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Evanston’s Piccolo Theatre is hosting the first major Chicago area production of “Ten Dollar House,” produced by Pride Films and Plays and written by Martha Meyer and Rick Kinnebrew.

“Ten Dollar House” is a project based on love, written by the two Evanston residents (and librarians) from material they encountered while on their honeymoon.

“We went to Mineral Point many times, to the Mineral Point Archives, to the library,” said Meyer. “The question we had is why didn’t anyone write this story before?”

The story in question is that of Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, a gay couple living together in Pendarvis House, a Wisconsin colonial site refurbished by the two as a top restaurant in the nation, serving colonial delicacies and tea.

If it sounds like a gay stereotype, it’s because this is one of the first stories of gay men living together and rehabilitating an historic site. “Edgar had left all his papers to Pendarvis house,” said Meyer. “So if you were able to, you could put the information together, and it’s a rich treasure trove of gay history. Bob and Edgar were raised in a time when they didn’t think very highly of coming out. That’s not how you were gay in their age.”


Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum. Photo courtesy of Mineral Point Library.

“There’s an interesting part of the story, the conflict between Bob and his mentor Mr. Gundry, who doesn’t want him to be living in the same house with his lover,” said Meyer. “Gundry is trying to teach him how to be safely gay. You kept your lover in another town; you didn’t spend a lot of time being obvious. We’re trying to show the change in what it was like to be gay.”

The play “Ten Dollar House” focuses in on the relationship between the two men, one a lovable and charismatic homemaker, and the other a “difficult guy trying to be a host.”

“They could be in the same house because it was a ‘house,’ it was their business,” said Kinnebrew. 

“A lot of the challenges [in the play] are real challenges; trying to make a business in the Depression of selling antiques,” said Meyer. “And nobody’s buying antiques. It was a derelict mining town. It’s the wrong time to start a business.” Especially an “immersive colonial dining experience,” as Kinnebrew puts it. “People thought there were no antiques in Wisconsin because there was no colonial history in Wisconsin.”


(L to R) Scott Patrick Sawa, Joe Anderson, and Mindy Barber. Photo by Paul Goyette.

It was “a high end business, in a mining town,” continued Kinnebrew. “All these big industrial things are valued, and these two domestic guys come in and they serve fancy pasties. In fact, all their early customers were wives who had newly acquired vehicles and didn’t know what to do with them, and are intelligent- they’re like Evanston, Evanston wives looking for something interesting to do,” the couple laughs.

In the play, which is based almost exclusively on facts retold, one major element is fabricated. “The part of the story that we partially created is Gundry’s wedge between the men that are falling in love,” explained Kinnebrew. Meyer added, “We put the conflict in there because we’re trying to highlight a true thing. It’s a changing of the guard about how we go about being gay in the world. That’s what’s so amazing about them. The whole world is hungry for stories about long-term gay marriages….It’s a heroic story.”

And one that Chicago seems thirsty for, too. Several readings and events have already boosted the play’s popularity, as well as the gay couple’s appearance on the cover of the Windy City Times, an largely LGBT publication, promoting the production.

Meyer and Kinnebrew found original tapes of Edgar speaking on his work. “We fell in love with this book; an interview with Edgar,” said Meyer, as she shows off the book. Inside are some truly homey depictions of the men at home, as well as images of the couple outside their rehabbed colonial houses. They’re a bit standoffish from one another, but the interview showcases a very calm and loving relationship.

“The other thing that attracted us is this description of this first conflict they had,” said Kinnebrew. Meyer went into detail about the couple’s resolution of conflicts- “by sitting and talking them through.” “It’s a lovely description of how a marriage should work and how a business should work.”

“Ten Dollar House” runs January 7th through 31st at Piccolo Theatre in Evanston. Tickets can be purchased at http://pridefilmsandplays.com/ten-dollar-house/.

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