The fall of 1920 found the Ypsilanti Players hard at work preparing for the coming season. An attempt was made to keep the reading committee fluid by choosing members of varying tastes and backgrounds. To facilitate the work of those whose responsibility was to chose the plays to be given, Mr. D.L.Quirk, Jr, the director, maintained a drama library. Because of a standing order, Brentano's, New York City, added to that library whenever a dramatic work was published.
The Players were becoming familiar with the big names among playwrights. Many plays were given whose authors had a play currently on Broadway. Often plays in manuscript were given. The spirit of adventure was further shown in programs listing first performances and many players had the satisfaction of seeing their own creative endeavors presented before an audience.
Casting in those years seems not to have been a problem. The Players boast of having a “five system in-dexed by build, voice, and other characteristics for just about every one in town”. Mr. Quirk is credited with having said, “When we needed a Priest in a play, we didn't have some one act one; we got a Priest. After all, he knew the part and had the costume”. A player would be in-formed there was a part for him in the next play-and he took it. Perhaps the director or a member of the casting committee might see someone at a concert, in a restani or even on the street, who would seem to have possibilities.
THE DETROIT NEWS of Sunday, September 4, 1921, carried a story by Sterling Bowen, (son of Wilber P. Bowen, Head of the Deparment of Physical Education, Normal, 1894–1928), which gave further insight into the casting methods of the Ypsilanti Players. He tells of a young man who hopped from a passing freight train near the Peninsular Paper Mill one day, asked for and got a temporary job there. Director Quirk, at that time President of the Company, upon hearing the young man speak, said, “For some time we have wanted to put on a play, but we have needed a young mountaineer such as yourelf. Will you take the part”? Young Kaufman, for such wss his name, was either uninterested or else he hesitated to break into a group so completely alien. At any rate, he hopped a freight and was gone as suddenly as he had come. The play was shelved. A year passed, when one day Carl Kaufman re-appeared. A roughly-dressed and stubble-faced young man, he dropped gracefully from the side of a box-car as it rounded the bend of the Michigan Central Railroad be-side the paper mill. Again he applied for a job, again he got one, and again Mr. Quirk asked, “Now are you ready to play with us on our stage”, With a grin, he said, “Sure”.
So the play, ON VENGEANCE HEIGHT, a story of a mountain feud, was off to a good start with young Kaufman, who had spent his boyhood in the mountains of Tennessee, in the stellar role. He is credited with having been of great help to the cast with its interpretation, dialect, and diction. That was his only role in the Ypsilanti Players, for he on had come.
In the Ypsilanti Players once a star didn't mean always star. Perhaps this play's lead might have a very menial role in the next play, or even assume the task of stoking the furnace or of cleaning up the grease paint on the make-up shelf. Perhaps he would be needed for make-up artist, to hold the book, or to shift scenes.
At times an un-announced player assumed a role gratuit-ously. An incident of that nature is recalled by one old-time player. It had to do with Dr. Britton's German Police dog. Always at the heels of his mater or mistress, he was a familiar frequenter of the Playhouse, parked in the foyer or at the stage door. In this particularly realistic play, his master was to experience rough treatment by a thug. When the dog heard his master's cry of terror, he made a very effective entrance—the curtain closed to denote calming of dog and reviving of thug.
The Players were very fortunate to have as a member Mrs. Anne Thompson Hubbell, her husband was a member of Eastern's History Department, who had done Shakespearian roles for several years with the English Company of the Ben Greet Players, to plan and direct the series of Shakespeare's plays presented. Scenes from five plays were given, inter-spersed with traditional music provided by Anthony J. Whitmire and his violin, Miss Matilda Holmes at the piano, and the voices of Carl Lindegren, Miss Lillian Asbby and Mrs. George Wortley.
A member of that cast relates, “I shall never forget that Shakespearian program; I was one of the mob in the JULIUS CAESAR episode. We were stationed in the balcony waiting for our cues. We were to rush down the stairs, through the narrow aisle, and up onto the stage. In due time the cue came, we started down the steep little stair= way. The first man, with an over-abundance of histrionic zeal, tripped and we all followed suit like so many dominoes. Almost wrecked the show, but our audience took it in its stride”.
There were times, when, had it not been for the watch-ful eye of their director with his business acumen, the players would have been in legal difficulties. Such an incident occurred in the giving of John Drinkwater's BIRD IN HAND.
When Director Quirk returned from abroad, the play had been cast and was in rehearsal. D.L.'s first question had to do with business arrangments. “No, no one had made inquiry as to royalty”. Much correspondence brought no response from the agent. Opening night and still no clear-ance or royalty quotation. A telegram was dispatched and just before curtain time, the following wire was received, “Sorry, BIRD IN HAND not available to amateurs”. What to do posed no question-the play must go on-and on it went. Needless to say royalty was determined and paid at a later deve. Much credit for the orcellent performance went to Wleamen, a member of the players, under whose direction the play was staged. A few months later, a short item appeared in the CHICAGO TRIBUNE and caused the Players great elation. “A resident company in Ypsilanti (Mich.) recently gave the American premiere of John Drinkwater's play called A BIRD IN HAND, said to be a success in London”.
While the Players enjoyed lighter moments, program notes indicate that they took seriously their opportunity and responsibility to educate their audiences as well as themselves. Contributions made by this civic-mined-group to the community included a program given for the Stoic Society of Michigan State Normal College-“proceeds to go toward ostablishing a permanent scholarship fund.”
