I took in a performance of the musical “Billy Elliot” with my daughter last month at the Goodspeed Opera House. The ride out to East Haddam was a wonder — the trees were aglow, just beginning to turn with orange and red leaves.
I’ve always loved the ride out to that part of Connecticut, since I was a kid and first went over that bridge with my grade school classmates, fresh from an afternoon at Gillette’s Castle, a thrilling field trip for me.
I’m sure paperwork was sent home detailing the history of the castle, but I didn’t even glance at it. Once inside the cavernous, stone monolith sitting above the Connecticut River, I was immediately transported to Transylvania or some such spooky place.
My young imagination took me to exactly where WPIX (remember Chiller Theater?) took me many a Saturday night at that time: A place where Bela Lugosi stalked his prey in search of human blood, or was accidentally knocked down a flight of stairs by a frenetic Lou Costello, one half of the old comedy team Abbot & Costello.
But, when the name “Sherlock Holmes” came up I was surprised. Again, I had not read any paperwork about this trip, nor had I listened to a word said by my teacher in the days leading up to the excursion, or even on the bus that fateful morning.
“Basil Rathbone?” I blurted out, Sister Linda (or Donna) seemingly taken back by this mediocre-at-best student’s ability to rattle off the most popular name when it came to Holmes portrayers in the mid-70s. (This was decades before Robert Downey, Jr. and later Benedict Cumberbatch would take on the role.)
William Gillette was not a name that rang a bell for this classic movie buff. Why would it? Despite the Connecticut tie, Gillette had played the famed sleuth only in stage productions, living in the castle until 1937 — two years before my mother was even born!
Even so, the stone edifice was majestic, and remains so to this day. The castle was — is — exactly that: enormous and impressive, straddling both East Haddam and Lyme.
Commissioned and designed by Gillette himself, it features a collection of trickery, from quasi-hidden rooms, trick door locks and mirrors so that the aloof actor could spot visitors from afar should he choose to escape their visit.
I was enraptured as the tour guide rattled off every tidbit of information about this reclusive Connecticut resident who played one of the most timeless fictional characters ever created.
However, the tour was barely 45 minutes, with 35 children hungry for the PB&J sandwiches nestled in their brown bags on the bus, a welcome break from the taxing day only now half done.
Next up, heading to the Goodspeed Opera House to catch what for many of us would be our first musical.
A young aspiring writer already, I reeled off my Sherlock Holmes mystery on the spot to my partner in crime. Lou quickly drew a picture of the sleuth on his lunch napkin, making Watson considerably more muscular. Lou knew that’s who he’d be in this scenario — always the sidekick — and his drawings conveyed that every time. My tale had something to do with something from the castle being pilfered during our visit, along with the disappearance of our bus driver.
My mind raced during the short drive from the castle to the theater. I was fired up by what I’d just seen and heard and learned. The musical we’d be seeing didn’t matter to me, it was something I would no doubt daydream throughout.
But then the magic of this day continued. The bridge in East Haddam that delivers drivers and their passengers to the theater, and the Gelston House, and all of the other trappings of a storybook New England river village (like, for instance, an ice cream shop offering every flavor imaginable plus one lone arcade machine) was like a time machine or portal. I was suddenly in Mayberry. But a splendid Mayberry. It was a place I’d decided that day I would someday live, and to this day still imagine I will. Magic permeated the air. It still does.
The show was “Man of La Mancha.” Don Quixote did away with Sherlock Holmes in a matter of seconds. The nuns grimaced every time Aldonza, the part-time prostitute and the object of Quixote’s affection, made mention of her work, but otherwise were delighted to see their students’ reaction to a man battling windmills, dreaming his despite the very real possibility it was all in vain.
On the bus ride home, back over that bridge — one that I passed over at least three times in 2019 alone — I was struck with an idea. I wanted to find a way to merge Quixote with Holmes. The dreamer and the sleuth. Lou, my artist, diligently doodled, well aware that his Sancho Panza/Watson hybrid would be a muscular lady-killer when the time came to draw him.
A classmate named Dennis snapping a drawing out of Lou’s hands, ran up and down the bus to show it to everyone, mocking our artistic endeavor.
Another classmate chastised Dennis, took the drawing from him and returned it to us. “Leave them alone, Dennis,” she said. “They could be creating a character that makes them rich and famous for all we know.”
“In their dreams,” he scoffed, Route 9 charging beneath our Peter Pan bus, memories of that town known as East Haddam dissipating with each passing exit sign.
“In our impossible dreams,” I wanted to tell him. But he was little more than a windmill.