hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

Arts & Entertainment

December 16, 2010

Novel features movie mogul's time in Haverhill

Imagine if you could meet famous Haverhill historical figures, such as theater mogul Louis B. Mayer, or tour historical buildings long since demolished, like the Elizabeth Home for Destitute Children, without leaving the comfort of your Barcalounger.

Now you can, thanks to the imagination of New York writer Diana Altman.

Altman's latest novel, "In Theda Bara's Tent", examines the rise of fictional newscaster Harry Sirkus during the Golden Age of cinema from his origins as a street urchin in Haverhill to a national powerhouse within the Fox Broadcasting company.

The Queen Slipper City, for better and for worse, factors heavily into the growth of Sirkus as a teen in Altman's new book. Following the death of his parents, Sirkus finds himself transferred to the Elizabeth Home, a Haverhill orphanage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where he suffers under the torment of his peers until he discovers an escape in the local theater, The Gem. More importantly, he finds a kind soul in the building's owner, Louie. Sirkus also finds an enchanting allure through the fiction of the cinema in the curves of silent film starlet, and titular character, Theda Bara.

Altman said the majority of her inspiration for the novel came during her many hours spent researching Mayer at the Haverhill Public Library in the early '90s.

While pouring over countless historical documents, the name of the orphanage caught her attention and, in her opinion, demanded a story to somehow incorporate the location.

"It was the pride of Haverhill," she said. "They took good care of the children there."

Several key Haverhill streets, including Merrimack and Washington streets, as well the Merrimack River are referenced in the book.

Though she attempted to start the novel in the nineties, she said that her own inexperience as a writer made her retreat from exploring her characters further. It wasn't until a few years ago, while thumbing through a her old manuscripts, that she felt confident enough to invent the world of Sirkus once more through a combination of hard facts and fantasy.

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