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Dismas, The Good Thief

Sarah Whitney, who will be directing Midnight's upcoming THE GOOD THIEF (having already directed Conor McPherson's ST. NICHOLAS as well as CUL-DE-SAC for Midnight) was doing some research on the play, and mentioned that “The Good Thief” refers, of course, to one of the thieves that was crucified alongside Jesus on Golgotha.

Jesus was cursed by the thief on his left, and challenged to save himself and all of them. The thief on Jesus' right defended him, repented, and asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom. Jesus promised to do so (many paintings of the crucifixion show Jesus' head inclined towards the right, towards the Good Thief).

Over time, via various liturgical writings, the Good Thief's name became known as Dismas (from a Greek word, meaning sunset or death.) It made me think of Dismas House, the famed St. Louis-based beginning of the concept of half-way houses for criminals. It was established in 1959 by the Jesuit priest, Fr. Charles Dismas Clark, and lawyer Morris Shenker.

The Dismas House story was quickly picked up for a Hollywood movie. Don Murray (who'd performed in a number of major films at that point, including garnering an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in BUS STOP) produced the film, titled THE HOODLUM PRIEST, and co-wrote the script under the pseudonym Don Deer (for some reason, studios didn't like actors writing their own scripts at that time.) Murray portrayed Fr. Clark, the Morris Shenker character was called Louis Rosen in the movie, and the key role of an ex-con struggling to go straight marked Keir Dullea's film debut. (Dullea would go on to portray one of the astronauts in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.)

THE HOODLUM PRIEST was shot (at least exteriors) in St. Louis, and it's one of those films that seems to get overlooked in produced-in-St. Louis film histories. It's interesting to get a few glimpses of the city, circa 1961, and a few well-known locals can be spotted, including Davey “Nose” Bold, who was a Gaslight Square entertainer. For the most part, however, Hollywood seemed to think that the criminal underworld in St. Louis spoke like they were from Brooklyn, while the common folk here had deep south accents.

The film is fairly effective, and informative about the challenging start-up of Dismas House, but ultimately falls shot due to classic Hollywood clichés. It was directed by Irvin Kershner, who went on to direct some interesting 60's & 70's films, A FINE MADNESS with Sean Connery, THE FLIM-FLAM MAN with George C. Scott, and LOVING with George Segal. And, of course, he was handed the STAR WARS franchise, directing the 2nd film that appeared in the series, or STAR WARS V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (arguably the best in the franchise.)

The Dismas House connection also sent me back to another friend and St. Louis connection. Preparing THE GOOD THIEF, I got in touch with Bob Randisi, a former St. Louis-based writer now living and writing out of Clarksville, MO. Bob had attended Midnight's very first production of THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES, and was very complimentary of our work. This led to a few lunches, discussing writing, and led to a lot of new work to read from an author/acquaintance. I wanted to make sure Bob knew about the upcoming McPherson play.Bob has written numerous mystery series, and he also wrote a number of Western novels, including one series called The Gunsmith (under the pseudonym JR Roberts, about a gun expert who interacts with a number of lawman and outlaw legends, including the James boys.)

But Bob's latest series is The Rat Pack mysteries, in which a Vegas security guy helps Frank, Dino, Sammy, Joey and the rest with various hi-jinks they get involved with. (The latest is LUCK BE A LADY, DON'T DIE.) This made me recall that the only existing video of a full Rat Pack stage performance was shot during a St. Louis appearance at Keil Opera House. It featured Frank, Dino and Sammy, but an ailing Joey Bishop was replaced by MC Johnny Carson.

The show was a benefit for Dismas House, and the stars had come out at the urging of Morris Shenker, who, in addition to his legal and charitable work in St. Louis, was known to have considerable influence in Las Vegas, perhaps due to St. Louis-based union fund investments.

In any case, Dismas House is still up to its good work in St. Louis, it has helped give rise to Oxford Houses (of which there are 100's world-wide to help treat drug and alcohol abusers), and the Rat Pack live forever on video due to a timely benefit for…Dismas House.



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Revised: October, 2007
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