THE HISTORY OF
THE THEATRE IN LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA
Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the
Louisiana State University and
Agricultural and Mechanical College
In partial fulfillment of the
Requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
The Department of Speech
Patsy Ruth Heidt
B.A., Louisiana State University
This study is gratefully dedicated to my mother, Mrs. R. E. Heidt, without whose forbearance the study could not have been completed.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter I: Theatrical Activity 1920 - 1930
Chapter II: Theatrical Activity 1931 - 1940
Chapter III: 1941 - 1950
Chapter I: Growth and Development of the Lake Charles Little Theatre
Chapter II: Organization of the Lake Charles Little Theatre
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
APPENDIX: Chronological Listing of the Productions by the Lake Charles Little Theatre
The history of theatrical activities in Lake Charles, Louisiana, from 1920 to 1950 is presented with the purpose of showing the changes in the various types of theatrical events which took place in the community during the period, with special emphasis on the growth of the Lake Charles Little Theatre.
The first part of the study deals with theatrical events as reported in the daily papers, and examines them according to type of activity, in each of three periods: 1920 to 1950, when the legitimate theatre flourished; 1931 to 1940, when musical events began to be most popular; and 1941 to 1950 when there was a revival of interest in the legitimate theatre. The second half of the thesis presents a brief history of the Lake Charles Little Theatre in its three periods of activity: 1927 -1930; 1936 -1942; and 1946 - 1950.
The study presents the over-all picture of
the development of certain types of entertainment, particularly the rise of the
little theatre, radio, the motion pictures, and concerts, and the decline of
other types of entertainment, i.e., vaudeville, the minstrel shows, tent stock
companies, and professional road companies.
The city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, is situated on the east bank of Lake Charles, through which runs the Calcasieu River, some fifty-five miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of its accessibility to open water, Lake Charles has grown into a port city second in the state to New Orleans. The town was settled about 1852 and was incorporated in 1867. (1) Since the time of its settlement the town has grown into a thriving industrial city of about 40,000.
The theatrical history of Lake Charles goes back to 1878, when an amateur group met to produce plays in an attic. (2) During the 1880s road companies played in Fricke’s Opera House. Later the name was changed to Williams’ Opera House, and finally to the Lake Charles Opera House. The building was replaced, after it burned, by the Lyric Theatre in 1908. In 1910, the Arcade Theatre was built. From the time of the first opera house until the advent of the motion picture in 1908, Lake Charles was a very theatrically minded community. All of the better road companies played in Lake Charles on their way for engagements in New Orleans to Beaumont and Houston, Texas. Several resident stock companies played, some staying for six month at a time.
In addition to professional theatre, as early as 1890, the Magnolia Dramatic Club was presenting plays, and touring with them to Beaumont, Jennings, and Vinton.
The period from 1920 to 1950, inclusive, has been chosen for study because during this thirty year period a great change took place in the theatrical activity of the community. The professional theatre virtually disappeared and was replaced by movies, radio and especially by the little theatre.
The purpose of this study is to examine, first of all, the sum total of theatrical activity in the Lake Charles from 1920 to 1950. In order to show the various changes which took place in the various types of theatrical activities presented, the first part of the study has been divided into three chapters, the first taking up the period from 1920 to 1930; the second, from 1931 to 1940; and the last, from 1941 to 1950. Within each period, the material is examined according to type of entertainment rather than chronologically, so that some idea may be gained of what developments took place during each period in each type of entertainment, i.e., drama, musical comedies, operettas, revues, vaudeville, stock companies, minstrels, and amateur revues, minstrels, concerts, etc. Within this first portion of the study, the Lake Charles Little Theatre is touched on only briefly, to show its relationship to the changes which took place in theatrical activity during the entire period.
The second part of the study examines first the growth and development of the Lake Charles Little Theatre in its three periods of activity: 1927 - 1930, 1936 -1942, and 1946 - 1950, and second, the organization of the little theatre. The growth and development of the Little Theatre is handled chronologically, citing in detail those productions which were of particular importance to the development of the theatre. Important to the theatre’s development, in so far as type of production presented is concerned, are the three theaters used by the Little Theatre during its three periods of activity: the Episcopal Parish House, from 1927 to 1930; the Masonic Temple; and the Little Theatre Building. The facilities afforded by these three buildings are discussed in detail, because of their influence on the type of productions presented. The organization of the Little Theatre is discussed in some detail, with emphasis on the ways in which the group is typical of little theatre groups, and ways in which it is unique.
The primary sources for the first part of the study were the Lake Charles daily newspapers from 1920 to 1950. Earlier papers were examined to get an idea of the place of the period under consideration in the whole theatrical history of the community. Information on the Lake Charles Little Theatre was gained from examining the clipping scrapbooks kept by the Little Theatre, and by examining the daily newspapers. Information about the organization of the group, with details about each committee’s function, was supplied by Miss Rosa Hart, Director of the Lake Charles Little Theatre.
An appendix, containing a chronological list of the productions by the Lake Charles Little Theatre according to season has been compiled by to give an over-all picture of the number and kind of production presented by the group.
The primary purpose of the study, then, is to present a general picture of the sum total of theatrical activity in Lake Charles from 1920 to 1950, with special emphasis upon the growth and organization of the Lake Charles Little Theatre.
Theatrical Activity 1920 - 1930
In 1920, theatrical entertainment in Lake Charles consisted mainly of road companies booked out of New Orleans, which played one-night stands at the Arcade Theatre; motion pictures which played at the Arcade when it was not otherwise used for stage shows, and at the Paramount Theatre which was solely a picture house; home talent shows, usually minstrels and musicals put on by the Elks Lodge and the Catholic Daughters of America, musical programs, and the annual high school senior class play. The coming of the motion picture to the town in 1908 had been a primary cause for the marked decrease in the number and caliber of stage shows which played in Lake Charles. From the turn of the century to about 1915, at least one road company played at the Arcade each week. The season began in early September and lasted until late in May. By 1920 the number had decreased to such a great extent that the theatrical season did not open until the middle of October, and closed the middle of April. The summer months were completely devoid of all theatrical activity other than the motion pictures.
Newspaper reviews of the stage productions also began to decrease in number. In the heyday of the legitimate theatre in Lake Charles, every show, no matter how bad or how insignificant, received a thorough review. By 1920, only the most outstanding of the road companies received any sort of critical review.
The legitimate theatre productions which played in 1920 were of three major types: musical comedies, light situation comedies, musical revues, and minstrels. Very seldom did a first-class drama play the city. Many of the musical companies, particularly the minstrels, were old favorites which had been touring the circuit for a number of years.
To attempt a detailed chronological report of all productions is not within the scope of this study. A survey of the first year is given, however, to indicate the general nature of the theatrical activity. The year 1920 was a typical theatrical year for the period 1920 - 1930. The first professional production was George V. Hobart’s modern morality play Experience, then in its sixth season of touring. This play was closely followed on January 6 by a French farce, Sleeping Partners, staring Edna Goodrich. The supporting cast was strong, featuring Kenan [Kernan] Cripps and Tello Webb. (1)
The American Press review of January 21 for John Dort’s production of the musical comedy Glorianna, with music by Rudolph Friml, was something less than complementary. The reviewer considered the advance publicity grossly overrated the merits of the production. The Friml music was highly praised, but the story lacked spontaneity, most of the comedy depended heavily on the talents of the star, Miss Fritzi Scheff. Mr. Al H. Wilson, chief comedian, was not at his best.
The Elks Club presented their annual minstrel show at the Arcade, January 27 and 28. As was the custom of the theatrical reviewers for the American Press during the period, when reviewing home talent productions, the work of each member of the cast was highly commended, and an elaborately detailed review of the production was given.
On February 7, another Hobart work was presented, Miss Blue Eyes, a three-act musical produced by Harvey D. Orr. According to the review of February 9, there were only two good musical numbers in the entire production; much of the success of the show was left up to the comedians, who did their best to keep things going at least part of every act.
Among the better productions of the season was the comedy by Montague Glass and Jules Eckert Goodman, Business Before Pleasure, presented by A. H. Wood, on February 11. The production was excellent, the cast well-balanced. The story was based on the old Perlmutter and Potash short story series. Mr. Schaffer as Potash was the hit of the show, with Mr. Fleck, Jr., as Perlmutter, an excellent straight man. (2)
The outstanding personality to appear that year was Chauncey Olcott in Rida Johson [Johnson] Young’s Macushla, produced by A. L. Erlanger. As an interpreter of the Irish, Olcott was without equal. An American favorite for many years, in this production, he had lost none of his charm. Featured players in the cast were Madge West and Josie Chafflin. (3)
The Enterprise Club, a women’s civic organization, which through the years had sponsored many worthwhile theatrical and musical presentations, arranged for the appearance on February 20, at the Arcade, of the French Grand Opera Company, made up of M. Milhau, tenor; Leon Paulus, baritone; Mary Cassell, coloratura soprano; and Berte [Berthe] Riche, concert pianist. Several duets and arias from Carmen and La Tosca were presented in costume.
Each year the first warm days usually brought a stock company with its own tent-theatre, to play at least a week’s engagement, sometimes longer. On March 1, Hila Morgan, “the Doll Comedian,” and her company opened a week’s run with Oliver Morosco’s The Brat. During their stay the company presented Teas of the Storm Country (later made into a movie with Mary Pickford), Long Rivers, A Night Out, and Amy of the Circus. It was seldom that any reviews whatsoever were written for these tent companies. Their repertoires were made up, for the most part, of light or sentimental comedies, and of the old melodramas.
The only other production recorded for the month of March was the appearance of the Neil O’Brien Minstrels, long a favorite minstrel company, on March 12, at the Arcade.
On April 16, the senior class play of Lake Charles High School, The End of the Rainbow, was presented at the Arcade. On the twentieth of the same month, Skovgaard, Danish violinist, presented a concert at the Central Grammar School auditorium - at the time Lake Charles’ equivalent to a municipal auditorium.
The Ed. C. Nutt Players, a company which played Lake Charles each spring, opened a week’s engagement in their tent, on the corner of Bilbo and Pujo Streets diagonally across from the Majestic Hotel. This corner was the customary location for tent shows. The players opened their engagement on April 19, 1920, with When a Girl Needs a Friend, with vaudeville between the acts. No other advertisements or mention of the company’s stay are made in the Press.
The 1919 - 1920 theatrical season closed at this time, there being no mention of any productions during the months of May, June, July, August, or September.
The 1920 - 1921 season got off to an excellent start on October 12, 1920, with the presentation of David Belasco’s company in Tiger Rose, one of his best melodramatic productions. The story is a powerful one of dramatic conflict between love and duty.
In her interpretation of the title role Miss Cappeliano has created an enviable part. For understanding of the part, the strength of her acting, gives the play its charm and force... Her enunciation is remarkably perfect and her broken English is so spoken that those of us who have lived in Louisiana are delighted with the facile manner in which she imitates the native daughters of this locality...
Dr. Dan Cusick, interpreted by Jack G. Bortin, comes in for a share of the merit of the production. If anything is to be said by way of comparison, it must be pointed out that his rendition of the interesting role of Dr. Cusick was far superior to that of the physician of last season. The same can be said of Pierre La Boy, played by Don Hewitt...Charles Riegal as Hector Mac Collins played the part of the Factor with credit, but it might have been better so far as the audience was concerned, for him to have been decorated with fewer hirsute ornaments. His dialect was hard to understand and was made doubly so by his heavy beard...
A review of Tiger Rose would not be complete without mention being made of the two striking scenic effects achieved in this play. The storm is carried so skillfully that one looks about curiously when he comes from the opera house for signs of the wind and rain. The sunrise effect in the last act is particularly beautiful, and in keeping with the Belasco idea of realism. (4)
October 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16, the Ed. C. Nutt Comedy Players returned to Lake Charles with a four-act comedy-drama, The Legal Prisoner. Other presentations during their stay were: Ishmael, Builder of Bridges, Common Clay, An Enemy of the World, and Straight Crooks.
Using a new “cyclorama” setting of black and violet velour ornamented with a design of metallic gold, the Pavley-Oukrainsky Russian Ballet, directed by Charles Elandor, presented a program of dance at the Arcade, October 17. Featured dancers were Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky. Of particular interest was Pavley’s “Bacchanale,” and “Torch Dance.”
The first musical production of the season was the comic opera Robin Hood. The opera, which had played Lake Charles before, had lost none of its charm, but Lake Charles theatre-goers, running true to form, received the performance coldly and unappreciatively, according to the review in the American Press, October 28, 1920. As a whole, the production was highly acceptable. At times the singers rose to “impassioned heights,” the results of which would have been more effective if they had paid more attention to their roles and less to the audience. Especially was this true of Miss DeShon, “who would have made a pleasing Alan-a-Dale if she had courted her ‘Annabel’ as vociferously as she did her spectators.” (5)
The American Press review of October 26 discussed in detail the work of each individual soloist:
It was unfortunate that this particular play did not give large opportunities to little John and Will Scarlett, for both the singers assigned to these parts had good voices and richly deserved the applause they received...
The work of the orchestra was exceptionally pleasing. The conductor, perhaps more than his singers, displayed a thorough understanding and appreciation of the beautiful opera. The costumes were elaborate and the stage settings and lighting effects good.
Altogether the production of Robin Hood deserves all the good that is to be said of it. It is the second heavy musical production seen by Lake Charles theatre-goers this season, the first was the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballot Company and the crowd which witnessed the opera last night is ample proof that the people of this section of the state do enjoy and appreciate the better class of shows.
On November 8 and 9, Al G. Field’s Minstrels, another of the old favorites, which toured year after year, played at the Arcade. Also on November 8, the Princess Stock Company, with twenty-five persons, a band and an orchestra, opened a week’s engagement in a tent-theatre with the comedy, The Cutest Girl in Town.
The San Carlo Grand Opera Company presented a matinee performance on November 13 at the Arcade of Tales of Hoffman with Consuelo Escobar, May Barron, Guiseppe Agostini, Mario Valle, Pietri de Biasi, Natale Cervi; the evening performance was Carmen, with Stella de Mette, Madeline Keltie, Pelado Sinagra, and Vincente Ballester.
The following listed productions were presented during the month of December. There are no reviews recorded for any of them. On December 2, the comedy Bringing up Father, based on George McManus’ comic strip of the same name, known more familiarly as Maggie and Jiggs, was the first of a yearly appearance of the company (name unknown) in a Bringing Up Father series. The Gus Hill minstrels, with George Wilson, Ruddy Willing, Nick Glynn, James Barardi, Carolina Bronson, and the Markwith Brothers Saxophone Sextette, appeared on December 8.
Two A. H. Wood productions played that month, the first on December 17, Emma Bunting in The Girl in the Limousine, by Wilson Collison and Avery Hopwood, with a supporting cast including Francis Pierlot, Harry Fischer, Page Spencer, Myron Z. Paulson, Harry Shutan, Leona Keefer, Pearl Ford, Vira Rial, James Browning, and James Montgomery. The second Wood production, Wilson Collison and Otto Harbach’s Up in Mabel’s Room (in recent years made into a very popular movie), played December 21.
The last production of the year was on December 24: a musical play by George V. Hobart, Buddies, with music by B. C. William.
During the period 1920-1930, the yearly order of theatrical events followed rather closely the pattern of the 1920 season. In 1921, there were two less musical productions and two more dramatic productions than in 1920. Instead of the O’Brien, Field and Hill minstrel groups which played during 1920, the George “Honey Boy” Evans Minstrels played at he Arcade on October 5, the first production of the 1921-1922 season. The Al G. Field's Company returned on November 7. The Press reviewer was greatly disappointed in the change that had come over the type of entertainment presented by minstrel companies. There had evolved considerable changes from the traditional black-face minstrel show. The comedy was good but was too much dispersed throughout the program. The players seemed handicapped by the make-up of the program; and the costumes, in which much white was used, seemed to stifle laughter. (6)
Beginning with this instance of a marked change noted in the minstrel show, further changes were bewailed by the reviewers, as long as the minstrels continued to appear annually. Neil O’Brien, Al G. Field, “Honey Boy” Evans, 'Lasses' White, and the J. A. Coburn minstrel shows were very popular, and were well attended by the people of Lake Charles. Particular favorites were Billy Doss who appeared with the 'Lasses' White Company, and Bert Swor, head comedian for the Al G. Field's minstrels.
Just as the same minstrel companies returned season after season, the same tent-theatre stock companies also returned usually playing a week’s engagement in the spring and another in the fall. The Ed. C. Nutt Comedy Players, and Hila Morgan, the “Doll Comedian,” mentioned as playing in 1920, returned in 1921, and 1922. They did not appear in 1923, and were replaced by the Dubinsky Brothers Stock Company, which played in 1923 and 1924, skipped several years, and returned in 1927. The Grandi Brothers played one season in 1923; the Crescent Players in 1924. The Paul English Players, a group of unusually high caliber for such productions, played in 1925. In 1926, the Sedgewick Players, also a better than average group, made their first appearance in Lake Charles, returning in 1927, and finally in 1929. Their engagement in 1929 was the last tent company to play Lake Charles for many years. The plays presented by the various companies were much the same. Great favorites with these companies were the morality plays, Ten Nights in a Barroom and Saintly Hypocrites and Honest Sinners. These plays were presented by at least one company each year. Also much presented were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Shepherd of the Hills.
Some of the earliest vaudeville to play in Lake Charles was in conjunction with the stock companies. Vaudeville skits were presented between the acts of the plays. This practice, however, had been in operation in Lake Charles as early as 1915, and in 1916, vaudeville skits began to be featured with the motion pictures. The first vaudeville company to play in one of the theatres in conjunction with the regular movie feature during the 1920-1930 period, was the James T. Lee Love Time Company, which played a four-day run at the Strand Theatre (a motion picture house which opened June 13, 1921) December 25 through 28, 1921. The company presented a different program every day.
After the initial run of the Love Time Company, the employment of vaudeville companies by local movie houses became more and more prevalent. The Strand engaged the Lambert Players, who presented two playlets, Hiram’s Courtship and The Irish Esquimaux, on January 13 and 14, 1922. These vaudeville skits were presented with the regular movie feature, in this case, Pola Negri in The Polish Dancer. On January 17, 1922, Kelvin the hypnotist played a matinee for ladies only at the Strand. On January 19 and 21, the Arcade featured the Vierra's Hawaiian Singers and Dancers in A Night in Hawaii, along with a Marion Davies movie, Enchantment. The James T. Lee Love Time Company returned to the Strand on January 20, 1922, for a five-day engagement.
