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Rats in the Cellar: Playtime With Sweet Charlotte

“OK, you be Bette Davis crawling up the stairs and I’ll be Joseph Cotten.”

In November 1971, a few months before my 13th birthday, my father boldly moved our family of six out of the one-bedroom Bronx apartment we’d lived for more than a decade, and into a big old house less than a block away.

Our new home, a ramshackle mock Victorian, was the sole private residence in a grid dense with apartment buildings. Perched high atop a winding stone staircase on an excessively rocky plot — its gray asphalt tiles giving it the appearance of being the biggest boulder on a great pile of smaller ones — it had been abandoned for many years, and was said to be haunted.

Every Halloween for as long as I could remember, neighborhood kids would dare one another to run up the creepy stone stairs and knock at the heavy wooden door, fully expecting Vincent Price (as the Abominable Dr. Phibes) to slither out of the darkness and snatch us into his lair.

I remember walking through the house for the first time, so drunk with pleasure over all this new space that I forgot to feel spooked. Heavy wooden doors creaked as they opened into gracious, ample rooms dappled with sunlight. There were crawlspaces and hidden alcoves — and windows, windows everywhere, windows of every size and description. I counted them: 32. ("Some job to wash them," my mother noted anxiously.)

A lovely oak staircase graced an entrance foyer at the back of the house, which instantly inspired my sister Eva and me to act out scenes from our all-time favorite movie, "Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte":

"OK, you be Bette Davis crawling up the stairs after she and Olivia de Havilland have just dumped John’s body into the swamp, and I’ll be Joseph Cotten at the top of the stairs waiting for you. You climb up, see me, tumble down — and then I’ll jump down over you and be Olivia de Havilland at the bottom of the stairs going, Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte. Then we’ll switch.’"

Sounds like a plan.

Eva and I had long shared an intense love of classic movies, with a special affection for the overripe and campy. We adored Charlotte and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" of course, twin masterworks by the director Robert Aldrich, but also embraced lesser expressions of the genre … like, "Die! Die! My Darling!" (Tallulah Bankhead), "What’s the Matter with Helen?" (Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters), "The Nanny" (Bette Davis), "The Baby" (Ruth Roman), "Berserk" and "Strait Jacket" (Joan Crawford), "Dead Ringer" (Bette Davis as twins), the prison movies of Ida Lupino, and others of this ilk. They played constantly on our favorite movie channels ("The 4:30 Movie," "Million Dollar Movie," "Chiller Theater"). We memorized dialogue and blocking and broke into scenes at the drop of a hat.

When our convalescent Grandma came to visit, we commandeered her wheelchair to act out highlights from "Baby Jane," taking turns in both roles.

"You played Blanche last time! It’s my turn!"

Long-suffering Blanche Hudson was the preferred role in our Baby Jane reenactments — especially for the rats in the cellar scene, into which Eva always injected real production value: she’d dig out an old tray, improvise a fancy lid (usually made out of cardboard and aluminum foil, which my aunt Virginia called "alludian furl"), find or create a suitable something to play the dead rat, rearrange furniture, and just generally go that extra mile to set the scene. I loved playing feeble, fallen Miss Hudson, tucked anxiously into my wheelchair, hungry and frightened. I hear Jane’s demented shuffle approaching my room. The door opens and Jane enters, carrying a tray and setting it down in front of me.

"Who was that at the door earlier?" I ask hopefully.

"Elvira" is Jane’s flat response.

"Where is she now? In the kitchen?"

"No. I gave her the day off. She has a pretty hard time, considering. Told her to come back next week."

My anxiety ratchets up a few notches. I twist my skeletal digits into the fringe of the threadbare blanket draped across my knees. Jane turns to leave. Then she turns back.

"Oh, Blanche, you know we got rats in the cellar?"

I cringe. Could it be? No, it couldn’t. Yes, it could. But I’m so hungry! I must lift the lid! I reach for it. Cue suspense chord (supplied by Eva). Can’t do it. Try again. Suspense chord. No go. Try one more time. Suspense chord. I tear the lid off the tray — to reveal a dead rat lying on a bed of lettuce, slices of tomato as garnish! I freak out in Blanche’s particular way, making little, choked grunting sounds, pushing at the wheelchair in shock and confusion, ultimately driving myself around and around in mad circles as Jane howls with laughter just outside the door.

And cut. We switch roles.

Life is good.

(based on excerpts from Twisted Head)

Carl Capotorto has been a playwright, screenwriter, and actor for more than 20 years. He made his acting debut in the cult classic "Five Corners"; performed principal roles in "American Blue Note," "Men of Respect," Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" and John Turturro's "Mac"; and played Little Paulie on "The Sopranos" for six seasons. His plays have been produced at the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Yale Repertory Theater, and in dozens of other venues in New York City and around the country. "Twisted Head," his darkly comic memoir about growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s and 70s -- based on his solo show of the same name -- is now available in trade paperback. He lives in Manhattan.