Thursday, March 1, 2012

Opening this weekend at the History Theatre: Coco's Diary

This screenshot from shows the actresses that will play the role of Coco Irvine at the History Theatre this month. The play is based on the diary of Coco Irvine, who was a young teen living on Summit Avenue in the 1920s—the era of F. Scott Fitzgerald's time living there.

Prolific author and former Star Tribune reporter

Aaaand now it's a play!

Coco Irvine's life in what is now the Governor's Mansion comes alive on stage this weekend at downtown St. Paul's History Theatre.

Just as with the book Through No Fault of My Own, the play "Coco's Diary" reveals so much about the life of St. Paul's upper crust in the 1920s. The play is charming, sweet, hilarious, spunky, historical, daring (at least, for 1927), poignant, and dotted with 1920s popular music on the piano.

The real Coco kept her diary in 1927. She lived in a 20-room mansion. Her father was head of Weyerhaeuser Lumber. As adults after their parents' deaths, Coco and her younger sister donated the home to the state of Minnesota. It's now the Governor's Residence. The stage set is based on the solarium of the Irvine residence.

The way the play came about is this: I showed the diary to my friend and two-blocks-away neighbor, Ron Peluso (the History Theatre's artistic director). I wrote feature stories for the Star Tribune for 35 years (happily retiring in 2006), and he had adapted some of those stories to the stage. Ron liked my idea a few years ago about putting my research on Sister Elizabeth Kenny into play form. It became "Sister Kenny's Children" at the History Theatre.

Could Coco too go on stage? I knocked on Ron's door at home one afternoon. He likes to say it was 6 a.m. and I woke him up. Not true. There are day people (like me) and night people (like Ron). I thought the diary so darling, so immersed in St. Paul history, so rich in 1920s language, that he should read it. I told him he would love the diary and might want to stage it.

He did, and he did.

Ron and playwright Bob Beveridge wrote the play. Their script sticks closely to the book. Two girls play the part of the young Coco Irvine. Kacie Riddle is 13 and Anna Evans is 15; they alternate performances. Jake Endres plays Coco's brother, father, and other male roles. Andrea Wollenberg is the mother, sister, and other female roles.

Only three actors, but many parts. How do they do it? With changes in props and voices and narration. Don't worry; it's easy to follow. I've been permitted to sit in on rehearsals, so I'm telling you firsthand—all the actors are fabulous.

When Coco lived at 1006 Summit Avenue in the 1920s, the street was St. Paul's showcase. It was arguably the toniest street in Minnesota, lined on both sides with homes of men who had made fortunes in mining, lumber and railroads.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, celebrities such as James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway, and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived on the street. People across the nation still know Summit Avenue as the street where a 22-year-old Fitzgerald finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise. When that story of young love was accepted for publication, Fitzgerald ran up and down Summit Avenue to proclaim the good news.

Fitzgerald was strapped for money in 1919 and lived in a third-floor room at 599 Summit. He resented the wealth of people such as Coco's family, who lived just a mile west on the same street. The Irvines lived the kind of life to which Fitzgerald aspired (as did his character Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby), with dance lessons and sailboats and garden parties. In his fiction, he used names of real people in the neighborhood, including "Clotilde," Coco's real name and that of her mother. In This Side of Paradise, "Clothilde" (he changed the spelling) is a servant. Perhaps a literary stab at the Irvines?

So much shenanigans have moved from printed page to the stage. Seeing Coco on stage is better than I could have imagined.

I'll be at many performances, loving the play and selling copies of the accompanying diary Through No Fault of My Own. For more info, visit


Peg Meier was a reporter at the Star Tribune for thirty-five years. She is the author of many popular books, including Wishing for a Snow Day, Bring Warm Clothes, and Too Hot, Went to Lake. Find more info at

"The glimpses of Coco's privileged life in the Roaring 20s are intriguing and humorous, but what makes this account so appealing is the clear evocation of what it is to be 13—impatient to be grown up yet still childlike in many ways. Coco's innocence will make today's readers smile."
—Kirkus Reviews

"An unrepentant attention-seeker, Coco gets into frequent trouble at home and at school, but her exuberance, defiance, and sweetness will win over readers from her first entry. This effervescent journal demonstrates Irvine’s early, intense enthusiasm for writing and independent thought, as well as her unmistakable talent. Photos of Coco and an afterword about her (fairly tragic) adult life round out an otherwise blithe glimpse into the past."
—Publishers Weekly

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