NEWAGEN — Hamilton Meserve walks to the bay window of his home at Cape Newagen and gestures across the cove at a small island, as waves roll in with a heavy surf and break white. “That’s what Mom and I bought in ’61,” he said. “We scraped out our savings accounts and bought it.”

Margaret Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch of the West, threatens Dorothy Gale, played by Judy Garland, in this MGM publicity photo for “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939.

The island – 10 acres at high tide, 20 at low – is named Cape Island, but the locals call it Witch Island. Meserve’s mother was Margaret Hamilton, the character actress of stage and screen who most famously played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” She was on screen only for about 12 minutes in the movie, but her character is the top-ranked female villain, and No. 4 overall, on the Film Institute’s list of all-time movie villains. Almost 80 years after its release, “The Wizard of Oz” remains an iconic cultural treasure, its viewing a rite of passage for American youth.

On Friday night, Snowlion Repertory Theater of Portland will present a staged reading of a new play, still in development, about Hamilton’s life. “My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories” will tell of her love affair with Maine, her commitment to her craft and her struggle to balance her career with her responsibilities as a single mother.

Meserve consulted with the playwright and actress portraying his mother and plans to attend Friday’s reading, which is a fundraiser for the theater. He’s read the script and likes it, and thinks his mother would approve. “Mother did one-woman shows. Just the energy that goes into memorizing everything – it’s a tour de force. We’re very excited to see it, and we wish them well,” he said. “This is a huge, huge undertaking. They’ve done some really good research.”

New York playwright John Ahlin said he was surprised when he learned no one had written a play or comprehensive biography about Hamilton. “But almost everywhere we turned, people had Margaret Hamilton stories in show business. The more we learned, the more we loved her, and the more a play came into view,” said Ahlin, brother of Snowlion’s producing director, Margit Ahlin, and husband of actress Jean Tafler, who portrays Hamilton.

Based on stories from Hamilton’s peers, radio interviews and her letters, the play portrays the actress as an independent woman, who was proud of her niche in American culture and the legacy of the movie. In one scene, Hamilton visits with Judy Garland, the star of “The Wizard of Oz,” backstage when Garland was appearing in New York late in her career. “There were no great scandals in her life, but a lot of drama,” the playwright said. “She has such a unique story. She was a single woman living in Hollywood and raising her son alone and just trying to survive. Her career spanned from the early talkies all the way up through television, but her first love really was the stage.”

THE WITCH ON THE ISLAND

It was the stage that brought Hamilton to Maine in 1940, the year after “The Wizard of Oz” was released in theaters and two decades before it became a staple of television. She came east for a summer-stock repertory role at the Lakewood Theatre in Madison and later the Ogunquit Playhouse and what is now Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick. That first summer at Lakewood sealed her love of Maine, her son said. She enjoyed the work, the setting and the camaraderie of other actors and actresses. She had fun, and she was challenged artistically with a variety of roles. “She always said, ‘I have to come back,'” he said.

A publicity photo of Margaret Hamilton from 1958, for the Broadway production of “Goldilocks.”

And come back she did, often. In summer 1960, while working in Brunswick, she accepted the backstage invitation of tea with a Methodist minister from Southport Island, of which Newagen is a village. When she came to tea, the minister mentioned to her that Hendricks Head Lighthouse, a landmark off Southport, had just been sold. The idea appealed to her, and she called her only son, who was living overseas at the time, and said, “I’m going up to Maine and buying a lighthouse.”

He encouraged her and told her he’d buy it with her.

The lighthouse didn’t work out, but in 1961, she had the opportunity to buy Cape Island. At first, she balked. She couldn’t afford it. When the owners came down on the price, she went in on it with her son. He wouldn’t say how much they paid, but it required nearly all the money they had between them. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s see if we can scrape up the money,’ and we took the plunge,” he said.

They bought the island when she was 58 years old, and she spent nearly every summer there until she died in Connecticut in 1985. Meserve and his wife, Helen, purchased the house on the mainland, where they still live, in 1969, retiring to live year-round in Newagen in 2006. Their children now own the island.