It was not until 1924 that a regular circuit of vaudeville entertainment was engaged by the Arcade. During the week of March 24, 1924, the first of a series of weekly companies appeared. The featured soloist for the week was Miss Lydia Van Gilder, contralto of the Chicago Grand Opera Company. On March 31 and April 1, 1924, the Bert Levy Circuit of vaudeville was introduced at the Arcade. Each program contained five acts. Again in 1928, Bert Tiller, manager of the Arcade, for the Southern Amusement Company, announced a new vaudeville policy: each week a new five-act Majestic vaudeville program was to be featured. (7) In July, 1928, an announcement was made of the first summer unit of vaudeville at the Arcade, Gossips of 1928. The Labor Day, September 3, 1928, vaudeville entertainment featured Charles Withers and company in Withers’ Opry. The last of the summer units, September 17, featured George Broadhurst, character comedian, in The Pirate’s Den, a musical comedy skit.
The first series of Chautauqua programs appeared in Lake Charles in 1908, when a Calcasieu Chautauqua Association was formed. In 1910, the Chautauqua programs were presented at the Shell Beach Pier on the lake during the summer; in 1912, at the Arcade Theatre, June 26-July 4. The Redpath Chautauqua, which sent companies out along the southern circuit during the 1920-1930 period, usually set up their tent in Lake Charles during the first week of May. In 1921, April 30 through May 5, the following named programs were presented: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, directed by George Herbert, former director of the San Carlo and Gallo English Opera Companies; Nothing But the Truth; the Weybelle Concert Company; the Great Lakes String Quartet; Sylkov Orchestra; Fine Arts Quartet; Charles R. Taggart, comedian; and a series of daily lectures. The Redpath Chautauqua also featured each year a series of activities for the children during the afternoons. Redpath companies played in Lake Charles each spring from 1921 through 1930, with the exception of 1924 and 1927, when there was no Chautauqua. The programs were of the same general type each year. A featured lecture of the 1922 season was “Under the Paws of the Russian Bear,” by Lewis A. Convis. In 1923, the play Turn to the Right was presented and the Vierra Royal Hawaiians were featured in An Evening in Hawaii. Both of these programs had played at the Arcade in 1921. In 1925, the programs featured were a comedy drama, Adam and Eva; Helen Waggonor, dramatic reader; Solis’ Marimba Band; the Stolofsky Concert Company; and lecturers. The season ticket was two dollars and fifty cents. The 1926 programs were unusually musical. The Colonial Harp Ensemble Company appeared in The Shepherd’s Dream, and an original operetta, A Master’s Birthday, based on the life of Franz Schubert, was presented. The special feature of the 1928 season was The Chimes of Brittany, a musical production with special scenic and lighting effects, presented by the Metropolitan Singers. Three plays were featured in 1929, Skidding, a popular comedy; Sun-Up, a drama of the Carolina mountains; and Rip Van Winkle. Herbert Sprague, who played the lead, was considered the greatest “Rip” since the days of Joseph Jefferson. The program for 1930 contained a lecture “Making America American,” by Theodore F. Graham, noted authority on immigration; The Big Pond, a comedy; and a musical version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the Lombard’s, radio station WLS showboat entertainers.
Long before the black-face minstrel show began to die out in the legitimate theatre, the local civic organizations had found that the home talent minstrel was a popular way to make money for a charitable cause. The Elks Club presented what they called The Jollies of 1921, The Jollies of 1923, presented in 1922, (The Jollies of 1922 were presented, oddly enough, in 1922, by the Shrine Club) and The Jollies of 1924, in 1925. The Jollies of 1924 was directed by Lew L. Lacy, as professional director for the Chris Ming production company. Each of these programs was a combination minstrel, musical, and dance revue, designed to use as much local talent at one time as possible. The productions were usually presented at the Arcade.
The Catholic Daughters of American began in 1923 to present an annual musical comedy. Their first production was Miss Cherry Blossom, a Japanese extravaganza in three acts. In 1924 they presented The Gypsy Rover, with approximately the same cast as in the 1923 production. Their 1925 production was Goin’ Some, a farce-comedy, and musical symposium, with several specialty numbers added. The production was given a lavish review in the May 6 issue of the Press. The work of Miss Luna Hearne as the leading lady of the piece was highly commended. During 1926 and 1927, the Catholic Daughters were inactive, but in 1928, the returned to the local theatrical scene with a premiere production of Come to My Party, Irene. Again the play was of the same general musical revue variety.
The Enterprise Club, another women’s civic organization, which had been active in sponsoring professional musicians in concerts in Lake Charles, began to present musical revues similar to those presented by the Elks and Catholic Daughters. On November 18, 1921, their first production Katcha-Koo, an Oriental and American musical was presented at the Arcade. Miss Mabel D. Cummings, a professional director, was called in to handle the production. The second venture into theatrical production by the Enterprise ladies was in 1925, when on November 20, the sponsored a production of Donizetti’s opera buffa The Elixir of Love by the William Wade Henshaw Company. The principals were Hazel Huntington, soprano; Eleanor LaMance, contralto; Thomas McGranahan, tenor; and Leo de Hierapolis, baritone.
Local groups other than the aforementioned who put on only one production during the period were numerous. In 1923, on October 23 and 24, the Attakapas Shrine Club presented at the Arcade The Dixie Revue of '23, produced and directed by the Chris Ming Production Company. Many of the local revues were directed by professionals from the Chris Ming Company. The favorite play of the tent stock companies, Saintly Hypocrites and Honest Sinners, was produced September 22, 23, 24, 1925, at the Arcade by local Klansmen and Klanswomen with a cast made up largely of talent from Lake Charles, Crowley, and Texas. On December 8 and 9, of the same year, the Dokey Club presented The Only Road, directed by Luther Peveto, who also played the leading role. In 1929, the Calcasieu Auxiliary put on two home talent shows, I’m Sorry, Sally, on January 17 and 18, and Jollies of 1929, on April 4 and 5. The American Legion Post produced on September 19 and 20, 1929, a home talent show Aunt Lucia. On November 18, 1930, the Church of Immaculate Conception sponsored a three-act musical comedy The Belle of Barcelona, directed by Father Willis Perrault.
The local grammar and high schools were for the most part active during the period. The Lake Charles High School generally managed a senior class play each year, usually in late April. The grammar schools, and the parochial schools also presented annual plays, operettas, and musical revues.
Out-of-town amateur productions were few and far between. In 1925, “The Strollers,” a group of Southwestern Louisiana Institute students, presented George Broadhurst’s Why Smith Left Home at the Central School auditorium. Two Lake Charles students, Jessie Mae Clement, and Edward Shea were in the production. On April 15, 1926, the Tulane University Glee Club presented Frolics of 1926 at the Arcade. As a benefit for the flood relief, a group from the First Methodist Church, Port Arthur, Texas, presented a dramatization of the Biblical story Ruth at the Central School auditorium sponsored by the Broad Street Methodist Church of Lake Charles.
There were, of course, other types of theatrical productions presented. Local musicians gave recitals; the St. Louis Symphony played at the Arcade, April 2, 1924, with Helen Traubel, who has achieved eminence as a Wagnerian soprano, as featured soloist; John Philip Sousa’s band played two concerts at the Arcade, December 26, 1925; and the United States Marine Band presented a concert, November 1, 1929.
Of considerable importance to the theatrical life of Lake Charles, was the first sign of any real interest in amateur theatrical production by the adult members of the community. On January 13, 1922, a group met at El Casa (sic), a combination tea room and women’s club house, to organize a “Little Theatre Guild.” This meeting marks the first attempt to organize a little theatre group since the earlier Magnolia Dramatic Club in the eighteen-nineties. The following is a portion of an article which appeared in the February 4, 1922, issue of the American Press, announcing the organization of the Little Theatre Guild:
The organization of the guild is along the lines that have been found practical in other cities. There are two distinct purposes of the guild, namely: A study of the drama and a presentation of plays. This offers full opportunity for enjoyment for all persons interested in any line of the drama. It provides for those people in Lake Charles, who are interested, a chance to study and to see real plays of all varieties.
Some people have supposed (erroneously) that “The Little Theatre Guild” would launch immediately into some play, that the first meeting perhaps would see a play cast and parts distributed. This is only a secondary and later purpose of the club. The first idea is to study the rise of the drama, and analyze plays and play movements and review play making in general. To illustrate these scenes, short plays, or acts of plays will, at different times, be presented. Such is the purpose.
The officers elected were as follows: President, Mrs. John L. Henning; vice president, Mrs. T. F. Porter; secretary-treasurer, Mrs. F. A. Hart.
The board of directors are the officers and R. F. Cisco and Sam Quilty. Two standing committees were appointed to take charge of the work. These were the committee on study and the committee on plays, producing, and casting. On the first are: Miss Marion Rock, Mrs. Glenn, Mrs. Williamson, and on the second; Mr. R. F. Cisco, Mr. Sam Quilty, and Miss Rosa Hart.
The first project of the group was a series of lectures on drama by Mrs. E. N. Bullock. There was no review of the first lecture, but the following is an outline of Mrs. Bullock’s second lecture which appeared in the March 24, 1922 American Press:
“Development of the Drama from the Choric Dance to Tragedy as Literature.”
1. Worship of Dionysus. The Dithyramb.
2. Story of Dionysus. Introduction, inspiration, frenzy.
3. Thespis, and the appearance of the answerer.
4. The evolution of the stage from the marketplace to the Dionysiac theatre at Athens.
5. Scenery, costume, and plot.
6. The Three Unities.
7. Tragedy as literature in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Question: Is death really the underlying truth of tragedy?
The minstrel shows, stock companies, Chautauqua, vaudeville, and amateur productions comprise only a third of the theatrical activity of the period 1920 - 1930. The major portion is made up of the legitimate productions: the straight drama, musical comedies and revues, and operettas. By actual count, during 1920 - 1930, there appeared in Lake Charles sixty-two musical productions, and forty-four dramas. From 1920 to 1926, the number of musical productions and the number of dramas presented each season were about equal. In 1926, however, there were only three plays, and eight musicals. In 1929, there were four musicals, and no plays, and in 1930, when, in the proper sequence of events, there should have been a still greater percentage of musical productions, there were only two dramas and no musicals. A marked decline is noted in the number of plays presented during the period. A still further decline is evident for the later periods, 1931 -1940, and 1941 - 1940. [50?]
From 1920 to 1926, the musical productions fall into three general categories: musical revues, musical comedies, and operettas. Of the three types, judging from the critical reviews of each production, the operettas were the most popular, the comedies, second, and the revues, third. Particularly popular was Blossom Time which played three times in 1923 and 1924. The production on December 13, 1923, was highly commended in the Press review of December 14:
Heading the aggregation and interpreting the part of Schubert is Greek Evans, himself of grand opera timber. (sic) He not only portrayed the great man as he is visualized by nearly every music lover, but he sang the part as only a man with his rich baritone voice could sing it. Playing opposite him, as Mitzi, the girl he loves who was his inspiration, was Miss Margaret Merle, a brilliant full soprano who was marvelous. Their duet in “Song of Love” was a rare treat.
Robert Rhodes, the leading tenor, as Baron Schober, who wins the love of Mitzi from Schubert, and who was his best friend, sang well and acted well his part, as also did Cliff Whitcomb, Edward Orchard, William Lilling, and others of the male portion of the cast. Miss Fenita de Soria was a vivacious Bellabruna, the prima donna, and mention should be made of Ruth Remington, who as a toe dancer, is a clever artist. The chorus was made up of girls who not only looked well, but sang well, too. Alma Keller and Bee Brady, as Fritzi and Kitzi respectively, both had pleasing voices and were fine in their parts.
The same company presented Blossom Time again February 16, 1924, and were equally as successful as they had been two months previously. The leading roles were taken by the same persons, and were as highly praised as they had been before.
The third production was on December 27, 1924. Although presented by the same company that had done the two earlier performances, the cast had been considerably changed, new dialogue had been added, and situations had been altered. In spots the new production showed improvement. Gene Wallin as Mitzi was even better than Margaret Merle, who had played the role in the first two performances. Joseph Mendelsohn, who played the role of the composer Franz Schubert, was not up to the standard of perfection set by Greek Evans, who sang the role on previous occasions. Of Mr. Mendelsohn’s work the December 29 Press review says:
Mr. Mendelsohn has a wonderfully sweet baritone voice and in some respects he resembles the great composer, but the apparent sickly smile, visible most of the time, created the impression that the dignity required in the portrayal of the lovelorn, unhappy and broken-hearted youth, was lacking.
Arthur Geary, a great tenor... was Baron von Schober, the part taken before by Robert Rhodes. Geary was superior to Rhodes in voice, but in personality and looks was not the fascinating, dashing flirt and character Rhodes portrayed. But he was in wonderful voice and he handled his efforts admirably, the only fault, if it can be classified as such, being that he out sang and overshadowed those who sang with him. Especially was this so in the giving of the “Serenade” where the voices of the three other males could hardly be heard.
The most noteworthy change made was in the cutting of the dialogue of Mr. Kranz, comedy role.
Still a fourth production of Blossom Time, again by the same company, was presented January 12, 1926. On this occasion, there was no newspaper review.
Another favorite operetta was Robin Hood which was presented by Ralph Dunbar October 27, 1920, and again on January 22, 1923, by the May Valentine Chicago Company. Both productions were well received.
Other operettas which played included Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and Ruddigore, both of which were presented in 1921. The Mikado was produced by Ralph Dunbar, whose company was responsible for many of the better musical productions during the period. According to the February 11, 1921 review, the settings were highly artistic. Two sets were used, the first act, an exterior garden scene with a beautiful backdrop by Joseph Urban; the second act set was by Poltz and Carson. The cast was well-chosen. Edward Andrews as Ko-Ko was particularly good. He had little voice, but “put everything into a song.” Durane Nelson, basso, was an excellent Pooh-Bah, as was Mr. Stall in the dual role of the Mikado and Pish-Tush. Of the three little maids, Pitti-Sing by Ann McCashin was particularly fine. She proved to be an excellent dancer as well as a fair singer.
Ruddigore, which played April 6, 1921, was presented by the Boston English Opera Company. There was no review for this production.
An unusual type of musical production, which was billed as a musical comedy, but which was more operatic then comic, was Chu Chin Chow, by Oscar Asche, which was presented January 8 and 9, 1922. The play first opened in 1916 in London, where it ran for five years, followed by two seasons in New York. An unusually long performance of three hours, it was presented in fourteen lavish scenes.
The following is taken from the January 9, 1922 review:
To the theatre goer who had hoped to witness a spicy comedy of the type of Sun-Kist with all its beautiful music... Chu Chin Chow was a bitter disappointment...
Chu Chin Chow belongs to a heavier type of opera... But to those who prefer this type of production, Chu Chin Chow was a wonderful creation, rich in melody, vivid with its effective scenery, and haunting in its startling themes - entire transpositions and interpolations that possess all the beauties of classical opera.
In addition to fine music and scenery, the story was compact and purposeful, an attribute not often found in operettas. The thread of the story, however, was difficult to follow at times if one were not familiar with the libretto.
The cast was well-chosen. Henry Latimer, as Chu, Don Ferrandou as the merry Ali Baba, and Virginia Howell as Zahrat, the desert woman, contributed some fine acting. Miss Howell’s defiance of Chu Chin Chow in the second act was one of the best dramatic scenes seen in opera in recent years. Included in the supporting cast were: Eugene Cowles as Abdullah, the steward; John Hendrick, as Nur Al-Huda; Joan Renville as Marjanah, the singing girl; Edward Kiefer, the cobbler; Louis Le Vie as Kassim Baba, the miser; Maud Files as Mahbubah; Adelaide Mesmer as Alcolom, the wife of Kassim; Hattie Carmontell as the slave buyer, and others. (8)
Very popular during the decade were the light operas which have become a part of the American musical tradition: The Bohemian Girl, which played in 1925; The Student Prince and The Chimes of Normandy, in 1927; My Maryland and The Firefly, in 1929; and The Desert Song and The Vagabond King, in 1930. No press reviews were recorded for these later operatic productions.
In 1922 the most popular musical comedies bore as the titles the name of a girl: Erminie, Irene, and Margie all played Lake Charles that year, followed, in 1924, by Tangerine, Sue Dear, Sally, Irene, and Mary, and finally by No, No, Nanette in 1925, and again in 1926.
Erminie followed closely upon the operatic Chu Chin Chow, on January 14, 1922, and was something of a relief for Lake Charles theatre-goers, according to the January 16 Press review. The production was by the De Wolfe Hopper Opera Company which had been absent from the Lake Charles area for some nineteen years.
De Wolfe Hopper, for many years a comic opera favorite, had lost none of his power to charm, and was loudly applauded at the end of the second act. Hopper was famous for his rendition of the poem, Casey at the Bat. Because of demands from the audience, he customarily recited it sometime during the evening, no matter what the production. In an interview, however, he stated that he had never recited it in Erminie, because there was no place in the operetta for it. (9)
The production as a whole was excellent. The acting was good, among the best of the season. The supporting cast was unusually strong. Miss Lillian Glaser, as Erminie, was an excellent actress. The comedy of the production was left to Alexander Clark, a fine comedian, who took the role of Cadeaux. Ralph Brainnard, as Eugene Marcel, was too conscious of his audience and played a great deal of the time straight to them. Although billed as an “operatic tenor,” his voice was good, but not “operatic.”
Irene Dunne appeared at the Arcade, February 5, 1922, in the Vanderbilt production of the comedy Irene, by James Montgomery, with music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph MacCarthy, and costumes by Lady Duff Gordon. The music was well-liked. The book, even without the music, was good, and the play did not depend on dazzling spectacles and vaudeville stunts for appeal.
To Miss Dunne, as Irene, is due the credit of playing so skillfully upon the heart strings of her very appreciative audience… For once in the history of Lake Charles theatre going, audience and players were vibrant with the same enthusiasm. Never has a company of players thrown itself into the business of acting with such remarkable force.
