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Ann Arbor 200

High Drama: Ann Arbor's Mid-Century Experiment with Professional Theater

Year
2024

Will Geer, Donald Hall, and Marcella Cisney, 1966
Marcella Cisney, U-M Professor Donald Hall, and actor Will Geer, opening night of Professional Theatre Program, September 19, 1966 (Ann Arbor News)

Once upon a time, Ann Arbor had an annual season of professional theater featuring new, classic, and experimental plays. Along with the directors, designers, and opening night galas came the Broadway, Hollywood, and television stars. Between 1930 and 1973, actors who trod the boards in Ann Arbor included Jimmy Stewart, Ethel Waters, Charlton Heston, Grace Kelly, Gloria Graham, Lillian Gish, Ruby Dee, Edward Everett Horton, Sylvia Sydney, Burgess Meredith, Constance Bennett, Rosemary Harris, Gloria Swanson, Jose Ferrer, Christopher Plummer, Billie Burke, Louis Calhern, Joan Blondell, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmund Gwenn, Barbara Bel Geddes, June Lockhart, Conrad Nagel, Ossie Davis, Cedric Hardwicke, Andy Devine, Cornel Wilde, Ann B. Davis, Hume Cronin, Jessica Tandy, and Don Ameche. Will Geer, Helen Hayes, and Basil Rathbone appeared on several occasions. This star-studded period of Ann Arbor’s history lasted just over four decades -- with a hiatus during and after World War II -- until organizational changes and cutbacks led to the decline of the once-vibrant annual festival season.

Act One: Drama Season (1930-1966)

Robert B. Henderson, first director of Drama Season, 1926
Robert B. Henderson, first director of Ann Arbor's Drama Season. (Michigan Daily, July 30, 1926)

Ann Arbor's first foray into professional theater was the Ann Arbor Drama Season, later referred to simply as Drama Season. It began in 1929 as the Ann Arbor Dramatic Season Committee, a civic project by Mary B. Henderson, with her son Robert Henderson serving as its first director. Drama Season's mission -- the first of its kind in the country -- was to bring professional-level theater to Ann Arbor. Letters from Mr. Henderson at the Bentley Historical Library reveal that by 1931 he was acting on Broadway, making connections with both New York and international actors, and simultaneously attempting to wrap up a master's degree at the University of Michigan. Correspondence between Henderson and J.M. O’Neill, Chairman of the University Committee on Theater Policy and Practice, illustrates early tensions between town and gown -- a theme that would recur over the years. The Committee insisted that Henderson make it clear during his negotiations with actors that Drama Season was not affiliated with the University. Yet the Committee nevertheless felt it was within its purview to weigh in on Henderson's choice of plays and actors in exchange for Drama Season's use of its new campus theater, the Lydia Mendelssohn -- or the “little Lydia” as it was fondly called.

Also among Drama Season's original group was the "First Lady" of Ann Arbor Theatre, Lucille W. Upham, who earned her nickname due to her enthusiastic involvement in a variety of the city's theatrical endeavors. Upham would serve as Drama Season's first treasurer and, later, as manager for over a decade. Henderson served as director for eight years then left Ann Arbor to act and direct in Hollywood and on Broadway (where he would meet and influence the career of a young Sean Connery during a production of Richard Rogers & Oscar Hammerstein's "South Pacific"). But he left behind the seeds for a long-running program. Other Drama Season directors included Charles Hohman, John O'Shaughnessy, Helen Arthur, Agnes Morgan, and the highly influential Valentine Windt. In 1928, just before Drama Season's inception, Windt had assumed the chair of U-M Theater Department. He encouraged University of Michigan student participation both on and off the stage and expanded the summer season, directing over 250 shows, while also overseeing the completion of the Lydia Mendelssohn theater.

