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History of Old Whitney Filled With 'Great Names'

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FRIDAY, OCT. 1, 1954

History Of Old Whitney Filled With 'Great Names'

(Picture-Story by Eck Stanger and Arthur Gallagher)

When demolition crews raze the old Whitney Theater, they will take away a part of Ann Arbor rich in tradition and memories for those who followed the footlight parade of great American actors and actresses from Civil War days until the decline of road shows in the '20’s.

One of these is a man whose life has been associated with the theater although he is not himself an actor and whose earliest recollections are not of the "old swimming hole" and customary boyhood pleasures but of Maude Adams in "Peter Pan" and of Sarah Bernhardt’s deathbed scene from "Camille.”

The boy was James Murnan, jr., and his life was closely linked to the theater because his father was a co-owner of the Whitney Hotel and Whitney Theater, and he grew up with stage people. Today, Jim Murnan, now of 809 E. Kingsley St., is still associated with the theater—Lydia Mendelssohn on the University campus.

He was too young to appreciate the great Bernhardt’s performance, but the actress was in her days of fading glory and Mrs. Murnan thought her son should avail himself of the chance to see her.

He can tell you when and in what shows most of the great stars of an earlier day appeared at the Whitney, including Richard Bennett, father of the famous Bennett sisters; John Drew, uncle of the Barrymores, who played here in “The Chief” and with Mrs. Leslie Carter in "The Circle”; Ethel and John Barrymore, both of whom performed here several times; May Robson who played here in "Tish”; Mizzi Hajos in "Sari”; and Charles Coburn, Walter Hampden, Richard Mansfield, George Arliss, DeWolf Hopper, Francis X. Bushman and many others whose names blazed in marquee lights on Broadway before and after they played this college town.

Murnan remembers David Warfield, who he says liked to sit in the hotel lobby and chat; Minnie Maddern Fiske, who was here many times and always remained aloof from other hotel guests, making the most of the mystery glamour that surrounded many of the great stars of those days. He recalls that Chauncey Olcott was stricken while playing here, with an illness from which he never completely recovered, and that Eva Tanguay, the "I Don’t Care Girl,” was secretly married by a judge in Ann Arbor.

Murnan’s collection of old programs includes one for May 7, 1888, when Edwin Booth and Lawrence Barrett played in "Julius Caesar” here, but most of them are for the period between 1905 and 1925. One of them shows Alfred Lunt playing a bit part in "Beverly’s Balance,” starring Margaret Anglin. Another has Helen Hayes playing the lead in “Pollyanna,” but she isn’t even listed on the cover.

He remembers that many of the biggest musicals played at the Whitney, and that there usually were 125 or more persons in the show. The chorus girls were crowded into two large rooms beneath the stage while the stars' dressing rooms, still there today, were in a triple tier backstage. The Whitney’s tics and furnishings were unusual for a theater in a city of this size, Murnan says.

His recollections cover only one riot at the Whitney, when University students during President Burton’s term used utility poles ready for installation on Ann St. to batter open the exit doors of the theater. Students filled all the seats and refused to budge despite pleas by University officials, and the show, a musical called “Up In The Clouds,” started two hours late with the cast and chorus quivering in apprehension of the greeting they would get from the celebrating' students when the curtains opened. The show went off without further incident and patrons who couldn’t get seats had their money refunded the next day.

One of the outstanding features of the Whitney was the fabulous second balcony or gallery, which had circular church pews instead of individual seats and students paid $1 each to crowd into the pews for some of the big musical shows. These unreserved seats went on sale in the afternoon,and U-M students sometimes lined up as early as 4 p.m. to buy them. They had to climb a long winding stair from Ann St. and buy the tickets at a window in a hall just outside the north entrance to the balcony.

The Whitney saw great ballet, too, danced by Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, Alla Nazimova and Michael and Vera Fokine, who were billed as "creators of the modern Ballet Russe.” Sir Harry Lauder played in Ann Arbor more than once on his "farewell tours” of the U. S.

Murnan recalls how the theater was "perfumed” to give it atmosphere for the French play by Sacha Guitry, "Sleeping Partners,” starring Irene Bordoni and Wallace Eddinger. He remembers, too, that the theater was sold out for two evening performances by Alice Brady in "Zander The Great,” and that she played to an audience of only 11 persons at a matinee during a home football game.

One of the big shows that played Ann Arbor was "Century Midnight Whirl,” with Blanche Ring, Richard Carle and Charles Winninger. Ed Wynn opened several of his shows here, Murnan pointed out, and Irene Dunne appeared here in 1922 in the musical "Irene.”

One reason why Ann Arbor landed the big shows and stars was that Bert C. Whitney of Chicago, who built the Whitney, also owned opera houses in Chicago, Detroit and Toronto. He persuaded James Murnan, sr., then managing the old Cook House, to take over management of the Whitney. In 1915, Murnan and Donald S. McIntyre bought the hotel and theater from Whitney. Murnan sold out his interest in 1929.

BACKSTAGE: Behind the stage curtains of the old Whitney Theater, where choruses of pretty girls waited for their song and dance numbers in a bygone year, only dirt and debris and a faded piece of background scenery remain today.

BERNHARDT OR HELEN HAYES MAY HAVE USED IT: Typical of the dozen dressing rooms for stars of Whitney Theater plays and musicals is this cubicle equipped with lavatory, table, chair, mirror, rug and clothes hooks. Note the star on the door.

FROM A GREAT HEIGHT: U-M students who crowded the pews of the second balcony looked almost straight down on the stage. When Butterfield Theaters converted the theater for films, the screen had to be installed at an extreme angle because of the great height of the projection booth in the second balcony. The pews made hard seats but they usually were filled.

AN ACTOR’S VIEW: From the stage the Whitney looks like this today. Note the ornate boxes and the second balcony which has been barred to the public for many years. Theater balconies are built now without the supporting posts

A MILE OF ROPE: And probably more hangs above a platform high over the stage. Stagehands raised and lowered scenery here with the help of giant weights fastened to the ropes now covered with the dust of a quarter-century.

DRESSING ROOMS: Three floors of dressing rooms were provided for the stars. The chorus girls dressed in the basement. There are interior stairs, but the halls were left open at the ends so trunks could be hoisted by ropes to the proper floor. There is a bathroom at the end of each hall.

MUSIC AND DRAMA: Huge posters still on the walls back-stage at the Whitney tell some of the story of the theater’s past glory. Here they advertise Walter Scanlan, "America's leading Irish-actor-singer”: the musical "Up In The Clouds”; the Winter Garden production, "The Passing Show”; and Madge Kennedy in the play, “Cornered.”