Friday, February 23, 2024

Dramatics Through The Years At Millsaps by Lance Goss



by Lance Goss, Jr.

Plays were definitely not the things at Millsaps College for more than twenty years after its first session in 1892. There were those tagities which may be called substitutes, but for the histrionically inclined there is no real substitute for dramatics, no substitute for the smell and feel of grease paint, no substitution for the thrill which comes when the curtain goes up and you take a part in a play losing yourself totally in the character and personality of someone else.

 The inspiration for the first dramatic club organized at Millsaps was afforded by a play presented by the Cap and Gown Dramatic Club of A. and M. College at the Century Theatre in Jackson on Thanksgiving, 1910. A few days later in the library, as the Millsaps co-eds gossiped over their sandwiches and cold potatoes which they had brought from home for lunch, they decided to form a dramatic club of their own. Possibly the only reason for their action was to have something to do and to get their names in the paper. At any rate the club was formed and Miss Courtney Clinghan was elected president and Miss Annis Bessie Whitson, Secretary. No performances were given by this first group of Millsaps thespians, but they did succeed in getting some publicity including a page in the Bobashela of 1911.

 The first real attempt at dramatics was in 1913. In that year Professor S. G. Noble directed Millsaps students and local actors in Shakespeare's “As You Like It”. The play was presented with the same stage directions as it was played by the Ben Greet players; costumes similar to those worn by the Ben Greet players were ordered. Elaborate plans were made, and much time and effort expended. A few days before the presentation of the play, letters and telegrams began arriving at the president's office from various members of the Methodist clergy in Mississippi protesting the presentation of a play by that ungodly man, William Shakespeare, at this religious school. The president of the college, Dr. Alexander Farrar Watkins, told Professor Noble to ignore the protests and to proceed with his plans. He said that he, personally, would be responsible to the ministers for the presentation.

Plans had been made to present the play twice, once in a natural amphitheater which Professor Noble had discovered on the campus, and second in the chapel of the administration building; but on that Tuesday in May it rained making it necessary to present it both times in the chapel. The play was hailed as the greatest local talent presentation in the history of Millsaps College, and even of the city of Jackson.

Jack Gaddis, the Millsaps student who played Orlando, was the first star in the history of dramatics at the college. (He was killed the following year in a railroad accident.)

 Following this 1913 presentation of “As You Like It” there was again a long period in which no plays were given, and the students had to be content with debating, declamation, mock trials, and faculty burlesques. The faculty burlesques were especially popular, and many times the instructors at Millsaps found themselves the objects of teasing, and the students parodied their mannerisms. (In the 1923 burlesque the part of Professor Patch was played by a young student named Ross Moore, or, as he was sometimes called, Ross Hoss Moore.)

 In 1920 Dr. A. A. Kern resigned from the faculty of Millsaps College and in his place was elected the man who was to do more to establish dramatics at Millsaps than any other individual, Milton Christian White, professor of English. With the coming of President Key in 1923 (sic) the green light was given Professor White, and he hastened to prepare his first play.

 His first choice was “Fascinating Fanny”, a farce-comedy in two acts. With a less energetic and less ingenious group it would have been impossible to present a play on the stage of Murrah in those days. The reviewer in the “Purple and White” stated that the play got off to a slow start, but that it improved after about ten minutes to such an extent that it might be called "consistently funny." In his criticism he also discussed the handicaps under which the play was presented:

The little company labored under three handicaps; First a stage not easily adapted to the presentation of a play, and which necessitated one of the characters climbing out of one window and in by another in order to enter by the proper door. The impromptu curtain was doubtless the inspiration for the emitting of some words not to be found in any Sunday school text, and I hope that by the next occasion the company will have become sufficiently enriched to purchase some rings in place of safety-pins which now so incompetently act as substitutes therefore. The second handicap was the auditorium...And third, the audience was far below the standard of the players. ..Those in front of the footlights (and by the way, there were no footlights--a play without footlights!) were certainly appreciative, but not sufficiently sympathetic.'

“Fascinating Fanny” was the initial stroke; it paved the way; dramatics had come to Millsaps in spite of many handicaps. In February of 1926 the students under the direction of Professor White presented “A Noble Outcast”, a melodrama. As presented by Millsaps the play was "neither cumbersome, sloppy, nor unreal." It was so successful at Millsaps that the students decided to take it to Flora for presentation there. Professor Ross Moore tied the scenery on Coach Van Hook's car, and the performers went on the road, marking another first in the history of dramatics at Millsaps College.

