Vincent Price Takes Center Stage

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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of one of my favorite actors; the remarkable Vincent Price. Vincent Price also happens to be TCM’s Star of the Month and every Thursday throughout October viewers can tune in to see him in a wide-variety of films that showcase his exceptional talents. I can’t think of many other actors I’d like to spend the hallowed month of October with so I’m going to devote the next four weeks to the “Crown Prince of Horror.” To kick start my informal tribute to Vincent Price I thought I’d take a look back at his early stage career in New York working with Orson Welles and the legendary Mercury Theatre.

vpwellesfathersVincent Leonard Price (b. 1911) was named after his father who was the president of a candy company. The Price family had made millions inventing, producing and selling baking powder, which allowed them many luxuries including formidable educations. In a strange twist of fate (or odd coincidence) Price’s father studied at the University School in Kenosha, Wisconsin where one of his school chums happened to be Richard Head Welles, the father of Orson Welles. The elder Price and Welles enjoyed putting on dramatic magic shows to entertain their classmates and this desire to perform was evidently handed down to their two famous sons who would eventually end up working together.

Price Sr. invested in his son’s artistic ambitions, which led young Vincent to study art history at Yale and pursue a Master’s Degree in Britain at the London University of Art. But while he was there, Vincent Price Jr. became infatuated with the London stage and began devoting himself to acting. Price’s first major stage role was in Victoria Regina where he played Prince Albert opposite Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. The play was such a success that it eventually landed him on Broadway where it would have a noteworthy two year run. During that period Price also developed a close working relationship with Helen Hayes who became his acting mentor as well as a dear friend. Besides Victoria Regina, Price was offered roles in a number of other plays including a 1937 dramatic production of Puccini’s Turandot where he starred alongside Anna May Wong. It didn’t take long for critics to notice his undeniable talent and domineering stage presence.

“Physically, he is a child of the gods. Exceptionally tall, he is exceptionally handsome, and exceptionally graceful. He is one man who can be called beautiful in the sense that a thoroughbred of seventeen hands is beautiful. Garbed as an Apollo king of the East, his presence brought glory to the stage. For these gifts, Mr. Price deserves little credit. But for the way he handled himself on the undersized stage and for the thrilling way in which he gave his lines, he merited acclaim and got plenty of it. These showed art and show he’s been hard at work at the task of becoming an actor.”
- Uncredited review of Turandot from Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography by Victoria Price

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Left: Vincent Price & Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina (1935).
Right: Anna May Wong & Vincent Price in Turandot (1937)

Price’s talent was also being recognized by his contemporaries and in January of 1938 he was approached by a young man named Orson Welles who asked him to join the Mercury Theatre. At the time the Mercury Theatre was known for revitalizing classic plays, which undoubtedly appealed to Price and he instantly took a liking to Welles. These two handsome and ambitious Midwesterners with unmistakable voices shared a lot in common, including their father’s history. They also both appreciated modern art and participated in anti-Franco protests while supporting the Spanish Civil War relief. During Price’s time with the Mercury Theatre group he appeared in two Welles’ productions; The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Heartbreak House. Their working relationship started off extremely well and Price spoke fondly of Welles later on saying, “Orson was twenty-one years old, and to work with him was so exciting. He was fresh and new with wonderful ideas, and it was an exciting time in the theater.” Unfortunately their relationship began to turn sour when Welles revealed his impressive ego and unruly work ethic. Price bemoaned the director’s lack of discipline after he missed rehearsals and in a letter wrote, “Orson is a genius, and a grand guy, but I fear the Mercury is his, and that all others are disregarded, even the actors working with him.”

