LITTLESTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Taking puffs from a cigar, Groucho Marx had a question for the inscrutable woman standing before him.
“Where are you from?”
The exchange that followed did not disappoint.
“Littlestown, Pennsylvania,” she said.
“A little town in Pennsylvania?” Marx responded. “Well, what’s the name of it?”
“Littlestown,” she repeated defiantly, spelling out the name of her hometown for the famous comedian. “They’re very particular about the ‘s.’”
“Well, I should think so,” Marx retorted.
The moment, from a 1956 episode of Marx’s game show “You Bet Your Life,” was a starring role for a woman who tended to stay behind the scenes.
Her name was Halo Meadows. Or, at a different time in her life, Louise Howard. But she was born Myrtle Louise Stonesifer.
Clinton and Clifton Bittle, 28 and 25, respectively, started the nonprofit The Myrtle Louise Stonesifer-King Living Legacy Guild in 2012. The nonprofit is dedicated to preserving, sharing and carrying on the legacy of the woman - a Hollywood writer, director and actress - through historic preservation, education and the performing arts.
The brothers’ collection spans not only the life of Myrtle, but the lives of those close to her - her Hollywood friends, her family in Littlestown and her longtime husband, an entertainment psychic who called himself “The Amazing Criswell.”
Clothing, old screenplays and photographs litter closets filled with archival boxes. The brothers’ aspire to eventually open a museum dedicated to Myrtle and her associates in her former home on South Queen Street.
They have collected more than $20,000 in donations for the museum and are seeking to cross $100,000 to transform the home into living history.
In the meantime, the Bittles are busy fact finding and spreading the word about Myrtle’s captivating life and career and parlaying that into a resurgence for the Littlestown community through reinvesting in the town’s history.
Their journey has found them attending a Debbie Reynolds auction, making phone calls to Angela Lansbury and collecting an estimated 1,500 artifacts with connections to Myrtle.
“We don’t leave any rock unturned,” Clifton said.
Clinton and Clifton grew up watching films with their grandmother like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Little did they know then, the stars of those films rubbed shoulders with a local woman.
Their journey began in December 2010 when officials at Redeemer’s United Church of Christ in Littlestown were searching for records in preparation for the town’s 150th anniversary.
“I would have said she was eccentric.”
Shirley Marshman, Myrtle Louise Stonesifer-King’s second cousin
In one storage room, a script called “Evasive Joy” was discovered. The authors? Myrtle Louise Stonesifer-King, Louise Howard and Halo Meadows.
Marshman, 82, was the granddaughter of Myrtle’s uncle. She remembered her from photos, but was not too familiar with the woman herself. Myrtle left Littlestown for New York when Marshman was a young child and kept herselft at a distance from others when she returned decades later.
“I would have said she was eccentric,” Marshman said.
The brothers were immediately intrigued by this mysterious woman. It was the first time her name had come up prominently in Littlestown since her death.
“People had mixed emotions about who she was,” Clinton said.
Myrtle kept to herself. Most of the people she knew when growing up were gone.
“All the people that she loved she would visit in the cemetery, and she’d take her dogs with her,” Clinton said.
She spent a lot of time at the community swimming pool.
The “crazy” label was tossed around the community toward Myrtle. The Bittle brothers instead insist she was “open” and “free spirited.”
“She didn’t go by the norms,” Clifton said. “She didn’t go by standards or by society. She did her own thing.”
They learned this when the children who benefited from Myrtle’s deeds came forward, telling the brothers how Myrtle maintained a relationship with the family for 16 years after the fire. The family handed over the clothes Myrtle donated to the Bittles’ collection.
“Our first goal was to tell the true story of her,” Clinton said.
“I wonder how those relationships started and what kind of actress was she, what did she do, and that’s basically what we started doing,” Clinton said. “We started asking those questions. We thought, even if those people are dead, it doesn’t mean you can’t find anything else. If those people are dead, there’s a good chance their stuff still exists with their grandkids, their kids, their whatever. And that’s basically how we knew there was no limits to this.”
Who was Myrtle Louise?
Before the psuedonyms, she was named Myrtle Louise by her parents on May 6, 1905.
The names reflected her turbulent adventures in life.
“She would go by different names depending on what she was doing,” Clifton said.
Myrtle believed in reincarnation and the idea of starting anew. She would even change the names she would call her beloved dogs. (Some included “Buttercup” and “Mr. Chips.”)
