This summer, PhD candidates Cate LiaBraaten and Sean Jacobson created a video series for the Frances Willard House Museum’s commemoration of the 19th Amendment Centennial. This series, Suffrage Sundays. explores the connections between the temperance movement and the suffrage movement. In this blog post, Cate and Sean discuss working on a public history project collaboratively. To view the Suffrage Sundays video series, please visit the Frances Willard House’s Youtube Channel. For more information on the intersection of temperance and suffrage, please see this blog post Cate wrote. Additionally, check out another project from the Frances Willard House: Truth-Telling project: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells.
Cate:Since I reached out to you about joining me on this project, what made you say yes? That is, what do you look for when taking on a new project, especially a collaborative one?
Sean: Honestly, the public history scene has felt pretty moribund since the pandemic.I had been hoping to get involved in volunteer work at public history venues during the summer, but when so many places closed, I had given up on things for a time. So when you reached out to me about Suffrage Sundays, I was thrilled to be a part of another collaborative project and apply skills I’ve gained both from my public history coursework and my training in video production. When taking on new projects, it’s always important to me that I’m doing something that either expands my historical knowledge or advances skills. Doing collaborative work is also helpful practice for anyone wanting to work in public history!
Cate:When it comes to technical skills, how much experience do you think emerging museum professionals need to have before taking on a project—is there room for learning on the fly?
Sean: I think technical know-how is becoming more important in making history accessible to younger generations. The pandemic has made this all the more relevant. That being said, the technology we have now on smartphones is to the point where you don’t need expensive equipment or a formal training in media studies to create good products. I think it behooves historians to pick up on basic video or editing skills because, not unlike writing books or creating exhibits, video production has largely to do with telling narratives. I think historians can overcome some of their intimidation by thinking about gathering footage, recording audio, and editing as analogous to stages of research. You can absolutely learn skills on the fly, especially if you pay attention to some basic tips and strategies (e.g., NEVER shoot in “portrait” mode on a smartphone, record human voices with an isolated audio track, etc.). There are tons of tutorials on YouTube. The best way to learn skills is actually by doing.
Cate:Sometimes it’s challenging for emerging professionals to do projects outside of a school setting or a highly formalized work setting. What are some ways you think people can make collaborative projects work when there’s no clear leader—no boss directly involved or professor?
Sean: I think what we did was delineate specific roles based on what each person’s strengths are. Since you know more about women’s history and the Progressive Era, I trusted your judgment when it came to what to include in the scripts, the images you wanted to include, and the overall purpose of the videos. Likewise, you trusted my judgment when it came to what B-roll footage to include, how to record your voiceover, and the inclusion of music tracks. It certainly helps that we already had that personal rapport with each other since we’re in the same PhD cohort! It’s definitely trickier when you’re collaborating with people you don’t know, so that’s why it’s important to articulate from the start what particular roles each participant has. When it’s a group of 3 or more, I think it’s always helpful to designate someone as a “project manager” to facilitate both internal and external communication. I also believe having a shared project folder in OneDrive or Google Drive is a must!
Okay, now my turn to ask you questions. What inspired you to undertake this Suffrage Sundays project in the first place? And why did you decide on a video series as a medium?
Cate: At the Willard House we’ve been planning on doing something to commemorate the 19th amendment centennial for a long time. We had a series of events for summer 2020 in the works and were kicking off Women’s History month in March when the COVID-19 pandemic really changed everything. I wanted to do some suffrage related programming that could be accessible to people at home. I considered building an online exhibit or website, but one of the Willard House’s most recent projects, Truth Telling, (led by Loyola PhD Candidate Ella Wagner) is on a digital platform, and I wanted to do something totally different–especially because that project already fits its medium so spectacularly! When trying to decide what to do, I came across a video series from the Smithsonian called “Light Talks” –two-minute videos about birds. I loved the two-minute video series format!
Sean: How did you go about selecting topics and featured items for the episodes? Would your process have been similar or different if you were choosing items to exhibit in a museum display?
