PCS Blog

Maude Adams, The Real “Elise McKenna”

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 21 June 2013

Many of you probably know that Somewhere in Time was based on a classic, romantic film from 1980. But did you know that that film was based on a novel? Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return was published in 1975, and was the original inspiration for Somewhere in Time. But what was the inspiration for the novel itself?
While traveling with his family in the early 1970s, novelist Richard Matheson was entranced by the portrait of American actress Maude Adams in Piper's Opera House in Nevada. "It was such a great photograph," Matheson reported, "that creatively I fell in love with her. What if some guy did the same thing and could go back in time?" This was the creative spark that would lead to the timeless love story of Richard Collier and Elise McKenna.
Matheson began obsessively researching Adams’ life and was struck by her story and the fact that she never married. To create the novel, he checked into a room at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. (The novel takes place at the Hotel del Coronado, while the movie takes place at the Grand Hotel in Michigan.) While staying at the hotel he essentially cast himself in the lead role in his novel (note that his protagonist shares his first name), dictating his impressions into a tape recorder while “experiencing” himself in the role of Richard Collier. The book's original title comes from a line in Shakespeare's Richard II (Act III, Scene 2): "O call back yesterday, bid time return."
Matheson also based much of the biographical information about the character of Elise McKenna directly on Adams. In Bid Time Return, over the course of several chapters Richard Collier reads about Elise McKenna in a biography about her as well as in historical books about American theater. Much of the material Matheson describes in this section was taken almost directly from actual historical books and biographies written about Maude Adams. One such biography is titled Elise McKenna: A Intimate Biography, which was based on the actual book Maude Adams: An Intimate Portrait, written by Phyllis Robbins. In addition, many of the great theatrical roles that Elise McKenna has supposedly played throughout her career were actually played by Maude Adams. The novel even gives Elise the same birthday and place of birth, stating that she was born in Salt Lake City on November 11.  
So who was Maude Adams? The following is an excerpt from her biography by Donald Greyfield.
The actress Maude Adams was born Maude Kiskadden in  1872 in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Mormon parents.  Because she had a theatrical mother, she began her career at the age of nine months, when she was carried on stage by her mother during a Salt Lake City stock company production. She took speaking roles as soon as she could talk and adopted her mother's maiden name (Adams) for the stage. At the age of five she was a success in San Francisco, California, in the play Fritz. At 16, she joined Edward H. Sothern's company in New York City, making her debut on the Broadway Stage and becoming its most prolific star. Her performances included regularly appearing opposite John Drew in Masked Ball and Rosemary and top billing as “Lady Babble” in James M. Barrie's The Little Minister. It was her portrayals of Barrie characters that brought her the greatest acclaim. In 1905, she played her most famous role: the star of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. She performed the leading role in more than 1,500 performances, receiving an unheard of $20,000 a month. Her more dramatic roles included Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the title role in Johann Von Schiller's Joan of Arc and Napoleon II, and Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon. While a guest at the Cenacle of St. Regis convent in New York, she began a lifelong association with the nuns. She retired still in her prime with continued activity in the theater. For a time, she worked at the General Electric laboratories, collaborating on a system of high-powered lamps which became useful in future production of movies using color film. After occasional stage appearances, she began teaching drama at Stephens College in Missouri, then finally retired completely and disappeared from public view. In 1953, she was staying at her Caddam Hill summer home in Tannersville, New York, when she lay down in her parlor for a nap and passed away. Her body was transferred to Lake Ronkonkoma and interred without fanfare among the Sisters of St. Regis in the Cencle Convent Cemetery.
See the story come to life onstage at PCS with Somewhere in Time, playing through June 30!
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