The opera is unusually well balanced, and though the story centers around Irene, the laurels are rather evenly divided in the supporting cast…
Donald Marshall, portrayed by Mr. Grimes, was a handsome, lovable hero. J. P. Bowden, by Mr. Massinger, was an able portrayal of the climbing millionaire. His “To Love You” was the piece de resistance of the score, excellently rendered. (10)
Although both Erminie and Irene had been unusually well received, Margie was not. The company was mediocre. The reviewer in the February 10 Press could recall no time when an attraction of less merit had been presented to a Lake Charles audience.
Tangerine was favorably reviewed, but not so Sue Dear, which was a generally tired production. The scenery, costumes, and actors all had seen better days. Sally, Irene, and Mary, however, received an elaborately detailed review. Outstanding in the cast was Josie Chafflin, who had played in the Chauncey Olcott, production of Macushla in 1920.
The remainder of the musical comedies presented, for which there are reviews, were generally well-received, and from all indications were good performances. The bad ones must have been exceedingly bad, judging from their reviews. Among the former was Sun-Kist, in 1921, which was highly praised by the reviewer in the October 24 Press; and Take It From Me, which played on February 17, 1922, and on February 19, 1923. In both instances the cast was, with few exceptions, the same. The changes were for the better. (11) The Gingham Girl played January 27, 1924. An outstanding member of the cast was Lillian Young, a fine dancer and actress, who had appeared in the 1923 production of Tangerine.
Considered by their reviewers as being below par were The Clinging Vine which played November 9, 1923, and Up She Goes, in 1924. During the presentation of Up She Goes, a great percentage of the audience left the theatre before the final curtain. (12) The musical which was, from all indications, the most singularly uninspired was Little Jesse James, which played January 20, 1925. At any rate, it occasioned some rather caustic comments from the Press reviewer, January 21:
Eliminate the Paul Whitman band, trim down the raw and two meaning lines and make an exception of one or two in the cast and there wouldn’t be much left to Little Jesse James which played at the Arcade last night for a crowd that set a new record for attendance. The band was really fine and it was one of these auxiliaries which is easily excused for taking up so much of the time allotted to the entertainment. Besides, if it had not been for it the several catchy and tuneful melodies introduced would never have been appreciated for there was but one in the entire company who could sing, although there were a few others who essayed to do so but didn’t make much headway. Little Jesse James is one of the most popular musicals comedies the country has seen in a long time … Dissected, there is little to it in the way of scenery and costumes, and while it is thoroughly alive and active throughout, there is hardly a laugh created that does not find its inception in that brand of comedy which is based upon suggestive banter regarding delicate situations.
From this and other similar reviews, it may be readily observed that any productions which were built around off-color situations and dialogue were generally not well-received by Lake Charles audiences. Reasons for such attitudes are apparent, when it is noted that during the period 1920 - 1930 Lake Charles had a population of approximately 15,000. (13) It was a solid church-going population, which had not become as sophisticated through the influence of the motion picture as later theatre audiences. However, the reviewers remarked on several occasions about the “advanced” viewpoint of the Lake Charles audiences. (14)
An interesting review along this line appeared January 5, 1924, following the presentation of the musical comedy, Tangerine. A comparison is drawn between the production of Tangerine which was clean cut and sparkling, with good music, fresh scenery and costumes, a pretty chorus, and a fine cast of principals, and the production of The Greenwich Village Follies, presented December 16, 1922, which was a conglomeration of vulgarity, poor jokes, poorer singers, dingy scenery and bad music.
For the most part, the musical revues were also well-received. The musical revue as a yearly feature did not, however, begin to appear in Lake Charles until the latter part of 1922. During 1920, 1921, and the first part of 1922, only musical comedies and operettas were presented. From 1923 to 1927, mostly musical comedies and revues were presented, with an occasional operetta. But in 1927, there were no musical comedies at all, and in 1928, only one, the majority of the musical productions being revues, with operettas second. Thus it may be noted that a marked change in the musical taste of a community may be made within the space of one decade. Prominent among the revues were Hitchy-Koo, 1923, and the Black and White Revue of 1924 (notable in the cast was Lew Dockstader, of earlier minstrel fame), The Passing Show of 1924 and The Passing Show of 1925, the George White Scandals (two presentations in 1926), the Earl Carroll Vanities, and Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue, in 1927. The last musical revue was Padlocks of 1929.
Just as Little Jesse James had been a particularly bad musical comedy, so was the Frank Silver Revue of 1924 a particularly bad musical revue. The production was made up of a full ninety minutes of jazz, monotonous in the extreme. The stage was hung with “somber, casket effect, heavy drapery;” on stage during the entire revue, an orchestra of a dozen jazz musicians played incessantly. At intervals a singer or dancer joined the band. Mlle. Stephanie Kovak displayed some talent as a dancer, in spite of gaudy costumes, and Bobby Arnet, famous for his renditions of jazz, gave a poor imitation of Eva Tanguay’s style of singing. (15)
The team of Nyra Brown and Johnny Getz appeared in Lake Charles in 1924 in two of their musical revues, Venus and Models of 1923. Both productions were well-received. The latter was reviewed December 15, 1924, as being the better production because others in the cast besides Miss Brown and Mr. Getz were allowed to display their talents. There was a tendency among musical comedy stars at that time to attempt to be the whole show, sometimes to the extent of weakening the entire production. An example is the comedy revue As You Were which played February 3, 1923, and which featured Charles Winninger and Blanche Ring. Although billed as a “Fantastic musical revue” it was nothing more than four vaudeville acts featuring the two stars. Although Miss Ring was an old favorite, it was evident, according to the February 5 Press review, that she was not received a warmly as in other years. In fact, the main criticism of the revue was that too much was seen of the stars, and too little of the rest of the cast.
From the middle of 1925 through 1930, only a very few of the musical productions received any sort of reviews whatsoever, so it is impossible to ascertain how they were received. Among these productions were No, No, Nanette, and Sally in 1925; My Girl, Thru the Years, Lady Be Good, and again No, No, Nanette in 1926; Broadway and Rio Rita in 1928; and Padlocks of 1929.
Of the forty-four straight legitimate plays which presented in Lake Charles during the ten years, 1920 - 1930, nineteen were comedies, eighteen, tragedy or melodrama, and six, mysteries. From the reviews of these productions, it seems that the more melodramatic or sentimental productions were the most popular.
Because the town is so situated that companies traveling from New Orleans to Beaumont and Houston, Texas, must pass through Lake Charles, many excellent road companies played which might otherwise not have been available. Lou Tellegen, a well-known French actor, appeared in Blind Youth, of which he was author, director, and leading actor, on January 10, 1921, and again on March 2, 1922. The review in the American Press, January 11, was extravagant in its praise, saying that the play was the best of its kind to play in Lake Chares for many years. The story was a powerful one of a young man’s inability to distinguish false from true love, and was based on an incident that occurred to a school friend of Mr. Tellegen. As the artist who attempts to save his youthful friend from an unfortunate love affair, Tellegen was excellent. The supporting cast was well-balanced. Notable especially was Schuyler White as Harry Wilton, Marcello Baguer as “Bobo,” and George Deneuberg [Deneubourg] as Louis Delmas. Approximately the same company presented the play in 1922, with equal success. The March 23, 1922 Press reviewer, however, was somewhat more detailed in his comments on the acting of the various members of the company:
Lou Tellegen as actor and author could not have chosen a more fitting vehicle for his remarkable talent. His sonorous voice, his perfect interpretation of the crushed and blasé artist, his undisputed ability to draw his role the most lifelike expression of the complex character are assets that are apparent from the moment of his first appearance in the attic studio in the first act ... Too much cannot be said of Mr. Tellegen’s ability. His strength alone is sufficient to draw real lovers of the drama back to see him in the same role repeatedly ... Tubby by Mr. Russell Davis is a good interpretation of the American student in the Latin Quarter …. He is capable of some strong work, and takes his heavier scenes with ease, but he is, after all, the comic element in the drama. His companion, Louis (Russell Clark), does not please so completely as the exuberant Frenchman, though he is a capable actor and at times does some creditable work …
Harry by Hugh Banks …plays his part of the blind youth with the proper shade of youthful superiority [but] he fails to measure up to his part in the final scenes where more difficult technique is required.
On February 4, 1922, Nance O’Neil played in Jacinto Benavento’s masterly story of Spanish life, The Passion Flower, translated by John Garrett Underhill. The play had been first presented in Madrid in 1913 as La Malcuerida. Miss O’Neil gave the English version January 13, 1920. (16) The play has the distinction of being the first Spanish translation to be a success on Broadway.
Concerning Miss O’Neil’s interpretation of the leading role, Pedro Rodriguez of the Diaro da la Marinas, a Madrid newspaper, says: “So imbued is Miss O’Neil with our customs and our atmosphere that it would seem she must be a Spaniard herself …. When I interviewed her following the opening performance she expressed herself in these words: ‘The dramatic power of La Malcuerida lies in its simplicity and the truthfulness of its scenes.’” (17)
Such an intensely dramatic play was an unusual event for Lake Charles audience. The review in the February 7 Press was full of praise for the caliber of the acting but less enthusiastic about the merits of the play itself:
Miss O’Neil, herself is wonderful and her interpretation of Raimunda, the soul-tortured, unsuspicious, loving wife and mother, ... is a work of art that places her in the same category as Modjeska and others of the old time and favored school. Her wonderful voice, resonant, deep and far carrying, her regal poise and eloquent gestures are gifts the like of which are to be found in the work of very few of the present day actresses.
Many an artist of the caliber and ability of Miss O’Neil would never have played to so small an audience as that which attended the performance Saturday night, but Miss O’Neil gave the very best that was in her… [and] her efforts were admired and appreciated by the meager number there, even though the play itself was not to the general liking.
Miss Dora Ellin, as Acacia, the daughter …. in all her scenes was more than good. Alfred Hickman, as Esteban, the husband step-father and lover of Acacia ….likewise claimed a share of the laurels. Probably as good as any in the cast was he who had the least to do, Howard Miller, as Norbert, the suitor, who loved Acacia.
Another reputable actress who appeared in an intensely dramatic vehicle was Margaret Anglin in Paul Kester’s The Woman of Bronze, on March 23, 1923, at the Arcade. The story is an old one, the eternal triangle: husband, wife, husband’s lover. The stage production was for more pleasing to the eye and more acceptable in technique than the movie version in which Clara Kimball Young starred. The movie, however, did escape being as monotonous because of changes in scenery, and did not end as abruptly as did the play. (18)
Miss Anglin, celebrated for her work with Shakespearean productions, was excellent. According to the March 27 review:
Margaret Anglin, by her wonderful acting, her splendid personality, and her nothing short of marvelous art in portraying emotional characters, gave a striking example in The Women of Bronze...of just what finished histrionic ability can accomplish in the way of making something really worth while…out of very scant material With little to work with, a play already quite passé to the speaking stage…Miss Anglin, not only saved the evening from being…as dreary within the theatre as it was outside, but won her way into the hearts of the entire audience.
Miss Anglin was presented in another dramatic production on November 20 of the following year, 1924. The play was Foot-loose, an adaptation of Forget-Me-Not which first played in London in 1897. Appearing with her was William Faversham, well-known in America for The Hawk and Little Lord Fauntleroy. (19)
Miss Anglin “gave a performance that thrilled and held her audience spellbound throughout.” (20) She made the transition from a dispassionate scheming woman through drama and melodrama to her final moment of defeat and humiliation with great facility, arriving at the final moments of sheer tragedy.
Faversham’s part, through no fault of his own, was a great disappointment. So much was expected from him from advance notices, that in a relatively minor part, which called for little effort, he was outshone by the other male members of the cast. Only once did he come forward conspicuously, in the last act in a scene with Miss Anglin. (21)
Edith Campbell Walker gave a performance in a more or less thankless part that was most noteworthy. Possessing a wonderful speaking voice, Charles White had one big moment, and made the most of it in force and color. Stapleton Kent, as the servant Pietro, made his part distinctive by his exceptionally clear accent.
Rain, the Broadway success which ran for two years in New York before going on the road, was presented December 9, 1924. The cast was headed by Miss Hilda Vaughn as Sadie Thompson, with Augusta Durgeon, Belle Sylvia, Edward F. Nannary, C. Norman Hammond, Hans Roberts, Kenneth Fox, Billy Hall, Agnes Atherton, Emma Raff, and Howard H. Gibson.
Five years earlier no producer would have dared put on such a “frank” play. Rain proved by its success that the theatre-goers of 1924 were thinking people able to regard the story from a mater-of-fact point of view. (22)
The role of Sadie was portrayed by Hilda Vaughn. A whirlwind of action with a speaking voice of unusual volume and tone, she rose at times to mountainous heights, and was equally forceful as the reformed one as in the free and easy part of the “painted woman.” C. Norman Hammond was Reverend Alfred Davidson and was strong in his part in every detail. All the other members were deserving of mention, especially Edward F. Nannary as Joe Horn, the trader, and at whose hotel-store the action of the play took place. (23)
All the action took place in one scene, a remarkable feature being the rain which fell intermittently throughout the play.
The following year, 1925, Mme. Olga Petrova appeared in Hurricane of which she was star, author, and director. Of the production, the following was said. (24)
Hurricane, without Olga Petrova, its author, appearing herself in the stellar role, would stand dangerously near the brink of …indelicacy and immodesty… With her there, however, it has gone even beyond the pale of being harsh on sensitive feelings, and stands out as an ominously dangerous rival to any of the present day so-called reform plays or “morality” plays. Her art, her personality, and her adroitness, have made of apparent commonplace material a comprehensive picture and word study in which the objects of knowledge and thought may be divided without offence…[Hurricane] is probably the most creditable thing she has ever done…
For two acts the play…was almost everything that could be expected ….The last act, however, tended to flatten, but served to round out satisfactorily the idea interpreted by the author…Actresses as versatile, as charming and as alluring as Olga Petrova are few and far between and unquestionably it was she rather than the play that make the entertainment so enjoyable…
There were seven in the cast supporting Miss Petrova and all were good, but special mention should be made of Ann Reader [who appeared in Lake Charles in The Bird of Paradise in 1921] who took the part of Masha, the crippled sister, and of Perry Carr, who played Walter Welch, M. D., the friend of Ilka …[part played by Miss Petrova.]
All the stage settings were designed in part by Miss Petrova, and each of the three of them in detail was almost faultless…..
Hurricane… was one of the most entertaining and though provoking mimic studies of human nature Lake Charles has seen in a long time.
Another outstanding event of the 1924 - 1925 season was the appearance of Fritz Leiber, interpreter of Shakespeare, in Hamlet, April 14, 1925. Regarding Mr. Leiber’s methods of producing and interpreting Shakespeare, the following excerpts appeared in the April 4 and April 10 issues of the Press, respectively:
There is a departure from traditional lines and an evolution into the investiture of suggestion, imagination, and beauty. The striking sets are free from the gaudy and unnecessary and are so arranged to reduce to a minimum the tiresome waits between scenes, so often fatal to Shakespearean productions.
Mr. Leiber’s method in wholly new and based on ideas of naturalness and beauty. He plays his characters as an actor rather than as a savant, his conceptions being free from the rant and bombast seen in many players of the part.
Unfortunately, no review was recorded for this production.
A Shakespearean tragedy was not again presented in Lake Charles until 1928, when the Robert B. Mantell and Genevieve Hamper company presented Macbeth on March 15.
Not until 1930 was there another notable dramatic production, when Eugene O’Neill’s monumental play Strange Interlude was presented at the Arcade on December 2. According to an article in the November 12 Press, the curtain went up at five-thirty in the afternoon, with an intermission at seven-forty for dinner, the play resumed at nine, and ended at eleven. In nine acts, it took something over four hours to present. Included in the cast were Elizabeth Risdon, Leonard Mudie, Blaine Cordner, Richard Barbee, Maud Durand, Maurice McRae, Ethel Westley, John J. Burns, and Jack Grattan. Regrettably, there was no review of this production, which was something of a milestone in the theatrical growth of the community.
There were, of course, other minor dramatic productions, and others not so minor, but which received no critical reviews. Among these are The Man Who Came Back, in 1922; The Fool, in 1924, staring Leo Kennedy; The Unwanted Child, by Florence Edna May; a reading program of Lear by Abraham Yutkowitz, the Russian Yiddish actor, in 1927; and Lou Tellegen, Norman Hackett, and Emma Bunting in Maugham's The Constant Wife in 1928.
A production which was in the same category as Belasco’s Tiger Rose was George Broadhurst’s presentation of The Storm, a forest fire romance. The most spectacular feature of the play was the forest fire, which required two sixty-foot baggage cars to transport, and twenty-five men six hours to assemble on stage. (25)
The mystery play which began to be popular with the presentation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat, first appeared in Lake Charles in1922, when The Cat and the Canary, a play modeled on The Bat was presented. This was closely followed by The Bat, in 1923, and again in 1925; The Monster and another production of The Cat and the Canary in 1924; and finally The Gorilla in 1926.
Essentially the same cast presented both performances of The Cat and the Canary. The two weak spots in the first cast, Emily Taft as Annabell West, and Buford Armitage as Charles Wilder, were replaced in the second production by Elsie Hitz and Harry Oldridge. This was considered a definite improvement.
The first production of The Bat was a disappointment, at least to the Press reviewer, who had expected it to be more thrilling. The cast, however, was quite good, particularly Ben Taggart, who had appeared in Lake Charles in The Storm in 1921. (27) The second production did not receive a review.
The Monster was supposed to be a combination of the best features of The Bat, which had the best written plot, and The Cat, which exceeded it in thrills. The Monster’s effects were achieved by a multitude of off stage sound technicians, who ran wind machines, slammed doors, manipulated trick props and scenery. (28)
The comedies which played Lake Charles did not receive as detailed reviews as did the more serious dramas, unless the reviewer was particularly displeased. Notable was the bedroom farce, Just Married, which played February 24, 1924. Objection was voiced against the compromising situations, double-entendre of the dialogue, and spots in the production that were somewhat risqué.
During the period, there were but three really outstanding comedies presented. The John Golden production of Lightnin’ on October 7 and 8, 1923, starred Thomas Jefferson, the son of the famous character actor, Joe Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson, like his father, was a fine character actor, and was well-known for the role of Lightnin’ Bill Jones. Bessie Bacon, daughter of Frank Bacon, co-author of the play, was the outstanding actress in the production.