Cate: I think it was very similar to creating an exhibit. I came up with a broad theme first: that suffrage work and temperance work were overlapping areas of women’s activism and leadership. Then I thought about what artifacts we had that tell that story. Some things I knew I wanted to use immediately, like the suffrage map. Other things, like the Lucy Stone letter, I found after our archivist, Janet Olson, directed me to suffrage-related materials in the archives.
Sean: What about writing the scripts? How did your previous public history training come into play when trying to write scripts for short videos?
Cate: Writing the scripts was both like and unlike other projects. In a way, I thought about what I would include when writing object labels–a balance of generalized information and information specific to the item. I also thought about giving tours of the house museum–what would I say (or have I said) to visitors about the specific objects if we were seeing them together and in person? I think teaching experience helped too, because there’s never enough time to say everything you want to say!
Sean: What did you learn from this project, and how would you do anything different for a similar project in the future?
Cate: I’ll start with the second question–one thing I might do differently is give more overview information upfront. Most of the audience of this series will likely already know what temperance is and who Frances Willard was. In a similar project I would likely broaden the scope. One thing I learned from this project was the power of networking (for lack of a better way to describe it). When I decided I wanted to do this project, I knew I didn’t have the videography skills needed to create as high-quality videos as I wanted, and fortunately I already knew you! I liked thinking of this project as an opportunity to highlight the strengths of a colleague as well as the story itself. I could have done the videography myself, but it would have turned out worse and taken more time! It was really nice to see what using different people’s skill sets can produce.
Imagine a museum dedicated to whaling, set on a venerable old whaling ship from New Bedford, floating majestically in Chicago—first at the foot of the State Street Bridge, and later in the gleaming White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Whenever I tell people this is the subject of my new book, The Last Voyage of the Whaling Bark Progress: New Bedford, Chicago and the Twilight of an Industry (McFarland Press, 2020), they invariably say how cool it all sounds.
Figure 1: The Progress in the South Pond of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Book of the Fair, Fin de Siècle Edition, Section Three. Hubert Howe Bancroft. (Chicago: The Bancroft Company, 1893).
The Progress was conceived as New Bedford’s paean to American whaling. Thousands turned out for her departure from the Massachusetts city as she began her journey across North America to Chicago. On that blustery day in June 1892 few would have questioned the assumption that the whaling industry would be gloriously represented and lauded at the most important world’s fair in the nation’s history.
Instead, the Progress was a failed sideshow of marine curiosities, a metaphor for a dying industry out of step with Gilded Age America, and an unmitigated disaster. The enterprise lost her investors a significant fortune, especially Chicago coal baron Henry Weaver. The Progress became a running joke in the final years of the nineteenth century. At one point the once-proud whaling bark was advertised for sale in the classified ads of the Chicago Tribune, just above the notice, “Wanted—A well trained driving goat.” Fire and dynamite eventually sent her to the bottom of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Calumet River.
What does it mean to transform a dying industry into “a museum piece”? That ultimately was the question I kept returning to as I researched and wrote about this strange moment when the history of the American whaling industry intersected with the 1890’s most celebrated freshwater metropolis. It remains a decidedly relevant question today as modern museums strive to preserve, interpret, and contextualize industries such as coal, steel, and manufacturing. Like those industries now, whaling was not dead by the 1890s, just greatly reduced. But it did still continue, remaining a way of life for a cadre of men and their families.
Discovering the ignominious fate of the Progress in Chicago thus opened doors to a decidedly contemporary set of lessons for museum practitioners today. What, exactly, went wrong? And what, if anything, can we learn from those failures over 100 years later? To answer those questions, I realized that I needed to go back much further than the heady months of the Columbian Exposition. That is why my book starts in 1850s New Bedford—the golden age of American whaling. Just like many industries and communities today, New Bedford had developed its own historical memory around whaling’s place in the American narrative. In the case of New Bedford, this blossomed into a literal religious zeal for the industry. The illuminative products of whaling—lamp fuel, lighthouse oil, clean-burning candles—became infused with the Quaker faith, built upon a foundation of light-versus-dark metaphors, beliefs, and practices. When New Bedford’s motto declared Lucem Diffundo— “we diffuse light”—it was both a civic statement and an evangelical claim.
