In 1919, Earl Derr Biggers was celebrating. He’d written a best-selling book that the biggest star on Broadway had turned into a hit play. So he sailed to Honolulu for a vacation: a month of what he later called “loitering on the beach at Waikiki.” A few years later, he decided to set a mystery novel there, and his research turned up the exploits of an unusual local cop. Chang Apana was short and wiry, and carried (not a gun, but) a bullwhip. He busted gambling and smuggling rings mainly by working undercover, since he was not a haole – he was Chinese-Hawaiian – and he did not speak English well. If Zane Grey had based a character on him, he might have been a paniolo; for Apana was much like the cowpuncher-sheriffs in Grey’s Western yarns. But Biggers, a Harvard grad from Ohio, saw Apana in larger terms: as someone from outside the Territorial establishment who was nonetheless unswervingly devoted to maintaining local law and order. Biggers also detested contemporary pulp fiction in which Chinese people were always villains, like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. So he decided to make the hero of his new mystery novel a Chinese policeman in Honolulu. Charles (“Charlie”) Chan is a senior H.P.D. detective with a large family, a deep understanding of human nature, a gentlemanly manner, and an accent. Chan tends to express big ideas subtly, through allusions and aphorisms, but he is always – in the words of popular-culture scholar Peter Feng – “the smartest man in the room.”
Left Coast Crime (LCC) is an international convention of mystery writers and fans, typically held in the Western U.S. It will come to Hawaii for the first time, this year, to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii, March 8-12 LCC is a quirky convention, with not only guests-of-honor, but also a ghost-of-honor: a long-dead mystery writer whose works are celebrated with special events. So, for his romantic connection to the Islands, and his local (albeit fictional) detective hero, the LCC organizers are giving that honor to Biggers. And I was offered an hour, on the opening night, in which to present a theatrical tribute to him. I’ve produced old-time radio plays at other mystery conventions, so I initially looked for one. There was a Charlie Chan series broadcast in the 1930s and ‘40s, and some recordings survive; but none of the episodes is actually based on what Biggers wrote. I also looked in the Samuel French Co.’s catalog of stage plays, but found no Chan script of any kind there.
Biggers penned six Charlie Chan novels, starting in January 1925 with The House Without A Key. It was initially published as a magazine serial in The Saturday Evening Post, and soon after as a book from Bobbs-Merrill. The entire series is now being published in new editions by Academy Chicago. In The House Without A Key, a prominent man with a shady past is stabbed in his home on Waikiki Beach, where he has always felt safe – hence the title. His relatives think they can find the killer on their own; but it is Chan, of course, who solves the case. All six novels were optioned by Hollywood; and by the time Biggers died in 1933 (coincidentally, the same year Apana died), a few silent movies and early talkies had been made from his books; but no prints have survived. One screenplay based on “The House Without A Key,” by Lester Cole and Marion Orth, was produced and released in 1933 under the title Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case. Unfortunately, it’s one of those lost films. Most people have seen a Charlie Chan movie – more than forty survive, from three studios. But, individual merits and demerits aside, all of them resemble the radio programs in that almost nothing on screen derives from Biggers’ own work. So I obtained permission from 20th Century Fox, which holds the performance copyright, and scripted a one-act-play of The House Without A Key that can be performed in sixty minutes without intermission. There will be four performances here on the Big Island: three at the East Hawaii Cultural Center, in Hilo, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday March 5th, 6th and 7th; and one at the Marriott in Waikoloa on the opening night of Left Coast Crime, Sunday March 8th. A student discount will be offered for the Mar. 5 show, for which I will also provide students and teachers with a study-guide about the historical controversies that Charlie Chan has raised.
In this endeavor, I feel I am not only honoring Biggers but restoring the reputation of the Chan character as well. He has long been popular – there were once Charlie Chan comic strips and comic books, too. But there has also long been a contrary, disparaging opinion of him, mainly because of the Hollywood version. Although some secondary roles, mainly Chan’s sons, were filled by Asian-American actors, Chan himself – with one silent film excepted – was always portrayed on screen by a haole in “yellow-face” makeup. By the time the last movies were made in the 1940s, his character had become a caricature. But a kow-towing fortune-cookie is not what Biggers created! The Charlie Chan of my script hews close to Biggers’ conception. This production will also be the first time “The House Without A Key” has ever been performed on stage. And since I will cast the play with local actors, Chan will be portrayed by an Asian-American.
I’m a journalist, a novelist and a playwright. My first mystery, written in 1974, when I was a newspaperman on the Big Island, is set in a breakaway Kamehameha County. In 1979, my play Sherlock Holmes and the Volcano Horror was performed at the Manoa Valley Theater in Honolulu. The heroine of my current series of mystery novels is Katy Green, a working musician in the Swing Era. Her latest adventure, “The Last Full Measure,” starts in the dance-band aboard the S.S. Lurline, en route to Hawaii on the eve of Pearl Harbor. From two previous Katy Green novels, I’ve produced award-winning audio-plays with extensive musical scores. My alliterative “minuscule mysteries,” in the radio-private-eye style, have been produced and recorded by San Francisco troupes. And at an annual convention of mystery enthusiasts, on the East Coast, I direct my fellow authors in script-in-hand performances of old-time radio mysteries. Having retired from my day-job (editing computer magazines) I returned to Hawaii in 2007 to live again in Hilo, where I now moonlight as a musician, performing vintage songs of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.