The appearance of Minnie Madden Fiske in the 150th anniversary tour of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals on November 28, 1925, is of particular interest to students of theatrical history. Mrs. Fiske appeared in the celebrated role of Mrs. Malaprop, and Thomas A. Wise who played opposite her, appeared as Sir Anthony Absolute. Others in the cast were James T. Powers, as Bob Acres; Brandon Tynan, as Sir Lucius O’Trigger; Lotus Robb, as Lydia Languish; Jean Ford, as Julia; Marie Carroll, as Lucy; Don Cook, as Captain Absolute; Fred Eric, as Faulkland; Gerald Rogers, as Fag; Barlowe Borland, as David; and Herbert Belmore, as Thomas, the coachman. Unfortunately, there was no review of this production.
Anne Nichols’ comedy success, Abie’s Irish Rose, was presented twice, the first time on December 6 and 7, 1926. Mildred Byron made an appealing Rosemary, and Anthony Stanford was equally as good as Abie. Naturalness was the chief charm of their playing. John Monahan, as Father Whalen, took the opportunity to deliver the play’s message and to do so effectively. Gay Hitner, as Rabbi Jacob Samuels, Edward Latimer, and Helena Rapport supplied the comedy. Lee Hoyt and Jack Raffael as the fathers supplied the drama very well. (29) The second production in 1928 received no review.
Other comedy productions of interest were the George M. Cohan production in 1924 of So This Is London, starring Mr. and Mrs. Charles Coburn; the Brock Pemberton of Preston Sturges’ Strictly Dishonorable, featuring Elizabeth Love and Cesar Romero, in 1930; John Golden’s production of Turn to the Right, in 1921; Nightie Night, a sophisticated farce, starring Harry Stubbs and Jane Ellison, also in 1921; another John Golden production, The First Year, in 1923; George Kelly’s The Show-off with Hobart Cavanaugh as Aubrey Piper and Jessie Busley as Mrs. Fisher, in 1925; Mae [May] Robson in Ma Pettingill in 1926; Charlotte Walker and Norman Hackett in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, in 1927. Both Walker and Hackett were fine performers, it is a pity this production received no review.
By far the most unusual theatrical event of the entire decade was the appearance of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn with their Denishawn Dancers at the Arcade, January 13, 1924. On December 29, 1923, there appeared a short article about their program, entitled “Theatrical Season Well On But Best of Shows Are Yet to Come; Wonderful Denishawn Dancers:”
Ruth St. Denis is without question or argument the foremost interpreter of dancing on the American stage today…as a male dancer and for physical beauty and development, Ted Shawn, co-star with Miss St. Denis is declared to stand without a peer…
The following is taken from the January 14, 1924 review of the recital:
For the beauty
of face and form and pure grace it is doubtful if there is another aggregation
quite the equal of The Denishawns… Miss St. Denis never danced more ardently nor
with more feeling than she did last night. In the Brahms and Liszt offerings she
was the personification of grace and stately beauty. The Spanish presentations
in solo and with Shawn were the apex of any ever attempted by anyone and the
dance of Kuan [Quan] Yin, a Buddhist deity, was almost sacred. Her dance of O’Mika, a
Japanese selection, was one of the most beautiful of all. Miss St. Denis’ work
is sincere, the result of deep study, but the secret of it is the tinge of her
own personality she gives her work…
[Shawn’s] costumes were wonderful and wonderfully well selected as were the interpretations also, to set off his handsome, almost perfect physical beauty. His best probably was the part he played in Xochitil,…yet the solos as a Spaniard, a priest of Knossos and Rama, a Siamese, were incomparable. With Miss St. Denis he appeared in a beautiful illustration of “The Tillers of the Soil” and a “Dance of Rebirth”…. The beauty, aside from the material, of Shawn is that his work is thoroughly masculine, no affectation appears at any time and his natural actions combined with his superb form and God-given grace place him in a class so far above the average male interpretative dancer as to not allow of even a suggestion of comparison.
Every one of the dancers were ideal in their work. Outstanding were Miss Lenore [Leonore] Scheffer and Doris Humphrey…
Draperies were used almost exclusively for stage setting, but their natural gorgeousness was made more so by brilliant lighting effects. The costumes, while more or less scant in some of the dances, were marvelous, especially those worn by Miss St. Denis.
The following is a reproduction of the program as it appeared in the January 14 review:
1. Musical visualizations of:
Beethoven, Sonata Pathetique, First Movement, Doris Humphrey and ensemble;
Chopin, "Revolutionary Etude," Ted Shawn and Misses Brooks, Lawrence and Scheffer;
Chaminade, "Valse Caprice," Doris Humphrey;
Schumann, "Soarings," Misses Graham, Sandowska, Douglas, and Hardy;
Brahms, "Waltz, Op. 39, No. 15;"
Liszt, "Liebestraum," Miss St. Denis;
Mana Zucca, "Valse Brilliante," Miss Doris Humphrey and ensemble.
2. Spanish suite:
Granados, Danse Espagnole, No. 5, Miss St. Denis;
Jonas, Tango, Ted Shawn;
Moszkowski, Malaguena, Miss St. Denis and Mr. Shawn.
3. In the garden:
Van Blom, Serenade d'Amour, Miss Humphrey;
Bond, "Betty's Music Box," Miss Lenore [Leonore] Scheffer;
Moszkowski, Waltz Op. 34, No. 1, Misses Scheffer, Graham, Brooks, and Charles Weidman.
two scenes, countryside in prehistoric Mexico, and the interior of the palace of Tepancaltzin, Toltec emperor.
The Tepancaltzin, Emperor of the
Toltecs, Ted Shawn; Xochitil, the flower, Miss Graham; the father of Xochitil,
the flute player, Robert Gorham; maidens, court dancers, etc.
China - Kuan [Quan] Yin, Goddess of Mercy, Miss St. Denis;
Crete - A priest of Knossos, Ted Shawn;
India - The three Apsarases, Misses Douglas, Sandowska, and Hardy; Nautch dancer, Miss St. Denis;
Siam - Rama, Mr. Shawn; Sitz [Sita], Miss Scheffer; Ravan [Ravana], Mr. Weidman; Hanuman, Mr. Gorham;
Japan - Lantern dance, Miss Brooks; O'Mika, Miss St. Denis; servant with parasol, Mr. Gorham;
Java - The princess and the demon, Miss Douglas and Mr.. Weidman;
Egypt - "The Tillers [Toilers] of the
Soil," Miss St. Denis and Mr. Shawn; Thoth and Horus, Mr. Weidman and Mr.
with tambourine, ensemble; "Dance of the Rebirth," Mr. Shawn and Miss St. Denis.
Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, and Charles Weidman, who were pupils of St. Denis and Shawn and who are mentioned as dancing solo parts with the Denishawn Dancers in this 1924 presentation, have become leading dancers in their own right, each with his own school or style of interpretative dancing.
No mention has been made thus far of the influence of the motion picture and of radio on theatrical activity in Lake Charles during 1920 - 1930. The motion picture had first come to Lake Charles in 1908, and in the years between 1908 and 1920, the Arcade was adapted to motion pictures, the Paramount and Strand theatres, both larger motion picture houses, were built, and a number of small movie houses mushroomed into existence, only to die out just as rapidly, leaving only the Arcade, the Paramount, and the Strand showing motion pictures in 1920. The first talking picture was not presented until March 3, 1929, when the Arcade presented On Trial with Paula Fredericks, Bert Lytell, and Lois Wilson. It will be noted that the number of road shows did not begin to fall off appreciably until after 1925, and by 1929, the influence of the motion picture, now the talking picture, began to be felt. During the later period of 1931 - 1940, the influence of the talkie upon the legitimate drama is more strikingly illustrated.
As for radio, good reception was not obtainable until 1924, when, on April 1, the American Press began to print the daily offerings of the major stations in New York. The influence of radio upon theatrical activity was not felt until 1925, when the aforementioned decline began.
In 1920, Lake Charles had a population of 13,807. The town had one legitimate theatre, the Arcade, also used for motion pictures, and one picture house, the Paramount. A second picture house, the Strand, opened in 1921. During the period from 1920 to 1930, sixty-six musical productions and forty-four dramatic productions were presented by traveling professional companies, at the Arcade. A marked decline in the number of these productions which were presented yearly in [is] noted beginning in 1926 and continuing until 1930 when there were only two legitimate dramas presented during the entire season, as compared with the seven musicals and six plays presented in 1920.
Each year from 1920 to 1930, various minstrel shows, the Redpath Chautauqua, and a number of tent stock companies played in Lake Charles. In 1926 a decline began in these various types of entertainment. The last minstrel show was presented in 1928, the last stock company played in 1929, and the Redpath Chautauqua, which had not appeared in 1924 and 1927, was presented for the last time in 1930.
The vaudeville programs presented first as between-act features of the stock companies and later with the productions at the Arcade, in the period prior to 1920, revived in popularity at the Strand Theatre in December, 1921, and continued to gain ground until 1924, when a regular weekly circuit of five-act vaudeville programs was put in by the management of the Arcade as an added attraction to the regular movie feature. By 1986, however, vaudeville had begun to die out again, for the last mention of vaudeville units in conjunction with the motion pictures was on September 17, 1928.
A number of amateur productions were presented by various civic groups. The minstrel and musical revue were the most popular. The local high schools presented at least one play annually, with operettas and playlets by the grammar and parochial schools also yearly events. An occasional amateur group from another town would perform, Southwestern Louisiana Institute and Tulane University both sending productions. Concerts by young musicians were sponsored by various ones of the local clubs. Although a local Little Theatre Guild had been formed in 1922, only to die out in a short time, there was no real interest in amateur theatricals until 1927, when the Lake Charles Little Theatre was organized. Productions by the Little Theatre are considered in a later chapter. The rise of the little theatre movement coincides almost exactly with the decline in legitimate theatre productions.
Theatrical Activity 1931 - 1940
Whereas there had been a great deal of theatrical activity during the proceeding decade, 1920 - 1930, the ten years from 1931 to 1940 amounted to a veritable theatrical void, at least as far as professional theatrical productions were concerned, and very nearly that as far as amateur productions went. For example, in the first year of the period, 1931, there were but three theatrical events of any sort. On February 24, Mrs. Blanche Granary Oliver of Shreveport presented a dramatic reading of Marc Connelley’s Green Pastures for a meeting of the Business and Professional Women’s Club. On April 10 occurred the only really outstanding theatrical event of the entire ten year period: Ethel Barrymore played in The Love Duel supported by her children, Ethel Barrymore Colt and John Drew Colt. Miss Barrymore gave an excellent performance despite a severe cold. (1) The third and last event of the year 1931 was the annual visit of the Redpath Chautauqua beginning on May 2. The plays were featured, Kibitzer and The Big Push. This was the last of the Chautauqua series to be presented in Lake Charles.
The years that followed were little more eventful than 1931. There was, however, an increase in amateur productions. These were of a singularly musical nature. The Louisiana State University Opera Department presented Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Central School auditorium on February 25, 1932. Students of the Louisiana Polytechnic Institute presented another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, H. M. S. Pinafore, in 1935. Yet another of the Gilbert and Sullivan works, The Gondoliers, was presented by the Beaumont Light Opera Company at the Masonic Temple on February 17, 1937.
The minstrels and follies as vehicles for local talent were still very popular. In 1932, and again in 1935, the Business and Professional Women’s Club presented a minstrel show. The Junior League became quite active in the field of amateur theatrical productions, and presented The Drunkard in 1936, and Junior League Follies Revue in 1937, 1938, and 1939. From the pictures of these productions which appeared in the American Press, it would seem that a great deal of time and expense went into them.
During the years 1932 - 1935, the town was beset by a perfect siege of playlets and revues put on by the various Parent Teacher Associations of the local public schools. The Lake Charles High School continued to present one play a year; the parochial schools went in for pageant-dramas more than one-act or three-act plays.
In the area of purely dramatic productions by local groups, there were but a few. In 1932, a group of young people from Franklin, Louisiana, presented a comedy, Sh, Not So Loud, at the gymnasium of Landry Memorial School. In 1936, the Enterprise Club presented the Broadway success The Trial of Mary Dugan at the parish courthouse with great success. The leading role was played by Miss Pattee Lawrence of Crowley, Louisiana. After the performance in Lake Charles, the play was given in Crowley. The year following the opening of the Lake Charles Junior College (the name was later changed to John McNeese Junior College) in 1939, the Town and Gown Players of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, presented a performance of Our Town as part of the dedication ceremonies of the college. These three major events were the only amateur straight dramas during the years 1931 - 1940, other than the activities of the Lake Charles Little Theatre.
As far as the professional theatre was concerned there was but little offered in Lake Charles during the depression period. The first production was the aforementioned Love Duel, starring Ethel Barrymore, in 1931. In 1933, the Freiburg Players presented the European Passion Play at Central School auditorium. The group was assisted by local people in minor roles, and music was supplied by a number of the local church choirs. The most impressive scene of the play was the reenactment of the painting The Last Supper by da Vinci. (2)
What must have been an unusually interesting production, if there had been reviews to tell of it, was the presentation on January 11, 1935, at the Central School auditorium, by the Oxford Players of A. A. Milne’s delightful fantasy The Ivory Door and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The first marionette show played in 1935, when the Tony Sarg company presented Uncle Remus and Faust - the Wicked Magician at the Central School, under the auspices of the Junior League. Sarg returned in 1936, presenting The Wicked Magician and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. These productions were of primary interest to the children of the community, as were the Clare Tree Major plays which first appeared in Lake Charles in 1940, when three plays were presented: Rip Van Winkle, Under the Lilacs, and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.
During the 1931 - 1940 period, musical presentations of all kinds - symphony concerts, soloists, etc., became the most popular form of “live” entertainment in Lake Charles. The Cooperative Community Concert Association was organized in 1932, when it presented Ruth Breton, violinist, in concert at the Central Auditorium. This group did not function again, however, until 1935, when they sponsored concerts by a string trio and by a pianist. Another idle period followed until 1938, when they presented a joint concert by Carola Gitana, Spanish dancer, and Stephen Nero, violinist; and another program by Dorothy Crawford, monologist. In 1940 they presented Wilbur Evans, baritone.
The concerts sponsored by the Community Concert Association were not, however, the only concerts which were given in the city. The LSU Glee Club, with seventy singers and an orchestra of sixty, presented a concert at the Central Auditorium in 1934; the Scottish Rite organization presented Mme. Eugenie Wehrmann-Schaffner, pianist, and Stefan Sopkin, violinist, at the Masonic Temple in 1937, and Rita Theodore, dramatic soprano, also in 1937; Carleton Little, pianist, of the Louisiana State University Music School faculty, played at the Little Theatre in 1939; Mme. Karin Dayas, Finnish pianist, sponsored by L’Heure de Musique, played at the Little Theatre, also in 1939; and the A Capella Choir of Louisiana State Normal College presented a concert at Central in 1940.
The Lake Charles Civic Symphony, conducted by Francis Bulber, head of the music department of the junior college, was organized in 1939, presenting their first concert on February 10. The group presented another concert that year, on December 8, at Central School. Featured with the symphony were Jerry Pickerel, pianist, and Miss Virginia Ware Gaines, soprano, who sang compositions by Mrs. A. J. Foster, prominent local musician. In 1940, the Symphony presented two concerts. The first, in March, featured as guest soloist, Stella Champagne Stiges, pianist. The second concert, in December, had as guest promising young tenor from LSU, Carmen Gagliardi.
Of equal importance with the organization of the Civic Symphony was the organization of the Messiah Chorus in 1940. This group was organized to present a major portion of Handel’s immortal work each year during the Christmas season. Their first concert was December 15, 1940.
Aside from the activity of the local and professional groups during 1931 - 1940, two other events of importance occurred. On February 23, 1932, the last professional black-face minstrel show to play in Lake Charles was presented. The group was called “The Showboat Minstrels,” and featured Billy Doss, who had formerly been a headliner performer with the 'Lasses White Company. The last of the stock companies to play in its own tent theatre was the Jimmie Hull Comedy Players, who came to Lake Charles October 7, 1933. The company evidently did well - it had been three years since a stock company had played in Lake Charles - for the group stayed until November 1, presenting a different play each night. The two old favorites, Ten Nights in a Barroom and Saintly Hypocrites and Honest Sinners, both were presented. The Hull company returned on December 7, 1936, and for the last time in 1941.
Throughout the 1931 - 1940 period scattered mention is made of vaudeville programs still being presented in conjunction with the movies. In 1931, a magic company, Rajah Raboid and His Mysteries of 1932, and the Carr Brothers and their musical follies, were presented at the Arcade; in 1932, another magician, Prince Shah Babar, and the company of Trixie Friganza and Her Discoveries; in 1934, Waxo the miracle man; Belle and Bozeman, adagio champions, and Ben Bernie and his orchestra; in 1935, a one-hour vaudeville program Broadway Bandwagon was presented as part of the Wilbur Cushman circuit, The Blue Paradise Revue, six acts of vaudeville, and The Soldiers of Fortune Revue; in 1937, still another magician, in 1939, The Rhythm Boys, RCA recording artists; and finally in 1940, the Egyptian Follies.
At this time the motion pictures were out of their infancy, the talkies had expanded to Technicolor talkies, and were the most popular form of entertainment. Only one new motion picture house, the Delta, was built. Radio, which had first been received in 1924, had grown in popularity, until in 1935, a local 250 watt station, KPLC was set up.
The depression and pre-World War II prosperity which comprised the ten years from 1931 to 1940, brought little in the way of theatrical activity to Lake Charles. There was but one outstanding professional play during the period. The amateur theatre, however, began to flourish, with a number of plays, minstrels, and musical revues being presented.
A study of the theatrical activity of this period reveals several important trends. First, there was a turning away from the professional theatre program concurrent with a new interest in the amateur theatre, as embodied in the local Lake Charles Little Theatre (discussed in Part II) and the work of various other civic organizations; second, there was a new interest in musical events of all kinds, as evidenced by the organization of three local musical organizations: the Community Concert Association in 1932, the Lake Charles Civic Symphony in 1939, and the Messiah Chorus in 1940. The period also saw the last of the tent stock companies and minstrel shows, and the birth of a local radio station.
