The Golden Age of Hollywood conjures ideas of glamour, romance and Technicolor hues—but behind the scenes, the reality of the industry wasn’t always the rosy picture portrayed on screen. These two sides of Hollywood’s past are now being explored in The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign, a one-woman show that transports the audience back to the Hollywood of yore.
Written and performed by Joanne Hartstone, with direction by Vince Fusco, The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign tells the story of Evelyn “Evie” Edwards, an aspiring actress who can’t find success in the Hollywood studio system. The audience meets Evie in 1949 as she stands atop the Hollywood sign, prepared to end her suffering. Mixing her spoken tales with songs from the era, Evie spends her potential final moments recounting her life as an aspiring actress and die-hard fan of the silver screen—and how it got her to this dire place.
Evie’s tale is interwoven with the history of America and Golden Age Hollywood, from the Great Depression and “Hoovervilles” to World War II and the Hollywood Canteen. Her personal tale details Evie’s own experiences in the industry, from her days as a runner on the MGM lot and run-ins with such Hollywood royalty as Bette Davis, to the failed auditions she went to again and again to no avail. Though Evie may be fictional, her speeches also constantly allude to the struggles faced by the very real women who were made and spit out by the Hollywood “dream factory,” including platinum blonde Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, and an actress who actually did jump off the Hollywood sign, Peg Entwhistle. “There will always be another actress waiting in the wings to take your place,” Evie tells us. “No one in Hollywood is irreplaceable.... You can’t have any illusions about that.”
Hartstone’s nuanced take on the romance of Old Hollywood and the horrors that lay underneath is well-balanced, drawing the audience in but never letting its nostalgia remain unchecked. The show emphasizes the stark realities of Hollywood that drove Evie—and so many real women—to despair. Yet at the same time, Evie’s passion for the movies shines through, and it’s hard not to feel a yearning for the glitz of mid-20th-century cinema and the world inhabited by its stars.
The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign, however, is more than just a history lesson, as Evie goes beyond the “who’s who” of Hollywood to share her personal tales of ambition, hope—and failure. Hartstone keeps the audience rooting for her success, with a bubbly yet nuanced performance that endears us to Evie without contradicting the dark mental place she’s now in. Clad in an A-line dress and pin curls and sporting a singsong accent straight out of the 1940s, Hartstone feels like she has stepped out of another era, and she effortlessly switches between Evie and impressions of those she encounters. Though she’s giving a solo performance, Hartstone manages to flesh out Evie’s world, pulling us into it through her words alone.
Evie’s tragic state is further highlighted by Tom Kitney’s design, which consists of a cut white wall symbolizing the top of the Hollywood sign’s “H” and dim, yellow-hued lighting that captures the warm glow of the city and the darkness of Evie’s situation. The small-scale production, which began in fringe festivals in Hollywood and Edinburgh, also captures the period atmosphere through its muffled soundtrack of city sounds and music from the age, evoking the comparatively grainy sound of record-played music without overpowering Hartstone’s performance.
As sexual harassment allegations and the #MeToo movement continue to rock the entertainment industry, The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign serves as a reminder that women in Hollywood struggled far before the days of Harvey Weinstein. Hartstone’s enrapturing paean to Hollywood’s Golden Age may have audience members switching on Turner Classic Movies once it finishes—but hopefully now they’ll appreciate what it took for the actresses adorning those films to be immortalized on screen.
The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign plays through Jan. 21 at Theatre for the New City (155 1st Ave.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at theatreforthenewcity.net.