This sort of industrial pride can be incredibly useful for conceiving and executing a museum. That instinct fed the idea of a whaling museum at the Columbian Exposition. The problem is that it can also create blind spots and tunnel vision. Over and over I found a disconnect between New Bedford’s inherent belief in whaling’s relevance and romance, and the way the trade was perceived by others. This included the Chicago syndicate that ultimately funded and ran the museum.
As the Progress journeyed across North America to Chicago via a network of rivers, canals, and finally the Great Lakes, she made a series of intermediate stops as a ticketed attraction. Curious sightseers in Montreal, Buffalo, Racine, and Milwaukee all got a chance to visit the whaling museum before her grand debut in Chicago in July 1892. Tracing that journey as a public historian was especially illuminating because it also showed how the museum changed the further away from New Bedford it went. Today, public historians take it as an article of faith that a museum needs to be connected to its community. The Progress is a terrific case study in this concept, or more accurately, its opposite. The further from whaling’s heart the bark traveled, the more it was severed from its community—a community that was already a shadow of what it had once been.
Figure 2: “The Arctic Whaler Progress.” G.A. Coffin. “There She Blows.” (Chicago: Arctic Whaling Exhibit Co., 1893).
Each stop on the way to Chicago seemed to push the Progress further and further away from the concept of a faithful representation of whaling and the whaling industry. When the whaleship arrived in the waters of Lake Michigan, the transformation into a museum of exotica, curiosities, and maritime hodgepodge was nearly complete. By the time she was moored on the Chicago River, even her New Bedford whaling crew had been replaced with freshwater sailors from Chicago’s schooners. My book explores this tension between an educational experience emphasizing completeness and authenticity, and an entertaining experience emphasizing crowd-pleasing spectacle. This push-and-pull dynamic from more than a century ago is surely not lost on museum practitioners today.
Figure 3: Cover, Souvenir Brochure, State Street Bridge, Chicago. 1892.
The Progress’ years in Chicago up until the fiery dynamiting in 1902 are filled with stories both hair-raising and sad, all of which I trust will be fascinating to any Chicago history aficionado. She sank in the Chicago River with 200 schoolchildren aboard. (Spoiler alert: they escaped!) She sat encased in ice on the Columbian Exposition fairgrounds while workers built the White City around her. Henry Weaver—whose coal money brought the Progress to Chicago and funded the eventual “Arctic Whaling Museum and 10,000 Marine Curiosities Between Decks”—went into receivership. The brand-new Field Columbian Museum bought and displayed the Progress’ vast collection in its first year, only to have museum curators rebel and unceremoniously kick the whaling artifacts out of Chicago at the first opportunity.
By the time I had worked my way to the end of the story, I was fully conscious of the temptation to point fingers and cast blame. Was Henry Weaver the villain here, or perhaps Chicago itself? Did the city’s Gilded Age love of everything modern and profitable make a whaling museum doomed from the beginning? Ultimately, I leave it up to the reader to decide, but I believe simple answers are elusive. Instead, I hope that my book sparks conversations about how to honor communities that may not be ready for their final eulogy or want a museum to become their mausoleum. The story of the Progress is a microhistory for those interested in commemoration, speaking to us over a hundred years later about how to value an industry. All we need do is listen.
The Last Voyage of the Whaling Bark Progress: New Bedford, Chicago and the Twilight of an Industry by Daniel Gifford is available on Amazon.com and other online vendors: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08945YF7F/
Daniel Gifford, Ph.D.’s career spans academia and public history, including George Mason University, George Washington University, and the Smithsonian Institution. A scholar of American popular culture and museums studies, he currently teaches at several universities near his home in Louisville, Kentucky.
Patrick McBriarty is a Chicago historian who is best known as being the foremost expert on the history of Chicago’s bridges. Beyond writing Chicago River Bridges(2013), three children’s books about city infrastructure, and his blog The Trunnion, he gives public presentations and tours around the Chicagoland area to adults and children. Chicago River Bridges won the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for Original Research in Great Lakes Maritime History and the 2015 Ferguson Prize for Outstanding and Original Reference from the Society for the History of Technology. He regularly presents at the Chicago Maritime Museum and the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. He manages the websites for all of his projects and spearheaded the nearly eight thousand member facebook page, Windy City Historians, which he jokingly calls “Chicago History Porn.” He now hosts the podcast Windy City Historianswith local history writer Chris Lynch about the history of Chicago from the seventeenth century to the present. McBriarty’s work in history has been entirely aimed at a public audience with a focus on public education. McBriarty is equal parts expert historian and amateur enthusiast which grants him access to a diverse audience.