1941 - 1950
The trend toward the presentation of more and more musical concerts, first established during 1931 - 1940, continued to grow. The Community Concert Association, which had functioned spasmodically during the preceding period, began to sponsor a yearly series of programs by some very excellent artists. Notable among these programs, was the presentation, on February 3, 1944, of the opera The Marriage of Figaro by the Nine O’Clock Opera Company, in the McNeese College Auditorium. The opera was presented with a narrator who explained the sequence of events. The simplest of set pieces were used in staging the opera, which took but a little over two hours to perform. The production was generally well-received. (1)
In 1945, the Association presented Larry Adler, harmonica virtuoso, and Paul Draper, tap dancer, in a joint program, which was very popular. The outstanding performers presented in 1945 were Jussi Bjoerling [Björling], Metropolitan Opera tenor, and Rosario and Antonio, Spanish dancers. In 1947, Rise Stevens, Metropolitan mezzo-soprano, famous for her role of Carmen, sang as a part of the Community Concert series. In 1949, Bidú Sayão, also of the Metropolitan Opera, was presented; and in 1950, Lauritz Melchior, Wagnerian tenor. Other programs of lesser note included various violinists, pianists, and piano-duos.
Presenting only two concerts of its own in 1942, the Civic Symphony, together with the Community Concert Association, sponsored concerts by The Houston Symphony in 1941, and again, for two concerts in 1944, and one in 1947; The New Orleans Symphony, in 1946; The Cincinnati Symphony, for two concerts in 1947; and The Dallas Symphony in 1949, and in 1950.
Concert artists, sponsored by other local groups, were also featured. Sigmund Romberg, his orchestra, and several soloists, presented An Evening With Romberg in 1943; Irene Manning, soprano, Rubinoff and his violin, John Seagle, baritone, Wayne King and his orchestra, and the Apollo Boys Choir, in 1947; Carmen Cavallero [Cavallaro] and his orchestra, a return engagement of Wayne King, and James Melton, American tenor, in 1948; and Illona [Ilona] Massey and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra, in 1949.
Two professional opera companies came in 1949 and 1950. The Wagner Opera Company presented Cavelleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, November 11, 1949, and an unnamed company presented La Bohème, in 1950. There were no reviews of these performances.
A new kind of musical entertainment began to be popular when the Grand Ole Opry, featuring the cowboy singer Ernest Tubbs, appeared in 1946. This group returned with great success in 1947 and 1949. "Spike Jones and His City Slickers," a musical comedy revue, which had achieved fame with their unusual versions of popular songs, rendered with wash tubs and cow bells, also played in 1949.
Ballet was first introduced in 1947, when Marina Svetnova [Svetlova], prima ballerina for the Metropolitan Opera, appeared. This group achieved unusual success, and was followed by Mia Slavenska in 1948. The program, entitled "The Slavenska Ballet Variante” included selections from Coppélia, the Nutcracker Suite ballet, Concerto Romantique by Liszt, and a group of American folk dances called “Settlers’ Sunday.” (2) Also appearing in 1948 was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Featured soloists with the Ballet Russe were Alexandra Danilovna [Danilova] and Frederic Franklin, nationally famous dancers. The company presented an interesting program which included Rodeo, Quelques Fleurs and Gaîté Parisienne. Some 1,500 persons attended. (3)
The great interest in music and its companion art, ballet, was greatly influenced by the fact that in 1939, when the Junior college was opened, there was also opened for public use, a very fine auditorium, with a seating capacity of about 2,500. Heretofore, concerts had been given in the Arcade Theatre, but, when the movies began to grow in popularity, and the theatre could not be given over to outside activities, the concerts and other theatrical activities were obliged to move to the Central School auditorium which at best was none too good. The stage was quite small with inadequate dressing room facilities. The only type of concerts to be given there successfully were those featuring a soloist with a piano accompaniment. The same was true of the Lake Charles High School auditorium. When the Lake Charles Little Theatre was opened in 1939, it afforded another place for concerts to be held, but again, the size of the auditorium (a seating capacity of 265) and of the stage were prohibitive to large symphony concerts. Thus, it can be seen, that the use of a large modern auditorium would greatly aid the securing of symphonies and well-known artists who would be loathe to perform for small groups in crowed halls.
The McNeese Auditorium also provided a place where professional touring companies, a few of which were beginning to circulate again, might perform. The first such company to be presented in the McNeese Auditorium was in 1942, when the Debate Club of McNeese sponsored the presentation of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, by a company headed by James Hendrickson and Claire Bruce. The Black Hills Passion Play, with Josef Meier, as the Christus, was presented March 27-29, 1944, and again in 1950. The great size of the McNeese stage was particularly adaptable to this monumental performance. The first of the wartime bond revues also played in 1945, when Camp Claiborne soldiers presented At Your Service.
In 1945, the first of the subscription performances by the Civic Drama Guild of New York were given. This play, presented by a professional cast, was the hit comedy Junior Miss. The second of the series was Rose Franken’s Soldier’s Wife in 1946. The Drama Guild returned with another subscription series of three plays, sponsored by the Exchange Club, in 1947. Their first play was the comedy Kiss and Tell, December 17, 1947. Dream Girl and John Loves Mary were presented respectively on February 11, and March 13, 1948. Still a third season was presented by this group in 1949, with But Not Goodbye and Angel Street as the offerings. Angel Street played to about 1,500 people. Moultrie Patten as Mr. Manningham was quite excellent. The sets by Eugene Dunkel were exceptionally good for a traveling company. (4) On the whole, however, the productions were not outstanding.
The Junior Welfare League, which had sponsored the earlier appearances of the Clare Tree Major company, brought them back in 1946, with a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A musical version of this play was presented in 1948, by the Penthouse Productions, sponsored by the American Legion Post.
The Barter Theatre of Virginia brought Cesar Wilde’s comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest in 1948, and Sun-Up, a Carolina mountain play, in 1950. The latter play had been presented some twenty-five years earlier by one of the Chautauqua companies.
The Poche Enterprises of New Orleans attempted to set up a regular circuit of companies through Lake Charles and sent as their initial offering Sylvia Sidney and John Loder in O Mistress Mine. The play was a fair success, playing to about 1,000 people. The plans for a regular circuit of plays, however, did not materialize. There was not enough interest shown by the townspeople.
On March 15 and 16, 1950, the M Club of McNeese sponsored two performances of Oklahoma, produced by the Theatre Guild. The performances were well- received, playing to a full house each night.
A notable appearance on December 2, 1950, was that of Charles Laughton, celebrated stage and screen character actor, who presented a program of readings from the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Thomas Wolfe, and others. This program was eminently successful.
Just as the added facility of the McNeese Auditorium had made it possible to engage more varied types of professional theatrical and musical programs, so had the auditorium aided appreciably the amateur musicians and acting groups. The Messiah Chorus presented its annual concert at the auditorium, usually to a quite large audience. The Opera Department of Louisiana State University, which had played previously in the Central School auditorium, presented at McNeese the operettas Naughty Marietta in 1942 and The Chocolate Soldier in 1945.
The Music Department of McNeese began to present an annual operetta in 1947, with Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Each succeeding year brought a new production: The Mikado, in 1948; H. M. S. Pinafore, in 1949; and Naughty Marietta, in 1950.
During the period from 1939, when the college was opened, to 1945, the students of McNeese presented only one play, Booth Tarkington’s Clarence, directed by Miss Frieda Scoggins. In 1945, the college acting group, the Bayou Players, began to present two three-act plays each year. Their productions in 1945 were Yes and No and Ladies in Retirement. In 1946, they presented Letters to Lucerne and The Front Page; in 1947, there was but one play, Of Mice and Men, the operetta taking up the time allotted to the production of a second play; in 1948, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; in 1949, Twelfth Night; and in 1950, The Rivals, presented in arena style. The college players had earlier that year presented several one-act plays in this manner.
In the summer of 1949, Mrs. Margery Wilson, instructor of speech at McNeese, organized a Junior Theatre, which was a series of classes in acting for children from five to sixteen. The children were divided into four age groups: from five to seven; from eight to ten; from ten to twelve; and from twelve to sixteen. These groups met for an hour, three afternoons a week, from ten to twelve weeks. Five weeks, approximately, were spent on each play. During the summer the groups presented four plays: Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, and The Indian Captive. During the second summer season, the Junior Theatre presented The Emperor’s New Clothes, Land of the Dragon, The Magic Sword, a dramatization of Mary Poppins, and Kinfolk of Robin Hood, through the courtesy of its author, Percy MacKaye. The plays were presented in the semi-round, that is the audience was seated on three sides of the acting area, the fourth side being used for entrances and exits. The classes and productions were held in a small dining room of the Majestic Hotel. During the first season, about seventy-five children participated. (5)
The motion pictures which had been gaining in popularity since 1908, when they first appeared, were flourishing during the period. A notable picture shown was Laurence Olivier in a Technicolor version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Two new first-run motion picture theatres, the Lyric and the Pitt, were built in 1949.
Radio station KPLC, which had first begun to broadcast in 1935, joined the National Broadcasting Company in 1944. Two other stations, KWSL and KLOU, were built in 1947. KWSL joined the Mutual network, and KLOU joined the American Broadcasting Company in 1948.
From 1941 to 1950, the greatest interest was shown by the people of Lake Charles in concerts, particularly large symphony concerts, and personal appearances by well-known artists. The local groups responsible for the appearance of these persons were the Community Concert Association, and the Civic Symphony. A new musical interest was noted in the appearance of several popular musicians and their orchestras. The ballet, heretofore virtually unknown in Lake Charles, was represented by three outstanding groups: Mia Slavenska, Marina Svetnova [Svetlova], and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
The opening of the McNeese Junior College Auditorium influenced the appearance of all the aforementioned groups, as well as several professional touring companies, particularly the Civic Drama Guild of New York and the Barter Theatre of Virginia.
During the period the minstrels and follies which had been popular presentations by the civic organizations were replaced by the work of the Lake Charles Little Theatre, the McNeese Bayou Players, and the McNeese Music Department’s annual operetta.
The general trend of the 1941 - 1950 period, in the light of what had preceded it in the years 1920 - 1940, was toward a solid local Little Theatre and a Junior Theatre, a great number of musical concerts, both classical and popular, and a growing interest in the appearance of professional touring companies.
SUMMARY OF PART I
Theatrical activity in Lake Charles for the years 1920 to 1950 may be divided into three distinct periods: the first, from 1920 to 1930, a period of great professional activity; the second, from 1931 to 1940, a period of virtually no professional productions, and a growing interest in musical events and in amateur theatricals; and the third, from 1941 to 1950, a period of still greater interest in music, a firm establishment of the little theatre, and a revival of interest in presentations by professional touring companies.
The events of the second two periods, from 1930 to 1950, were greatly influenced by the events of the first ten years. The great number of musical comedies, revues, and operettas presented from 1920 to 1926, was possibly the basis for the rapid growth of interest in musical concerts. The little theatre movement which took a solid foothold with the organization of the Lake Charles Little Theatre in 1927, (1) was foretold by the short-lived Little Theatre Guild in 1922 and 1923. The amateur minstrels and musicals of the 1930s had their roots in the professional black-face minstrels which were popular during the twenties.
The motion pictures grew steadily in popularity, as evidenced by the opening of a number of motion picture houses during the period. Radio did not become popular enough for the town to have a local station until 1935. In 1944, the first station, KPLC, joined NBC, and in 1948, two other stations, KWSL and KLOU, both built in 1947, joined MBC and ABC respectively.
The minstrel shows, vaudeville, and the tent-theatre stock companies began to die out at the beginning of the 1930s, although one stock company played the town as late as 1941.
The opening of the McNeese Junior College Auditorium in 1939 influenced to some extent the type of programs available. During the twenties the Arcade had flourished as a legitimate theatre. Later, when it was converted to a full-time motion picture house, both professional and amateur productions had to be presented in the Central School auditorium, and the Lake Charles High School auditorium, both of which were inadequate for large groups. During the period when only these facilities were available, there was a scarcity of theatrical presentations. When the McNeese auditorium was made available for productions, however, the number of concerts, operettas, and plays began to increase. Three local musical organizations were formed, which used the McNeese auditorium for their programs: the Community Concert Association, the Civic Symphony, and the Messiah Chorus. Professional touring companies, such as the Civic Drama Guild of New York and the Barter Theatre of Virginia began to play in Lake Charles.
If a graph could be made of the theatrical activity in Lake Charles during the thirty years from 1920 to 1950, it would probably show one line moving steadily upward representing the gradual growth of interest in musical events, beginning with the professional musicals in 1920, and ending with the community concert activity in 1950. The line for the professional theatre would show an increasingly rapid decline, beginning about 1926, and continuing until 1941, with a gradual rising from 1941 to 1950. For the amateur theatre, there would be a line moving sharply upward in 1922, with the organization of the Little Theatre Guild, a decline in 1923, and a steady rise from 1927 to 1950, representing the growth of the Lake Charles Little Theatre, the productions of other civic organizations, the McNeese Bayou Players, and the Junior Theatre. The motion pictures and radio would show a continuous and rapid rise. Vaudeville, the stock companies, the minstrel shows, and Chautauqua might be represented by one downward line, stopping completely in 1941. Thus graphically, with lines and figures, might the over-all picture of the theatrical activity in Lake Charles, Louisiana, from 1920 to 1950, be clearly shown.
The Growth and Development of the Lake Charles Little Theatre
The history of the Lake Charles Little Theatre may be divided into three distinct periods of activity. The first period runs from 1927, when the Little Theatre was organized, to 1930, when the group terminated activity because it had no place in which to give plays. The second covers the years from 1936, when activity was resumed, until 1942, when the Second World War caused the group to suspend activity for the duration. The third period runs from 1946, when activity was begun again after the war to 1950.
The Lake Charles Little Theatre was not the first such organization in the community. As early as 1878, amateur productions had been held, and during the 1880s the Magnolia Dramatic Club was organized. (1) Again in 1922 a Little Theatre Guild had been organized, but it was of short duration.
The initial meeting for the organization of the Lake Charles Little Theatre was held December 8, 1926, at the home of Mrs. T. A. Dees. Officers elected were Rosa Hart, president; Mrs. Dees, vice-president; and Mrs. Paul Barbe, secretary. Committees appointed were: the play reading committee, Mrs. E. N. Bullock, chairman; the ways and means committee, Mrs. t. F. Porter, chairman; the casting committee, Sam Quilty, R. F. Cisco, and Miss Zena Thomson; the costume committee, Mrs. Homer C. Abbie, chairman; and the publicity committee, Miss Georgia Williams and Phil Reilly. (2)
A second organizational meeting was held January 7, 1927. An open letter to the public was to be issued by Mrs. T. F. Porter, pertaining to the types of membership offered by the group. An active membership would entitle the holder to take part in productions, to be eligible for office or committee work, and to have a vote in the policy of the organization. An associate membership would entitle the holder to attend productions and teas, but would not entitle the holder to be cast in any production. (3)
On February 18, 1927, announcement was made in the American Press of the initial production of the Little Theatre to be held February 24 in the Parish House of St. James Episcopal Church [Actually at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd according to the American Press Feb. 23, 1927. There was no St. James Episcopal Church in Lake Charles in 1927 according to the City Directory]. Three one-act plays were to be presented; Overtones, a psychological character study; Moonshine, also a psychological study; and Suppressed Desires, a comedy. Another kind of membership available was announced, the junior membership, for the young people of the community.
The initial production was a success. Approximately two hundred fifty persons, comprising the original membership of the organization, were present. The Little Theatre Orchestra, which played for every performance from the first until 1948, presented musical selections between the plays. Moonshine, the first play, with Paul Quilty and Carl Ayres [Ayers], was also directed by Mr. Quilty. Overtones, directed by Miss Lesa Jordan, presented Mrs. Dunc McCormick as Harriet, Miss Geneva Prater as Hetty, Mrs. T. F. Porter as Margaret, and Miss Ruth Landry as Maggie. In Suppressed Desires, which was directed by Miss Zena Thomson, were Mrs. J. W. Gardiner as Henrietta Brewster, Miss Mildred Patterson as Mabel, and Howard Cornay as Stephen Brewster. The play reading committee had chosen wisely these three plays which are among the best one-act plays written.
The first of a long line of “drawing room” meetings was held on February 29, at the Majestic Hotel. Such meetings were begun with the purpose of acquainting the membership with those plays which could not be produced by the Little Theatre, because of high royalties, difficult sets, etc. The first program included a vocal solo by Mrs. Arthur Gayle and an original sketch by Mr. and Mrs. T. E. Brown of Oakdale.
On March 3 a business meeting was held, at which time a financial report was made. At that time the organization had in its treasury over one thousand dollars, received from the five dollar active memberships and the two dollars and a half junior memberships. It was decided that this sum would be sufficient to pay the expenses of the first production, purchase curtains and other permanent stage accessories, with some money left over for a reserve fund. It was also decided that a building fund should be created. At the time of the meeting there were two hundred thirteen members, twenty-three of which were juniors.
Following the business meeting a program was given featuring two solos by Mrs. Arthur Gayle, a sketch of the personality and life of the playwright George Kelly, Pulitzer Prize winner for 1926, by Mrs. T. F. Porter, and a reading of a condensation of Kelly’s Craig’s Wife, by Mrs. Paul Barbe. (4)
On April 19, announcement was made of the second group of plays to be presented April 21. The Trysting Place, by Booth Tarkington, was to be directed by Sam Quilty, with the following cast: Allen Dees, Mrs. Lastie Vincent, Mrs. Gordon Smith, Mrs. Camelia Jordan, Allen Rhorer, and Howard Trotter. J. C. Ayres was to direct the second play, a drama by Eugene Pillot entitled The Crooks and a Lady, with Miss Luna Hearne, Dr. G. L. Talbot, Miss Sallie Martin, and Miss Mabel Dees. Rosa Hart, president of the organization, directed the third play, Ben Hecht’s fantasy The Wonder Hat, with Mark Thomson, Miss Edith Pearce, Miss Emma Roussell , Bob Howell, Jr., and W. E. Gorham.
The three plays were presented a second time on April 28 as a benefit for the relief of flood victims. Moonshine, one of the three opening plays, was also presented. The benefit program added three hundred dollars to the flood fund.
