BRATTLEBORO—James Gelter didn’t know just how good an idea he had.
Last year, he devised the project to form the Baker Street Readers, which would give monthly public readings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories at the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery.
That venture proved so successful that the series is returning again for a second season.
“When we gave our first reading last January, even though I knew there were a lot of Sherlock Holmes fans, I found out that there were more than I ever imagined,” Gelter says. “We were hoping for 20, but were expecting around 12. To our astonishment, more than 60 people showed up.
“That number held and even grew as we continued our readings for the next six months in a row. There were some who came to every single show. It was all a little overwhelming and heartwarming.”
In their first season, the Baker Street Readers presented six Sherlock Holmes short stories, all from Holmes’s first collection of stories.
Taking on a bigger challenge
In this season, Baker Street Readers are presenting tales from the second collection.
“There are three more collections,” Gelter says. “If audience interest keeps up, we will be reading from them for the next several years.”
Conan Doyle’s stories may be great, but to inaugurate the Baker Street Readers second season, Gelter wanted to tackle something a little bigger.
On Oct. 4 and 5 at the Hooker-Dunham Theater at 139 Main St., the Baker Street Readers will bring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary masterpiece to life with a dramatic reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third and the most famous of Sherlock Holmes novels.
“The good people of Dartmoor all know the legend of The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Gelter writes in a news release. “Hundreds of years ago, Hugo Baskerville offered his soul to the Devil in exchange for the woman he lusted after. But as he pursued her over the foggy moor, he found himself pursued by something terrible — a great demon hound with glowing jaws.
“Since that time, all the Baskervilles living in Baskerville Hall have met a cruel and unusual fate. Sir Henry Baskerville is the last of his line; he and his friends fear it is only a matter of time before the hound hunts him down as well.
“But Sherlock Holmes believes otherwise. Something evil is afoot, but it is not the work of demons. There is some sinister, human force at work and Holmes and Watson will stop at nothing to solve the mystery ... before it is too late.”
The Hound of the Baskervilles will feature Gelter as Sherlock Holmes and Tony Grobe as John Watson, with guest appearances by Alex Luckham, Kirby Landers, Christian Drake, Geof Dolman, Shannon Ward, and Justin Fetterman.
A big fan
Gelter confesses he has long been a Sherlock Holmes fan.
“You could say my obsession with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective went back as long as I could obsess about things,” he says. “Years ago, I had the audio books of the stories. Dozens of people have recorded them. The first ones I owned were read by Derek Jacobi. Later I got Stephen Fry’s complete collection.”
Gelter says that the way the stories are structured makes reading them out loud especially enjoyable.
“All are told by Holmes’s assistant, Dr. Watson, and so are written in first person narrative,” Gelter says. “They may switch to another’s voice, such as when someone, say Lord Coffin, will explain a past event and continue on for the next 30 pages. But that voice is conveyed through Watson’s overarching narration. This manipulation of speakers makes for interesting public reading.”
Gelter, who has done some radio adaptations of literary works in the past, began considering trying something similar with Sherlock Holmes stories. Nonetheless, he was apprehensive as to whether anyone would want to hear them.
“I was at a cast party for a show I wasn’t in, when I approached my good friend Tony Grobe and suggested the idea of public readings of the Holmes stories,” Gelter explains. “Tony enthusiastically said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
What Gelter didn’t know, even though he has worked with Grobe for over 16 years, was that he, too, was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.
They decided to present one story a month. Grobe would read Watson, and Gelter would speak the lines of Holmes. They would bring in local actors to read the other parts.
“A lot of folks are eager to join this project,” Gelter says. “After a reading, people would walk up to me and ask, ’When can I be in it?’”
The Baker Street Readers are seated throughout most of the show. “We have designed the stage to look like Holmes’ consulting room, with two arm chairs for Holmes and Watson, and chairs in the middle for guest readers,” Gelter says.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles will be a bit different, however, since Holmes is gone for long periods of the story,” he continues. “We will have an arrangement of guest readers with music stands. Remember, this is a pure reading, and the production is not blocked or directed as some readings can be.”
Paring it down
In the past, each Conan Doyle story was read in its entirety. However, opening the second season with as mammoth a work as The Hound of the Baskervilles, Gelter realized he had to edit down the text.
“A lot of audio books of the novel take from 5 to 6 1/2 hours to finish, depending on who’s reading it,” he says.
Gelter trimmed Baskervilles down to a three-hour reading, with two intermissions. This is a lot longer than the hour that last year’s readings generally took, but Gelter suspects audiences are eager for more.
“For instance, someone had suggested we should read two stories back to back to make it a full theatrical evening,” Gelter says. “Tony will need those intermissions since he is onstage the entire time. The audience will get a chance to break also, and refuel on the concessions we’ll be offering, like coffee and such.”
Since Grobe as Watson does the major share of the reading — as he is the narrator of the stories — Gelter has taken on most other tasks, such as promoting the shows and adapting the text.
Committing himself to the latter, he says, was a particularly sweet challenge.
“Taking on such a big project was definitely difficult and I often asked Tony, ‘Are we crazy or what?’” laughs Gelter. “In Baskervilles, I had to edit a lot out, but I wanted to keep as much as possible.
“I believe The Hounds of the Baskervilles is so much more successful than the other Holmes novels because it is such a well-written book.
“There are beautiful passages in it which establish mood and atmosphere, quite unlike anything in the stories. Conan Doyle was not able to write like that elsewhere because there was not time in the short stories, since Doyle wrote on a word-count basis from his publisher.
“To my regret, those were the things that had to go, and I cut some beautiful writing. My only hope is that our reading will encourage people to read The Hound of the Baskervilles in its original entirety.”
Nothing like the real thing
Gelter contends that although everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes from movies and television, nothing is like the canon of original stories.
“Some in my audience say they have never heard an actual Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” says Gelter. “They are my favorite audience members. In all my adaptations of literary works, I want to get people to go back and discover from where these great stories originally came.”
Even with the success of the Baker Street Readers, Gelter isn’t planning to initiate readings from any other author.
“We couldn’t have pulled this off with any other material,” he says. “The Sherlock Holmes stories make for compelling listening. They have that great narrative voice, and the hook of being mysteries. We want to find out what happens. Besides that, even now, over 100 years since he was created, there is such a large fan base for that very special detective which is quite unlike anything else I know.”