But for the first stage of her life, she was Myrtle Louise, the daughter of Howard and Etta Stonesifer.
“Before she even became anything, she was already something,” Clinton said. “Her family was already a mainstay in the town, so everybody knew her. Everybody had some type of connection to her.”
Myrtle attended several colleges, obtaining her bachelor’s degree in English from Hood College and her master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Basically, her mission for that was to teach people in this town about theater, for people to experience theater,” Clinton said.
Myrtle’s time leading the club allowed her to direct for the first time. Her plays raised money for community programs, like the Alpha Fire Company.
Not long after, Myrtle made the decision to leave for New York to launch her career in the arts to a more receptive audience.
She attended the American Academy for the Dramatic Arts and stayed at the Allerton House for Women. She toured college campuses across the country performing Shakespeare.
It was during this time that Myrtle went by Louise Howard.
According to the Bittle brothers, scouts from 20th Century Fox came to one of Myrtle’s productions with the intention of turning it into a movie. She provided them with the script but never heard from them again.
In 1939, Myrtle saw “Hotel for Women,” starring James Ellison and Linda Darnell.
“When she saw the movie, she’s like, ‘That’s my script,’” Clifton said. “They didn’t change the title very well.”
Myrtle won a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism in 1941. She was awarded 20 percent of the film’s net profits, about $5,000, according to the Turner Classic Movies website.
It happened when Criswell’s Pomeranian caught her eye. Myrtle treated dogs like children.
“She fell in love with the dog, and Criswell said, ‘Well I go with the dog,’” Clifton said.
They collaborated professionally, working together on a series of plays inspired by Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” They eventually brought the production to Hollywood.
Together, Myrtle and Criswell formulated his stage persona, “The Amazing Criswell,” which included his local newspaper column and television show “Criswell Predicts.”
“She was the woman behind the man,” Clinton said.
Criswell’s prophecies were rarely accurate. He foresaw the world coming to an end in 1999.
A few predictions came to pass, including one made on the Jack Paar show in March 1963 when he predicted that President Kennedy would not run for re-election the following year because something would happen in November.
President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
However, Myrtle’s appearance on “You Bet Your Life” might have given a glimpse into some troubles with her husband.
She sang “Chop My Head Off,” a morbid tune that the Bittles speculated could have been about her frayed relationship with Criswell.
“She could have came up with that in the lobby,” Clinton said. “We don’t know. She was so creative.”
Criswell even had Myrtle committed to a mental hospital at one point, a common practice for husbands when their wives were disobedient in the 50s.
Today, Clinton and Clifton are eyeing various endeavors in Myrtle’s name. They created a “Walk of Fame” star in Littlestown in front of the steps of her former home and a memorial garden at her grave site in Mount Carmel Cemetery. In addition to fundraising for a museum, they are advocating for an amphitheater in the Littlestown Community Park.
“We’re about preserving memories,” Clinton said. “We’re about preserving legacies, so that they’re never forgotten.”
Preserving a legacy
The Bittle brothers’ research started as a curiosity. They wanted to know more about this compelling woman.
They started making calls and finding photographs here and there.
Between 2012 and 2014, the brothers, who both attended Shippensburg University, received rolling $2,000 undergraduate research grants from the school that lifted the project off the ground.
They spent the week visiting locations Myrtle and Criswell frequented and meeting relatives of the couple’s friends.
It was special for the Bittles to be out there with members of Myrtle’s blood relatives.
“It was really eye-opening to them because they’re like, ‘You guys are telling the truth.’” Clifton said. “Like, this woman actually did this stuff.”
Marshman called their efforts “terrific,” and her brother was impressed as well.
“I think, slowly, people in Littlestown are coming around,” Stonesifer said. By reviving Myrtle’s legacy, the Bittles are also reviving the town’s history through community events and an annual “living legacy” award in her name.
“This woman was not just a random person,” Clifton said. “She reached for her goals. She didn’t let people go, ‘Well you can’t leave Littlestown.’ Well, she did leave Littlestown, and she reached out and she grabbed.”
And as the Bittles’ collection grows, so do their ideas for preserving Myrtle’s footprint.
“We feel like everything happens for a reason and that this is what we’re supposed to be doing,” Clifton said. “And, through what we’re doing, we’re touching lives.”
Information from: The Evening Sun, http://www.eveningsun.com
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