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David Bowie’s ‘Elephant Man’ left mark in Delaware County

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David Bowie may have made his musical mark on Delaware County by recording his first live album at The Tower Theater in Upper Darby in July 1974, but the rock-and-roll legend who died Jan. 10 also left a local legacy from his more histrionic side.

From Sept. 23, 1980, to Jan. 3, 1981, Bowie starred on Broadway in Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” based on the life of Joseph “John” Merrick, who was severely disfigured from neurofibromatosis. After being taken under the wing of a London Hospital surgeon, Merrick went from being a side show freak to being a friend of London’s elite in the late 19th century.

David Bowie as Joseph “John” Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” on Broadway from September 1980 to January 1981, puts the finishing touches on his model of St. Phillip’s Church in London that was later used in the Players Club of Swarthmore’s production of the show in fall 1985. (Submitted photo)

Rock-and-roll legend David Bowie, who died Jan. 10 at age 69, played the starring role of Joseph “John” Merrick in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway from September 1980 to January 1981. Players Club of Swarthmore rented set pieces and props from the show for its production of “The Elephant Man” in 1985. (Submitted photo)

About four and a half years after Bowie finished his run as Merrick, props and set pieces from the show landed on the stage of Players Club of Swarthmore.

In the fall of 1985, Bohdan Senkow, former director of Theater Widener in Chester and former executive director of the Media Business Authority, directed “The Elephant Man” for Players Club’s 75th anniversary season.

“That entire production continues to be one of my favorite theater experiences,” said the 73-year-old Clifton Heights resident who has directed an estimated 100 shows in the Greater Philadelphia area over the last 50 years.

Forty-six and a half years ago he met his wife, biochemist Kathleen Coll, at Colonial Playhouse in Aldan. Her future husband cast her in the Players Club production of “The Elephant Man” as London actress Dame Madge Kendal, who befriends Merrick when he takes up residence in the London Hospital.

Although he had not seen Bowie in the show, Senkow was aware the rocker had performed in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway so he called the Booth Theatre where it had been staged, got the production company’s phone number and asked what had become of the set pieces and props. He learned they had been sold to a properties house in Connecticut, so Senkow arranged to rent several of the items from Bowie’s show including Merrick’s bathtub and the model of St. Phillips Church Merrick had constructed with his one good hand. Senkow drove a van to Connecticut to pick them up.

“I drove back home thrilled to death that I had the original props for our production,” remembered Senkow.

Apparently Bowie, who was born David Robert Jones and who had studied acting and performed in several films in the late 1960s before his musical breakthrough, valued his stint as “The Elephant Man.”

David Bowie as Joseph “John” Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” on Broadway from September 1980 to January 1981, puts the finishing touches on his model of St. Phillip’s Church in London that was later used in the Players Club of Swarthmore’s production of the show in fall 1985. (Submitted photo)

David Bowie as Joseph “John” Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” on Broadway from September 1980 to January 1981, puts the finishing touches on his model of St. Phillip’s Church in London that was later used in the Players Club of Swarthmore’s production of the show in fall 1985. (Submitted photo)

In a Sept. 6, 1980, interview in The New York Times, he told reporter Robert Hilburn:

“There is discipline involved in both rock and straight theatre, but it’s a different kind of discipline. The strange thing for me was to take one character and play him with an emotional chronology from beginning to end, knowing the emotional and psychological steps he was going to take in a two-hour period. In concert, I play with the characters and evoke different kinds of emotional drive anytime I wish.”

The starring role in the Players Club production was performed by playwright Bruce Graham, a Ridley Township native, who Senkow hoped would “enjoy channeling Merrick and channeling David Bowie.”
Noted Graham, “All I can tell you is that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the line, ‘My butt was in the same bathtub as David Bowie’s.’”

This writer also performed in Players Club of Swarthmore’s 1985 production of “The Elephant Man” doing triple duty as a nurse, a duchess and a sideshow freak. But I actually got close to David Bowie about six years earlier at the old Second Story disco near 12th and Walnut streets in Philadelphia. It was not far from Sigma Sound studio where Bowie had done recording. One night I was watching people dance at the disco and was just slightly aware of a slender fellow standing beside me. He eventually strolled away after which several patrons descended upon me and asked, “Well, what did he say?” “What did who say?,” I replied. That’s when I learned I had been people-watching with The Thin White Duke himself who, in this case, was not being “Just a Gigolo.”

Story by Patti Mengers, pmenger@21st-centurymedia.com

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