Priory Scholars at Sixty

PRIORY SCHOLARS AT SIXTY
Susan Rice
Delivered October 18, 2014

Let me begin by explaining why Judith asked me to fulfill this important portion of the program. It’s because I’m old. There are other Sherlockians, a few even older than I, who are far better qualified as they have more years as Priory Scholars: Peter Blau, Evelyn Herzog, Jim Saunders, Russell Merritt, and George Fletcher come to mind. When the Priory Scholars was founded, I was busy being a sixth grade Sherlockian in Michigan and missed out on all the fun. Still, I am old, and at least I knew all the officers of this sixty year old scion society, so perhaps I can give you at least an impression of some of those who have departed.

The society was founded in 1954 by Peter Christian Steinbrunner as The Priory Scholars of Fordham. He was twenty years old, a student at Fordham, who went on to earn his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in sociology while he pieced together a secondary concentration in what would be named media studies several decades later. While he was still a student he sold several radio plays, and one of the last scripts aired of The Shadow series was his. He also hosted a weekly radio program on WFUV-FM, the university station, where he interviewed a wide array of guests and aired the occasional radio play, featuring Mr. Sherlock Holmes in a script of Chris’s devising. The casts of the plays were friends of Chris, Sherlockians and others, and some of the voices can still be recognized as friends among us.

Directly after Chris finished his Master’s degree he was hired by WOR-TV, and he remained with that company for his entire career, becoming its film programming director. He was most enthusiastic about detective stories, but was also deeply interested in fantasy and horror films, so all those who lived within WOR’s signal were offered plentiful choices in those genres. Chris was fond of superheroes as well and Channel 9 was the home of the Marvel superhero cartoons. One of his earliest jobs was writing jokes for Zacherle, the pseudofrightening announcer for horror films and the two became good friends. Chris found time for an appearance on To Tell the Truth, where two other guys posed as Chris Steinbrunner, mystery expert, and he also found time to travel to Pennsylvania to play a zombie in full make-up in the Dawn of the Dead. He wrote several books about mystery films and Sherlock Holmes films and fantasy and fairies and won an Edgar for co-authoring the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. He served as regional vice president of Mystery Writers of America and edited their newsletter, The Third Degree. He also contributed a monthly column to EQMM.

I tried to find the perfect word to describe Chris’s personality, but even colorful sounded too drab. I think only singular will do. When I knew him, during the last fifteen years of his life, he was teddy bear in shape and less than elegant in his choice of dress, most commonly wearing a printed t-shirt and a sports jacket. He seemed to take delight in absolutely everything and loved to be among people talking and eating with equal gusto. He used to ask people for their favorite word. I understand that in his prime his favorite was melodrama, but by the time I knew him he would answer, buffet. He was extremely well informed about movies, but was less a critic than an enthusiast who loved the old serials and could find something to admire in the worst movies. He was the only person I know with positive things to say about the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore Hound of the Baskervilles. Chris was also that rare human whose life was actually saved by his extra pounds — when he was mugged at knifepoint he was stabbed several times, but no blow reached a vital organ. It was a heart attack that took him away years later at the age of 59.

After serving as Headmaster for fifteen years, Chris sent a memo in 1969 turning the scion over to Evelyn Herzog and George Fletcher, who were both graduate students at Fordham at the time, Evy newly arrived. They were barely acquainted and neither tends to be forward, so step by step the Priory Scholars of Fordham went into hibernation. It remained asleep for thirteen years until 1984, when it was awakened with a firm tap on the shoulder by Bob Thomalen, a man some of you know as he is still this side of the Reichenbach, but now too frail to attend meetings. A courtly, handsome, mustachioed man who resembles Watson in his later years, Bob, with Chris’s enthusiastic assistance, nurtured the dormant society back into energetic life. We met for years at Bogie’s Restaurant, featured in many mystery novels of the period but now long gone, and then we moved to the Olde Garden until they, too, closed their doors and left town. A movie was sometimes featured, this was still Chris’s group after all, and we performed radio plays, sometimes with a professional sound effects man he managed to rope in. Richard Wein kept us up to date on things to buy and see, and Andrew Joffe was the diabolic Dean of Discipline, also known as the quiz master. The quizzes took a good portion of the evening as Andrew devised tricky and complex questions that could support more than one reading, and the ensuing grading of the quizzes took on the strongly argumentative air of a discussion of the Talmud as each answer was parsed and debated. Everyone involved had a fine time, though in the end Andrew’s decision was law. Bob brought in speakers too, though I hope I’m the only one to recall a paper presented jointly by Mickey Fromkin, Evelyn Herzog, Roberta Pearson, and me which posited some grand scheme involving the dates the cases happened versus the dates Watson’s tales were published. This is truly a thesis for which the world will never be ready. The most famous guest, of course, was Jeremy Brett who joined us at Bogie’s for a half-hour or so at the start of a meeting in 1985. He was a delight — cordial, informative, quick to demonstrate some trick of his Holmes — and he took the time to listen to individuals in the group. Sadly I had to solve some problem at work and arrived at the meeting moments after he’d left, but everyone was still starry-eyed and eager to report on every word.