I sat down with Patrick on September 10, 2019 to get his thoughts about his experiences working in public history. The following is not a verbatim interview. The words are ours but have been condensed for time.
What did you do before you started writing and talking about history?
Well, [my degree] was from Miami University, and actually, while I was there I had a minor in international business so I ended up being a few courses shy of a minor in history in undergrad. I stuck around with a masters in economics.
I’ve noticed that you seem to be able to brand yourself well, and I wonder if— and I know that you’re the bridge guy to a lot of people.
Many people have called me that, yeah.
Do you think that branding comes from your experience in business? Where does it come from?
Well, definitely, I came through business school with my economics degree, and then worked for about twenty years or more in doing a little bit of sales or marketing and then eventually some management or SAP consulting. Then I turned full time to the books and the creative work which I’ve done pretty much full time for the last five and a half—actually, no, pretty much going on seven years now.
So yes, I already have a sense of sales and marketing, but I really enjoy the creative aspect of being able to pursue the projects I want to pursue. The sales and marketing doesn’t drive what I’m doing, the interests do.
How is presenting public history as an interpreter compared to working with kids? How is that audience switch?
I mean, the switch is fun actually, but I find that the same themes—if you distill them properly—resonate well with both. I mean, one of the things that I joke about even today that I live under a bridge since writing my first book. And that goes back to doing the kids presentation on the first book which is a picture book called Drawbridges Open and Close.
Essentially a bridge structure is any wall and a ceiling. Or a table or a chair is really a bridge; it’s just a really specialized bridge because that structure is all over the place.
You run into things kids will give you once they catch on to the concept. I was at a school and one of them raised their hand and said, “Well, I live under a bridge on top of a bridge and on top of a bridge because I sleep in a bunk bed. So you never know [when] you’re gonna wind up with somebody else’s ideas that you can kinda take and use as well.
I went to a talk that you gave about the podcast, and [in] the first couple of episodes about the podcasts you reveal this new alternate history of Chicago. An audience member challenged you at one point. I felt you responded to it pretty well. How do you feel about those kind of interactions? Have you had those before?
I think any good theory or idea ought to be challenged as much as possible because it helps make it more robust. And I also like to think about things in different ways. So that, should I have a question, I should try to respond to it in a reasonable manner, but I also learned early on, just saying “I don’t know” is a sufficient answer. But if it’s something I want to investigate, that’s another way I can follow up with it. I can’t be the expert on all things.
In your podcast, you seem to focus on the history tellers themselves. Was that something you intended to do?
You know, that’s a good question. I think part of it is my own sense of not really considering myself that much of an expert but more of a synthesizer and gatherer of information. I think I’m probably good at telling stories and pulling out the good bits. But I’d much prefer having somebody else be the expert.
We just stumbled into the fact that here John Swenson has uncovered this new history that we’re hoping will also get run up the academic flagpole. In the background I’m working on massaging a paper he started several years ago and trying to get that in shape; where then collaboratively we’ll put it out and get it published to have some more academic rigor put to this idea that there’s this second portage, and maybe that was the primary portage for most of these French explorers. Marquette and Joliet probably didn’t go past what’s today the Michigan Avenue bridge but probably went down through the Calumet River. That’s pretty revolutionary for Chicago’s early history. That’s interesting and fascinating, and yet it wasn’t something that we didn’t just take at face value. There’s been some controversy around it.
But if we end up being wrong then so be it. We’ll happily fix or retract things, but at this point it’s a compelling enough argument that we felt it was worth putting that out there to see where it goes. John Swenson—I’m still in contact with him—is working to refine this as I’m working on this paper right now, and hopefully we’ll have that published in the spring next year.