Hamilton, who divorced when her son was 2, had made her life as an independent woman and tackled island life on her own, rowing back and forth in a little skiff and keeping the place “very much alive,” her son said. “She loved everything about it.”

One time, when she was leaving for the season, she arranged for a cab to meet her on the mainland so she could return to her home. The cab driver kept waiting and waiting, but she never showed up. Finally, he walked to the landing, peered over the edge and saw her in the water. She had done the splits, with one foot in the boat and other on a ladder, and ended up in the drink. She was cold, but unbowed. “Two hours later, she was off to New York,” Meserve said.

She made a lot of friends locally, and people treated her well. She was proud of her career “and loved the idea of the witch being on the island,” he said. “She absolutely adored Maine and adored living on the island.”

She never turned down the opportunity to speak with people about her life. “She always said, ‘You never say no to a public appearance or an autograph.’ She always dressed to the nines, because she always felt she owed it to her public.”

OFF TO HOLLYWOOD

Hamilton was born in Ohio on Dec. 9, 1902, in what Meserve called “a socially privileged family.” She loved acting, and her parents consented to her desire to act in school, but insisted that she get an education. They sent her to Wheelock College in Boston to become a kindergarten teacher. She became president of her class, graduating in 1923. She taught in Boston and returned to Cleveland in 1925, after her mother died, to take care of her father.

She taught in Cleveland and joined a local theater company, still hanging onto her desire to act on stage. After her father died in 1929, she moved to New York and worked at Rye Country Day School. She became friendly with playwright Rose Franken, who asked Hamilton to read for a new play, “Another Language.” Hamilton was cast in the play, which opened on the road to terrible reviews but played on Broadway for a year. “After that, it was off to Hollywood and the movies, and the rest is history,” Meserve said.

Hamilton appeared in more than 100 movies over 50 years, but it was the Wicked Witch of the West and “The Wizard of Oz” that defined her career, for better and worse.

“It was a blessing, but it sort of was a role she had a hard time getting away from,” he said. Wherever she went, people wanted to see the witch. Especially as an educator, she worried the role would give kids a false impression of her.

That’s why she knelt to talk with kids at their level, eye to eye, and spoke with them in a kind voice and touched their hands to her face. When kids asked why she was mean to Dorothy, she told them she was only playing a role, with a costume and makeup, and that wasn’t who she really was.

“Being a trained kindergarten teacher, she was very concerned about make-believe and concerned about the impact of scaring kids. She didn’t like scaring kids,” Meserve said.

She didn’t let Meserve watch the movie until he was 9. She also thought that watching the movie on TV was very different than in a darkened theater. “Mother always said, once it was on television and once you were sitting in your parents’ lap with the lights on and with commercial breaks, the tension was repeatedly broken,” and the energy edited out, he said.

On the other hand, she also said the movie had all but been forgotten by the time it hit TV, so she was grateful for the opportunities it created. She never made money directly from the movie’s popularity, Meserve said. “People ask about residuals, but there were no residuals,” he said. She was active in the Screen Actors Guild and fought alongside Ronald Reagan to make studios pay residuals to actors for past movies, but their settlement did not reach back far enough to pay off for Hamilton. “Otherwise, we’d be sitting in a larger house right now,” Meserve said.

MAINE WAS WHERE SHE WANTED TO BE

It’s still a fine house, sitting at the tip of Cape Newagen and looking out directly across to the island his mother loved so much. He has a small gallery with memorabilia from his mother’s career in his home – a photo of her with W.C. Fields, photos with Andy Warhol, when she posed for the artist, and a signed Al Hirshfeld drawing of his mother.

Mostly, he has memories and the comfort of knowing that when she was here, she was where she wanted to be more than anywhere else. And when she wasn’t, that was OK, too.

“Maine is a vision that you carry with you no matter where you go,” he said. “The fact that she owned a piece of it was always comforting to her and enriching to her– and she was always longing to get up back here.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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