The Little Theatre group was paid a visit on October 24, 1927, by Mrs. Irvin Bettin, president of the Little Theatre, Beaumont, Texas, and Mr. E. E. Bartlett, professional director of that group. Mrs. Bettin and Mr. Bartlett complimented the Lake Charles group on their work and expressed themselves as favorably impressed with the Episcopal Parish House as a little theatre. After Mr. Bartlett’s visit, the group seriously considered engaging him as a part-time professional director. (5)
The first Little Theatre season closed on October 27 and 28 with a third group of plays. The plays which were to have been presented in the spring, were held over until the fall because of the flood in April. The three plays presented were written by Mrs. E. N. Bullock, a prominent member of the Little Theatre, who had been instrumental in organizing the earlier Little Theatre Guild in 1922. The outstanding play of the group, according to the review of October 29, was Rita, a tragedy. Mr. Limbocker was splendid as Captain Bradbury. Also included in the cast were Mrs. Jim Gardiner, Miss Gertrude Chalkley, and T. M. Dietz. The play was directed by Miss Zena D. Thomson.
Pierrot’s Penny, a children’s fantasy, featured Bob Knox, who carried well the role of Pierrot. Also featured were Mrs. Miller Mims, Cecil Bergstedt, Van Andrus, Curtis Cook, Earl Reid, and Herman Horsen [Hansen].
The third play, a short comedy entitled Ricky-Rivers-Amuck (sic) (Ricky-Runs-Amok), was presented by Miss Clara Mae Hearne, Fred A. Hart, Benjamin Foster, A. J. Bel, and Oscar Maxfield.
During this first season, nine plays had been presented and forty-two actors had participated under five directors. The persons working on the various committees numbered seventy-five. The group made a number of significant purchases of equipment: a front curtain, a black felt cyclorama, a set of stage flats for a permanent interior, three olivets, and two sets of strip lights. The organization also put lines, ropes and the beginning of a fly loft into the stage of the Episcopal Parish House. Twenty-five books and three subscriptions to theatrical magazines formed the beginning of the library of the Little Theatre.
The stage of the newly built Parish House of the St. James Episcopal Church [again, there was no St. James Episcopal Church in Lake Charles, this should be the Church of the Good Shepherd], which was the first home to the Little Theatre, presented many difficult production problems to the group. The following excerpt from an article about the Little Theatre by Miss Rosa Hart, the director, in the 1948 McNeese Review, vividly describes the facilities available at that time:
The stage at the Episcopal Church Parish House was exactly 19 feet wide, proscenium opening, and 9 feet deep from footlights to solid brick wall. The light switches were in a little room offstage where the man controlling the switches could only push a button by guess, being completely walled off from the stage itself. The big traveler curtain had been a labor of love and sweat of three Little Theatre ladies who thought that, though they did not know much about it, the Little Theatre was a very smart social move of the time. In order to pull this curtain, the man on the ropes had to be offstage in a room opposite the light man. He, too, pulled by guess. Another small difficulty was the flight of stairs, one on each side just off stage. Any actor of the time making a too quick exit might well find himself catapulted down a flight, and hard against the light or curtain man.
During the second season, 1927 - 1928, three more sets of three one-act plays each were presented. The first group on December 8, 1927, was directed by Mr. E. E. Bartlett, newly employed professional director from the Beaumont Little Theatre. The plays presented were Will O’ the Wisp, a fantasy of the Irish folk of the moors, with Mrs. O. K. Lake, Mrs. Dunc McCormick, Miss Pauline Prime, and Rosalie Williamson; For Distinguished Service, with Mrs. Harvey Townsend as Jill Harding, and Mrs. Lastie Vincent and Annie Laurie Schlegel; and The Valiant, with William Conover in the lead, supported by Allen McLain, Mrs. Charles Siess, G. W. Ford, and Robert Stevens. (6)
The second group of plays for that season were presented February 2, 1928. The Cajun, a prize winning sketch of Louisiana life by Ada Jack Carver, was directed by Mrs. Ione Raven Ferguson, former head of the dramatic department at the University of South Dakota. The fine realistic setting was designed and executed by Boyd Cruise who had done other sets for the Little Theatre. His work in this and later productions attracted much attention. At this time Cruise was still a senior in high school. In addition to his work as set designer, Cruise also played the difficult role of Papite. Miss Mildred Patterson, as Julie, was outstanding, and Miss Lesa Jordan gave a fine interpretation of Madame Armide. Charles Martin played Pierre; George Potter, Anatole, and David Levingston, Father Martel. (7)
The other two plays were the ever-popular Joint Owners in Spain and The Pot Boiler. In the first, Mrs. G. W. Streater, as Mrs. Dyer, and Mrs. R. L. Curran, as Mrs. Blair, did a fine contrasting character work. Others in the cast were Mrs. Helen W. Sillin [Siling] as Mrs. Fullerton, and Mrs. G. C. McKinney was the matron, Mrs. Mitchell. In The Pot Boiler, Val Irion was the playwright, Judson Welsh, Mr. Wouldby, and others in the cast, Miss Amy Stenjus [Stenius], Miss Marion Uhry, Ralph Shirley, Howard Cornay, W. E. Gorham, and George Boudreaux.
A particular milestone in the Little Theatre’s history occurred on April 17, 1928, when the first full length play was produced. Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen was the play. With the exception of the three adults, the fathers and mother of the story, the entire cast was made up of junior members, and the stage settings were designed and executed by Boyd Cruise, also a junior member. In the confines of the small stage of the Parish House, Cruise achieved interesting effects. The first set was an interior, done with French doors and windows. The second set was an exterior at night, done in Spanish architecture. The play was directed by Mrs. Ione Raven Ferguson, assisted by Miss Rosalie Williamson. George Boudreaux was stage manager, assisted by George Ryan and George Robinson. (8)
Allen Dees as Willie Baxter, the seventeen-year-old, did exceedingly well, according to the April 18 review, and the audience showed its approval. Leesola Bostick as his little sister was outstanding. Sally Schubert, as Lola Pratt; Annabel Courtney, as May Parcher; C.V. Deaux [Deax] as Genesis, the colored man, were all excellent. Albert Bel, Dick Tate, Billy Cole, Malcolm Heimendinger, Rayda Wallace, Mary Evelyn Calvert were the other boys and girls in the play. Alva Frith did splendid work as Mr. Parcher, particularly in one scene where he spoke no lines; Mrs. Loree Briggs was the mother and Charles Richardson, the father of Willie Baxter. One other member of the cat was Flopit, a small woolly dog.
Two of the one- act plays were presented again on April 20 in the Central School auditorium for a benefit fund for sick soldiers at the Alexandria Hospital. Joint Owners in Spain and Will O’ the Wisp were presented by the former casts.
The final offering for the season was on May 18, when again three one-act plays were presented: El Christo, a folk drama of New Mexico; Bagatelle, by Samuel Gilmore, who was present at the production; and The Florist Shop. The plays were directed by Edward Martin, who had worked in stock and on Broadway. The sets were by Boyd Cruise. (9)
At the close of its second season, the Lake Charles Little Theatre had presented a total of nineteen plays, using about one hundred persons, “only eleven of them appearing twice,” seventy-five or more persons were engaged behind the scenes and in other work, and eleven played in the orchestra. Eight permanent committees functioned.
Equipment purchased during the 1927 - 1928 season included nine lighted music stands, six candelabra, an India print tapestry for the auditorium, and a ground cloth. (10)
The plans for the 1928 - 1929 season included four sets of plays, a junior play, and several three- or four-act plays. The officers elected for the 1928 - 1929 season were Rosa Hart, president; Mrs. T. F. Porter, vice-president; Mrs. J. W. Gardiner, second vice-president; Mrs. Paul Barbe, secretary; and Miss Laura Dees, treasurer. The board members elected were Mrs. Lee Moss, Paul Quilty, Warren Limbocker, Charlie Bunker, and C. A. McCoy. The following committees were set up: backstage, music, reading, properties, casting, settings, publicity, costumes, auditorium, membership, and juniors. The services of E. E. Bartlett, of the Beaumont Little Theatre, were secured, as professional director for one set of plays. (11)
The season opened late in October with the Philip Barry play You and I. The exact date of production is not known, for the only mention of the play in the American Press was on October 2, 1928, when the following cast list appeared: Nancy White, Mrs. C. C. Noble, Maitland White, A. P. Frith, Roderick White, Jack Gardiner, Veronica Duane, Virginia Allen, Geoffrey Nichols, R. F. Cisco, G. T. Harren, Bristow Huchins [Hutchins], and Amy Echoff.
Three one-act plays were presented on December 18: The Vanishing Princess, The Mayor and the Manicure, a comedy sketch by George Ade, and The Giant’s Staircase.
The first of what have come to be called “invited plays,” was presented by the Little Theatre of Beaumont on February 7, 1929. The play presented was St. John Ervine’s The Ship, directed by E. Roland Wilkerson.
The last plays of the season were on May 7, and were The Eldest, The Twelve Pound Look, and The Cup of Tea.
During the 1929 - 1930 season, The Giant’s Staircase was performed two nights in Beaumont, Texas. No further mention is made in the American Press of performances during the 1929 - 1930 season. However, there undoubtedly were other productions since mention is made of the theatre’s existence from 1927 to 1930, in articles at the time of the reorganization in 1936, and again at the opening of the theatre building in 1939.
The Little Theatre played at the Parish House until the end of the 1929 - 1930 season, at which time it was forced to suspend activities for a number of reasons. The Parish House was no longer available for use; Boyd Cruise, who had served as scenic designer, left to attend art school through the efforts of the Little Theatre; and the depression was just beginning to be felt. (12) The scenery and other equipment belonging to the Little Theatre was stored at the gymnasium of the Landry Memorial School and was used in plays by the students. The members of the Little Theatre continued to meet, and the “drawing room” meetings which had been introduced in 1927 continued to be held at the Majestic Hotel, about three such meetings being held each year. The group was, however, inactive insofar as actual production is concerned until April, 1936, when they presented The Trial of Mary Dugan at the parish courthouse for the Enterprise Club. In October of the same year, the Junior League presented The Drunkard at the Majestic Hotel with the technical assistance of the Little Theatre.
Reorganization of the Little Theatre was begun in February, 1936. The new home for the group was the Masonic Lodge Room of the Masonic Temple. At the time of reorganization, the Little Theatre held a five hundred dollar mortgage on the Lake Charles Country Club, and had $426.25 in the Calcasieu Marine Bank. A budget of $1500 was adopted for the year. (13) Officers elected were Mrs. T. F. Porter, president; Alva Frith, vice-president; Mrs. Frank Harmon, second vice-president; Albert Bel, treasurer; and Edwin Courtney, secretary. Members at large elected were T. H. Mandell, R. E. Leake, Mrs. T. A. Dees, Mrs. Emmett Morrison; J. Alton Foster, Howard Trotter, W. E. Gorham, Mrs. Hazel Vincent, and Dr. Paul Quilty.
In addition to presenting their plays at the Masonic Temple, the Little Theatre also had a Little Theatre Workshop, the upper story of a building at 210 Pujo Street, belonging to Mr. C. L. Briggs, who had been elected president in 1937. The workshop consisted of a green room, library, stockroom, and workshop. Primarily designed as a place for building scenery, it soon became, however, the meeting place for the junior members. Acting and production classes were held for them, instruction being handled by the adult members of the Junior Committee. On December 1, 1936, the first workshop plays were presented. The junior members presented The Rehearsal by Christopher Morley, taking complete charge of the production, under the direction of Miss Frieda Scoggins. The adult members presented The Revealing Moment. The workshop continued in use until 1939, when the present Little Theatre building became available. In its heyday, the workshop was the scene of much activity. Scenery was constructed and painted there. When completed, all flats, props, and other large stage equipment was lowered from the second-story windows of the workshop by pulley and rope onto a truck, and were taken to the Masonic Temple for the production. Such moving took place the Saturday afternoon prior to the opening the following Monday. This allowed Saturday afternoon, night, and all day Sunday to get the stage set up for the performance. (During this period, the plays were presented only once, as the membership was only about three hundred.) (14)
The first play of the opening half-season of 1936 was Three Cornered Moon on April 16. Ghost Train, on May 25, was the first play attempted in which sound and lighting effects played the major part. (15)
The first production of the 1936 - 1937 season was Cock Robin, on September 28, 1936. This was the first production for which the set and props were constructed and collected at the workshop. Cock Robin was followed in quick succession by The Barker, on December 14, 1936, and A Bill of Divorcement, February 22, 1937. During this season several “drawing room “ meetings were held at which Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty and Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset were read, and Bernard Szold, director of the New Orleans Little Theatre, presented Mr. Antonio.
On March 18, 1937, a charter and articles of incorporation were filed for the Little Theatre. The furtherance of educational, literary, scientific and charitable purposes were listed as motives for incorporation.
The first play to be presented at the Masonic Temple in which more than one set was used was Lightnin’, on May 17, 1927. It is evident that the facilities of the Episcopal Parish House and the Masonic Temple made the presentation of plays calling for elaborate sets impractical. However, the set changes for Lightnin’ went off smoothly and paved the way for more elaborate productions.
The 1937 - 1938 season opened with First Lady, on October 4, 1937. A second performance was given on March 7, 1938, at the Beaumont Little Theatre Playhouse, Beaumont, Texas. One of the members of the original cast was obliged to fly some 1,000 miles from the Oklahoma-New Mexico border to participate in this production. (16)
Kind Lady was presented November 22, followed by Ceiling Zero, February 28, 1938. Ceiling Zero was among the first of the Little Theatre productions to require an unusually large cast, eighteen men and four women.
The last production to be presented at the Masonic Temple was Stage Door, another play with a large cast, in this case, twenty-three women and eleven men.
Two “drawing room” meetings held during the season featured a reading of Susan and God and a scene from Victoria Regina.
Using the Masonic Temple as a make-shift theatre presented something of a problem to the Little Theatre, even with a workshop in which to build scenery. So, in July, 1937, the group purchased three building lots, with the idea of building a little theatre at some future date. The time when they would need a new home came sooner than expected: the Masons needed their lodge room for their own activities and asked the Little Theatre to vacate. Instead of building on their lots, however, the Little Theatre purchased a livery stable at 320 Bilbo Street. The stable, then owned by the Railway Express Company, had been built in 1910 by the American Express Company to house their dray horses, but it had long since become a white elephant, and the Express Company was only too glad to be rid of it. The purchase price was $4000. The Little Theatre bought the building and immediately began to convert it into a theatre. Since no one knew anything about theatre design, the interior was divided in the simplest way possible. The contractor said that supports would have to be placed in the interior every twenty feet if all the stalls were to be removed. The building, which was 120 x 40 feet, was subsequently divided into multiples of twenty. The first twelve feet comprised the lobby, and a small ticket office to the left and a lavatory to the right. In the middle there was built a flight of steps leading up to the main part of the foyer. Above the lower part of the lobby a lounge and powder room was built from the old hayloft. The auditorium, built 40 x 40 feet, has entrances at the rear to the extreme left and right, with the aisles along the outside walls. The seats, which were purchased after they had been discarded from the local courthouse, were placed in a block in the center of the auditorium. There are fourteen rows of seats, with nineteen seats in each row. The floor of the auditorium has a rise of approximately one inch to the foot. The light fixtures were made from old ox-yokes and lanterns, hand-wired, and hung from the original harness hooks. No new windows or doors were put in, the windows being the slide gratings to the stalls. The proscenium was cut right through two of the grates, portions of which are still visible on either side of the arch. The stage utilized the remaining porting [portion] of the building and was quite small, being forty feet wide and twenty-two feet deep from footlights to dressing room walls. The proscenium was eleven feet high and twenty-seven feet wide, allowing about six feet on either side for wing space. There was no overhead room for flying scenery, a fourteen-foot flat being the tallest that would fit without scraping the ceiling. With no wing space and no fly space, all scenery had to be constructed and shifted within the remaining thirty-eight feet directly behind the acting area. Within this thirty-eight feet were built four dressing rooms, two on either side of the building, directly behind the acting area, one above and one below; a green room beyond the dressing rooms on stage left, with a prop dock above. In the remaining area, actually used for construction, were built racks for flats, and lumber, a carpenter’s bench, a paint department, and an electrical department. The make-up room, which occupied the lower stage left dressing room, was down a short flight of steps and had a makeup table constructed from the marble top of a drugstore soda fountain. The costume room was part of an upstairs dressing. The interior of the whole building was painted with red-brown stain. The aisle carpets came from one of the hotels, and the drapes, dyed a dark red, were once burlap bags donated by a local laundry. The main curtain was made by the costume department. At the time of its gala opening of February 6, 1939, with the production of the play Outward Bound, the building had cost the Little Theatre membership a total of $9000.
During the remodeling of the building, only one play was presented, The Night of January 16, at the parish courthouse on November 2, 1938.
Instead of the usual theatre program for the opening of the theatre the first issue of Stable Talk, the Little Theatre newspaper, was published. It carried news of the early days of the Little Theatre, a description of the remodeling of the building, and information about the actors in the opening production.
Other productions for the 1938 - 1939 season were Personal Appearance, March 27 and 28, 1939; a one act-play night on May 12, the junior membership presenting Submerged and The Tenth Word; and The Cradle Snatchers, on May 22-23. Two "drawing room" meetings were also held, and a series of thirteen commercially sponsored Sunday afternoon broadcasts were presented over radio station KPLC. The Little Theatre building was much used that first season by other civic groups for lectures, piano and dance recitals, etc.
In the summer of 1939, the “Sweat and Culture Club” was organized, for the purpose of cleaning up the theatre and getting ready for the next season. At each meeting there was a short program, usually a one-act play or reading. (17) Springtime for Henry was presented in arena style, the audience sitting on the stage around the acting area. During August of that year construction was begun on a twenty-foot tile annex at the rear of the building.
The 1939 -1940 season opened with You Can’t Take It With You on October 16 and 17, followed by Night Must Fall. In this production for the first time the orchestra was used as an integral part of the drama, working in “sneak music” to heighten the dramatic effect. (18)
The junior members presented Little Women on February 19, 1940, under the direction of Miss Frieda Scoggins. For this production authentic Civil War costumes, acquired by diligent searching through local attics by the costume committee, were used. Room Service followed on April 8 and 9. The final production of the season was Mary Roberts Rinehart’s thriller The Bat, for which, for the first time, a wagon set was used for the third act attic scene. The 1939 - 1940 season is notable in that it was the first season in which five plays were presented.
