San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, September 4, 2005
When honeymooners Glen and Bessie Hyde disappeared in 1928 during
an ambitious attempt to run the Grand Canyon's rapids in a homemade
wooden scow, it captured the nation's imagination.
That was intended from the start - Bessie would be the first woman
to attempt to ride that length of the Colorado River, and the
couple were only the 10th expedition on record to try the trip
at all, and the first to do so just for kicks.
It was a time when such adventures were in vogue. Charles Lindbergh
and Amelia Earhart had just made their respective flights across
the Atlantic, and just four years earlier, George Mallory made
his famous attempt to scale Mount Everest just "because it's
There was a price to this risky business: Mallory was never seen
again, and Earhart would vanish while attempting a round-the-world
flight in 1937. And sometime after Nov. 18, 1928, when Adolph
Sutro (son of the onetime San Francisco mayor of the same name)
became the last to see the Hydes alive, the young couple were
added to the missing persons list.
An exhaustive search organized by Glen's father, Rollin Charles
Hyde, eventually found the scow, moored and looking relatively
intact and undisturbed. But no trace of the Hydes was ever found.
The nation's imagination turned to other things, and the couple
became the object of a variety of dubious legends and campfire
One such tale, told on a guided Grand Canyon rafting trip in 1971,
led one elderly woman to claim to be Bessie Hyde - and she added
that she killed her husband. No evidence emerged to support her
claim and there was a fair amount to the contrary, but it added
to the mystique. As did a male skeleton with a bullet in the head,
found in 1976 among the effects of boatsman Emery Kolb, a key
member of the search party.
Books and TV shows followed: In his book "Sunk Without a
Sound," Brad Dimock and his wife attempted to reconstruct
the Hydes' journey by repeating it in the same kind of wooden
sweepboat. Lisa Michaels' historical novel "Grand Ambition"
imagined the fateful trip from the couple's perspective. There
even was a 1987 "Unsolved Mysteries" segment. And now,
a musical, "River's End," based on the case of the vanished
Hydes, will have its world premiere at Marin Theatre Company on
Sept. 13, with previews beginning Thursday. Playwright Cheryl
Coons was just coming off the high of having her musical about
the Algonquin Round Table, "At Wit's End," produced
after 20 years of work when she happened to hear a National Public
Radio segment on "Morning Edition" about the vanished
Hydes and Dimock's book.
"I was literally in that sort of postpartum state, thinking,
'I'm never going to care about anything so much again,' "
Coons says. But that 2001 radio report captured her imagination
as only mysterious disappearances tend to. "Because I write
musicals," Coons says, "one of the first questions you
ask yourself is, 'Does this world sing?' And I couldn't imagine
a grander musical world than the Grand Canyon."
With composer Chuck Larkin onboard, Coons decided to present two
conflicting scenarios of what might have happened, with two pairs
of actors occupying the stage at the same time. Coons found the
teasingly scant details about the couple's lives and presumptive
deaths to be a boon in constructing her own account, and says
she's put off reading Michaels' "Grand Ambition" until
after the run of "River's End" so as not to be influenced
by another fictional account. Dimock, she says, proved an invaluable
resource in the research for the musical. Both authors will give
preshow talks; Michaels on Sept. 21 and Dimock on Sept. 29 and
"In our (musical), the meaning of it is what happens to the
two marriages, " Coons says. "This piece is very much
a metaphor for marriage, and it's a murder mystery about whitewater
rafting. We put a lot of work into this, so if the mystery gets
solved…" The playwright lets that speculation float
away the way most notions about the Hydes eventually do. With
any luck, no one will stand up in the back row at the premiere
and say, "I know what happened. I'm Bessie Hyde."
RIVER’S END: Previews start Thursday. Runs through Oct.
9. Marin Theatre Company, 397Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets
$29-$47. Call (415) 388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance writer.