It’s fascinating because your subjects are more than just these dead historical figures. Your subjects are the people who you’re interviewing.
It’s a really fun way of presenting the history. And that’s kind of the point. How do we tell these stories that are still fresh and may be new, or can we uncover any new history and put it together in a way that hasn’t been done before?
My guess is that we’ll probably start to hit decade-to-decade coming up next. I’m working right now on the subsequent ones to the Marquette and Joliet reenactment where we’re gonna talk about Point de Sable and John Kinzie and Fort Dearborn and the battle or massacre—depending on how you want to tell it—, and then work our way up to the 1840s and 1850s and so on. That’s gonna be fun because it’s going to take me into some bits of history that—some of which I know quite well—I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Fort Dearborn period and John Kinzie and Jean Lalime and the first murder of Chicago. Then after that, I’m not so well versed in some history. It’s going to be fun to bring in some other experts and learn more about that and also prepare for those interviews as we roll out a new episode the last Friday of each month.
For a copy of the full transcript of the interview with Patrick McBriarty, contact Anthony Stamilio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exhibit open until the end of April in Damen Student Center, 2nd floor
Oral histories are an exercise in compassion. The interviewer must learn to both sit quietly and listen actively in order to make sense of an experience outside of their own. It’s a humbling experience—especially when it comes to the Immigration Advocacy History Project (IAHP).
IAHP began in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Disheartened by, among other things, hateful rhetoric towards immigrants, a cohort of Loyola History Graduate Students decided to document community members doing advocacy work here in Chicago. The group secured funding to do a series of oral history interviews, create an exhibit, and host a speaker.
I came on to the project after the purpose and scope had been set, in the spring of 2018. As the newly-appointed oral historian for the Loyola Oral History Project, I was eager to get some interviewing experience under my belt. Luckily, my schedule allowed for me to do five interviews with four community members, spending around an hour with each.
One interview in particular has stayed with me. On a sunny day in April, I traveled down the red line to the Haitian American Museum of Chicago to talk to its founder and president, Elsie Héctor-Hernández. She welcomed me into the museum space, we enjoyed coffee and pastries together, and she gave me a tour after we finished our nearly two-hour-long interview. She, too, was disheartened by anti-immigration rhetoric. And as a Black woman, she faces daily discrimination beyond her status as an immigrant. She had plenty to say about her challenges, but also shared an uplifting message of perseverance. In the face of it all, she operates a vibrant and community-focused museum in Uptown—one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods.
Her words inspired the name of our exhibit, currently on display on the second floor of Damen Student Center: “Stand Strong on the Side of Righteousness.” This also guided the design process of the exhibit. Beyond being informative, we wanted this exhibit to actually be useful to potential immigration advocates. Keeping the interviewees’ words central to the display, we decided to use quotes from the recordings to answer five central questions:
What is the current immigrant experience?
What is immigration advocacy?
Who is an immigration advocate?
Why be an immigration advocate?
How can I get involved in advocacy?
The hope is that Loyolans will take this information and turn it into actions. Already, our interviewers and interviewees have begun to form a network. At our panel event in the fall, some exchanged contact information and a few attendees asked if they, too, could be interviewed.
With a great effort on the part of our team, and several other departments on campus, we succeeded in bringing Opal Tometi to Loyola for our speaker event. Tometi is a Nigerian-American human rights activist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. We were especially excited to use this as an opportunity to talk about the intersection of race and immigration–an issue that came up in several interviews.
The Immigration Advocacy History Project is meant to inspire compassion, but more than that, it is meant to inspire action. With each step of the project, we have widened our audience and made connections in the community that didn’t exist before. Our hope is that the impact of the project will continue to grow.
On October 17th, Professor Alice Weinreb of the Loyola University History Department led an excellent roundtable on women’s history research at the Crown Center on Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus. Professors Tanya Stabler and Elizabeth Fraterrigo and PhD candidate Ruby Oram, all also of Loyola, presented on their research. The event included spirited conversation among the guests and delicious snacks from the Middle East Bakery and Grocery in Andersonville. While the subjects of the research differed in era and geographic focus, each spoke to the thorny question: what constitutes a women’s movement, especially in the absence of explicitly feminist institutional structure?
