child is found dead, there is a convent clash during the investigation. The playwright, John Pielmeier, was inspired by an article about a similar event that happened in Brighton in the late 1970s.

“It was the dead of winter, and this was way before the movie and the Broadway run, so no one really knew this play,” Booker said. “Except we were performing it in Rochester, where the event happened. And the paper ran my photo. We came onstage some nights and the back row would be all collars.”

That said, Booker is eager to return to Rochester more than 30 years later — and wants to hear from audience members (or anyone else) who may have seen Elsa Lanchester’s touring show in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“I keep learning new things, and I keep meeting people who knew her,” she said. “I’ll probably do another rewrite. I want to do it more like her. I’m crazy about her.”

Leah Stacy is the editor-in-chief of CITY. She can be reached at [email protected].

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