David Sheffield, who went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” and various Eddie Murphy movies, has taken to the stage with his comedy The Heartbreak Henry, based on his experiences as manager of an Oxford flophouse hotel in 1967.
The Theatre Oxford production runs August 12-15, with a preview Aug. 11 at the Gertrude C. Ford Performing Arts Center in the Mary Ann Mobley/Gary E. Collins Studio Theatre. Tickets can be purchased through the Ford Center Box office at (662) 915-7411
The production is co-sponsored by the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media.
“The School of Journalism and New Media agreed to co-sponsor the production to provide opportunities for students to hone their professional skills,” said professor Kathleen Wickham. “Assistant Professor Michael Fagans joined the project to produce a documentary, with students Margaret Bushway, Alexander Norris, Tucker Robbins and Billy Schuerman. It was also an opportunity for me to refresh my professional skills in a new venue, having worked in public relations at one point in my professional career.”
Wickham said she was drawn to The Heartbreak Henry after seeing it in Biloxi in 2018 at the Center Theatre because of its treatment of the people who resided in the hotel in all their quirky, contentious and confused characters.
“David Sheffield was an innocent freshman, just 19 years old, who was so cash-strapped he hitched-hiked to campus from southern Mississippi,” she said. “He landed a job at The Henry Hotel as a theatre major and had compassion for his tenants. It was that humanity that attracted me to this project and why I worked to bring it to Oxford.”
The Henry Hotel was built in 1920. In 1967, rooms cost $4.50 a night, $5.50 with a bath in the room. There were 30 guest rooms. There were no in-room telephones, just a payphone in the lobby.
The Henry became a residential hotel in the 1970s with rooms renting for $45 a month. Later, the building was turned into the Abbey Apartments. Since 2015, the concrete building with its gable and hip roof, box cornice, molded frieze and closed gable ends has been home to Rafter’s bar.
The play features some of the cranky, contentious and confused characters who frequented the run-down hotel during Sheffield’s tenure as manager. Sheffield was a freshman at The University of Mississippi during the time. Rooms cost $4.50, there was a payphone for guests in the lobby, and to his horror, he had to evict two waitresses with illegal social side gigs on a snowy Christmas Eve.
“This story happened about 50 years ago,” said Sheffield, who lives near Laurel. “I met a bunch of characters I couldn’t get out of my mind. At the Henry, the unexpected was the norm.”
The show is also supported through grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Ford Center and the Clancy Collins fund, as well as community donors.
“I went to Ole Miss for an education, but the real education took place at the Henry Hotel,” Sheffield said. “I saw things at the Henry I never saw at home.”
Sheffield was co-screenwriter of the Coming To/2 America movies, The Nutty Professor, Boomerang, and other Eddie Murphy movies, but he never forgot his stint at the Henry Hotel. With The Heartbreak Henry, Sheffield is returning full circle to Oxford where his career as a comedy writer began.