Better Living

Holmes fan group gathers for story, song Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Last updated: Thursday May 22, 2008, EDT 7:43 AM BY JEFFREY PAGE Special to The Record
You remember Martha Hudson. She was the indulgent landlady at 221B Baker St. who let rooms to Sherlock Holmes, a man with unnerving habits, questionable associates and an occasionally debilitating condition.

Mrs. Hudson put up with a lot. Holmes played his violin at ungodly hours. He injected cocaine. He was subject to long bouts of depression. And sometimes he was visited by some young assistants you might call “street urchins” if you were charitable, “young ruffians” if you were not.

Of course, not all Holmes’ visitors were rowdies. One night he received a masked man gravely concerned about a compromising photograph of himself and a woman from New Jersey. The man turned out to be no less than Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, the grand duke of Cassel-Feldstein and hereditary king of Bohemia.

The king. Right there in Mrs. Hudson’s flats in late Victorian London to see Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective. Holmes agreed to assist. And therein lies a great tale with a Jersey twist. But wait.

Sherlock Holmes was the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician with time to write because he had so few patients. After his first appearance in 1888, Doyle’s detective had armies of admirers.

He has them now, too. Such as Mrs. Hudson’s Cliffdwellers, a group of Holmes fans founded in 1976 in Cliffside Park. The organization’s 70 members are preparing for their June 1 luncheon testimonial to Holmes and his fictional biographer, Dr. John H. Watson. These meetings — two a year and always in Edgewater — are open to the public.

The Cliffdwellers, one of many such Holmes groups around the world, came into being one night 32 years ago when Irv Kamil of Cliffside Park and two friends — all Sherlockians — went to see a play in New York and stopped for a drink afterward. “That’s when we formed it,” Kamil said recently. “We made up some songs about Holmes right on the spot and even sang them in that bar. It was so noisy, no one noticed.” Later, these three conducted the first meeting of the group they later would name in Martha Hudson’s honor.

The first gatherings were in the homes of members. Eventually, as the membership increased, the meetings — the other is held in December — were switched to a restaurant in Edgewater.

Of the founders, Kamil alone survives. He is 81 and still lives in Cliffside Park most of the year. With fewer young people picking up the 56 stories and four novels of Holmes’ adventures, Kamil is concerned about the great detective’s future.

“They’re so wrapped up in their computers,” he said.

Young people didn’t always shun the Holmes stories. Kamil recalled a family ritual connected with the bar mitzvah ceremonies of his friends seven decades ago. “Of course my mother would give a check as one gift, but she would always present the boy with a copy of the Sherlock Holmes stories as well,” he said.

Read about Holmes, the science of deduction and the defeat of evil when you’re 13 and you could be hooked for life.

Only a few of the Cliffdwellers are in their 20s and 30s; most are in their 50s. “We would always welcome more [younger people],” Kamil said. Members include active and retired business executives, a Postal Service worker, a retired FBI agent, teachers, an aerospace engineer, a retail travel consultant. Kamil is a retired New York City school principal.

The Cliffdwellers’ June 1 meeting is set for noon at the River Palm Terrace in Edgewater. The luncheon features four hours with a friendly bunch of people who know everything — from the commonplace to the magnificently obscure — about Holmes, Watson and their cases.

Q. What were Holmes’ first words to Watson as the men were introduced?

A. “How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

And indeed, the startled Dr. Watson had recently returned from army service in the Second Afghan War (1878-1880). But how did Holmes deduce this? Elementary. The answer is in “A Study in Scarlet.”

But back to the case with a Jersey connection.

Holmes was always correct, always successful in his work — except in his encounter with Irene Adler, a contralto of astonishing beauty born in New Jersey in 1858, maybe in Hackensack, perhaps in Paterson. No one knows.

Q. Where had Adler sung before retiring?

A. At La Scala in Milan and at the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, where she was prima donna.

It was the breathtaking Irene in the photograph with the king of Bohemia. And now that he was about to marry a Scandinavian princess, public display of the picture could prove a calamitous scandal.

Holmes came up with a fire-and-smoke diversion to allow him to snatch the picture from Adler’s home. But this 19th-century Jersey girl outfoxed him. Her success and her beauty left their mark on Holmes, who was not known for chasing women.

Watson begins “A Scandal in Bohemia” by noting, “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.”

And Holmes — the cool, unemotional Holmes — says, “She was a lovely woman, with a face a man might die for.”

At their luncheon, the Cliff­dwellers will raise toasts to Holmes, Watson and Mrs. Hudson. They will exhibit Sherlockiana, play some games and sing some songs. They’ll also hear a talk about the forensics behind some of Holmes’ greatest cases.

What is it about this character with the deerstalker hat, the pipe and the maddening self-assurance that has mesmerized readers for 120 years?

“There is just something so appealing about the man, and about the gestalt of 1895,” Kamil said. “Thus, the wish to live in that era. We romanticize it. It was a fine time. And here’s this man, who is alive and well, who has the power to vanquish the forces of evil.” (Sherlockians understand that Holmes and Watson live on.)

Q. Who was Holmes’ great archenemy?

A. The iniquitous Professor James Moriarity.

So it is 1895. England is mighty, Victoria is on the throne, and Holmes has not yet retired to the countryside to raise bees. After lunch, the Cliffdwellers will honor their man and his time with a song:

“Sherlock, it’s great to know

You dealt a mortal blow

To Prof. J.M.

We’re glad that you’re alive

And we’re in ’95.

We hope your bees will thrive.

Let us say Amen.”

Mrs. Hudson’s Cliffdwellers was founded in 1976 in Cliffside Park. The organization’s 70 members are preparing for their twice-yearly testimonial to Holmes and his fictional biographer, Dr. John H. Watson.
The group will meet at noon June 1 at the River Palm Terrace, 1416 River Road, Edgewater.
To attend the luncheon, contact Al Gregory, 118 S. Prospect St., Verona, NJ 07044 or call (before 9 p.m.) 973-239-2966 by Monday.
Admission is $45 and includes lunch.