The Players gave the first radio play in this area, The publicity, dated 1927, reads: “Prize Radio Play on Air-W.S.S.K., (which was located in Ypsilanti at that time). called DANGER. It is the first listening play known and was first broadcast by the London Broadcasting station”. The players of that production included G.C. Handy, publisher of the YPSILANTI DAILY PRESS, and Marion Stowe, professor of speach at Eastern Michigan College.
Coping with the increasing pressures on time and energy became at last beyond the ability of the individual players. This was especially true with regard to D.L.Quirk, Jr., upon whom, as director, an increasing number of details of staging and directing had fallen. All of this led to an announcement made on a printed program which caused, to put it mildly, great consternation. There would be no subscription season the coming year. Only one program was planned. Then came the statement, “Just what will be done after that time is undecided”.
Plainly the services of an assistant director was indic-ated, one who could give his entire time to what had become a public demand. The players' exchequer would not permit such expenditure.
There was immediate re-action on the part of the members cf the Community to the Player's announcement. Letters to the editor appeared, telephone calls increased, and the grape-vine flourished. One particular letter is typical of audience thinking.
Editor of the Ypsilanti Press: …There must be some way to keep the Ypsilanti Players active. Does anyone know how? We've been sitting back watching our neighbors entertain us. If there is anything we can do at last, I almost think we'll be found on the spot. But just how?
Another letter writer offered $100 and contributions came spontaneously from Players and Patrons alike toward the salary of an assistant director. After careful canvassing of the field, Mr. Paul Stevenson was engaged.
He arrived in the fall of 1924. Paul Stevenson had an unusual background for this new position. He had worked and studied with many of the greats of the theatre. He had been a member of Dr. Baker's famous 47 workshop at Harvard; he had played under the direction of Max Reinhardt in Europe. Only the reputation of the Ypsilanti Players for a high standard of experimentation and creativity interested him in coming to Ypsilanti.
The tenth season began and the community relaxed-they had saved the day.
The children of the Players gave a pantomine based on Stuart Walker's THE SEVEN GIFTS. “The audience,” so says a a member of that juvenile cast now an active business man, “was prepared to be amused, but instead it was inspired and amazed by the charming artlessness of the children”.
Events followed in comparatively rapid succession. A three-act play was attempted and its success led to more of the same type. A study class was formed, “its object will be to make the acquaintance of the modern successful plays.”
Paul Stevenson stayed only until greener fields and wider horizons claimed him and eventually the directing of the plays neverted to the members who had grown most adept at that task.
Again an assistant director was hired. He lent his talent to the staging of one of the Players' most outstanding ventures. Many members of those long ago audience feel the Players had reached the acme of perfection in their dramatic arrangement of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem of the ANCIENT MARINER. “A fantastic illusion for those who abandon themselves to its spell, to feel its movements, to see its sights”. A repeat performance was given in the Wuerth Theatre of Ypsilanti under the auspices of the Committee for Student Welfare of the Michigan State Normal College. An invitational program for the Players of Detroit was given at their Playhouse.
In the same season, we find those versatile players giving a performance of TEN NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM, “staged in strict adherence to the period and the mood pervading the original piece in the theatre of another generation”.
Again the Players found themselves without an assistant director and again the players assumed that task themselves. But the little play house was weary of well doing. It had reached a stage of decrepitude which was beyond repair. No longer could the much bepatched and leaky roof, nor the crumbling foundation be ignored. It was decided to give all future plays in the auditorium of the St Luke's Church House and to use the old playhouse for storage.
Play after play was given with apparent success under the direction of what might be termed amateurs whom experience had made professional. Such plays as IS ZAT SO by James Gleason and Richard Tabor, directed by Leo Whitmire: HAY FEVER by Voel Coward, also directed by Leo; SATURDAY'S CHILDREN by Maxwell Anderson, directed by Eleanor Meston and Edith Shaefer.
All of these activities bring us to the sixteenth season, 1930–31, when THE ROMANTIC YOUNG LADY, a COMMDY IN THREE ACTS by G. Martinez Sierra, directed by Leo Whitmire, was given as the “only bill” of that season. Few of the players and none of the audience sensed that they were indeed attending the last performance of the Ypsilanti Players. And so without benefit of requiem the Ypsilanti Players drew the last curtains. The belongings of the organization were disbursed; the building demolished and the ground on which it stood became a part of Riverside Park in Ypsilanti.
However, a group of Ypsilantians met in the living-room of one of those long ago child players and the Ypsilanti Players experience a rebirth. D.L.Quirk, Jr., was there to share his wisdom which he had garnered through a life time of living with the theatre and to give his blessing. In the last pages of his scrap book are to be found programs of the reactivated group. The first program was I REMEMBER MAMA and was dedicated to the man with vision, Mr. D.L.Quirk, Jr. The insignia of the original group is to be found on the programs of the current group and the unique bill board of old announces the plays of 1957.
This article THE YPSILANTI PLAYERS was found amoung the acrapbooks of the Ypsilanti Players which are located in the Archives section of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum-the author is unknown.
Both of these articles have been condensed by the Archives Department of the Ypsilanti Museum. The full articles are in the Archives section. In the Archives section of the Eastern Michigan Library there is another article on the Players: “History of the Ypsilanti Players 1915–1931” by Mr. Raymond Nickels, written in 1969 for his M.A. thesis.
View an an image of the Ypsilanti Players in the Gleanings image gallery.