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Monmouth College Little Theatre History*

 

by James L. De Young, PhD

Professor Emeritus of Communication and Theatre

 

 

Although there were histrionic outlets in the debates and oratory taking place in the Monmouth College Literary Societies during the 19th century, the first record of legitimate dramatic activity was a series of scenes from Shakespeare apparently presented as a “Class Night Play” at the Pattee Opera House (in downtown Monmouth) as part of the 1894 Commencement.

 

Dramatic activity at Monmouth continued sporadically to the end of the century.  It increased in frequency into the first quarter of the 20th century. Sustained play production by faculty and students increased with the hiring of Professor Ruth Williams in 1924. Miss Wiilliams  was a speech teacher with a true love of drama and under her tutelage Crimson Masque, the college dramatic society,  was founded in the fall of 1925.   On the charter list of members was Dr. T.H. McMichael, president of the college and a current student, Jean Liedman.   Miss. Liedman went on to get a PhD in Speech at the University of Wisconsin, returned to her alma mater to teach communications and head the Speech Department, and ultimately became the iconic Dean of Women (Dean Jean) whose name now graces Liedman Hall. 

 

Drama acquired its first permanent home at Monmouth College in 1927 when Professor Ruth Williams and her students successfully petitioned the college trustees to turn over the old gymnasium (known as “Graham’s Cow Barn” or the “Old Crackerbox”) to Crimson Masque. The new Waid gymnasium had been completed in 1925 and the old gym, built in 1902,  was standing empty  waiting for demolition. Crimson Masque raised $350 to renovate it into a theatre and the first production was held there in October, 1927.  Over the next sixty years it became known as “The Little Theatre” or  “The Little Red Barn” or just “The Red Barn.”    It went through scores of major and minor remodelings--even surviving a dangerous fire in 1934.

 

Ruth Williams remained the Director of Theatre at Monmouth College for twenty-three years until 1947.  After her retirement a series of shorter termed faculty directors led the program.  

Ralph Fulsom served from 1947-1950; Howard Gongwer from 1950-1956; Parker Zellers from 1956-1961; and Brooks McNamara from 1961-1963. 

 

In the spring of 1963  Professor Liedman, then both head of the Speech Department and Dean of Women, hired James De Young to direct the theatre program.  Dr. De Young held the Director of Theatre title for the next thirty-nine years-- with some breaks for a return to graduate school and to serve as the Faculty Director for ACM programs in London and Chicago.  In his time at Monmouth Dr. De Young directed and/or supervised close to 150 productions.  He also chaired the Communications and Theatre Department for a number of years.

 

Historically the key dramatic arts issue of the past forty-five years has been the growth of Theatre at Monmouth College from an extra-curricular option to an accredited academic program.  Dr. De Young began his career as a one-person theatre program. He directed, designed, and supervised the building of all plays.  By the time he retired in 2002, there were three fully qualified faculty members with professional degrees in Theatre.  The Theatre curriculum had grown from a couple of courses as part of the Speech Department to a concentration within the Communication and Theatre Department.  The culmination of this development occurred in 2007 when the college faculty approved a full-fledged major program for Theatre. For the first time in its history Monmouth College can offer majors in four important fine arts disciplines—Art, Music, Literature/Creative Writing, and Theatre.

 

The story of the Little Theatre has to end with a mention of its demise.  Despite valiant efforts to create quality drama in the building, the 1902 converted gymnasium became an ever more constant trial for its occupants. Heating was inadequate, audience comforts minimal (you had to leave the building to go to the restroom),  and backstage amenities were non-existent.  For twenty-eight years the theatre staff dreamed and fought for a new purpose-built performance facility for Monmouth College. Finally in the spring of 1990, under the administration of President Bruce Haywood  and supported by the financial generosity of  many Crimson Masque alumni,  the new Wells Theatre opened to the public. The old Little Theatre fell under the wrecking ball in the summer of 1990. Its former site is now occupied by a parking lot just to the west of Poling Hall and behind the Dahl Chapel.              

 

Continuity provides significant strength in academic departments and the growth and success of the theatre program at Monmouth College in the last quarter century has been in large part due to the efforts and talents of Dr. Bill Wallace and Professor Doug Rankin, who joined the Department in 1979 and 1986 respectively.  The Wells Theatre now offers a first class teaching and performance venue and with Professor Janeve West, a specialist in Acting and Directing,  replacing Dr. De Young,  the new major program in Theatre seems poised to create a bright new future for the Fine Arts at Monmouth College.  

 

 

* Much of the early history of theatre at Monmouth College and the history of Crimson Masque in this summary depends on a student independent study done in 1978 by Dan Clay. (Doug Rankin will remember Dan Clay as he was in the cast of Equus with him.) 

 

To my knowledge there has been no attempt to re-check Mr. Clay’s study or to formally update or chronicle the years since the study.  It might be appropriate at this point to look for a  student or a group of students who would be willing to undertake some new work in this area. Key to this would be that my memories and Doug’s and Dr. Wallace’s are still retrievable locally.

 

James L. De Young, PhD

Professor Emeritus of Communication and Theatre

309-734-5529

jim@monm.edu  or jdeyoung@maplecity.com

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