Prior to the official opening of the 1940 - 1941 season with Candle Light, on October 14 and 15, Mrs. Ethel Brett, technical director of the New Orleans Little Theatre, lectured on scene design, and a one-act play, directed by Harper Clark, was presented on September 6. Whistling in the Dark was presented December 16 and 17, and The Women, under the sponsorship of the Junior Welfare League, was presented at the McNeese auditorium, on November 7. This was the most ambitious undertaking to date, as it called for twelve scenes and seven sets.
On March 31, 1941, a group of students from the elementary schools, high school, and junior college presented three one-act plays: Old Man Taterbug, by the elementary school children; The Minuet by the junior college people; and “Backstage,” a scene from The Torchbearers, by the high school group.
The presentation of Elizabeth the Queen, on April 28, 29, 30, and May 1, 1941, marked the first time a play had been presented for more than two nights in succession. It was also the first time two persons had been cast for the same role; there were two Elizabeths who played on alternate nights. Spotlighting was also used for the first time as a means of high lighting. The costumes were made by the costume committee, borrowed from colleges and other little theatres, and the armor, boots, and swords were rented from a theatrical costumer in New York. A quintet from the Little Theatre orchestra provided period music. All proceeds from the performances went to Bundles for Britain. This was the second time the Little Theatre had played a benefit, the first time, in 1927, for the flood sufferers.
A singular honor for the group was an invitation to present a play at a meeting of the National Theatre Conference in New York City. The Lake Charles Little Theatre was one of four community theatres to receive such an invitation. The plans, however, were not carried through to completion, and no play was presented.
The last play of the season, presented on June 9 and 10, was Here Today, by George Oppenheimer.
The last season of the second period of the Little Theatre’s history was in 1941 - 1942. At that time, of the $9000 of the original mortgage on the building only three hundred was yet unpaid.
The season opened with The Man Who Came to Dinner, on November 10 and 11, 1941. Previews were given on the Saturday and Sunday prior to the opening for the soldiers who were in Lake Charles over the weekend. What a Life, which was presented February 11 and 12, 1942, used a large number of the junior members of high school age. This production was taken to Camp Polk the weekend following the presentation in Lake Charles. Reserve Two for Murder was presented on June 11 and 12. During the summer, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Happy Journey, and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals were read in arena style, at the meeting of the “Associated Summer Suckers,” a new name for the group which had been organized in the summer of 1939 under the name of “The Sweat and Culture Club.”
The last play of the season was My Sister Eileen, presented November 16 and 17. There was no season scheduled for 1942 -1943, the group having disbanded for the duration of the war. Instead of the usual five dollar membership, a one dollar sustaining membership was offered. This money was used to pay the insurance on the building and to pay for lights and utilities of the building, which was still being used by the group. Some productions were presented during the period of inactivity with the service men who came to Lake Charles.
The first post-war season began with the production of Boy Meets Girl, October 14, 15, 16, and 17, 1946. The second issue of the Little Theatre paper, Stable Talk, was printed as the program for the reopening. A special song, There’s a Pain in My Heart and My Heart’s on My Sleeve, was written by Lee Hyatt for the play.
Miss Rosa Hart, who had been the first president of the Little Theatre in 1927, and who also had become director in 1927, again was director of the group, continuing in this capacity to the present time.
On the night of December 28, 1946, the ceremony of burning the mortgage on the little theatre building was held with a musical program afterwards. (19)
One of the most complicated staging problems undertaken by the Little Theatre was the production of I Remember Mama, December 9-12, 1946. For the production, one hundred light cues were necessary. There were twenty-nine scene shifts in charge of three crews. Special assistance to the crews was given by Earl Crumb of the Theatrical Supply House of New Orleans. For the first time supplementary revolving stages were used on either side of a large stationary inner stage on which the major scenes of the play took place. The rest of the stage was draped in black. Fifteen complete changes of set were made in the twenty-nine shifts. (20)
The production of I Remember Mama was followed by an equally difficult one of Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland, February 17-20, 1947. In this production appeared three of the members of the Elizabeth the Queen cast. One of the Elizabeths again played the role. As in the production of Elizabeth, two young ladies were cast in the leading role, and alternated in the performances.
The production was done in five sets with seven changes. The throne room set was stationary, with set pieces on dollies wheeled in for the other changes. The sets were quite elaborate and authentic to the period.
The practice of having an “invited play” from another little theatre was reinstituted when the New Orleans Little Theatre presented Biography on Saturday, March 7, 1927, at the McNeese Auditorium. The only restrictions placed on the type of play another group might present was that it be a one-set show with a cast of ten or fewer. Only those groups that were close enough to make the trip to Lake Charles comfortably by automobile were invited to bring a play. All sets and furniture for the play were secured by the Lake Charles group. Each set was built as nearly as possible like the original set used by the visiting group through the use of detailed drawings sent several weeks ahead of time. Since the invited groups could stay for only one performance, the McNeese Auditorium was used because of its large seating capacity.
On March 28, 1947, George Freedley (co-author of History of the Theatre by Freedley and Reeves) lectured at the Little Theatre on the current Broadway season with comments on famous stage personalities. Topics were “Two Seats on the Aisle” and “The Theatre Has Swallowed a Tapeworm.” For the production of Arsenic and Old Lace, presented April 21-24, 1947, Mr. Freedley sent one of his own bow ties for Mortimer, the dramatic critic in the play, to wear.
On July 31, 1947, Mrs. Ethel Crumb Brett, of the New Orleans Little Theatre, and Mr. Earl Crumb and of the Theatrical Supply House of New Orleans gave instructions in scene design and lighting techniques respectively. Mr. Crumb also gave special instructions to the Little Theatre lighting crew in the use of the new lighting equipment installed for use during the 1947 - 1948 season.
After the two very elaborate productions of the 1946 - 1947 season, the following season opened with a straight realistic play, State of the Union, which required only four completely realistic interior sets. The season’s quota of two thousand members was filled before the play opened. The membership demands were so great that a five night run was inaugurated.
An interesting production was The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street, December 15-19, 1947. The wallpaper used in the set was the exact duplicate of that used in the professional production. Pictures of the costumes worn by Katherine Cornell in the play, and by Norma Shearer in the movie version were used in fashioning the costumes for the Little Theatre production. A husband and wife team, George and Lady Liskow, played Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. (21)
The “invited play” of the season was Dear Ruth by the Little Theatre of Shreveport, on January 31, 1948, at the McNeese Auditorium.
Casting for Joan of Lorraine, which was to be the fourth production of the ’47 - ’48 season, was suspended because of difficulty in getting release from the play service, since a professional company staring Diana Barrymore was appearing in New Orleans and might possibly play Lake Charles. (22) Instead, Death Takes a Holiday was presented March 15-19, 1948. Seymour Greenman of Crowley stepped into the central role when the leading man became ill, and learned lines and business in six rehearsals.
A particularly important event in the Little Theatre’s growth was the production of The Great Big Doorstep, a play about the Cajun people of Louisiana, presented May 17-22, 1948. Life Magazine sent Mrs. Mary Leatherbee, writer, with Michael Rougier, photographer, to cover the rehearsals of the play, and prepare for publication a picture-story of the Little Theatre. The article, which subsequently appeared in the June 14, 1948 issue of Life, presents an interesting view of the Little Theatre at work.
For the production, and old weather-beaten cypress shack belonging to the Chalkley property at the Sweet Lake community, was moved piece by piece onto the Little Theatre stage, in the interests of a realistic setting for the play. (23)
A fine performance was given by Elizabeth Carstens, who played Nana Crochet, with flawless Cajun dialect.
On September 27, 1948, a series of weekly radio plays over station KLOU called Encore Performance was begun with a radio adaptation of Moonshine, the first play to be presented by the Lake Charles Little Theatre.
After closing the 1947 - 1948 season with a rather spectacular production of Lindsay and Crouse’s hit Life With Father, October 20-26, 1948. Much effort was expended on the period set and costumes. The stairs and banisters were authentic, having been in the old Kaufman home on the corner of Broad and Bilbo streets. The costumes were constructed according to period, and some actual garments were used. (24)
The second production was the mystery by George M. Cohan, Seven Keys to Baldpate, December 13-18, 1948.
Within the month of January, 1949, the Little Theatre was featured in the Sunday magazine sections of both the Houston Chronicle and the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspapers.
The invited play of the year, on January 29, was an original play, Lovers and Madmen, by Ralph Mead, director of the Houston Little Theatre. In addition to writing the play, Mr. Mead also directed it and played the male lead. A handsome modern set was constructed by the Lake Charles Little Theatre on the McNeese stage.
On March 14-20, Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie was presented with success. Featured in the production were Laura C. Knapp as Amanda; Pat Chenet as Laura; James V. McConnell, as Tom; and Roger Hathorn, as the Gentleman Caller.
The third issue of the first volume of Stable Talk was printed for the production on May 9-16, 1949, of Noel Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit. Madame Arcati, the cycling medium was played by Elizabeth Carstens, who had played so well in The Great Big Doorstep.
As a part of the “Associated Summer Suckers” program, on August 22, two student actors, Pat Chenet and Kenneth Rose presented Tennessee Williams’ playlet This Property Is Condemned in arena staging.
The first production of the 1949 -1950 season was Ruth Gordon’s sophisticated comedy Over Twenty-One. This was followed by The Pursuit of Happiness, known more familiarly as the “bundling play,” on December 12-17, 1949. The part of Max Christmann, the Hessian, was played by Walter Stapfer, a young Swiss who had been in the United States only a few days when he was cast in the play. The script which was written in dialect had to be re-written into correct English for Stapfer, so that he might supply his own dialect.
On February 4, 1950, the Memphis Little Theatre presented George Kelly’s Fatal Weakness. March 27-April 1, Lillian Hellman’s drama The Little Foxes was presented with Ann Quilty Smythe as Regina Giddens.
The crowning achievement of 1950 was the addition of a new wing, costing $3000. The wing, 14x56 feet, built on the stage left side of the building, extends the whole length of the backstage area. In the arena were built a new makeup room, a costume room with four cedar-lined closets, and over-head and extra prop storage space. The added wing space meant that all sets no longer had to be shifted from the area directly behind the acting area, but could be moved in from the wings in the usual manner. Also completed was a patio, of the same width as the new addition and directly in front of it, running the length of the auditorium, with entrances from the new wing, the lobby, and from the street.
The Little Theatre was again featured in a national magazine, in an article by Harnett Kane in the May issue of Pageant magazine. The article, “They’re All Characters in Lake Charles,” played up the unique incidents in the theatre’s history.
The final play of the 1949 - 1950 season was Samuel Spewack’s comedy Two Blind Mice.
On June 21, 1950, the “Associated Summer Suckers” listened to a translation from the German by Walter Stapfer and Marian Reed of a Voice of America broadcast based on Kane’s article in Pageant.
The Lake Charles Little Theatre, organized in 1927, has had three periods of development: from 1927 to 1930, when productions were held in the Parish House of the Episcopal Church; from 1936 to 1942, when productions were held in the Masonic Temple, and beginning in 1939, in the Little Theatre building, reconstructed from a livery stable; and from 1946 to 1950, a post-World War II period, when productions were presented in the Little Theatre building.
The various types of theatre facilities in which plays were presented is an important factor in the development of the Lake Charles Little Theatre. Being a community theatre, with no trained personnel, the group began by presenting evenings of three one-act plays, each play directed by a different person. Owing to the crowed stage area of the Parish House, only the simplest of sets could be constructed. Lighting was chiefly for illumination rather than effect. After the group had become sufficiently skilled in the production of one-act plays, they branched out and began to present three-act plays, requiring only one or two sets. This was the first period of their history, the organizational period.
In the second period, during which plays were presented at the Masonic Temple, with construction in the Little Theatre Workshop on Pujo Street, still more elaborate productions were attempted, particularly plays with large casts. With the opening of a permanent little theatre building, the group began to be increasingly ambitious in their undertakings. Still most popular was the one-set drawing-room comedy, but such elaborate productions as Mary of Scotland, I Remember Mama, The Women, and Elizabeth the Queen were presented, all characterized by a painstaking attention to realistic detail in both settings and costumes.
The period after World War II is characterized by a trend toward the more sophisticated type of drama. There is also a notable consistency in the fact that the plays presented throughout, with the exception of several one-act original scripts which were presented during the early period, 1927 -1930, had at one time or another been Broadway hits. By presenting the sort of plays which would appeal to the majority of the membership, the Little Theatre firmly established itself as an integral part of the theatrical life of the community.
Organization of the Lake Charles Little Theatre
The organization of the Lake Charles Little Theatre as set up in 1927 was essentially the same in 1950. The theatre was governed by a Board of Directors made up of five elective officers - president, two vice-presidents, secretary, and treasurer - and five members at large. In addition to these ten elective members, the chairman of the working committees, about fifteen in number, were also represented on the Board. (1) Election of officers was held at the final meeting of the board each spring. The president was by tradition a man. (There is no written constitution or by-laws for the organization. The only document is the Little Theatre Recorded Articles of Incorporation.) The two vice-presidents, Mrs. L. P. Vincent, Sr., and Mrs. W. E. Gorham, Sr., elected in 1937, still held office in 1950. The five members at large were all prominent business men, who served as legal and financial advisors. At the first meeting in 1950, however, these gentlemen were made a standing committee for the physical plant, in charge of repairs, additions, and general upkeep.
The actual work of running the theatre was in the hands of the various committees, which maybe divided into two categories: (1) production committees and (2) all other committees not directly concerned with production. The committees will be discussed separately in so far as they warrant consideration, and are as follows:
1. I. Production:
II. Other Committees:
b. Box Office
c. Front of the House
Stage manager and chief technician for the Little Theatre from 1927 until his retirement in 1948 was Mr. George Boudreaux, who had worked at the old Opera House and the Lyric Theatre during the early 1900s. Mr. Boudreaux was instrumental in teaching the early members of the Little Theatre set construction and lighting.
The Set Committee has been headed by Miss Lillian Reed since 1936. Miss Reed, by profession an X-Ray technician, has had no formal training in set design. No sketches or drawings are used in the construction of a set. The sets are evolved from shifting flats around to fit the desired dimensions. Much time and effort are spent on the sets, with great attention to realistic detail.
The Costume Committee is headed by a general chairman, who calls a meeting of her committee before each season to assign chairmen to the plays for the coming season. Each play is assigned to a different person. The committee for each play contain twice as many persons as there are costumes, two working on each costume. This system serves a dual purpose: it keeps the same persons from being over-worked, and gives a large number of people a part in each production. In addition to two workers to a costume, each character in the play has a “dresser” who helps with costume changes, and takes care of the costumes and hand properties, such as bags, gloves, and hats.
The costumes are not actually designed but are worked out by the costume chairman and the director. Whenever possible, actual clothing from the period is used. Materials are purchased for the costumes when needed, but costs are kept to a minimum. Costumes for Elizabethan productions are not made but are borrowed or rented. Costumes for plays in modern dress are supplied by the actors themselves with the supervision of the Costume Committee.
“In the Parish House days three olivets had been bought for lighting. These same olivets are still serving twenty-two years later.” (2) Modern lighting equipment has been added from time to time, particularly after the little theatre was built in 1939. In 1950, three 2000-watt spotlights with variable framing shutters were added. Lighting of the upstage acting area is done with twelve 400-watt spotlights placed on an overhead batten. The downstage acting area is lighted with ten 400- watt spots and the three 2000-watt spots placed on a central overhead beam in the auditorium. (3) There is one row of footlights, of single colored bulbs in open sockets. All the lights are controlled from a control board set up in the orchestra pit.
In the early days of the theatre, lighting was a matter of getting enough light on the stage so that the actors could at least be seen. There was no one trained in lighting techniques; effects were achieved by trial and error. T. V. Hutchins, who for many years was chief electrician, got many of his lighting effects, even after newer equipment was purchased, by much the same method.
In spite of the addition of new equipment, only a limited number of lighting effects can be achieved because of the inaccessibility of the spotlights, which are set up on an overhead beam in the center of the auditorium, twenty feet from the stage. Lights for an entire production have to be pre-set in so far as actual position is concerned because the lights can only be reached from a stepladder set up among the rows of seats.
The Makeup Committee is composed of five workers, and numerous apprentices who assist with the simple basic makeup applications. Each of these five persons is in charge of one of the season’s productions. In order to keep abreast of new techniques in stage makeup and to train new workers, a series of makeup classes are held each year at the theatre.
The Property Committee is run very much like the Costume Committee. There is a general chairman, who assigns the productions to those who volunteer for them. Just as in the Costume Committee one costume is assigned to two workers, a piece of furniture, or a particular kind of property is assigned to the various workers. After the props have been collected and taken to the theatre, they become the responsibility of the stage crew.
Each summer copies of current plays are ordered by the chairman of the Reading Committee and placed on a special shelf in the public library for general circulation. Little Theatre members, other than Reading Committee members, are urged to read the plays and report on them to the committee chairman as possible selections for production during the next season.
In late summer a meeting of the Reading Committee is called at which all the chairmen of production committees are present. Reports are made by the Reading Committee members on the plays under consideration. A play is considered as a production possibility if it meets the following requirements: (1) It must be suitable to the season. The first play in September must be a light comedy, because the weather is so extremely warm and all the doors and windows to the theatre have to be left open. It the play is a heavy drama or calls for a fall or winter setting, it is reserved for consideration as a possibility for the December production. (2) The play must be suitable for production by an amateur group. Many Broadway productions would be unsuitable because they require unusually skillful actors to perform the roles. (3) The play must not be a classic, Shakespeare, or experimental. During the first period of its development, from 1927 - 1930, a number of experimental or original scripts were produced. It was later decided by the membership that such productions should not be presented as major productions for the entire little theatre membership, because of their limited appeal, but should rather be presented as a part of the “Associated Summer Suckers” (a summer theatre clean-up committee which also produced one-act plays in arena style) program. Just as many current plays are beyond the scope of an amateur group because of difficult roles, so are the dramas of Shakespeare, Racine, Moliere, etc., considered too difficult for an amateur group to present with only five weeks of rehearsal. Only such plays as can be well presented in a short time and be of general interest to the Little Theatre membership are chosen.