After a few introductory comments from Professor Weinreb, Professor Stabler discussed her research on the Beguines, a lay order of women in medieval Paris. Inspired to works of piety and charity, these women took temporary vows and self-identified as religious, but mostly existed outside the control of canon law and a patriarchal monastic structure that often saw independent women as a threat to male leadership. Fascinating and compelling, these women were neither nuns nor “normal” women. While much of the literature on the era focuses on official orders or notable nuns like Saint Clare of Assisi, Stabler focuses on the innovations of the Beguines while investigating them as a compelling women’s movement despite their lack of formal recognition.
Next, Ruby Oram discussed her dissertation research on vocational education of young ladies in Chicago between 1880 and 1930. Much of the literature on Progressive-Era education focuses on industrial training for boys, but Oram notes that vocational training for girls preceded and even inspired similar programs for male students. Vocational education for young ladies took three forms: traditional craft skills like sewing and hat-making, white-collar labor like typing and stenography, and domestic education for modern home-making. Oram argues that Progressive reformers saw education for girls not just as an economic tool but also as a solution to social ills such as child labor, sexual delinquency, broken families, etc. Although the women spearheading these programs may not have identified as feminists or gender activists specifically, Oram sees their work as a women’s movement because women were organizing at the official level to influence law and policy.
Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo outlined her work on the National Organization for Women in the 1960s-1980s and their work to change the culture through media, shaping and controlling representation to encourage gender equality. This program and other feminist projects like it in the era are readily identified as women’s movements partly because the 1960s was the era of movements. But this led the roundtable to also discuss whether or not anti-feminist activists, like the late Phyllis Schlafly, were part of a women’s movement as well, just one of a strikingly different nature.
Much of the current literature on women’s movements focuses on very structured groups of women led by “big names” like Betty Friedan or Saint Clare. Broadening our answer to the question “what defines a women’s movement?” may help scholars and educators elevate the voices of influential but non-institutional groups of women working to improve their local communities, either as part of their own projects or within the structure of another. It may also allow us to investigate the tensions between the advantages of institutional protection and organization versus the freedom of movements with fewer structural restraints.
The next History Roundtable at the Loyola History Department will take place December 5th from 12:30-2:00pm in Crown 528. The topic will be ‘violence’, and the presenters will be Loyola Professors Gema Santamaria and Suzanne Kaufman and Loyola History PhD student Ella Wagner. According to Professor Weinreb, “this series is especially intended for grad students, particularly those who are currently writing/working through their research materials. The goal is to encourage discussion amongst faculty and grad students to tease out theoretical or conceptual categories that are relevant to many of us here at Loyola. Grad students – see this as an opportunity to hear from and talk about your work with faculty and other grad students whom you might otherwise not engage with! Come to pose questions about your work, or to hear other people discuss their ideas and struggles.”
Snacks will again be provided. We at the Lakefront Historian highly encourage you to attend.
Chicago has made a name for itself in live theater and the performing arts, as a hub for off-broadway plays, epicenter of the Little Theater Movement, and with students from its improv comedy schools ascending to fame on Saturday Night Live. But with all the ink spent on Chicago theater, very little has splashed for the rich history of college drama departments in the Windy City. These institutions have not only trained up many of America’s stars of stage and screen, but also feed into the important local arts and multimedia production sectors, raising up the next generation of high school drama coaches and local television producers. We can see an amazing example of such an institution in the drama department at Mundelein College, which lasted from 1930 to 1991 as one of the first – and also the last – private Catholic women’s colleges in Illinois. Far from an insular, strictly academic program, the theater department at Mundelein College shone brightly as both very communal and highly innovative.
While Mundelein College was named for Cardinal George Mundelein, the funding, planning, and administration of the school came from the dedicated Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the BVMs, led by the school’s first president Sister Mary Justitia Coffey. They chose a modern design, with the school primarily comprised of a tall skyscraper adjacent to Loyola University in Rogers Park so the two schools could share lecturers and access to the Red Line Train stop. (The Mundelein building primarily serves as classrooms for Loyola University today.)