The next few years saw real advances in the quality and the quantity of the plays produced. James Montgomery's hilarious comedy “Nothing But the Truth”, was given seventeen times by the Millsaps Players in Jackson and other Mississippi cities. “Broadway Jones” with four changes of scenery (another "first") was presented by the Players in 1929 in Jackson, Canton, Crystal Springs, and Forest.

 In April, 1928, "after a splendid production of ‘Nothing But the Truth’ and a successful season" the Millsaps Players were granted a chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, the national Honorary dramatic fraternity. The Millsaps chapter was the first in Mississippi and was called the Alpha Pi cast. The charter members were Lem Searight, Hohm Finch, S. F. Riley, Marguerite Crull, Peggy O'Neal, Eula McCleskey, and Professor Mitong White. The first understudies were E. B. Dribben, Margaret Bynum, Marie Flink, Octavia Sykes, J. W. Alford, P. P. Perrit, Cling Baker, Jeff e, and Clara Lee Hines.

 While Professor White was away studying at the University of Wisconsin, Professor Ross Moore became director of the Millsaps Players, and in April, 1930, he twice presented successfully the comedy-drama, “Straight Through the Door”. During the fall session of 1930 he produced three one-act plays, and in February, 1931, before one of the largest audiences ever to greet a Millsaps play, Professor Moore staged “Some Baby”, "a success from every point of view." The following April he directed “It Won't Be Long Now”.

 By 1930 there is evidence that the churchmen of Mississippi had lost some of their extreme dislike for William Shakespeare, because in that year Millsaps College sponsored the presentation of “Julius Caesar” as acted by the Shakespearean Players of Utica, New York.

 Having got by with one Shakespearean play, Millsaps College decided to try again in 1931, and Sir Philip Ben Greet came to Jackson, sponsored by Millsaps, in “Macbeth”. Three years later Millsaps dared Marc Connelly's “The Green Pastures”. Times had indeed changed!

 (There is one more event which occurred in 1930, which should be mentioned. In May the Mississippi College Dramatic Club invaded Jackson and presented “A Successful Calamity” successfully. What a calamity!)

 Professor White returned to Millsaps in the fall of 1931, and in January of 1932, he and Professor Moore revived “Nothing But the Truth”.

 In January 1933, Professor White produced “The Nut Farm”. The reviewer in the “Purple and White” was not enthusiastic:

The first act tended to drag due to dialogue scenes with little action and much explanation, some of which the players forgot. (The prompters who served so well in this act should have honorable mention.)...A Mild performance with a bellyful of laughs and no surprises or intensities.

The production of the following year made up for the comparative failure of “The Nut Farm”. Grace Grace Mason starred in “Hired Husband”. This time the “Purple and White” critic said, "Never has a presentation of the Millsaps dramatic club been better cast nor more enthusiastically received than has ‘Hired Husband’...A huge success!" The play was presented twice in Jackson and then carried to Brookhaven, Sanatorium, Prentiss, Crystal Springs, and Lake.

In April members of the players went to New Orleans to see Katherine Cornell and Basil Rathbone in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”.

 In a fine new setting, encouraged by a near capacity house, the Millsaps Players inaugurated a new era in dramatics at Millsaps in 1935 with the production of A. A. Milne's  ‘Mr. Pim Passes By”. "Murmurs of appreciation for the handsome new curtain were drowned in a burst of applause as the golden drapery silently" parted "disclosing a beautiful new interior." Bill Carraway's "Arrow collar" profile and Grace Mason's "obvious attractions" added much to the play. The Millsaps Players carried “Mr. Pim Passes By” to Whitworth College in Brookhaven in exchange for the Whitworth production of Ferenc Molnar's “The Swan”.

 The Millsaps Players carried on their "new era" in dramatics in 1935 with the staging of Oscar Wilde's famous play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, in which Grace Mason, Bill Carraway, and Ras Masell, three of Millsaps' most outstanding actors, made their farewell appearances of the Millsaps stage. The Purple and White refused to write a criticism of the play:

"In case you are wondering why we have not reviewed the recent drama put on by play directors White and Moore, we might say we knew the censor would kill the article, anyway. To do the play justice the review would have to be sexy, too."

1935 was one of the most important years in the history of Millsaps dramatics. In addition to the plays produced, the Players spent more than seven hundred dollars on scenery, curtains, and stage equipment.

 In the spring semester of 1937, two three-act plays were presented by the Millsaps Players. In January Billy Kimmbrell and Mildred Clegg took the leading roles in “The Bishop Misbehaves”, and in March the Players produced for the third time “Nothing But the Truth”. The leading parts were played by Paul Whitsit and Lucile Strahan.