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Vincent: I wish I could wire as well as you.
I wish I could wire you firmly and fully the things I mean and can’t say.
And I wish I may go broke wiring you on Mercury openings.
- Orson (1938)

Despite his differences with Welles, Price developed lifelong friendships with other members of the Mercury Theatre group such as Joseph Cotten and Norman Lloyd. He also fell in love with Mercury actress, Edith Barett (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE; 1943, GHOST SHIP; 1943, JANE EYRE; 1943, Etc.) and married her in 1938 at New York’s St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. The ceremony was attended by other theater members including Orson Welles and Norman Lloyd who remembered the day fondly in Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography saying, “I see him (Price) walking down the aisle of St. Thomas’ and we’re all shunted to the back because we were scrungy-looking in all that make-up from last night. And he came down the aisle and looked at us, and I could see what was going through his mind, ‘They’re going to do something, these guys.’ But we didn’t; we behaved. And we all chipped in, as they say in theater, to get him a silver tray with an inscription on it, ‘From the Mercury Players.’ ” Afterward they held a wedding party on the stage of the Mercury Theatre.vpebmarriage

Vincent Price’s marriage to Edith Barret lasted 10 years and it marked a turning point in Price’s career. Soon after they exchanged vows the couple decided to move to California and pursue acting in Hollywood. Orson Welles didn’t have to go to Hollywood because the studios came to him but he quickly joined Price in California. Unfortunately Price and Welles never worked together again but Price did act with other members of the Mercury Theatre group in some films including his wife Edith Barret who appeared with Price in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943) and THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944) as well as Joseph Cotten who costarred with Price in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971). And although the fascinating careers of Vincent Price and Orson Welles never crossed paths in Hollywood, it’s fun to imagine if they had. Knowing Welles fondness for mystery and a good ghost story it’s a shame that he never directed Price in a supernatural thriller that would have undoubtedly benefited from both of their talents. And who wouldn’t want to see Price and Welles costar in a Shakespeare production? Classic film fans can only speculate about the intriguing possibilities of a Price and Welles’ reunion that sadly, never occurred.

Further reading:
- Robert Osborne on Vincent Price
- Orson Welles’ Irish Ghost Story
- Three Cases of Murder and One Uncredited Director
- The Vincent Price Exhibit

14 Responses Vincent Price Takes Center Stage
Posted By tdraicer : October 4, 2013 2:06 am

I saw Price do his one-man Oscar Wilde show twice: once on Broadway, and once at a high school in NJ. A true professional, he put the same effort into both performances.

Posted By marty : October 4, 2013 12:47 pm

We used Vincent’s famous gourmet cookbook with recipes from famous eating places in our own restaurant. When I was a musician playing at a famous eatery in Detroit, he came into town for an art exhibit and had dinner with friends in the most cherished booth. I met him and asked…”how is the Baron of Arizona” (one of his early 50s movies) and he said suprised “you remember that one?”
H e was once on the Red Skelton Show as an art critic to Clem Cadiddlehopper and Red pointed to a painting and said “this is a DiVinkie” and Price said…”yes and it’s an origg-inal!”
So after my first exchange with price I asked how is your Di Vinkie?” and without missing a beat he said “it’s still an origg-inal!”
He was a very kind and personable gentleman.
And, in many roles a very very fine actor.

Posted By LD : October 4, 2013 2:01 pm

Love the charismatic Vincent Price, especially his work in the 1940′s. He never seemed to feel he was superior to the material and he had an ability to convey what a good time he was having to the audience. I remember him on talk shows and no one was more charming. The DVD of LAURA includes a documentary of Price which originally aired on A&E’s Biography. A true Renaissance Man.

Posted By Sara : October 4, 2013 2:40 pm

Thank you so much for writing about the early days of Vincent Price. Very informative…I very much enjoyed reading about his beginnings ( the elder Welles and Price and working with Orson!) Can’t wait to read the rest of your tribute to the man!

Posted By swac44 : October 4, 2013 3:54 pm

Vincent Price has been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember, after first encountering him on the 1970s Canadian comedy show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein which featured him reading creepy poems every week. I gather they’d fly him up to Hamilton, Ontario once a year and film all of his segments in one go, but they definitely got their bang for their buck (the show still airs in syndication, and is available on DVD), and got this kid hooked on Vincent.

