PRESCOTT — The smash 1940’s Broadway hit “Harvey” will open on the Prescott Center for the Arts stage in early January with the story of a special connection to its past.
“If it hadn’t been for my father, this play would never have taken place,” 30-year Prescott resident Betty Nisi told the cast rehearsing for the play this past week. “‘Harvey’ would be dead.”
Nisi had read that PCA would be presenting “Harvey,” so she called the theater to see if anyone would be interested in seeing a collection she has. The answer was a resounding yes when she explained what her treasures were.
She unveiled her relics at the “Harvey” rehearsal to a lot of fascination as cast and crew looked over tiny rabbits, a framed drawing of her father’s picture that had appeared on the cover of Time magazine and an image of Frank Fay, who played lead character Elwood P. Dowd in the 1944 premier of “Harvey” at 48th Street Theatre on Broadway.
A book about Sardi’s famous restaurant on New York’s 44th Street that Nisi also brought to the rehearsal corroborates her account that “Harvey” may have been doomed if not for the support of her father, Lou Schonceit.
“He sold tickets for shows. He was a broker. They called him the Mayor of 44th Street,” Nisi said of her father’s career.
“A bunch of producers wouldn’t touch ‘Harvey,'” she said. But, well-known producer Brock Pemberton asked her father to read the script, and “he immediately liked it and was excited about it.
“It was late at night, and he didn’t want to call Brock, so he wrote a $10,000 check and mailed it to him, with the message, ‘Go ahead.'”
With Schonceit’s blessings, other backers jumped in, and “Harvey” met its destiny — the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, written by Mary Chase, about a man and his imaginary rabbit friend would become a classic. It closed on Broadway in 1949 after 1,775 performances, played in London and has been revived with such stars as James Stewart and Helen Hayes.
“Millions of rabbits were sent to my family,” Nisi said of the response to the famous play and her father’s role in its production. These little jade ivory, onyx and ceramic creatures came from theater and movie stars, some famous and some not well-known, and had a commanding presence in her family home, she said, until her mother began giving them away to other family members.
Schonceit’s philanthropy in many areas was recognized when Time magazine featured him on its cover, his daughter said. “When you are well-known and do nice things and are a philanthropist, they recognize you for doing nice things.”
Nisi recalls of her youth that she had her own table at Sardi’s and that its staff gave her birthday parties.
“They all looked after me like I was their child,” she said of the famous actors, including Mary Martin, James Stewart and Joe E. Brown, who were regular visitors to her family’s home.
And, because of who her father was, “I always went to opening nights. I liked the parties afterward.”
The PCA cast was enamored with Nisi’s rabbit collection. “Those little rabbit are an important part of theater history because they were given to her father by film and theater stars,” said Roxanne Bell, who plays Betty Chumley in the PCA production.
Of the PCA rehearsal, Nisi said, “I really enjoyed it. I thought they were doing a great job. To stand up and applaud for me, I thought was really nice of them. I thought I was a part of them forever.
Nisi has tickets for the opening night of “Harvey” on Jan. 10.
She will be thinking, “Hey, did you know this show wouldn’t have gone on if it weren’t for my father? It makes for a more interesting story about ‘Harvey,'” she said.