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A new local musical shows the only thing haunting Sarah Winchester was fake news

A new musical is appearing for the first time on a north Scottsdale stage Feb. 11-13, and it’s all about fake news and its consequences. 

At the play’s center are the rumors that have inflated the legend of Sarah Winchester and her mysterious mansion in San Jose, California.

Sarah Winchester is a name now synonymous with the horror genre. She was the widowed heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune born in the 19th century. She built a mansion in San Jose that is rumored to be supernaturally motivated. That mansion is currently a tourist attraction. 

In 2015, Andrea Markowitz, the playwright, composer and lyricist behind “Fair Game: Or the Importance of Being Honest,” heard this story and was inspired. 

“I thought, wow, this woman who’s filled with such grief that she has to express herself through building a home. I'd love to explore how she did that and why she did that,” Markowitz said.

But months into her research, as she kept finding increasingly more supernatural spins on the story, this Arizona resident ran into a problem after she found a biography by historian Mary Jo Ignoffo.

“She pieced together the true story of Sarah Winchester, which has nothing to do with ghosts and being haunted and feeling guilty about the Winchester rifle murdering all of these people,” Markowitz said. “So my original idea for a play was completely gone because once I read this, I became so incensed. She turned out to be this wonderful, brilliant, good woman and how her name has been defiled for more than a century now.” 

So she refocused, interested in figuring out how Sarah’s story could have gotten so sensationalized. She found five individuals who became characters in her musical, who either perpetuated the haunting of Sarah Winchester or sensationalized the rumors. 

Referring to those five characters: “All of the other characters are real life characters who had their own lives, that I researched very meticulously and [in] bringing them to life, I tried to portray them as honestly and empathetically as I could," Markowitz said.

Jumping off of that biography, Markowitz says her research included reading hundreds of newspaper articles and speaking with a great great niece of Sarah Winchester.

“Fair Game” is Markowitz’s first musical, and she has only been a playwright since 2013, but she is award-winning

Terry Temple is the managing director at Desert Foothills Theatre, where the musical is appearing at the Holland Center.

“It’s a funny, original, quirky little musical that she's put together, very clever,” Temple said.

Temple compares it to a famous musical.

“It’s the other side of the coin. I've referred to it sometimes as what the musical ‘Wicked’ is to ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Just telling that other side of the story,” Temple said.

The show, Temple says, was actually scheduled to first appear in 2020.

“And we all know what happened then: COVID hit and it blew up. So we rescheduled it for early in the Spring of 2021 and we had the surge,” Temple said. 

But now rehearsals are underway, and an audience at a January charity event got to preview a few songs.

First time in costume, the cast performed on stage in steampunk attire. Sallyann A. Martinez, the director of the show, talks about her costume decision.

“When I read the script, I could just see what was on stage. And to me, what was on stage was larger than life characters. And so those larger than life characters to me have big hats and coat and tails and you know, gears,” Martinez said.

Also a choice: not a lot of choreography. 

When some people think of musicals they imagine huge choreographed numbers, but Martinez wants to keep it more reserved. 

“I really want people to focus on the words of those songs because they have so much content in there,” Martinez said. 

And the songs are important. Music Director Kent Campbell says they move along the plot of the show.

“Fair game will be talking about some of the news outlets at the time that were not very fairly reporting on Sarah Winchester, and you'll learn a lot about how that manifests itself,” Campbell said.

So what was the truth that Markowitz found about Sarah Winchester’s mansion, which, according to the attraction’s website, currently has 160 rooms, 47 stairways and fireplaces and more? It was her “hobby house.”

“She was just concerned with creating something different and new and seeing how it worked out. And sometimes she would rip out what she did if she didn’t like the way it turned out. And sometimes she would just leave it and move on,” Markowitz said.

Sarah Winchester, herself, actually never makes an appearance in the play.

“Even though it’s her story, it’s not about her. I didn’t want to exploit her anymore,” Markowitz said.

She says the goal for this musical is to “correct the perception of Sarah Winchester one audience at a time.”


The following article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury Herald on May 27, 1923.

WINCHESTER HOUSE CONSTRUCTED LIKE GIANT ANT HILL

Incredibly Eccentric Interior Amazes Visitors MYSTERY NOVEL ATMOSPHERE DOMINATES WEB OF ROOMS

by RUTH F. AMET

RECENTLY The Winchester Place has been leased by an amusement company. Invited to go through the Winchester house about which so much has been surmises and written — I went. There’s nothing so very strange about the exterior even to the person who knows something about history. True, it resembles an Irishman with the slant eyes of an Oriental, a Roman nose and a firm Scotch chin, the whole topped off with an English monocle. That is to say, it is incongruous as to architectural features. Rose of New England shutters establish it’s only claim to symmetry. In fact it looks a good deal like a half size vendom hotel gone Cubist. From the outside it does not appear very large. But it is large, containing more than 100 rooms.