 In the fall of 1937 “Her Step Husband” was presented at Millsaps and taken on the road. The Players also staged "A Friend at Court" by Caude Merton Wise of Louisiana State University. In January of 1938 the students and faculty of Millsaps presented Ross Moore's life of Major Millsaps on the radio.

 Probably the most meaningful and significant play ever attempted in Jackson and certainly the most important yet put on by the Millsaps Players was given in February, 1938. “The Servant in the House”, the Players first attempt at serious drama, starred Paul Whitsit, Billy Kimbrell, Mildred Clegg, Glenn Phifer, Andrew Gainey, Planton Doggett, and Bob Ledbetter. The play was presented before a capacity audience at Bailey auditorium.

 The administration of Millsaps allotted the Players money for new equipment, including floodlights and scenery in January of 1940, and in February the Millsaps Players presented “Stop, Thief”.

Replacing the familiar and time-honored green living room- bedroom- kitchen- office- stable or what-have-you" was "a set designed especially for ‘Stop, Thief’ by Bob Nichols and Nelson Nail. Also making their debut were "two magnificent floodlights, the pride of Nichol's life."

Probably the Millsaps Players reached their all-time high in the fall session of 1940, when they produced Alberto Cassella's famous play, “Death Takes a Holiday”. This play brought forth an editorial in the Purple and White by an Old Timer:

In regard to acting, our talent has been much better than plays and circumstances deserved. Such actors as Lem Seawright, J. W. Alford, Louis Decell, John B. Howell, Ras Mansell, Gordon Grantham, Paul Whitsit, and others surely won for themselves a place in Millsaps' theatrical Hall of Fame. One hesitates to mention the great among actresses for fear of offending artistic temperament, but certainly it would include Janelle Wasson, Marguerite Crull, Grace Mason, Almeida Hollingsworth, Lucile Strahan, and Glenn Phifer.

Dr. White has been largely responsible for the continuation of a dramatic program at Millsaps. Through the years he has pled with would-be actors to learn their lines and come to practice. He has made the best of limited equipment and lack of finances.

 When the curtain went up on “Death Takes a Holiday”, the old timers realized that such a set had never before graced a Millsaps stage...Here was a set that needed no apology, thanks to Bob Nichols and Nelson Nail...

 Now, however, the players have put themselves on the spot. They must not in the future be content with “Stop, Thief” and “Nothing But the Truth”, or with people who will not learn their lines, or shoddy scenery and poor lighting. For all these have been overcome and there can be no return from Death.

As a result of the reorganization of the Millsaps Players in 1940-41 the membership in the club was composed of approximately one fifth of the entire student body.

 The precedent set by “Death Takes a Holiday” was respected the following year when two famous plays were presented by the Millsaps Players: “Charley's Aunt” and “The Passing of the Third Floor Back”. Seven one-act plays were given, and “Her Step Husband” was revived the same year.

 The war had its effects on dramatics at Millsaps. There was only one major production between April, 1942 and September, 1943, and it was a revival of “Mr. Pim Passes By”, with Joe Fields in the leading role.

 In September, 1943, the Millsaps Players produced Somerset Maugham's famous comedy, “The Circle”. The cast included Peggy Tyer, Elizabeth Buchanan Williams, Otis Singletary, C. P. Thomas, and G. P. Conditt, and J. R. McManus.

 The school year 1945-46 saw a revival of dramatics at Millsaps College. “Her Step Husband” and “Mr. Pim Passes” By were both and Millsaps produced the famous Broadway hit, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, which was presented twice with a different cast each night. It was greeted enthusiastically on both performances in Jackson and on the road.

 Today the dream of the Millsaps Players, of Dr. White, of Mr. Paul Hardin, the new assistant director, and of all their friends is a Little Theater on the college campus, where there will be storage space for scenery, a good stage, proper lighting, and the innumerable things that go to make up a successful production. Great strides have been taken; much has been done; but with a playhouse of their own, the Millsaps Players would make the best yet to come.

 Located in that theater of the Players' dream should be a Millsaps Theatrical Hall of Fame, with pictures of all the most outstanding followers of Thespis in the history of histrionics at the college, going all the way back to Gaddis, Orlando in “As You Like It”. New pictures should be added each year, keeping an accurate record of these people who contribute most to the continuation and betterment of plays at Millsaps, so that the phrase, "A Millsaps Players Production" will have a real value.

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