The representatives from the production committee have the final voice in selection. It is only with the unanimous consent of all the committee representatives that a final selection is made. The committee chairmen are concerned with the particular problem of lighting, costumes, and sets, that each play presents, and discussion is held along these lines.
Naturally, in the selection of five plays each year, not everyone will be pleased, or will enjoy all the plays. In order to please as many different tastes as possible, effort is made to present, in the course of one or two seasons, comedy, drama, tragedy, mystery, farce, etc. Since a great many young people and children attend the plays, care is taken to present plays that will be acceptable to all ages.
After the selection of the plays, the work of the Casting Committee begins. Official tryouts are held for several evenings prior to casting, but the plays are not always cast from just those appearing for readings. In casting, effort is made to use as many new people as possible. Few members have appeared in more than two or three productions, and never twice within the same season.
When, in 1942, the Junior productions were discontinued, children became eligible for parts in the major productions. Children played important parts in the productions of I Remember Mama, The Great Big Doorstep, and Life With Father. In casting children, permission is first secured from the parents, with the understanding that the child’s school work will probably suffer during the period of rehearsals and production. If possible, such an understanding with the child’s teacher is desirable.
Equally important with the production committee are the other committees, less closely associated with the strictly theatrical phases of a production.
The first of these is the Garden Committee, which existed in mane only until 1930, when the patio was constructed.
The Box Office Committee has the largest membership of any of the non-production committees. Some fifty ladies give an hour or two of their time during the week before the opening and the week of production to take care of reservations, sell guest tickets, etc.
The Front of the House Committee supplies ushers for the performances and arranges for coffee to be served in the lobby, or in the patio, weather permitting, during the long intermission.
The Membership Committee ceased to function in the sense of putting on membership drives when membership became limited and by subscription only. The one thousand members are billed at the beginning of the season and sent their membership cards. The committee is retained, however, in the event there should come a time when membership drives would again be necessary.
In most organizations the Finance Committee makes out an annual budget and plans campaigns to raise funds. Although there is a Finance Committee, it exists in name only for there is no annual budget for the Lake Charles Little Theatre, and no fund raising drives. The budget is exactly what is in the bank after all membership fees have been deposited. The treasurer handles all monies but he has no authority to say how much may be spent by any one committee.
Throughout the Little Theatre’s history the
membership dues have remained the same, five dollars for an adult membership,
and two dollars and fifty cents for a junior membership. Only once have
the members been asked for a donation. This was for the initial purchase
of the building. The largest donation received was one hundred twenty
dollars paid out in twelve month installments of ten dollars each.
One of the oldest groups associated with the Little Theatre was the Little Theatre Orchestra, which played for every performance from 1927 until it was disbanded in 1948.
Like most little theatres, the programs of the Lake Charles Little Theatre are more news bulletins then straight programs. All the anecdotes about rehearsals are included. For example, in the program for the production of Over Twenty-One, a short article was included telling about General Eisenhower’s eagles being used in the production. In addition to the program for each performance, the Program Committee also prints Stable Talk, the theatre newspaper. There is no set time for the paper to be published, only when someone feels the membership should be brought up to date on the theatre’s activities. The first issue was in February, 1939, when the new theatre building was opened.
Instrumental in the organization of the Little Theatre was Miss Rosa Hart, who, since the reorganization in 1936, has been the sole director of the theatre, receiving no salary for her work.
The Lake Charles Little Theatre is an incorporated community organization governed by a Board of Directors, made up of five elective officers, five members at large, and the chairmen of the various committees. The Board, as such, has no voice in the production of the plays. The committees concerned with production are set, costumes, lights, makeup, properties, casting, and reading. Other committees are garden, box office, front of the house, membership, finance, juniors, publicity and program. These committees are in reality the governing body of the theatre as far as production goes.
Membership fees are five dollars for the season, which includes four plays, and an “invited play” presented by a little theatre from another community. There is no budget, the secretary handles all incoming money, and the treasurer all out-going, although he has no authority to say how much may be spent by any one committee. The theatre has managed, however, to accumulate a bank sufficient to take care of the purchase of equipment from time to time, particularly lighting equipment, and to build a backstage wing, costing three thousand dollars. There has been but one request for donations, for the purchase of the little theatre building in 1939. All other expenses have been paid for with the money received from the memberships, which, in 1950, totaled over one thousand.
There is no paid personnel connected with the theatre. During the early days several professional directors were engaged but with the reorganization in 1936, Miss Rosa Hart became permanent director of the group, at no salary.
The plays are produced with the idea of encouraging participation by as many persons as possible. For this reason the same persons are not cast in any two productions in the same season. Only a few of the members have ever played in more than three or four plays altogether.
The plays presented are usually those which have been successful on Broadway. No experimental productions have been presented since the reorganization in 1936 as major productions. They are, however, presented as part of the “Associated Summer Suckers” program for a limited group. No Shakespearean or classical dramas are presented. The five weeks allotted for the rehearsal of each play is deemed too short a time for an amateur to undertake to learn, in addition to lines and movement, the different styles of acting required for such productions. Plays are chosen with the idea of pleasing the greatest number
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The theatrical history of Lake Charles, Louisiana, goes back to 1878, when an amateur group performed in an attic, and road companies played in Fricke’s Opera House. During the eighteen-nineties an amateur group, the Magnolia Dramatic Club, was active. Throughout the years prior to the turn of the century and during the twenty years from 1900 to 1920, the community received on the average of one or two road shows each week.
The purpose of this study has been to examine the theatrical activity during the thirty year period from 1920 to 1950, in order to show the great change in the theatrical activity of a community as affected by the motion pictures, radio, and the rise of the little theatre movement.
In 1920, Lake Charles had a population of 13,807. In 1950 it had trebled in size and was a growing industrial and port city.
The professional theatrical activity was still flourishing in Lake Charles during the first ten years of the 1920 -1950 period. During that time a total of sixty-six musicals and forty-four plays were presented by professional companies. By 1926, however, there was a noticeable decline in the number of productions which appeared, and by 1930, there were virtually no professional companies playing at all. From 1931 to 1940, there continued to be but a sprinkling of professional groups appearing, but during the last ten years, from 1941 to 1950, a slight revival of interest in professional theatre is shown.
Most popular during the heyday of the professional theatre in Lake Charles were the musicals, particularly the operettas, such as Blossom Time and Robin Hood. This interest in musical programs grew in the nineteen-thirties culminating in the organization of the Community Concert Association, the Civic Symphony, and the Messiah Chorus. The first two organizations were instrumental in securing many fine symphony orchestras and solo artists.
The tent-theatre stock companies and the minstrel shows, which had been returning to Lake Charles season after season, prior to 1920, and even during the years from 1920 - 1930, finally faded away during the early thirties, the last minstrel show appearing in 1932. The stock companies, however, managed to hang on a little longer, the last one recorded was in 1941.
Vaudeville, which had first been introduced as between-acts entertainment by the tent companies around 1916, was seen mostly, during the 1920 - 1930 period, in conjunction with the regular movie features at the Arcade and the Strand, a motion picture house built in 1921. These theatres had a more or less regular vaudeville circuit appearing as late as 1928. After that time the only vaudeville acts that came to the theatre were magicians and small dance revues. Vaudeville ceased to appear altogether during the middle thirties.
While the professional theatre was on the decline, the motion pictures were growing rapidly in popularity. The Arcade, which had been used for both road companies and movies, was finally converted to a full-time motion picture house. Other theatres were built through the years, until in 1950, there were in Lake Charles four first-run theatres, and a number of second-run houses.
The first good radio reception to be noted was in 1924, when the local newspaper began to list the daily programs of the New York stations. In 1935 the first local station, KPLC, was built. It joined the National Broadcasting Company in 1944. Two other stations, KWSL and KLOU, were built in 1947 and joined national networks the following year.
During the first half of the 1920s, when the legitimate theatre was still doing well, amateur theatrical activities were limited to minstrels and revues by local civic organizations. In 1922, however, a Little Theatre Guild was organized, only to die out in 1924. The minstrels and musical revues continued to be popular amateur productions throughout the 1930s.
The Lake Charles Little Theatre was organized in 1927. From 1927 to 1930, when it operated at he Episcopal Parish House, the Little Theatre presented three seasons of plays, which included a number of evenings of three one-act plays each, and two full length plays. With the depression, the Little Theatre temporarily disbanded, and reorganized in 1936. From 1936 to 1939, plays were presented at the Masonic Temple, and sets were constructed in a workshop donated by the president. During this period, the little theatre continued to present more or less simple drawing-room plays. In 1939, however, when the theatre moved into a permanent building, a remodeled livery stable, more and more complex productions were presented, in spite of shifting difficulties caused by lack of backstage space. This was alleviated somewhat in 1950 with the construction of a new wing costing $3000. The initial cost of the building, including remodeling, had been $9000.
In 1950, the theatre was still run as it had been in 1927 by a Board of Directors, made up of five elective officers, five members at large and the chairmen of various committees. The actual work of the theatre is carried on by these committees.
The financial set-up of the organization is, to say the least, unusual. There is no budget of any kind. The theatre is run on the money received from the five dollar memberships sold to the one thousand members.
The plays presented throughout its history have followed a general pattern. From 1927 to 1930, one-act plays, including several original scripts, were presented. After the reorganization, however, original plays were no longer offered as major productions, but were presented during the summer months to a limited audience. No Shakespearean classical dramas have been presented. Plays are selected from among the current Broadway hits. The primary objective is to give the membership the kind of plays they will most enjoy.
Another amateur group was started in 1949, the Junior Theatre, for children from five to sixteen. During the first two seasons of its existence, the Junior Theatre presented eight full-length plays in the semi-round.
The over-all picture of theatrical activity in Lake Charles from 1920 to 1950, then, shows a flourishing legitimate theatre, a growing interest in musical events, concerts, soloists, etc., beginning with the musical comedies and operettas of the early 1920s, and culminating in the many symphony concerts and artist’s concerts held each year, and the rise of a number of amateur groups, the Bayou Players of McNeese Junior College, a Junior Theatre, and strong active Little Theatre.
Perrin, William Henry, editor, Southwest Louisiana, Biographical and Historical. New Orleans: The Gulf Publishing Company, 1891, pp.150-152.
American Press, The, January 1, 1920 - December 31, 1950.
Beaumont Journal, March 8, 1938.
Lake Charles Commercial, September 13, 1890 - December 9, 1895.
Lake Charles Daily Press, October 2, 1908- May 7, 1917.
Hart, Rosa, “Assert the Stage,” The McNeese Review, I (Spring, 1948), pp. 67-83.
George Boudreaux, retired stage manager of the Lake Charles Little Theatre, September, 1950.
Rosa Hart, Director of the Lake Charles Little Theatre, January 14, 1950.
William Ray, electrician of the Lake Charles Little Theatre, July 2, 1951.
Maud [Maude] Reid, Lake Charles City Schools nurse, November, 1950.
Margery Wilson, instructor of speech, McNeese State College, July 8, 1951.
|Chronological Listing of Productions by the Lake Charles Little Theatre|
February 24, 1927
Overtones, Moonshine, Suppressed Desires
|April 19, 1927||The Trysting Place, Two Crooks and a Lady, The Wonder Hat|
|October 27-28, 1927||Pierrot’s Penny, Ricky-Runs-Amok, Rita|
|December 8, 1927||Will O’ the Wisp, For Distinguished Service, The Valiant|
|February 2, 1928||The Cajun, Joint Owners in Spain, The Pot Boiler|
|April 18, 1928||Seventeen|
|May, 18, 1928||El Christo, Bagatelle, The Florist Shop|
|October, 1928||You and I|
|December 18, 1928||The Vanishing Princess, The Mayor and the Manicure, The Giant’s Staircase|
|February 7, 1929||The Ship*|
|May 7, 1929||The Eldest, The Twelve Pound Look, The Cup of Tea|
|1936||April 6, 1936||Three Cornered Moon|
|May 25, 1936||Ghost Train|
September 26, 1936
|December 1, 1936||The Rehearsal, the Revealing Moment|
|December 14, 1936||The Barker|
|February 22, 1937||A Bill of Divorcement|
|May 17, 1937||Lightnin’|
|1937-1938||October 4, 1937||First Lady|
|November 22, 1937||Kind Lady|
|February 28, 1938||Ceiling Zero|
|May 9, 1938||Stage Door|
|1938-1939||November 2, 1938||The Night of January 16|
|February 6-7, 1939||Outward Bound|
|March 27-28, 1939||Personal Appearance|
|May 12, 1939||Submerged, The Tenth Word|
|May, 22-23, 1939||Cradle Snatchers|
|1939-1940||October 16-17, 1939||You Can’t Take It With You|
|December 4-5, 1939||Night Must Fall|
|February 19, 1940||Little Women|
|April 8-9, 1940||Room Service|
|May 20-21, 1940||The Bat|
|October 14-15, 1940||Candle Light|
|November 7, 1940||The Women|
|December 16-17, 1940||Whistling in the Dark|
|March 31, April 1, 1941||Old Man Taterbug, The Minuet, “Backstage,” from The Torchbearers (presented by the Junior Theatre)|
|April 28-30, May 1, 1941||Elizabeth the Queen|
|June 9-10, 1941||Here Today|
|1941-1942||November 10-11, 1941||The Man Who Came to Dinner|
|February 11-12, 1942||What a Life|
|June 11-12, 1942||
Reserve Two for Murder
|November 16-17, 1942||My Sister Eileen|
|October 14-17, 1946||Boy Meets Girl|
|December 9-12, 1946||I Remember Mama|
|February 17-20, 1947||Mary of Scotland|
|April 21-24, 1947||Arsenic and Old Lace|
|1947-1948||October 13-17, 1947||State of the Union|
|December 15-19,1947||The Barretts of Wimpole Street|
|January 31, 1948||Dear Ruth*|
|March 15-19, 1948||Death Takes a Holiday|
|May 17-22, 1948||The Great Big Doorstep|
|1948-1949||October 20-26, 1948||Life With Father|
|December 13-18, 1949||Seven Keys to Baldpate|
|January 29, 1949||Lovers and Madmen*|
|March 14-20, 1949||The Glass Menagerie|
|May 9-14, 1949||Blithe Spirit|
|October 10-15, 1949||Over Twenty-One|
|December 12-17, 1949||The Pursuit of Happiness|
|February 4, 1950||The Fatal Weakness*|
|March 27-April 1, 1950||The Little Foxes|
|June 3-5, 1950||Two Blind Mice|
* invited play
Patsy Ruth Heidt, born November 2, 1928, at Charlotte, North Carolina, attended Lake Charles High School, Lake Charles, Louisiana, John McNeese Junior College, Lake Charles, Louisiana, and finished a B.A. degree in speech at Louisiana State University in June 1949.
1. William Henry Perrin, ed., Southwest Louisiana, Biographical and Historical, (New Orleans: The Gulf Publishing Company, 1891), pp.150-152.
2. Interview with Miss Maud [Maude] Reid, November, 1950.
1. American Press, January 7, 1920.
2. Ibid., February 12, 1920, p. 8.
3. Ibid., February 14, 1920, p.7.
4. Ibid., October 13, 1920, p. 5.
5. Ibid., October 28, 1920, p. 8.
6. Ibid., October 6, 1921.
7. No footnote information given.
8. Ibid., January 9, 1922, p.3.
9. Ibid., January 10, 1922, p.3.
10. Ibid., February 7, 1922, p.2.
11. Ibid., February 19, 1923.
12. Ibid., January 23, 1924, p.7.
13. The 1920 census puts the population at 13,807.
14. See Rain, p.33 and Just Married, p.37.
15. American Press, March 21, 1924, p. 5.
16. Ibid., February 4, 1922.
17. Ibid., February 3, 1922, p. 7.
18. Ibid., March 27, 1923, p.5.
19. Ibid., November 1, 1924, p. 4.
20. Ibid., November 21, 1924, p. 6.
21. Loc. cit.
22. American Press, December 10, 1924, p. 7.
23. Loc. cit.
24. American Press, April 6, 1925, p. 5.
25. Ibid., November 14, 1921, p. 5.
26. Ibid., March 22, 1924, p. 4.
27. Ibid., December 31, 1923.
28. Ibid., January 3, 1924, p. 5.
29. Ibid., December 7, 1926, p. 7.
1. American Press, April 11, 1931, p. 5.
2. Ibid., April 26, 1933.
1. American Press, February 3, 1944.
2. Ibid., January 23, 1948.
3. Ibid., December 29, 1948.
4. Ibid., April 29, 1949.
5. Interview with Mrs. Margery Wilson, instructor of speech at McNeese State College, July 7, 1951.
SUMMARY OF PART I
1. For a discussion of the work of the Little Theatre see PART II of this thesis.
1. Interview with Miss
Maud Reid, October, 1950.
2. American Press, January 6, 1927, p. 5.
3. Ibid., January 6, 1927, p. 5.
4. Ibid., March 4, 1927, p. 12.
5. Ibid., October 24, 1927, p.4.
6. Ibid., December 9, 1927, p. 8.
7. Ibid., February 3, 1928, p. 11.
8. Ibid., April 18, 1928,
9. Ibid., May 19, 1928, p. 10.
10. Ibid., May 18, 1928, p. 6.
11. Ibid., October 15, 1928, p. 6.
12. Ibid., September 1, 1936.
13. Ibid., February 18, 1936.
14. Interview with Miss Rosa Hart, director of the Little Theatre, January 14, 1950.
15. Program for Ghost Train, May 25, 1936.
16. Beaumont Journal, March 8, 1938.
17. American Press, June 24, 1939.
18. Program for Night Must Fall, December 4 and 5, 1939.
19. American Press, December 29, 1946.
20. Program for I Remember Mama, December 9-12, 1946.
21. Program for The Barretts of Wimpole Street, December 15-19, 1947.
22. American Press, January 6, 1948.
23. Ibid., May 7, 1948, p. 2.
24. Program for Life With Father, October 20-26, 1948.
1. Unless otherwise footnoted, the information in this chapter was gathered in an interview with Miss Rosa Hart, director of the Little Theater, January 14, 1950.
2. Rosa Hart, “Assert the Stage,” The McNeese Review, I (Spring, 1948) p. 70.
3. Interview with William Ray, Little Theatre electrician, July 2, 1951.
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