"Who owns 'Rear Window'?" is a question that went straight to the Supreme Court.
The answer involves a series of deals, a pivotal death, some crafty detective work and a killer ending. Sort of like a Cornell Woolrich story.
It involves Woolrich's short story, which was first published in a pulp detective magazine, then turned into a classic Alfred Hitchcock film and, indirectly, now involves the world premiere of a Hartford Stage production. (The sold-out run of "Rear Window'' starring Kevin Bacon runs Oct. 22 to Nov. 15.)
Woolrich was a prolific writer whose works were adapted into many film noir screenplays, teleplays and radio works. His "It Had To Be Murder" was published in 1942 in Dime Detective Magazine. Three years later, he sold the movie rights, which were subsequently bought in 1953 by another film production company, owned by Hitchcock and James Stewart, who would star in the 1954 film.
Woolrich died in 1968 at the age of 64, a few years shy of the date on which he had agreed to renew the copyright for the film company.
The rights went to the executors of Woolrich's will, the Chase Manhattan Bank which — in what turned out to be a very bad deal — sold them in 1972 for $650 to literary speculator Sheldon Abend, who also snapped up for chump change the rights to about 100 other films.
Eleven years later, Abend sued the MCA-Universal, which then owned the Hitchcock film, for money the company earned in derivatives sales of the film from cable TV, theater re-release, video cassettes and rentals — say about cool $12 million. Abend claimed that the original agreement for Woolrich to renew the copyright for the film company died with the author, and that control of the work reverted to the author's copyright successor — ahem, him.
The 6-3 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 — Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion; Antonin Scalia was a dissenter — sent shivers through Hollywood because it opened the door to copyright challenges by artists against studios.
Abend did indeed own the rights, the justices said, because the film was made before 1978, which predated changes in American copyright rules. Abend died in 2003.
"It's a David and Goliath story," says Charlie Lyons, one of three commercial producers — the others are Jay Russell and Jeff Steen — attached to the Hartford Stage production, which is being presented in a "special arrangement with The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust and Literal Media."
"It was a complicated chain [for the rights], and all I know is that we were able to acquire from Cornell Woolrich estate the rights to take that short story and make it into an original stage production."
Lyons a producer and financier of major motion pictures ("The Guardian" the "Bring It On" films), stage works (the musical "Bring It On") and television, says the project was a four-year process that he undertook with producing partner with Russell.
Did he ever pursue the rights to the film, which had a screenplay by John Michael Hayes, and which created characters and relationships not in the original story? (There short story and the play do not contain the characters in the film that were played by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter.)
"We knew we could get the rights to the short story and that was enough," Lyons says. Playwright Keith Reddin wrote the stage adaptation and Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage, is directing the production.
In a way, focusing on the less familiar short story liberates the stage version from the shadow of the Hitchcock film and its iconic stars.
"Woolrich's has a modern tone to his writing," says Lyons, "and even though it's in a period [the '40s], the darkness is of the level you would expect to find in the best cable thrillers today."
A 1998 TV movie based on the Woolrich story starred Christopher Reeve as a paralyzed man who "lives in a high-tech home filled with assistive technology."
Could there be a movie version of this stage production?
Lyons simply says the focus is entirely on making this version the best it can possibly be.
>>The Hartt School's annual gala will take place on Saturday, Oct. 24, at 6 p.m., at the Hartford Marriott Downtown and will include performances by dance and theater division students and the presentation of its first annual Community Partner Award to Hartford Stage. Information: hartford.edu/harttgala or contact Marina Luri at 860-469-0291.
>>Capital Classics Theatre Company, in partnership with The Mark Twain House & Museum, presents an original radio-style adaptation of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" Oct. 29 and 30. Previous Halloween presentation partnerships included "Macabre Macbeth," Edgar Allen Poe's stories and Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Information: 860- 280-3130 or MarkTwainHouse.org or CapitalClassics.org.
>>The Washington, Conn.-based dance-theater company Momix, now in its 35th year, will present "Opus Cactus" at Torrington's Warner Theatre Jan. 9 and 10. Information: 860-489-7180 or visit warnertheatre.org.
>>I wouldn't be surprised if "The Legend of Georgia McBride" by Matthew Lopez, a fave at Hartford Stage (he did "Reverberation," "The Whipping Man" and "Somewhere"), moves to a bigger stage at some point when it ends its run this weekend off-Broadway. I caught the show earlier this month and it's a very funny, entertaining, audience-pleasing show with a terrific performance by Matt McGrath as a down-on-her-heels drag performer.
>>I also wouldn't be surprised to see the touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" finally return to Hartford, where it began, in the second year of its tour. Look for it during the 2016-17 season.
>>Antay Bilgutay is the new director of development of Hartford Stage. Bilgutay previously held the position of director of development at the Dallas Theater Center and oversaw an annual fundraising campaign of $4.9 Million. Bilgutay received a BA in Theatre Studies and English from Yale University.
>>Pantochino Productions Inc., a nonprofit professional theater company for family audiences, will launch its new season with a new musical pop rock comedy, "Dractastic!," Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m, at the Center for the Arts in Milford. The show, created by Bert Bernardi and Justin Rugg, will continue through Nov. 1. Information: pantochino.com.
>>The state Department of Economic and Community Development is providing nearly $2 million in grants to 20 nonprofit organizations that sponsor cultural and historic sites in the state, including Stratford Stage Group ($125,000) and Hartford's HartBeat at Ensemble ($83,850). The grants, which range from $50,000 to $125,000, can be used for a variety of activities, including construction, exhibit designing and installation, planning and marketing. This pilot program has a 25 percent cash match requirement.
>>Goodspeed Musicals is holding local Equity auditions for its 2016 season on Sunday, Oct. 25, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in East Haddam for adult male and female actors. In addition, Goodspeed seeks both Equity and non-Equity boys ages 10 to 13 for "Bye Bye Birdie." Other shows are "Anything Goes," "Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz," "The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd" and "A Sign of the Times." Auditions are by appointment only. Information: 860-873-8664, ext. 384.
>>Hoping for an extension or additional performances for the sold-out show "Rear Window" at Hartford Stage? Forget it. A spokesman for the theater says additional dates are impossible because of "A Christmas Carol," the theater's next show.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the photo identified as author Cornell Woolwich.