Virginia Tech Alumna Blends Theatre and Science to Capture Vibrancy of Hedy Lamarr
April 1, 2019
In the opening scene of “HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” the eponymous actress once dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” answers a landline telephone ring. It’s 1997, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation is calling to tell her that she will receive the organization’s prestigious Pioneer Award for their development of the secret communication system.
Lamarr notes that she filed the patent for the technology back in 1942, but she’s only now receiving recognition 55 years later. “It’s about time!” she concludes, before ending the conversation and beginning a conversation with the audience watching within the Cube, Moss Arts Center’s state-of-the-art research and performance venue.
For the next 90 minutes, Lamarr — as played by Heather Massie, the Virginia Tech alumna who wrote and performed the one-woman show — details her life and rise to fame, first as an actress and then as a groundbreaking inventor whose patented technology informed U.S. military operations throughout the Cold War, as well as wireless technology used in cell phones, wireless internet, GPS, and more.
The blending of art and science is nothing new for Massie, a Blacksburg native and second-generation Hokie who has sought to marry the two fields since her childhood. At age 8, she determined to be “an astronaut, an inventor, or to work with animals.” Massie began her undergraduate education as an astrophysics major at the University of Virginia before transferring to obtain her degree in theatre arts at Virginia Tech.
Massie went on to become an actor and writer who has performed extensively in theatres throughout the United States, as well as Ecuador, Ireland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Russia, Sweden, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. She collaborated for many years with Tony-nominated playwright Leslie Lee; after his passing in 2014, she founded the Leslie Lee Legacy Foundation to foster the continued production of his works.
The writing of “HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr” came about from Massie’s efforts to showcase women in science through a stage show that she could take around the world.
“I’d always wanted to do an international tour and had never fallen into that,” Massie said. “I also wanted to honor this piece of myself I’d put away in a box, my passion for science. The most portable kind of show is a solo show. So it became that I wanted to find a woman in science to feature in a solo play.”
Hedy Lamarr fit the bill, with a life story that Massie found “very dramatic and exciting and inspiring.”
Lamarr did indeed lead a life filled with intrigue, struggle, and ultimately, in a late-act twist, triumph. Not only did Lamarr star as a leading lady during the golden age of Hollywood’s studio era, she acted in a way that many Hokies will recognize as exemplifying the university motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). But she was constantly held back by her beauty and the stultifying gender roles of the time. As Lamarr put it in a line echoed by Massie in the play, there’s no real trick to looking glamorous: “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Lamarr was never stupid. She was inspired to become an actress by seeing “Hansel and Gretel” performed on the stage and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in a movie theatre. She married an Austrian arms dealer in 1933 and absorbed knowledge sitting through meetings with his customers. When Adolf Hitler began his rise to power in neighboring Germany, Lamarr, who hid her Jewish heritage, escaped by impersonating her maid and traveling to Paris and then London.
In London, she met Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), turned down his first offer, bought a ticket on the same U.S.-bound ship as he, and by the end of the voyage had negotiated a much more lucrative contract. The film “Algiers” launched her as a major movie star, as well as launching “Take Me to the Casbah” as a popular song and sparking a hair-parting craze as women tried to emulate Lamarr’s look.
But Lamarr still felt constrained by Mayer’s limited vision for what she could be.
“He is yet another mogul who has captured me and does not quite know what to do with me,” complains Massie-as-Lamarr during the show.
In “HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” Massie re-created the star’s life and gave her a much-desired gift of agency by having her tell her own story. Massie also plays 33 other supporting characters, including Mayer, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Stewart. Each supporting character can be distinguished not just by accent and speaking tone, but also body language.
The story intensifies as World War II explodes into the United States. Lamarr urgently wanted to contribute. She served and danced with soldiers at Davis’ Hollywood Canteen, where grunts could rub shoulders with stars. Lamarr traveled around the country and sold $25 million in war bonds, including $7 million raised at one event.
Her most lasting contribution to the world came during this era, yet it was ignored. Lamarr collaborated with George Antheil, a composer, magazine writer, and expert on hormonal therapies, to develop a technology intended to make torpedoes more accurate. Known as the secret communication system, or frequency hopping, the patent they developed used the concept employed in paper rolls from player pianos — an early form of binary coding — to allow radio communication between torpedoes and their guidance systems that could not be jammed by enemy interference.
Lamarr and Antheil turned their 1942 patent over to the U.S. Navy, which ignored it, whether because of its source, because of its origins in player piano tech, or some other reason. Navy officials re-discovered it in the late ’50s and quickly implemented it. The patent gave rise to spread spectrum technology, which is now used commercially in a variety of applications that include cell phones, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and other wireless systems.
Massie dramatized this contribution in an ad-libbed portion of her performance at Moss, which surely has occurred on a regular basis. Despite a pre-show admonition by staff to turn off cell phones, an audience member near the front row received a call shortly after the performance began. Massie-as-Lamarr became excited and asked if she could answer it. The person on the other end of the line apparently became confused and hung up, but Lamarr told the audience, “I am in that trusted device that no one today is ever without, your trusted cellular phone. I am also in your WiFi, your GPS, and many other things.”
“HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr” ends with Lamarr talking about the end of her life: how she has been recognized for her groundbreaking invention but not financially compensated. She responds to the criticisms that besieged her in later life — that she shoplifted (she was acquitted of the charges), that she filed frivolous lawsuits (she wanted to protect her image), and that she had plastic surgery (she did, including a number of procedures that she herself had invented).
Lamarr set a goal to live into the 21st century, and she did for 19 days.
Massie-as-Lamarr summed up her life: “I really am a very simple, complicated person. And always a person who works to make things better. I charge all of you to do the same, find ways to make the world a better place.”
Massie said that Lamarr’s story is only one of many examples of women who have changed the world but didn’t receive credit for it at the time. Too often, the men who worked with or around these groundbreaking women have taken credit for their discoveries.
“For these stories that we discover, holding them up and celebrating them is an important thing to do,” Massie said.
“HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr” stands as her attempt to establish Lamarr as a role model for young women in science — something she wishes she’d have had as an 8-year-old.
“I’ve sort of come full circle now,” Massie said. “I was in science and then switched to art and now I’m marrying the two loves in this piece. It makes my life relevant to my work, and my work relevant to my life.
“The mission of the piece really is to inspire audiences to find ways to make the world a better place. Also to encourage young women in science and technology. And to establish Hedy Lamarr as a role model for intelligence, ingenuity, and invention. Young women don’t have as many role models to look to as young men.”
“HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr” takes a big step toward rectifying that, as will Massie’s next planned project, a solo show titled, “Flying with Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.”
As Lamarr says herself, at the beginning and again at the end of Massie’s show, “It’s about time!”
Written by Mason Adams