At a cocktail party one evening in 1928, a wistful young writer named Charles MacArthur saw Helen Hayes sitting alone on a couch. MacArthur never had met the beautiful young Broadway star. But he was a resourceful writer and came up with just the gambit to appeal to an unflamboyant but imaginative female.
He carried over a plate of salted peanuts and offered them to her, saying, "I wish they were emeralds."
They were married shortly afterward, and they remained happily together until MacArthur died in 1956. Hayes never remarried.
MacArthur and his famous writing partner, Ben Hecht, collaborated off and on for nearly three decades. But they never wrote a nicer example of that Hollywood staple, the "meet cute" scene, for The Front Page or any of the dozens of movies they worked on together.
In 1935, the Hecht-MacArthur partnership inspired Boy Meets Girl by Bella and Samuel Spewack, another successful Hollywood writing team. The play was the first huge financial hit on Broadway since the beginning of the Depression. American Stage is reviving it this week at its 211 Third St. S theater in St. Petersburg.
This rowdy comedy is, of course, a long slide down the serious slope from American Stage's recent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"We needed a really funny play to pull us out of our depression," says John Berglund, the company's producing director. "With all the blows the arts world has taken this year, and the cuts we're expecting in state and federal grants, it was time for us to focus on laughter."
The play mirrors its models by refusing to take anything in its Hollywood setting seriously. It is full of slam-bang gags and a humorous disdain for everything it touches in the movie business.
Even the title is a kick in the pants for the pretensions of the movie industry. One of the characters declares that the basis of every movie ever made is that boy meets girl in the first half hour, boy loses girl in the second half hour, boy gets girl back in the last half hour.
Nobody in this play gets any respect. The vastly beautiful girl and the fine-looking young man who serve as love interests are sweet-natured but dull-witted hangers-on in the movie world. They deserve each other.
The producers and money men who wander in and out of the show are fools. The nearest thing to a villain is the cowboy star, so stern and fine-looking, and ultimately so pompous and futile.
The MacArthur-Hecht team, called Benson and Law in the play, gets most of the funny lines. But they hardly are idealized. The Benson character will take any writing job if it pays well, because he has a spendthrift wife. (Here the play deviates from life; Hayes never pressured MacArthur for money _ and made more than he did, anyway.)
The Law (Hecht) character, on the other hand, has artistic ambitions and periodically threatens to go off to a mountain shack and write something "real." He won't even use a typewriter, he says, but only a heavy black pencil, weighing each word as it comes out of his brain and runs down his arm and onto the paper.
The Spewacks, who wrote Boy Meets Girl, were husband and wife. Later they collaborated on the book for Kiss Me Kate.
The movie version of Boy Meets Girl starred James Cagney as the crackling Hecht character and Pat O'Brien as the witty but sweeter-natured MacArthur. Ralph Bellamy played the pompous cowboy.
Previews of Boy Meets Girl begin Tuesday; the official opening is Friday; the play runs through June 30. For ticket information, call 822-8814.