Basil Rathbone and Margaret Phillips, June 1949
Basil Rathbone and Margaret Phillips in the Michigan League garden, June 1949 (Ann Arbor News)

Drama Season would run annually from 1930 through 1966, with a six-year hiatus from 1943 through the post-World War II years, picking up again in 1949. Initially, the spring "season" lasted just one week, but by the mid-1930s Drama Season was a five-week festival featuring several plays each with a handful of stars. Actors arrived for two weeks -- one week for rehearsals, and one week for performances. By 1960, the budget for the five-week season was $59,000, with income from sales projected at $61,000 and actors' salaries and contracts with Actors Equity amounting to $15,000 -- approximately $159,000 today. With Drama Season’s offices, rehearsal, and performance spaces -- even living accommodations -- all at the Michigan League, Ann Arbor News photographers frequently caught actors posing in the League’s interior rooms and hallways or outside in its garden. Actors, directors, and playwrights could be seen eating in the League cafeteria with faculty and students. Other actors and crew members were housed off campus. In 1951, an unknown actress named Grace Kelly appeared as a ballet dancer in the comedy “Ring Round the Moon." During her stay, the future Princess of Monaco was relegated to a boarding house overlooking the coal pile that fed the University’s power plant.

Grace Kelly's signature with others, from 1951 Drama Season scrapbook
Grace Kelly's signature is highlighted in this 1951 Drama Season scrapbook. (Drama Season Records, 1929-1966, Bentley Historical Library)

Through the years, Drama Season saw its share of hits (in 1941, Ruth Gordon thrilled audiences as a murderess in "Ladies in Retirement"); and misses (in 1953, playwright Tennessee Williams dropped by to catch the opening of his play, "In The Summer House," which was not an audience favorite); and controversy: In June 1951, Hungarian-born actor J. Edward Bromberg, while scheduled to appear in a production titled “The Royal Family,” was served with a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Letters to the University of Michigan from individuals and organizations expressing concern over Bromberg’s appearance amidst allegations of his membership in the American Communist Party led Drama Season leaders to issue a statement that appeared in the June 9, 1951 issue of the Ann Arbor News. The group affirmed its intention to honor the actor’s contract, further stating that “it would be entirely out of accord with the principles of justice and the liberal tradition to which this country is committed to deprive Mr. Bromberg of his livelihood and contractual rights.” Bromberg was defiant in his refusal to answer questions during his HUAC hearing and died during a performance in London later that same year from a weak heart, and, according to friends, stress over his ordeal with HUAC. Bromberg wasn't the only victim of the Red Scare. In June 1950, Langston Hughes' visit to campus to see "The Barrier," a musical drama inspired by his poetry, was met with flyers protesting his purported communist sympathies.

Mayor's proclamation, May 1961
Mayor's proclamation for Drama Season Week, May 1961. (Drama Season Records, 1929-1966, Bentley Historical Library)

Toward the end of its long run, Drama Season was struggling with both critics and audiences. Ann Arborites were particularly tough on the 1964 Drama Season, with one critic noting the lackluster performances and poor play choices in a May 6 review. The reviewer also noted the decline in quality compared with Drama Seasons past. This inspired a change in the procedure for choosing and casting plays. Before 1964, producers chose big-name stars and then picked plays they felt best matched the actors’ skills. But in 1964, President John P. Kokales and Vice President Ted Heusel -- who both served as Drama Season producers for several years -- decided instead to pick quality plays before casting them. Ted Heusel, along with his wife Nancy, would continue to be active in Ann Arbor’s local theater scene for several decades.

Act Two: The Arts Theater Club, Dramatic Arts Center, and Tyrone Guthrie (1951-1967)

The 1950s saw other attempts to establish professional theater in Ann Arbor. Local theater aficionado and businessman Eugene Power was involved in all of them. The first two were The Arts Theatre Club (1951-1954) and The Dramatic Arts Center (1954-1967). During its brief run, the Arts Theater Club brought highbrow playbills and arena-style theater productions to its rooms at 209 ½ E. Washington. The venue sat 150 people and the Club sought support through a subscription membership. But its business model wasn't sustainable and on January 19, 1954, the Ann Arbor News reported that the city’s first (and only) professional theater went bankrupt. Backers of the Arts Theater Club picked up the pieces -- including props and sets -- to form a new group, the Dramatic

Jose Ferrer in Charley's Aunt, June 1942
José Ferrer prepares for "Charley's Aunt," June 1942 (Ann Arbor News)

Arts Center (DAC), led by Eugene Power, Burnette Staebler, and Richard Mann, who each would serve as president. Like the Arts Theater Club, the DAC relied on a subscription membership, but it added children's theater, dance, music, and art exhibits to its roster of offerings. The group renovated the Masonic Temple’s auditorium for theatrical productions and auditioned New York actors to make up the core of its company. The DAC lasted several years and brought theater talent to town. James Coco was here for a season, and the Temple was also the venue for the Chet Baker Quartet, which made a legendary appearance and recording there on May 9, 1954.

