Playing a Part: Loyola Actors Find Their Place in the Chicago Theatre Scene

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of essays written by students of the Fall 2018 Public History course and based on research at Loyola’s University Archives and Special Collections. Check back over the next eight weeks for new stories.

While Chicago’s rich theatre history evolved over the 20th century, Loyola students pushed their pins into the map of the Chicago theatre scene. [1]. With Pulitzer Prize winning premiers and Broadway bound productions, the city’s theatre scene clawed out a reputation as a lab for world class performances. Loyola University theatre program grew on a parallel trajectory beginning as a student run organization and ultimately becoming a full fledged professional training program with the creation of a theatre department.

When Professor Joseph Rice took over direction of the Loyola University Players full time in 1931, it didn’t take him long see the need to move Loyola performances off-campus to reach a larger audience. In March of 1932, he directed Loyola students in “The Enemy” by Channing Pollack at the Goodman Theater [2]. At that time, the Goodman was housed at the Art Institute which provided an opportunity for the student production to perform downtown [3].

Figure 1: This emblem dramatically displays LUP, Loyola University Players,’ from their 1932 production of The Royal Family of Broadway by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber [4].

In 1952, the Loyola Theatre Players, under the direction of Reverend James T. Hussey, did more than transport their theatre to the outside world; they brought the world to their productions [5]. In a much-publicized event, Father Hussey produced the Loyola Theatre Festival which brought in Hollywood and Broadway stars to perform alongside Loyola student-actors. The brightest star of the lot, Gene Raymond, had shared a stage with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and appeared in ninety-seven films but took the time in 1952 to perform in The Devil’s Discipline by George Bernard Shaw at the Loyola Community Theatre [6].

In a retreat from the slings and arrows of Hollywood fortune, Raymond “took a kitchenette apartment near Loyola University” according to the Chicago Tribune’s gossip column “Tower Ticker by Will Leonard” [7]. In his rented abode, Raymond hosted the student cast of another Loyola Theatre Festival production, The Royal Family, to a dinner he prepared himself.

Figures 2 and 3: These two programs from the 1952 Theatre Festival are the dullest in the whole Loyola theatre records archive [8].

The 1952 Theatre Festival, while charming, did not necessarily put Loyola theatre on the map. It was a spectacular event but not a legitimizing one. Students must have been a thrilled to work and play with world class actors like Raymond, but critics did not find it very amusing. Tribune columnist, Claudia Cassidy, condemned Loyola Theatre Festival’s attempt at George Bernard Shaw’s work by saying, “Frankly, it seems wiser to me and infinitely more enjoyable, to read such a play than to share in a botched-up performance.” Cassidy left after the first act of one of the program’s performances complaining that the star, Dennis King, did not have a suitably aquiline nose for the part—yes, literally, his nose—adding that Shaw was “quite simply not for amateurs [9].”

There is no word that could cut as deeply into the heart of Loyola’s burgeoning theatre than that—amateurs. After roping in a handful of professional actors including Hollywood stars, Loyola was still being relegated to the kid’s table in Chicago’s theatre scene.

The Curtain Guild, Loyola’s student led theatre group, dealt with the same criticism. A Loyola News review from 1965 gave their “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello a harsh critique once again alluding to the lack of quality in acting [10]. Later that school year, an editorial in the Loyola News recommended the Curtain Guild include a “company of professional actors” to increase audience attendance at performances [11].

Figure 4: This program cover is from the 1965 production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Character in Search of an Author.

            Loyola University responded to that criticism in 1968 by creating a professional training program, the Loyola Theatre Department [12]. The first theatre majors were in the same generation of actors as the Illinois State University grads who started Steppenwolf Theatre at the North Shore Unitarian Church [13]. In fact, in 1974 when Steppenwolf staged its first production, Loyola theatre majors boasted Chicago theatre credits at popular venues like the Athenaeum, Court Theatre, and a handful of other Chicago venues [14]. The theatre department, under the direction of Arthur W. Bloom, merged with the Chicago theatre scene at the most exciting time in Chicago theatre history. The department’s inaugural theatre majors took advantage of the fortune of their era and cast off the amateur designation.

Figure 5: Here are a selection of programs from the early seventies during the first few years of the official Loyola Theatre Department [15].

Dr. Arthur Bloom chaired the Theatre Department during the zenith of the Chicago storefront theatre age in the early 1980’s. He worked to secure internships at Organic and St. Nicholas Theatre which both produced acclaimed world premieres of Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet [16]. Under his leadership, the Theatre in Chicago class brought students across the city to see an array of productions from the Lyric Opera’s Macbeth to Steppenwolf’s Of Mice and Men [17]. Bloom prioritized students’ engagement with the Chicago theatre community.

Today, the results of the parallel trajectory of Loyola Theatre and the Chicago theatre scene are visible around the city and the country. Theatre alumnus Osh Ghanimah founded the non-profit, Broadway for All, whose mission is to “train young artists from all income levels and all ethnic backgrounds in a world-class conservatory–led by professionals from the Broadway, television, and film industries [18].” That mission surpasses the scope of the Loyola’s theatre leaders and pursues a goal of social progress, but the ambitious spirit is the same: Loyola’s theatre has fought to make itself an integral part of the greater community and the theatre world.

Figure 6: This blog has been constructed using the Loyola University Theatre Records with a specific emphasis on past theatre production programs. In this bizarre excerpt from a production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1973, this student is either trying to say they are a werewolf or a vampire [19].

-Anthony Stamilio

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