MAGPIE TALE: Our Winter of Joy
"The Morozovas are Chekhov's Three Sisters" the ads for the Princess Theatre's production proudly claimed. In all of Duluth's theatrical history, there had never been an event quite this exciting. After years away all three of the Morozovas were returning for what promised to be a thrilling event.
Some questioned if the relatively modest Princess was the appropriate venue for such a monumental event, but the Morozovas expressly requested it. There certainly were sentimental reasons since it was here that their last appearance together on stage happened in November of 1902 in a somewhat shabby summer stock production of Sherlock Holmes in which they played a trio of London street urchins with Moscow-tinged cockney accents. All that had happened in the five years hence was a whirlwind. Zoya had won acclaim for her portrayal of Hedda Gabler in Chicago and toured the west, receiving a queen's welcome in Boulder and was showered with rose petals along Market Street in San Francisco where she crossed paths with Caruso who was arriving last April just as she departed, miraculously avoiding the great earthquake and fire by a mere 27 hours.
Oksana's hasty marriage to Herbert Arveston, Duluth's eccentric but successful inventor -- sometimes called the Edison of the Upper Midwest -- cut short her brilliant run with George Melies in Paris and three short features with the Edison Company itself. Things went sour when Herbert set up the rival Arveston Silver Magic Lantern and Cine Arts Company with a promise of bringing the classics to this new medium. A tragic fire during a filming of The Tempest nearly cost Oksana her life and left her widow. Only the boldest dared to repeat the rumors that there was trouble between the two before the fire and that Oksana might have started it. Regardless, she relocated west to California and set up shop in Edendale, the precursor to Hollywood and the hotbed of west coast Bohemia.
Gulnara had chosen the most traditional path of the three sisters and settled not far from home in St. Paul where she established a theater devoted to producing mostly Chekhov and other Russian masters. It was bitter, ironic fate that she too would soon become a young widow and chose to head west to join Oksana with her infant son whom she defiantly gave the New World name of "Bob".
Rehearsals began in early December with a January 8 opening scheduled. Some thought it madness to stage such a major cultural event in the dead of winter, and in predictable fashion 17 inches of snow hit the night of the 7th. This could not deter the stalwart theater-goers of Duluth who shoveled all morning on the 8th and were out in their finery by 4 p.m. to make sure they arrived in time for the standing room only opening.
Mildred O'Leary, who had been rumored to be bedridden for the past three years and no one had seen even at mass since 1903, ventured out with her daughter Irene, opera glasses and a tiny flask in her beaded handbag as she headed down Oak Street to the Princess Theatre. She was the first one on her feet for the standing ovation that is said to have lasted nearly half an hour.The production was a glittering success, and every performance of its sadly brief two-week run was sold out. Gasps, tears and thundering applause greeted each show. The Morozovas took the show to New York and eventually London and Moscow. But most agreed none of these quite equaled the magic of those two weeks in Duluth.
Sadly too, the Morozovas would never appear again on stage as a trio again. Gulnara chose to step back from the stage and eventually became an accomplished poet whose Milk Thistle Mourning was often called a "Great Plains immigrant classic." In the 1920s, Oksana and Zoya appeared together in Our Winter of Joy by R. Louis Hergvov, a play that many considered to be far too light-weight for a pair of such talents.
Zoya outlived all of the sisters, eventually settling in Jacksonville, Florida, where she lived until her death in 1971 and established The Palm Arbor Theatrical Guild that financed its Chekhov productions through a summer season of musicals and Abie's Irish Rose. Much to everyone's amazement, Zoya chose to spend the entire month of January each year back in Duluth, where she and her cousin Zeldar would often just sit and stare out the window of the Alderson Hotel. The snow, Zoya said, was like looking at the blank canvas of the rest of her life, giving her inspiration to start the year anew. But it also likely recalled that magical January when the three sister brought Chekhov to Duluth,