In 1957, the DAC was forced to find other venues when the Bendix Corporation took over its spaces in the Masonic Temple. Venues were a perennial issue for Ann Arbor's theater groups, especially as competition for space increased. Even Drama Season's primary venue, the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, had limitations. The Lydia was a well-appointed theater (actress Lillian Gish remarked that it had perfect acoustics), but its size limited the number of ticket sales and revenue the group could expect to bring in at the gate. Additional performances were a possibility, but that meant a longer residency for casts and crews.

Broadway Comes To Ann Arbor
1960 Drama Season advertisement (Ann Arbor News)

Other area venues presented different problems: The Masonic Temple's acoustics weren’t ideal and local theater-goers felt the Temple, located downtown on Fourth Avenue, was too far from campus. The Trueblood Theatre in the Frieze building was also too small, though it would serve as an additional performance space for years. And while the city’s lauded Hill Auditorium was perfect for musical performances, it wasn’t built for the more complex staging required of major theatrical productions. In 1967, the DAC even tried Ann Arbor's newest rock club, the Fifth Dimension, as a venue. But by this time both the DAC and Drama Season were overshadowed by the new star on the block, the Professional Theater Program (PTP).

In 1959, yet another professional theater opportunity arose: Ann Arbor was in the running as a location for a major new professional theater currently under development by notable director Tyrone Guthrie, who had helped establish the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Canada. A steering committee was appointed with plans to bring the University and the greater Ann Arbor community together to raise support and funding should Ann Arbor be picked. Guthrie and his producers came to visit, and within a few months, the choice had been narrowed down to three cities -- Ann Arbor, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. Despite considerable effort among local theater fans, by the spring of 1960 they learned Minneapolis had upstaged Tree Town. Still, enough work had gone into the concept of bringing a professional theater program to Ann Arbor that the University of Michigan decided it was time to raise the curtain on Act Three.

Act Three: The Professional Theatre Program (PTP): 1961-1985

Marcella Cisney and Robert Schnitzer, 1963
Husband and wife Robert C. Schnitzer and Marcella Cisney, head up the PTP, September 1963 (Ann Arbor News)

On the heels of losing the Guthrie bid, Ann Arbor ushered in the Professional Theatre Program (PTP). At the invitation of U-M president Harlan Hatcher in 1961, husband and wife Robert C. Schnitzer and Marcella Cisney came to Ann Arbor to pioneer a professional theatre pilot project at the University of Michigan, with Schnitzer serving as executive director and Cisney as artistic director. The two had previously negotiated overseas theatrical productions for the State Department and were encouraged by actress Helen Hayes to accept the U-M offer. This time, the University would be directly involved and the PTP program would be integrated into the University of Michigan theater program. In short order, the PTP was a hit with both town and gown, Ann Arbor became a major regional theatre center, and the Schnitzers became national leaders, sparking dozens of similar programs nationwide.

Early on, Ann Arbor’s PTP hosted Ellis Rabb’s highly touted nonprofit repertory theater, the Association of Producing Artists (APA). At its heyday during the mid-1960s, the APA was hailed by the New York Times critic Walter Kerr as “the best repertory company we possess." The APA began a three-year residency in Ann Arbor in 1962 that would extend over the next decade. During PTP’s decade-plus run, Ann Arbor hosted the APA and five other major theater companies -- the American Conservatory Theatre, the Phoenix, the Julliard, the Actors Company, and the Stratford Canada Festival. New works were produced for the PTP and many went on to Broadway and national tours. Gifted graduate students across the nation received fellowships to participate in the PTP and then proceeded to fill prominent positions within the industry as directors, actors, and designers.

Ruby Dee and Alice Childress discuss Wedding Band, November 1966
Ruby Dee, Alice Childress, and Marcella Cisney discuss "Wedding Band," November 1966 (Ann Arbor News)

Over its run, the PTP would introduce Ann Arborites to several noteworthy productions. In 1966, Ann Arbor premiered the controversial "Wedding Band,” the second full-length play by novelist, actress, and playwright Alice Childress. It starred actress Ruby Dee in a stark portrayal of a forbidden interracial love affair. Because of its plot and strong themes of working-class life and Black female empowerment, Childress was unable to persuade any theater in New York to stage it. In fact, “Wedding Band” would not appear on a New York stage until 1972.