From the moment of the turning of the key in the lock expectancy mounted. The door, as Anna Catherine Green would say, “swung slowly open.” We entered a cement-floored apartment with similar apartments opening off it. What were they? Store-rooms, I suppose. Any number of them. One for jelly and one for Joann and one for Candice Sparaga’s, and still another for the Hound of the Baskervilles perhaps. I really didn’t look to see. That’s the whole difficulty in writing the story. There were so many suppositions I neglected to verify, not knowing and the time that the tour would be ordered into newsprint. Otherwise I should’ve been most thorough, ascertaining, for example, whether Poe’s horrific Black Cat didn’t lurk at the end of a certain shadow a little passage. One would need only penetrate to the point where coal-fire eyes gleam out of the darkness. Someone should have let me know. All I can say now is that I strongly suspect these things to be so.

Rooms, it must be said from the start, seem mostly to have been rather than to be. Unfurnished, and mainly undecorated, with even the wall surface stripped from them, they are nevertheless teeming with atmosphere for those who would a-ghosting go. In the short time the house has been closed it does not seem possible that so much should have deteriorated. As a matter of fact it probably hasn’t. Entire suites of room they have been closed off for years and the best haunted castle fashion. A speaking tube that we touched fell off.“Where does it go,” I asked, my two partners in mystery laughing. “Down,” said they. True enough, the tubes certainly went down. Down where we couldn’t discover. We were tempted to speak into the mouthpiece. But the thought of hearing Dr. Jekyll his back: “I’ll be with you in a minute” decided us against it. When three are company why risk a crowd?

Stranger Than Fiction.

So unbelievable, so amazing in every respect did we find the Winchester house that we didn’t follow any system of exploration. We raced upstairs and downstairs as the vista ahead held out the most lure. “How could you count these rooms?” asked the Partners in Mystery together. “I don’t know,” I replied bewildered, “unless you chalked A cross on the door of each room visited.” For there’s no apparent plan, no fixed arrangement of any sort in this house. We found a laundry equipped with some six or eight stationary tubs way up in the center of the second floor. We found kitchens and butlers’ pantries in the most surprising places. Faucets and fixtures were queer, old-fashioned perhaps, but strangely out of place in a home of wealth under constant process of alteration. Bathtubs were lined with tin. Not a single gold bathtub, like Desnoyers’ of “Four Horsemen” fame, anywhere. In fact rich effect is conspicuously lacking. There than whispers of a “White Satin Room.” I was high in hope of coming suddenly on just such another apartment as Dickens described in “Great Expectations” with the cobwebby wedding cake and all the other bridal furnishings. But of that later. Everything in this house is more like a book than anything else. It is another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

Take the laundry tubs. Laundry tubs are not strange in themselves. Yet laundry tubs in juxtaposition to a suite of drawing rooms or at least a little odd. Anything that is not quite natural makes one feel a little queer. The the laundry tubs started the queerness. It was something to go on and it went fast. Our progress was frequently blocked by a locked door. Sometimes we found the key in the lock and turned it. Often such a door will not open, being locked on the other side. A little queerness added here — doors that would not open. Not so queer as it might be if not that we already stood in strange rooms. But first you must hear how we left the cement-floored entrance.

We chose a peculiar stairway. Steps were so shallow as to hardly necessitate lifting the foot. Get the width of the steps was too great to permit more than one being taken at a time. Inch by inch we went up. After toiling arduously we were apparently a little higher. We turned corners and kept going — step, step, step. Still little altitude gained. After repeating this process many times we finally reached — the second floor, a level not many feet higher than the point from which we started. Yet it seemed as if we traveled far enough to reach Tower of London heights. Quite a queer feeling. Yes, it was.

Spectral Quality.

We were very much disappointed for the first few moments there after. Rooms were so bare. Without furnishings, without even wallpaper, they were just rooms. Soon they begin to take on personality. Indistinct, difficult to define, but personality nevertheless. Perhaps if I went through them again I could better account for this spectral quality. Perhaps I’d be no better off than at present and could only repeat they make you feel queer. At any rate it is weird indeed to feel queer because of a house. It is the feeling that underlies the most successful mystery fiction. There is no mystery to equal the house that “isn’t quite right.” Doesn’t it make you prickle just think of it — a house where there is something you can’t understand, something that makes people uncomfortable, makes dogs uneasy, makes you shiver a little each time you recall it?