Posted By doug : October 4, 2013 4:03 pm

marty, thanks for sharing your exchange with Price-love to hear of such meetings. Recently picked up the DVD of “Laura” so I know what I’ll be watching this weekend.
Welles and Price playing scenes together at Mercury? No stage would have been big enough. But it would have been great to see.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 4, 2013 7:40 pm

Thanks for all the comments! I love hearing about people’s personal experiences with Vincent Price so I’m glad folks are sharing their various encounters. I would have loved to have seen him on stage myself.

On a side note, we’re having a lot of technical problems with the blog at the moment so I just wanted to let people know that we’re not getting notices about new comments, etc. These problems also seem to be effecting readers. Please stand by while we work them out! Hopefully the issues will be resolved soon.

Posted By Gene : October 5, 2013 4:19 am

Vincent Price – The Tingler, Theater of Blood, The Abominable Dr Phibes, Champagne for Caesar … All loves from my childhood. He made a number of not so great films – but even most of his abominably bad films are saved by his presence. I still have a hard time with Witchfinder General – a really harsh film to watch, lacking his signature tongue-in-cheek drive and really cruel. I look forward to more about this incredible actor and man!

Posted By Jenni : October 6, 2013 12:38 am

Having lived close to St. Louis, Price is a most favored son there. The Price family home is nextdoor to Washington University and is owned by another family now, who I have heard don’t appreciate Price fans who turn up from time to time and want to take pics of the house. One of my favorite roles of Price is in His Kind of Woman, a sort of film noir with comedic tones supplied by Price’s character. It’s coming up on TCM soon, and one can’t go wrong with Mitchum and Jane Russell for co-stars.

Posted By Doug : October 6, 2013 11:32 am

Didn’t get to “Laura” but did watch “A Comedy of Terrors”-both that film and (on the flip side) “The Raven” have short docs with Richard Matheson and Corman talking about the making of the films.
Solid stuff, and Price’s devilishly good delivery of Matheson’s words highlight the films.
bittersweet for me-seeing Karloff in his old age reminded me very much of my father who passed away three years ago. It was like seeing my Dad on the screen.

Posted By Jim Eubank : October 7, 2013 12:10 am

Many years ago my wife and I took my mother out to dinner for her birthday. They sat us in aback room do the size of our party, the only other diner in the room was Vincent price and his wife? He joined in with singing happy birthday and celebrating the occasion. It was a fantastic memory for my mother and all present. He was so open and accessible and really made the night memorable.

Posted By Pamela : October 7, 2013 1:17 am

I always loved Vincent Price, I grew up watching his movie, if my parents would let me. Sometime I would sneak back into the living room and hide behind a chair so my mom wouldn’t see me so I could finish watching his movie, back then we only had one tv and it was black and white. It wasn’t until years later that I found out some of them was really in color, but my favorite movie of his is Wax Museum.

Posted By Gayle : October 7, 2013 5:08 pm

Great write up! I have to find the Canadian program swac44 mentioned. Makes me wonder if it’s the inspiration for the SNL skits in which Bill Hader did a wonderful Vincent Price in his own Halloween special! I grew up with the Vincent Price of API pictures and started discovering his earlier work in Laura and the like as I started watching more and more classic movies. It’s surprising in the 1940s he didn’t have at least one picture as a romantic leading man. He certainly had the looks and presence to pull it off but the studios seemed content to keep him in secondary roles and tap on his intimidating and evil presence. He scared me to death in The Song of Bernadette, not a horror film by any means! I always feel a bit sad watching Edward Scissorhands and realizing he passed away not long after it premiered. He looks so old and frail in it but is also so sweet and gentle to his creation. What a way to go out!

Posted By swac44 : October 7, 2013 5:32 pm

Here’s the Vincent-heavy opening to Hilarious House of Frightenstein, what 6-year-old kid wouldn’t love this?:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsaFDZfz8Lc

I missed my chance to meet Vincent in person when he came to Halifax in the 1970s, not sure if he was promoting a movie, his cookbook or selling art through department stores, but I later found out that while he paid a visit to an antique store run by the father of a friend of mine who turned out to be a distant relative (their last name was Price as well). I think she got his autograph at least.

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