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Bringing a strange obsession to the stage

Bill DeYoung

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Odd couple: Carl von Cosel and the object of his desire, Elena Hoyos.

One of the most bizarre stories ever to come out of Florida was that of German X-ray tech Carl von Cosel, whose 75-page “memoir” was published in Fantastic Adventures magazine in 1947.

While working at a Key West Hospital, von Cosel became obsessed with a young, Cuban-American tuberculosis victim. In 1933, two years after the woman’s death, he stole her corpse from the mausoleum he had himself paid for.

He kept the body in his house, undetected, for seven years, fastening the crumbing bones together with wire and coat hangers, and replacing the decomposing skin with silk cloth soaked in wax. He added glass eyes, and packed rags into the emptied-out body cavity, and it “slept” in his bed at night.

Stranger than fiction? You bet. Weird, even for Florida? Most definitely.

But a suitable subject for toe-tapping musical theater? Tom Sivak thinks so.

“I just found it unbelievably fascinating,” Sivak, a St. Pete-based musician and composer, reflects. He was profoundly moved – if that’s the right word – by what he read in Fantastic Adventures:

Spellbound I saw, framed in long, dark black tresses, a young girl’s face, so beautiful I can’t attempt to describe it. For a fleeting second I saw the girl smile at me, a wonderful smile …

“Here’s a guy who’s clearly delusional – he saw things that weren’t there and talked to people that weren’t there – and yet his heart seemed to be in the right place about the whole thing. He didn’t try to do anything nefarious – he just loved her.”

Von Cosel, who was also known as Carl Tanzler, died at his home in Zephyrhills in 1952.

Love v. Death, a 40-minute “chamber opera,” premieres Sept. 23 at the Palladium Theater. Sivak’s love letter to twisted Carl is sharing the bill that night with Banned Together, a collection of songs and scenes from musicals that have been censored and/or challenged on American stages. It includes moments from Cabaret, Fun Home and Rent, to name but a few.

Bob Devin Jones is directing that show, which is sponsored – through community productions all over the country – by the Dramatists Guild and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund during National Banned Books Week, Sept. 22-28.

Admission to the double bill, Banned Together and Love v. Death, is free. Sivak is musical director, and pianist, for both shows.

“! came here six years ago, and I still feel lucky that I just happened to land here, because I think something special is going on right here in my hometown,” Tom Sivak says. “I have found this community so supportive of the arts.”

Hailing from the Chicago suburbs, Sivak was a piano-playing kid who studied music, learned to compose and to conduct, and spent several decades arranging and leading the accompaniment for musical theater companies large and small.

Of course, with a wife and kids at home, the bills simply had to get paid, whatever it took. “I think every musician ends up doing a number of different things to add up to a living,” Sivak says. “I was fortunate that as the music director of musical theater, I was able to park in one place for a while. I was at Drury Lane Oakbrook for five and a half years. Steady employment was a luxury for people in my field.”

His first musical, in 1981, was a collaboration with actor John Mahoney, who would go on to legendary status as crotchety Martin Crane on TV’s Frasier.

Later, when his regular lyricist was unavailable, Sivak took a detour that presaged his future work with Carl von Cosel.

“I went online and found a website where there were public domain movies, and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die! seemed like something that might be fun to do,” he reports.

“It was hilarious! There was a monster in the closet, and at the end of the film he came out of the closet and killed everybody … there was a lot of material there that you could parody or make fun of.

“We gave the audience these 2-D glasses, and basically there was one eye covered over. So you could only see out of one eye – you had no depth perception. It was in 2-D.

“We had announced that the finale was going to be in 3-D. So the audience was instructed to remove their glasses before the last scene.”

Of course, not everything in Tom Sivak’s bag of tricks has to do with monsters or grotesqueries. His “Prelude and Fugue” was first played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A St. Pete “swimsuit inspector” in the 1920s. This photo appeared in newspapers across America as a publicity stunt.

Next April, Sunshine City: The Musical will premiere at St. Petersburg City Theatre. A collaboration with  Dewey Davis-Thompson, the (romanticized) story of St. Petersburg’s first “publicity director” in the 1920s has already been presented, several times, as “work-in-progress” staged readings. The SPCT run will be the show’s first full-scale production.

Since he started researching Sunshine City, Sivak has become an avid student of local history.

He and his wife, Elizabeth Gelman, moved to St. Pete in 2013, when she was named Executive Director of the Florida Holocaust Museum.

Moving to a place so far away and so totally different, Sivak says, was a no-brainer. He did it for Elizabeth.

“When I was conducting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond, we were on the road for a couple of years, and she came with me and brought the kids,” he explains. “She was basically a nanny; it was tough for her. She had no life. We were in one place for four months, and then we moved to another place … “

Sivak received a Professional Artists Grant from Creative Pinellas, which he used to “put money back into the community” by hiring a director (Vickie Daignault), a choreographer (Helen Hansen French), a stage manager and four actors for Love v. Death.

“I would call it a very dark comedy – I felt like, with the subject matter, everybody would be relieved to laugh now and then,” he says.

“The question is, will my show be the next one to be banned, based on the questionable conduct of the main character?”

Details for the Palladium production here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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