The building featured excellent theater space according to a 1932 pamphlett: “The entire eighth floor of the college building is devoted to drama and art. At one end of the broad corridor which leads from the elevators is the Little Theatre. Complete in its equipment, the stage furnishes an excellent workshop for the drama student.” The floor also included studios “for private instruction”, ventilation, mirrors, “other necessary equipment”, and a club room with “modernistic furniture and attractive window hangings”. The Little Theatre was sufficient for smaller productions, including one-act plays, student-written scripts, and events like teas and revues. For larger productions, the young thespians worked their magic in the large auditorium on the ground floor of the skyscraper campus. It offered patrons of the arts 925 floor seats and 325 balcony seats. “Beautiful in its simplicity,” one pamphlet reads, “it carries out the architecture of the rest of the college in the long lines of its mural decorations and in the immense chandeliers which epitomize the structure of the building… The stage has the distinction of having the first successfully-operated electrical rigging in this country.”
In addition to its modern construction, the auditorium, in the words of alumni and Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, possessed strange aural properties:
When empty the auditorium at Mundelein College was acoustically quite unsound… When it was full of people, the acoustics were great. But in the emptiness there was booming and echo… a perfect place for me to work on my voice… I literally learned to play my instrument by ear. The reverberations that hit back at me from the walls and the deep hole of the balcony let me know that nasal tones are scarcely ever effective, that each word deserves its completeness or it is received as garbled garbage…
Sister Mary Leola Oliver served as the department’s first director from 1930-1938, and began the program’s long history of innovation. She not only produced an impressive array of productions ranging from Shakespeare to the tragicomedies of Henri Gheon, but also organized her students into a verse-speaking choir, a new concept from Europe where combinations of light and dark voices performed texts in half-spoken, half-sung arrangements. The program proved so successful that Sister Leola won her choir a 5-year radio contract with NBC, exposing Mundelein Drama to millions of listeners and giving students like Mercedes McCambridge a jump-start to their acting careers. The much-loved Sister Leola counted famous thespians – including Ethel Barrymore and Claude Rains – among her friends, leading to exciting guest speakers for her students.
From 1938 to 1960, Sister Carmelia Hanses directed the department, which contained both the drama and speech programs at Mundelein. Sister Carmelia innovated by using theater to treat speech disorders, much as Viola Spolin created improv theater (also in Chicago) to help children develop socialization skills through play. Under Sister Carmelia’s leadership, the Mundelein students coached a theater program for the children of Chicago, and many went on to work in the field of speech pathology.
Although Sister Carmelia technically directed the program until 1960, the real director of the drama portion of the program from 1952 to 1980 was Sister Jeanelle Bergen, who prolifically produced three major plays a year in addition to smaller reviews and mosaics written by her students. Sister Jeanelle, while still incorporating the classics, also introduced her students to post-modern theater and plays with controversial topics, such as her 1968 production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey which tackles subjects including alcoholism, racism, and homosexuality.
But perhaps Sister Jeanelle’s most innovative contribution to the program was her commitment to preparing her students for the television age. Despite a dearth of equipment, she arranged classes on television production, created local television programs related to the Catholic church, and even took a summer internship at a game show so she could learn the tricks of the trade to teach her students. Once an executive hoping to score complimentary tickets called her “Jeanie Baby” on the phone, shocked to find on his arrival that “Jeanie Baby” was a nun in full habit, holding a clipboard while helping film “The Match Game”.
Much work remains for cultural historians in studying both the Mundelein College Drama Department and the history of Chicago academic theater departments generally. Scholars should particularly consider the outcomes of these programs for women seeking careers in fields such as drama pedagogy, performance, television production, and speech therapy. For those of you interested in the Mundelein College Drama Department, please reach out to me at email@example.com and I will send you my entire paper on the subject, or visit the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and ask to see the Mundelein Drama Department files. (Ask nicely, and maybe they’ll show you Mercedes McCambridge’s Academy Award.)
Have you ever wondered what happened to your parents’ college materials, or what could happen to your own file from your undergraduate or graduate career? After working with the vast archival collection of Mundelein College (MC), I’m tempted to call my parents’ universities and see if they have archival records.