That evening, Lisa asked, “What’s the Water Festival all about?” Leonora told everyone to refill their glasses of wine, then she told the story:
The Seven Wonders neighborhood grew by leaps and bounds in the 1930s, after the establishment of the CSP. A polyglot mix of bohemians, artists, and assorted oddballs poured in from all over. Seven Wonders quickly became known as the place where dreams were born, where rules were meant to be broken, and where revelry and mirth could erupt on a moment’s notice.
One of the immigrants attracted to the bohemian enclave was a young writer and theater director who fancied himself to be the second coming of Shakespeare. He was known as “Overflowing” Welles. People in Seven Wonders made a sport of giving people humorous nicknames and Welles got his because he never stopped talking about himself and his grandiose ideas. His real first name was Orson, but no one knew him as that. He wandered the streets of Seven Wonders declaiming soliloquies in a bellowing voice. One day, he found a partner, a handsome young man from a wealthy St. Louis family, who was also obsessed with art and theater. His name was Vincent Price. Because of his moneyed background, the jokesters in the neighborhood dubbed him “Twice the” Price.
“He’s in all the scary movies!” Lisa said.
“Orson Welles was kind of a big deal, too.” Billy said. Lisa shrugged. She had never heard of him.
The two ‘theater fiends’ were a perfect match. Welles wanted to direct and Price loved to act. They put on impromptu performances on street corners for anybody who would stop and listen.
In those days, before the advances in air cooling design, the nineteenth-century brick homes were stifling on hot summer days and muggy nights. People gathered outdoors on front stoops and sidewalks to gossip, flirt, sing, and dance. So summer was the perfect time for shows by ‘Street Corner Shakespeare,’ as Welles and Price called themselves.
One evening, a small audience gathered near the Colossus of Rhodes to watch them. Welles had prepared a special dramatic flourish. Price recited the first piece, Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. When he got to the famous line, “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink,” Welles turned a wrench on a fire hydrant (he had ‘borrowed” one of the special wrenches from a fire station to turn the five-sided valve) and water gushed out onto the street. The audience loved it and soon many were frolicking in the water as Price continued the poem. Others in the neighborhood heard the commotion and joined the fun.
The police and fire departments arrived a little later, shut off the hydrant, and arrested Welles and Price, who by then were acting out passages from The Tempest, while standing knee-deep in water.
At the police station, Price’s father, a candy manufacturer also named Vincent Price, bailed them out and delivered a stern lecture to his son. It had little impact.
The next night, Street Corner Shakespeare gave a repeat performance to a larger audience. Overflowing Welles thrilled them by opening another fire hydrant—adding a new meaning to his nickname in the process. Again, they were arrested, then bailed out by the elder Price. On the third night, the crowd filled the entire block. Stern-faced policemen watched from afar. When Price got to the critical line of the poem, Welles couldn’t resist a grand, theatrical gesture. Somehow, he had managed to get another of the special wrenches and he unleashed a torrent of water on the audience. In less than a minute, the police arrested him and Price and dispersed the crowd.
Price’s father was exasperated and declined to bail them out. “Let them rot in jail!”
Carol picked up the story, with the history she had read in the J. Whittemore Hines biography:
The elder Price went to his friend, J. Whittemore Hines, managing director of the CSP, to ask for help in dealing with his son, who appeared to be unduly influenced by the rascal Overflowing Welles. As always, Hines had a solution.
The next day, Hines met with the two young theater lovers at police headquarters. He told them that the city would not stand for such foolishness and that they were in serious trouble. He looked in their eyes for signs of remorse, but saw none. So he gave them a choice—using his own flair for the dramatic.
“Boys, based on the charges against you, you’re looking at about a year in jail if you’re convicted, as I am certain you will be. But I’m offering you another option.”
He slid two sealed envelopes across the table. “One for each of you. Before you open them, promise me that you will follow my instructions and all charges will be dropped.”
Overflowing Welles and Twice the Price looked at each other, nodded their agreement, then opened the envelopes. Welles’ envelope contained a train ticket to New York; Price’s a ticket to Los Angeles. Hines explained the terms, “Travel to these cities and don’t come back to St. Louis until you have built respectable careers in your chosen field of theater.”
The two young men left from Union Station the next morning on trains headed in opposite directions. Orson Welles and Vincent Price enjoyed fleeting moments of glory in the bright lights of New York and Los Angeles, then gradually sank into obscurity. They never returned to St. Louis.