We passed from room to room. Once in a while we separated. But not for long. If, in eagerness to glimpse, I found myself alone, I didn’t linger there. I’d read too many mystery stories to be enthusiastic about being away from the others. I know too well the architectural haunts of certain celebrities of supernatural circles. From Mary Roberts Rinehardt, for one. I have learned what queer things happen on stairways — circular stairways. Saying that I didn’t mind the room I was in, nor any particular room that I was in any time, again someone explains this strange house. One doesn’t mind them. Oh no — not them. But the feeling is pretty close to the surface all the time that you might suddenly come upon a room that you would MIND. Not the third be anything in it at first class to horrify — No-o-o-o-h. But just a room you’d rather be out of. If you know what I mean.

Enigmatic Windows.

Again and again we found ourselves in rooms where we could peer through windows into other rooms. Windows with glass in them and not only glass but screens. Fancy heavily screened windows between two rooms. Imagine being in one of those rooms and hearing a slight sound in the other. That would be the window. You’d simply have to look and see what it was made the sound. Better perhaps I’m leaving it to the imagination. Sounds are so often a mouse. But where Ignorance is bliss certainly such a window would ruin everything. More certain still, no one raisin Sherlock Holmes could live in that house. Their imagination we get the best of them if nothing else did.

Almost stranger than anything else about this house is its faked air of a thousand and one conveniences. You sense it all at once. Here is a house where someone lived who believed in going way beyond modernity’s latest device. And yet nothing could be more inconvenient than the same house. You feel that whoever put certain fixtures in did so only after trying others and finding that there was still some disconvenience to be gained by changing. The impossible closets for clothes! At least I suppose they were for clothes though many naturally suggested special nooks for those misty beings, who remain in concealment except for certain jolly little midnight escapades. One shallow affair, that particularly impressed, was built so it all but filled a narrow passage. The average sized person would have to squeeze with bated breath some three or four feet through this narrow space to reach the door opening into the closet. How you’d get it open when you reached it I can’t imagine, unless it opened in. I didn’t try it at the time, it occurring to me about then that here was the individual wardrobe of De Maupassant’s phantom lady who might at any moment emerge combing her long, icy hair. Why precipitate matters by going in?

Why Trap Doors?

Perhaps none of these things sound so very strange. But coming again and again on these ear wreck syloble built in “conveniences “our feeling of queness defend. We often laughed, then quite as quickly ceased, caught by the unnaturalness of the place. The house is like a problem in mathematics with faulty figures cropping up again and again confusing you until you can’t be sure whether to into are four or five. Inaccuracy a bounds in this house. As architecture, it is untrue, proper and a logical. As stands now str to ng, is be one to that as futurist affairs — seven legged chairs and lightening jagged hangings and things like that — there would be a little conspicuous or it not for doors where doors are not needed, windows where windows are simply incredible, and, yes — trap doors. One room we went into seems to have a floor entirely made of trap doors. Trap-size squares were marketly divided and felt like thin ice under foot. One of our party of three stops to examine something on the wall.

“Don’t press anything,” I warned him. “ Touch the right spring and we’ll all shoot through to the seller. “Mystery reading again! That’s what it does to you. But anytime I saw either of those two men fussing with speaker tubes or wall fixtures I had the same feeling of apprehension. Press the right thing in the trick would be turned. Either walls are closing in on us or the floor would go out from under us or — SOMETHING. I was so insistent about this they became impressed. But you see they were already pretty well imbued with the “queer” feeling.

Bewildering Stairways.

The Winchester house is after all mostly “feeling.” There is something of the awful “house of Usher “about it. Yes, really. Not outside. No fog or other atmospheric density envelops it. Rather I was flooded with California sunshine and the air was sweet with honeysuckle and roses. But inside — well, inside it is an ideal place for Carolyn Wells to give a house party. Meredith Nicholson‘s “House of 1000 Candles” was never so strange as this house of 1000 windows and doors and airy stairways. Indeed, if there is one thing stranger than another, it is the stairways. They are everywhere. You go to the second floor. But you can’t stay there and make connections. Very soon you apparently come to the end of the second floor. There are stairs leading down. Not the ones who came up. Oh, no. You never use the same stairs twice. You go down. Almost beside the descending stairway you find another leading up. If you’re up. There you are again on the second floor. But not the same second floor. It’s bewildering. How many times I went up I don’t know. One has to hurry on the stairs because of what Mrs. Rinehart has said. Under the circumstances one forgets to count. Sometimes we took the stairs to the third-floor. In this way we often missed first and second floor sections.

Missing Turkish Bath.

One of our party had been in the house the day before. Before we started he told us of a Turkish bath he had found next to a kitchen and a servants sweet. Once the smoke curls evaporated from the soup, improvised he, the cook Would it make a flying leap for his Turkish steam room, in this way perpetually warding off pneumonia. We kept looking for that child room. We encountered similar service wings but none with a Turkish bath. Perhaps it isn’t always there. This was in the height of fire to those unfamiliar with “what happens” in the Gray room, Red room, Missing Millionaire room tales. At any rate, the young man, who by the way I had never heard of Barrie’s “Mary Rose,” believed we missed it.

