On the day that cast and crew first met this month, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher described the central characters in “Glensheen,” the new musical that opens next weekend at History Theatre in St. Paul.
“Marjorie and Roger are real people, but they are super, ridiculously bad people, bigger than life,” Hatcher said.
Indeed. “Fargo” was still just a North Dakota city when Roger Caldwell and his then-wife, Marjorie, slammed into the center of one of Minnesota’s most notorious murder cases.
The night of June 27, 1977, Roger broke into Glensheen to burgle the 39-room mansion on Lake Superior that belonged to Marjorie’s mother, 83-year-old Duluth heiress Elisabeth Congdon. He killed her nurse, Velma Pietila, with a brass candlestick, and smothered his partly paralyzed mother-in-law with her satin pillowcase.
Roger Caldwell confessed to the killings in a plea deal that secured his release from prison, then used his remaining years to drink himself to death. Marjorie was acquitted of complicity in a sensational trial, but since then her life has been streaked with legal problems that still dog her at age 85.
They are the kind of characters who populate the great seriocomic operas — grand, avaricious, stumbling villains.
“I don’t go to enough opera to know what irony it can take,” Hatcher said. But he certainly did know that he wanted to use music to tell a stage story about the Congdon tragedy and the mystique of Glensheen.
“It lends itself to over-the-top melodies,” said composer Chan Poling, best known as the frontman of Twin Cities pop-punk heroes the Suburbs.
Jennifer Maren will portray Marjorie, and Dane Stauffer is Roger in director Ron Peluso’s cast. Wendy Lehr plays both murder victims and the defense attorney who won Marjorie’s acquittal. The cast is filled with singers. Well-known arranger Bob El-Hai did the orchestrations, and Andrew Fleser will lead the band.
“The story wants to be operatic in nature,” said Peluso. “We didn’t want to do a courtroom drama.”
‘This could get interesting’
Joe Kimball, a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1977, was driving north and heard on the radio: Two dead in Duluth.
“I figured that would be a better story than the strawberry farm I was heading for,” Kimball said. “I got to the police station and found out it was on London Road, a tony area, so I thought that was pretty interesting. Then I got out there and saw the mansion and I thought, ‘This could get really interesting.’ ”
Longtime Star Tribune reporter Peg Meier, who with Kimball helped inform Hatcher and Peluso for the script, was the rewrite person who took dictation from Kimball that day. “Joe starts talking about the brass candlestick … ‘smothered with a silk pillowcase’ … ‘the poodle barked.’ Pretty soon there’s this knot of reporters around my desk, listening to me repeat what Joe is saying,” Meier remembered.
Marjorie and Roger were immediately suspected. Roger had been to the mansion to meet Elisabeth Congdon only a month before. The family trustees had denied the Caldwells’ request to tap trust funds. Marjorie wanted something just less than $1 million to buy a horse ranch in Colorado.
Marjorie, of course, stood to inherit several million dollars upon her mother’s death. Roger, who was her second husband, was very frequently drunk — in fact, he said he was completely bombed on the night he entered the mansion to steal jewelry and ended up killing two people.
He was quickly convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The main event followed, when Marjorie went to trial on conspiracy charges and legendary defense lawyer Ron Meshbesher helped her win an acquittal. Famously, she attended a party given by some jurors.
(In the musical, Lehr portrays a character named Beshmesher, and makes clear this person is not real.)
Fingerprint evidence raised in Marjorie’s trial cast doubt on a key piece of the prosecution’s case, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted Roger a new trial. In a deal that avoided the risk and cost of retrying the case, the state let Roger confess to second-degree murder and go free with five years' time served.
Roger committed suicide in 1988 at age 54. Marjorie, who had ditched her husband, married again (while still married to Roger) in 1981. She served time for arson of a house in Mound in 1984 and was convicted of attempted arson of a neighbor's house in 1991 in Arizona. The day after her conviction, her third husband was found dead of an overdose. In 2009, she pleaded guilty in a check fraud case.
As Kimball talked about the case in a recent interview, he noted, “Yeah, they’re pretty dramatic characters.”
Fitting story to music
Poling is becoming a bit of a Minnesota institution as a composer. He wrote iconic songs (“Love Is the Law”) for the Suburbs and kept the dream of being a rock star alive with his trio the New Standards.
He started writing theater scores in 1989 for Theatre de la Jeune Lune. In the early 2000s, he took an Ordway Center commission to write music for “Heaven,” a musical with playwright Craig Wright that was staged at the Guthrie in 2011.
He and Hatcher, the Twin Cities’ busiest playwright and screenwriter, were working on a piece at Illusion Theater when they started talking about making “Glensheen” into a musical. Poling researched the story, looking for inspiration, and landed on the perfect scene.
“In one of the first things I read, the maid woke up when the poodle barked at 3 a.m.,” Poling said. “As a composer, you look at that: ‘The poodle barked at 3 a.m.’ That was my way in.”
The 39-room redbrick mansion contributes much to the story’s mystery. Built by iron-mining magnate Chester Congdon in 1908, Glensheen and its rich architecture have been written about often. The mansion sits on 7 acres on the shore of Lake Superior. Elisabeth was Chester’s daughter. She was unmarried and adopted two girls, Marjorie and Jennifer.
Thousands of people visit each year; until 2008, guides were instructed not to answer questions about the murder. They still don’t like “Which bedroom was it?” but they will talk.
“It’s weird how they embrace and don’t embrace the murder case,” said Hatcher, who has visited.
“It’s an imposing, spooky, cool place,” Poling said.
The one piece of furniture that dominates Rick Polenek’s set is “the staircase,” the infamous stairs where Caldwell bludgeoned Congdon’s nurse Pietila. Or as he put it in his confession, “I didn’t beat her to death. I beat her and she died.”
Trying to make things right
There are many reasons to make a play about “Glensheen,” and Roger and Marjorie are great, fascinating characters. Peluso, though, sees a higher purpose in his production.
“Jeff, Chan and I hope to honor the innocent lives that were lost,” he said.
Peluso read Suzanne Congdon Leroy’s memoir, “Nightingale,” which honored her grandmother, Elisabeth. (Suzanne is one of Marjorie’s seven children with her first husband.)
“We hope our play does that, too,” Peluso said. “I don’t think Elisabeth and Velma’s lives were fully appreciated after the trials.”
One distant Congdon relative wrote Peluso and expressed her disappointment that History Theatre was raising a story the family would rather forget. “I understand it’s a family tragedy,” Peluso said.
But it is also bigger than that. It’s a moment that fixated the entire state on tragic and senseless acts of violence. Two innocent people died.
And just as the Coen brothers’ Marge Gunderson would say years later in “Fargo”:
“And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?”
Kinda sad, isn’t it?