Arsenic and Old Lace revives film classic

Friday, November 16, 2012
Doug Breitling is the fourth owner of Arsenic and Old Lace, a Select Registry bed and breakfast. Photo by Jennifer Jackson / Lovely County Citizen

EUREKA SPRINGS -- The three-story house on Hillside Street used to be owned by a dignified, gray-haired lady who served her guests elderberry wine. Pictures of butterflies hung on the dining room walls. A window seat large enough to hide a body stood in a bed chamber. The wooden stairway of the house still rises to the upper floors, its walls echoing the voices of long-gone guests yelling "Charge."

And outside the stained-glass windows, the leaves whirl in the wind like spirits disturbed from their sleep.

Classic movie fans will see the connection with the setting of "Arsenic and Old Lace," a play-turned-movie set on Halloween night. A black comedy, the movie, which starred Cary Grant, Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey, came out in 1944, but at a local bed and breakfast, it's still playing.

"It was the original owner's favorite movie," said Doug Breitling.

Doug and spouse Beverly Breitling are the fourth owners of Arsenic and Old Lace, a B & B that perches in the trees above Hillside like Poe's raven. The original owner of the inn was Jean Johnson, who gave the inn its name. Johnson, who was tall, did not resemble the Brewster sisters who served their lodgers poisoned wine in the movie. But according to Phyllis Jones, the inn's second owner, Johnson did offer her guests homemade elderberry wine in the evenings.

"She liked to play the connection between the inn and the movie," Jones said. "She had fun with it."

The inn itself only two decades old, so it is lighter and airier than the Brewster

House, set next to a graveyard in old Brooklyn. Built in the Queen Anne style, the inn has a tower room, wrap-around porches, and a Victorian parlor with a fireplace and a rosewood piano. A full-length painting of Johnson used to hang over the mantel, Breitling said.

"The eyes and one foot would follow you," he said.

There also used to be a brass plaque on a door that said "To the Panama Canal." In the play, originally titled "Bodies in Our Cellar," the basement was where where the spinsters' cousin, who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, buries their victims, who died of yellow fever, he is told the lower level of the inn, actually the ground floor, is the innkeepers' apartment. If guests asks to see the basement, Breitling has an answer.

"I'll show you the basement," he quips, "but it's a one-way trip."

People who come to Arsenic and Old Lace because of the name usually were in a high school, college or civic theater production of the play, Breitling said -- it's still being staged. And most people calling for reservations have heard of the movie, although one person pronounced the name 'ar-scenic.' Jones said she once received a call from a man whose wife had booked a room a few days earlier. He was nervous that the charade might be

carried too far.

"I assured him my food was good, and that we hadn't lost anyone yet," Jones said. "The same man asked if there were any bodies in the window seat."

While they are no bodies, Jones, who now lives in Holiday Island, said she believes spirits linger about the inn. One day, she and Gary, her spouse and co-innkeeper, were downstairs when they heard a horrible crash. Running upstairs, they found a large mirror that hung over the piano on a wall adjacent to the portrait had somehow 'jumped' over the piano and fallen to the floor, but was unbroken. Phyllis and Gary also had a photograph taken of themselves in the parlor in front of the Christmas tree.

"There's a big orb right in front of us," she said.

The ground the inn stands on does have a past. It was originally the site of the Magnetic Springs Hotel, Jones said, which was built in the 1900s. After it closed, the building was used for a school and then an orphanage for children who arrived by train seeking new families. After the building was torn down during the Depression for salvage, the lots stood empty, becoming a dumping place for trash.

"I tend to think a place like that has spirits," Jones said.

Then about 20 years ago, Tom Frost, a local builder, constructed two large bed and breakfast inns on the site -- one

became the Rose of Sharon. Johnson bought the other as it was nearing completion, adding elegant furnishings and art from the gallery she had in Kansas City. She only had it open a a few months when health problems prevented her from continuing. The Joneses bought it in 1994 and sold it in 2001. A third person had the inn for a few years before the Breitlings bought it in 2004.

The Breitlings no longer serve elderberry wine -- no one really drank it because it is so sweet, Doug said. But some guests do like to say "Charge" when going up the stairway like Cousin Teddy, charging up San Juan Hill. Breitling has a military background, but his service ran in the other direction -- he served on submarines as a supply corps officer. Originally from Canyon, Texas, he and Beverly moved to Eureka Springs from Charleston, S. C., where Doug was stationed for 10 years, then worked for Vista/Americorps. Looking for a place to buy a B & B, they chose Eureka Springs because it is the second most popular bed-and-breakfast destination in the United States, Breitling said, the first being Cape May, New Jersey. And there was a second reason.

"Sixty percent of the population of the United States lives within 12 hours of Eureka Springs," Breitling said, "and I only need five of them."

Arsenic and Old Lace has five guest rooms: three with private balconies, one with its own patio, and the tower room, which has two-story wall of windows. And in every room is a copy of the movie, which was directed by Frank Capra. Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, the spinsters' nephew, and Raymond Massey plays Jonathan, his psychopath brother. Jonathan has undergone plastic surgery to change his appearance and resembles Frankenstein's monster. In the Broadway play, he was played by Boris Karloff, an in-joke according to the play's Wikipedia entry.

Jean Johnson died a few years ago, Jones said. Like the old men the spinsters eased out of this life, her portrait wasn't claimed by a family member. So it remains in storage, the foot stilled, the eyes no longer following guests as they come -- and go.

For more information about Arsenic and Old Lace, go to or call 479-253-5454.

Reservations: 1-800-243-5223.

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