Other notable performances included the 1967 American premiere of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist drama, “Exit the King"; and in 1970, the PTP's production of “Harvey” with Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes -- a benefit for the Power Center for the Performing Arts -- topped all previous PTP box office records. Eugene Power, who had served on the Drama Season board and had been instrumental with both the short-lived Arts Theater Club and the recently defunct Dramatic Arts Club, felt Ann Arbor needed a much larger performing arts center near campus. Toward that end, Power spearheaded a fundraising effort at a regent’s dinner during U-M’s 150th-anniversary celebration that eventually led to the building of the Power Center, which was completed in 1971.

1957 Edward Everett Horton playbill
Edward Everett Horton on the cover of a 1957 Drama Season playbill (Drama Season Records, 1929-1966, Bentley Historical Library)

By 1971, however, the APA had largely dissolved. Robert Schnitzer continued to negotiate with other professional acting companies, including John Houseman's Acting Company and the Stratford Festival in Ontario, but by the end of the 1972-73 season, both Schnitzer and Cisney would leave Ann Arbor for the East Coast so that Schnitzer could work full-time for the University Theatre Foundation he’d headed since 1969. In the late 1970s, local theater enthusiast Jim Packard embarked on a two-year study to build momentum for a substantial summer arts festival along the lines of Stratford, Ontario. With the newly built Power Center and several decades of professional theater programming under their belt, the idea didn't seem all that far-fetched. But efforts fell short, due in part to continuing differences between university and community leaders as well as a statewide recession. The result is the abridged Summer Arts Festival as we know it today.

After Schnitzer and Cisney's departure, efforts to bring professional theater to town would persist: In the late 1970s, Richard Meyer, head of the U-M theater department, ushered in the Artist-in-Residence program which, along with a Best of Broadway and Showcase series, continued to bring in professional theater. In the 1980s, a newly formed BADA (British-American Drama Academy) came to Ann Arbor to perform Shakespeare, and U-M department chairs John Russell Brown and Walter Eysselinck both established short-lived professional theater programs -- Project Theater and Michigan Ensemble Theater -- with both simultaneously serving as artistic directors. But placing the PTP under the direction of U-M's theater department chair was "a move that further weakened the once maverick organization," as Leslie Stainton wrote in 2015.

Bringing professional theater to town would prove to be an increasingly expensive enterprise to sustain on an annual basis, certainly at the level it enjoyed during the glory days of Drama Season and the PTP. Ann Arbor has embraced theater in its many guises -- professional, amateur, student, civic, children's, alternative, classic, and experimental -- and the list of local theater organizations throughout the city's history is lengthy. The University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, and the University Musical Society (most notably in the 2000s with the Royal Shakespeare Company's residency) would continue to bring professional theater to Tree Town in the decades since the 1980s. But nothing would quite match the star-studded run of shows produced annually between 1930 and 1973 by the Ann Arbor Drama Season and the Professional Theater Program.

AADL has many articles, photos, and advertisements on both Drama Season and the Professional Theater Program.

PTP Picks Alice Childress' Drama

PTP Picks Alice Childress' Drama image
Parent Issue
Day
1
Month
September
Year
1969
Copyright
Copyright Protected

Ruby Dee, Alice Childress, & Marcella Cisney Discuss "Wedding Band", November 1966 Photographer: Duane Scheel

Ruby Dee, Alice Childress, & Marcella Cisney Discuss "Wedding Band", November 1966 image
Year:
1966
Published In:
Ann Arbor News, November 17, 1966
Caption:
TALKING ABOUT NEW PLAY: Discussing the play, "Wedding Band," which will be premiered soon in Ann Arbor by the University's Professional Theatre Program are (left to right) Ruby Dee, Alice Childress and Marcella Cisney. Miss Dee will play the starring role in the play written by Miss Childress. Miss Cisney will direct the production.

'Wedding Band' Probes Bias Intensely

'Wedding Band' Probes Bias Intensely image
Parent Issue
Day
8
Month
December
Year
1966
Copyright
Copyright Protected

'Porgy,' Necessarily So

'Porgy,' Necessarily So image
Parent Issue
Day
26
Month
August
Year
1995
Copyright
Copyright Protected

Dr. Jessye Remembers The Toast Of Paris

Dr. Jessye Remembers The Toast Of Paris image
Parent Issue
Day
19
Month
December
Year
1976
Copyright
Copyright Protected