Created and performed by Richard Gray, Melanie Monios, and Iris Rose
Scenic elements by Dan Schmidt
Franklin Furnace, NYC April 1986
May 1986 – Tweed Ensemble’s New Works Festival, Pelican Studio, NYC
June 1986 – Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ
August 1986 – Gates of Dawn, NYC
1986 – Darinka, NYC
September 1987 – Fringe Festival, Oranges/Sardines, Los Angeles, CA
1997 – Iris Rose’s living room, NYC
In 1986, Woolworth’s stores were still a common sight anywhere in America. Manhattan
alone had 26 of them. Though they were ubiquitous, they were also relics of another
era – “five-and-ten-cent” stores in the era of 99-cent stores. Often the stores were in need of
repair and sometimes filled with merchandise from another time, which was precisely why
Iris Rose loved them so much. She had grown up going to Woolworth’s: as a small child,
going to sit at the lunch counter with her grandmother; menu from the 1950’s later
accompanying her family to buy Christmas gifts with her allowance; and as an adult,
acquiring household items for her first apartment. So the presence of a Woolworth’s on most
major crosstown streets in Manhattan was a comforting reminder of her earlier life and her
hometown far away. And as with other things that intrigued or fascinated her, she made
Woolworth’s the basis for a show.
As her performers and co-creators, Iris brought together Melanie Monios, who had worked
on 1984: The Future Repeats Itself, House of Jahnke, and Of Little Women, and Richard Gray,
a gifted playwright, musician, actor, and dear friend from college days with whom she had
always wanted to collaborate. Initially, they were also to serve as a kind of research team.
Like anthropologists, they would visit various Woolworth’s stores and record their
observations, text of observations as well as meet to discuss their findings and share their
memories of Woolworth’s from the past. Iris also asked artist Dan Schmidt to create a visual
setting for the show, so he accompanied them on some of their field trips. During the same
period, Iris was busy at the public library, researching the retail chain’s history. These three
strands – the observations, the memories, and the history – were woven together to form the
script. text for introduction
The style of the performance came from a news feature that Iris had seen on PBS. A traveler
visiting central China was in a tea house where a performance was taking place. The
announcer described the show as a Chinese opera, yet the performers sat on chairs on a
small, raised platform at one end of the crowded space, and remained seated throughout,
or at least during what was shown in the brief piece documented. Despite their relative
immobility, they retained the extremely expressive facial and gestural style of traditional
Chinese opera but without the distinctive costumes and makeup.
Woolworth’s first performance was at Franklin Furnace, where Iris had already shown House
of Jahnke and Of Little Women. The three performers, dressed in clothing purchased on their
field trips, sat on three chairs clustered closely around a small, low table (such as a piano
bench). Hanging on the wall behind them was a shower curtain bearing the store’s name in
the most recent of its iconic fonts. On either side were revolving structures Dan had made of
dowels and bandanas, like overgrown, spinning hat racks festooned with flags. The shower
curtain and bandanas were, of course, purchased at Woolworth’s. On the table was a
Chinese gong about the size of a dinner plate and two wooden sticks. The show began with
the striking of the gong.
Iris leapt from her seat and struck a pose reminiscent of both trail scouts of the American
west and images from Chinese social realist paintings of the Mao era. In a “heroic” voice, she
delivered this prologue:
I am the searcher known as Iris Rose, come from the Western lands of gold and angels
to find my destiny. Arriving on this cold island of stone, my eye was apprehended by a
familiar sign, a sign that spoke of home and history, and of welcome. And that sign said,
The performance that followed was made up of sections based on their direct observations,
alternating with personal memories and the histories of three members of the Woolworth
family: company founder Frank Winfield Woolworth (played by Richard), his shy wife Jennie
Creighton (Iris), and their oft-married granddaughter, heiress Barbara Hutton (Melanie).
Other than brief movement sections that introduced each of these characters – and Iris’
prologue – the performers never left their chairs. Despite this fact, much movement was
used, but all executed sitting down, a bit like dancing to the radio while riding in a car. Each
of the performers portrayed a wide variety of characters in addition to their primary,
historical one, and used as many different faces and voices as possible to provide visual and
auditory variety. Observation sections were delivered as straight reporting, but for the
memory sections, both the words and gestures had been altered using free-associated
The performance ended with a sad series of sections: Barbara Hutton’s decline, wistful
observations of a cracked mannequin head and huddled hamsters, Barbara’s death, and a
final section about the disappearance of plastic flowers from Woolworth’s – perhaps
foreshadowing the eventual disappearance of Woolworth’s itself:
They had the biggest selection of plastic flowers I’ve ever seen but I noticed they were
decreasing, so I asked the lady: “Hey lady, one of my favorite things; hey lady, I’m sure
you used to be able to; hey lady, I’d love to be able to.” And she said, “We’re not
reordering them. The fabric flowers are taking over. It’s what people want. They look
better, but they don’t last.”
The last thing I would do is buy plastic flowers.
I’d love to be able to step into a Woolworth’s of 40 years ago.
Everything would look fabulous to us now. I never bought plastic flowers, but the idea of
them going away makes me want to go out and buy $100 worth.
One at a time they went away and they never came back and they never came back.
(Sound of gong)
It was already clear to the cast in 1986 that Woolworth’s had a much stronger connection to
the past than to the future.
One month after Woolworth’s premiered at Franklin Furnace, Richard Gray moved back to
his home in California. For subsequent performances of Woolworth’s in 1986 and 1987, which
included shows opening for They Might Be Giants at Darinka in the East Village and
Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ, Chazz Dean played the role of Frank W. Woolworth. The final
fully-staged performance of Woolworth’s took place at the Oranges/Sardines gallery and
performance space in Los Angeles as part of the 1987 Fringe Festival.
Ten years later, the Woolworth’s chain of stores – at least in America – was as deceased as
Barbara Hutton. In honor of its demise, Iris held a memorial service in her apartment. More
than 25 people crammed into her adjoining living room and dining room to hear a reading
of the Woolworth’s script (without the movement component) and share memories of the role
the store had played in their own lives. For this reading, Iris had three younger actors –
Matthew Edison, Amy Fitts, and Kevin Townley (who admitted he had never been inside a
Woolworth’s in his life) – read the observation sections, and Melanie, Iris, and performance
artist Tom Murrin read the historical and memory sections.