Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone Entwined at Peninsula Players

This poster advertises the farewell tour of William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes, circa 1930s.

Basil Rathbone and Sherlock Homles are as entwined as the name Rathbone is with Peninsula Players Theatre. Peninsula Players Theatre was founded in 1935 by brother and sister, Richard and Caroline Fisher. In 1938, Caroline married Rodion Rathbone, Basil Rathbone’s son. The name Rathbone became well known to those in Door County as the family grew and as Caroline continued to perform on stage at Peninsula Players. For only the second time in the Players’ 78-year history, Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance on stage in Ken Ludwig’s funny whodunit, The Game’s Afoot, through Sept. 1.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes life on the printed page, and actor playwright William Gillette brought Doyle’s fictional character to life on stage when he adapted Sherlock Holmes for Broadway in 1899.

Stop someone on the street and show him or her a picture of a fellow holding a magnifying glass, smoking a curved stemmed pipe and wearing a deerstalker cap and nine times out of 10 they’ll identify him as Sherlock Holmes.

Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes on stage cemented this iconic image into the minds of the populous. Gillette was an actor/playwright who wrote 13 original plays, seven adaptations and some collaborations. On stage he portrayed Sherlock Holmes more than 1,300 times. The dashing matinee idol popularized what was to become the standard Sherlock look: Inverness cape, deerstalker and calabash pipe, as evidenced by the poster of his final national tour as Holmes in 1932.

Gillette is credited for the iconic silhouette and Basil Rathbone is credited for creating the phrase that was never actually written by Doyle, “This is elementary, my dear Watson.”

Tall, well profiled and possessing a commanding stage voice, Rathbone shifted from contemporary stage works to Shakespeare with ease. In the 1920s he was in several Shakespearean plays and toured the United States in 1925, 1927 and appeared with Ethel Barrymore in 1931.

Rathbone became one of the most recognized Sherlock Holmes actors of all time, starring in more than a dozen Holmes films and radio programs in the 1930s and 1940s. Often cast in Hollywood as the villain in portraying Holmes he finally got to play the good guy. Rathbone made the first of 14 screen appearances as Sherlock Holmes in 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

(Left to right) Basil Rathbone visits with his son and new daughter-in-law, Rodion Rathbone and Caroline Fisher Rathbone, at their wedding, which took place in 1938.

He also played Holmes on radio from 1939 through 1946 and in 1952. He and his second wife, Ouida, were known for giving some of the most elaborate and extravagant parties in Hollywood. Rathbone received Oscar nominations for his portrayals of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Louis XVI in If I Were King (1938). Both times he lost to Walter Brennan.

Rodion Rathbone, Basil’s only son, married Caroline Fisher Rathbone in 1938. Rodion was raised in Britain by his mother, Basil’s first wife, after his parents divorced around 1920. Rodion went to Hollywood in the late 1930s to reunite with his father. Caroline and her brother Richard Fisher founded The Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, Wisconsin in 1935 behind the Bonnie Brooke Motel. They moved the theater to its present location along the shores of Green Bay in 1937, when the Wild Wood Camp for Boys was put up for sale. Father and son worked on the film Dawn Patrol in 1938 and Tower of London in 1939, Rodion sometimes using the name John Rodion. After World War II Rodion became a pilot (after serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force) then became a pilot for TWA.

In 1947 Rodion’s mother, Ethel Marion Foreman, visited the Players’ to portray Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and to teach the acting apprentices elocution. Caroline wowed Fish Creek audiences for years with her roles in Camille, Wuthering Heights, Rain and many, many more. Caroline died in 1985, leaving a legacy of quality stage work which the Players continue today.

The Players’ production of The Game’s Afoot is only the second time Sherlock Holmes has trod the boards in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Set in Gillette’s home, The Game’s Afoot has the world famous actor entertaining his eclectic cast members in his opulent home for a Christmas dinner party and séance. The festivities are hampered by murder, mayhem and madcap adventures after one of the guests is stabbed to death. Gillette must don his stage persona, sidestep danger and unmask the culprit’s murderous romp.

Door County audiences can catch The Game’s Afoot at Peninsula Players Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7:30 pm, with a 4 pm matinee on September 1. The family comedy Miracle on South Division Street closes the Players 2013 season and performs Sept. 4 through Oct. 20. For more information or to reserve tickets phone the Peninsula Players box office at 920-868-3287 or visit the website at

Audra Baakari Boyle is the Business Manger for Peninsula Players where she has spent 19 seasons by the bay delving in the theater’s rich history.

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, Inc., is a coalition of non-profit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.