One of the less inconvenient conveniences which we found a good many times was a type of built-in cabinet containing complete fire-fighting apparatus. On one of the upper floors we discovered ponderous chests with drawers that rolled in and out on some sort of ball bearing system. Our queer little nook over a glass skylight had shelves on opposite sides. There were little upper doors that open and shut, heavily screened of course. We opened them and experimented. How to reach into the “linen closet,“ as we called it, and stack or unstack the shelves, without putting one or two feet through the skylight was a nice little problem in relativity.

And speaking of skylights, There are many of them. One that greatly amused us was a large affair built up in dome shape. It occupied a court some feet in width. Opening on the skylight from every direction was a door. Between doors were diamond shaped aperture‘s which one can look through. You come up on the first door, unlock and open it. There is a heavy screen door in addition. You unlock and open that. There in front of you is a Glassfield area. Across, you see another door, also carefully screened. Opposite sides, more doors, more screens. This is one of the things that make you laugh. All these care devoted to instant egress and nowhere to go. All these little window-places to look through, providing one isn’t rash and plunge is there a door, and nothing to say except that it will be well to look before you leap. Yes, one laughs and then that queer feeling.

Stepping Into Infinity.

There are other second and third floor doors that open on to nothing. They remind of a certain Buster Keaton comedy in which unwelcome guests were invariably taken to the upper floors to see the sunset. A door was opened, the guest gazing raptly skywards stepped out, or rather off. And that was that. It is little things like this that teach one to step softly in the Winchester house and above all things not to put the right foot forward until the left foot and a couple of hands have firm hold on something substantial.

Besides all the stairways, including the very wide, shallow staircase, first described, and a very narrow, steep flight of steps, there are four or five elevators in the house. At least I think that is all, but we may have missed some. Then, there are fireplaces galore. One particular sequence of rooms nearly convulsed us at first. Each of these rooms were small. Each had a fireplace. All were en suite. “ Another place for the cook to toast himself when the soup is cold and Turkish steam is off,” we decided. But here, as everywhere, we stopped laughing abruptly and hurried on. Mystery story stuff! All right. The impassive and unimpressionable might indeed find these things merely freakish. But to the imaginative this old house is brimful of drama.

White Satin Room.

In some of the rooms it seem to me there was a mimicry and mock. It was deliberately intended to build a mystery house, I assured myself. But afterwords I was not so sure when we commenced in earnest to search for the “White Satin Room.“ Once I went up to the fourth floor to find the top of the stairs sealed. Did the stairs lead to the “White Satin Room?“ Those with me thought perhaps an entire section has been boarded up because of unsafe flooring. Well, perhaps. But how can we be sure? It is more interesting, at least, to believe that the “white satin room, it’s brocaded walls intact, lines behind that sealed door, … that it too has been dismantled and is no longer to be identified.

In this old house every sort of heating system is represented in a widely scattered way. We saw isolated steam radiators, occasional furnace registers in the floor, and ennumable fireplaces, while tile platforms and chimney aperture‘s showed where stoves had been used. In one of the kitchens we found a charcoal broiler. In another, which we decided was the last one used, stood a gas range.

Later we even went into the cellar. We went, but I didn’t stay. It was pitch black, and we’d nothing but matches. Passages were long and twisting and a box of matches won’t last forever. Besides, the cellar door was the flop down kind. A famous place to be shot in! I ceased a broccoli to follow the flickering match on this happy thoughts and shot back to the door to find it still holding open and escape possible. Escape, you might ask, from what? It is not for me to say, except that it was something particularly scarifying. As a matter of fact, we all escaped, even the daring torchbearer.

Perhaps in this penny-dreadful description I have not pictured the house after all. It is a “perhaps” house. There’s very little to go on. The late owner, Mrs. Sara P. Winchester, wife of William Wirt Winchester, and daughter-in-law of a manufacturer of the Winchester rifle, built it and continually tore down and built up additional rooms through a long period of years. She was an extremely wealthy woman and gratify her architectural winds. This fact again baffles. For outside of some exceedingly beautiful windows and the inlet floors and heavy chandeliers of a few rooms there is a little material of expensiveness to be found. window-shutters amusingly opening shot from within by a patent device. Perhaps there was a shutter servant who divided his attention between these and a ouija board.

Because there is a profound charm in mystery, I, for one, would tremendously like to give a Hallowe’en party in this old home. First, each guess would be given a lighted candle. Then they would be started off in foursomes given intervals Allah golf tournaments. And would their hostess play “Alice Through the Looking Glass” again?

No, Not again. She would be, I should say, outside with the night watchman and possibly a police dog or two.

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Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.