Late in the 80s Bob Thomalen suffered painful burns because he was a genuine hero. Without hesitation, he saved a fire-eater who suddenly blazed up during his act. The fire-eater escaped with minor burns, but Bob spent painful weeks in the hospital followed by a slow and suffering convalescence and was thus unable to perform his duties for the Priory Scholars. After a few months, Henry Enberg stepped up and took his place, retaining the services of Andrew Joffe and Richard Wein. Henry left this mortal strand in 1998, so only a handful of those present knew him. Henry was rotund, bearded, and bespectacled. He was an attorney who worked as a legal editor at Practicing Law Institute. It was not until after his death that his friends learned he was at the pinnacle of his profession and had edited an impressive pile of legal tomes.  He had been raised in the hotel his father managed in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and liked to call himself a male Eloise. He was also an enthusiast of old time radio and possessed an old fashioned, resonant radio voice which he used as one of the charter members of The Friends of Bogie’s, an amateur/professional radio company whose work was exposed primarily on National Public Radio and at Sherlockian gatherings. Unfortunately, a heart attack compelled him to be home-bound for several years, and in the end he was forced to surrender his activities with the Priory Scholars. In 1994, Bill Nadel took up the challenge, and assisted by Delia Vargas and Joe Moran who became the quizmaster, the Priory Scholars continued to meet, though rather irregularly. Many of you knew Joe, who was a presence at every scion meeting within a hundred miles until he died eight months ago, so I will speak of him only briefly. A brilliant math prodigy, he passed all nine actuarial exams when he was still a teenager. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, and had a long career with the New York Life Insurance Company, played tennis at least once a week far into his eighties, and defended the honor of Colonel Sebastian Moran for his entire thirty-plus years as a Sherlockian. Delia Vargas, who served as Bill’s lieutenant, is a beautiful woman, a long-time ASH, who moved to Maryland some years ago so we see her less frequently now. She was an inspirational school teacher of disadvantaged kids and though long retired she still hears from former students who tell her what a difference she made in their lives. She also seems to have learned the secret of royal jelly — I know she’s only a few years younger than I, but only because I’ve known her for well over thirty of them.

Bill Nadel was their leader — not the Headmaster, he signed his name “Freckles” Saltire on the meeting notices which still came by paper mail. Bill grew up in Manhattan, was a child performer, and though he stopped acting as a small boy he maintained a fascination with show business, especially radio. He was active in old time radio organizations, and kept in contact with a number of radio professionals so our plays once again boasted professional sound effects. Bill earned his living teaching men in prison, and he found true love late in life, as a matter of fact, their first date was an ASH Wednesday gathering. At a meeting in the early 90s he did something unique, something never done before or since at a scion meeting: he and Lynne got married. The wedding was performed by Judge Andrew J. Peck, Sherlockian nearly since birth, and it was the first marriage for the bride, the groom, and the officiant. It was supposed to be a secret, but Bill called all his friends to make certain they’d be there, so we were prepared for something special. Bill and Lynne moved to Colorado a couple of years ago, and when last I spoke with him a month or two ago, they were settling in with great pleasure.  His sole complaint was that the only scion society in the state is more a than an hour away, which served to remind me how fortunate we are in New York/New Jersey.

We are almost up to the present. In 2004 or 2005, both Bill Nadel and Delia Vargas left the city and thus retired from their posts, but Judith Freeman stepped up and chaired some meetings with assistance from Joe Moran. Judith, please stand up. I don’t need to tell you stories about Judith because she’s here to tell her own — just buy her a drink and ask her. The meetings were good, but when Joe stepped back and no one else stepped forward, the scion once more returned to dormancy in 2007. In 2012, Judith was inspired by the glorious wave of young people newly fascinated by the Master, and she asked Nick Martorelli and Matt Laffey to work with her to bring this historic scion society back to life. When Matt moved to Chicago, Chris Zordan stepped in, and the proof of the effectiveness of their leadership is all around you.

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