Chicago’s Innovative Sisters of Theater: A Reflection on the Mundelein College Drama Department

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.

A still from a performance of Twelfth Night taken from the Chicago Tribune

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.)

Early photo of Mundelein Skyscraper, built 1930

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.”

The Little Theater at Mundelein

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.

Photo of Sister Leola and her most famous pupil after Mercedes McCambridge won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in All the King’s Men, 1949.

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.

A Mundelein student leading a speech clinic for children.

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”.

Sister Jeanelle learning the ropes of television production while interning at a game show.

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 mamyx@luc.edu 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.)

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Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

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I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

Chicago Open Archives

In the same spirit as Open House Chicago, Chicago Open Archives welcomes the public to tour over 30 cultural institutions around the city. Chicago Area Archivists hosts the event that runs from October 6 to October 8, 2016. Visitors have the opportunity to take part in behind the scenes tours and will have access to several places that are normally off limits to the public. Along with tours, visitors can engage with librarians, archivists, and museum curators. Other events include film screenings and exhibit talks.

Please note that in order to tour and/or participate in some of the events, preregistration may be required. Registration closes at midnight on October 4, 2016. There may be admission fees at some of the institutions. Check out the Chicago Open Archive website to learn more about the event and participating cultural institutions.

Is the City Overdue in Renovating the Library in West Ridge? A Look at the History of the Northtown Library

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Historian, the online quarterly published by the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. All photographs used courtesy of their image database. Matthew Amyx is a History PhD Student at Loyola University Chicago and the Public Media Team Leader for the RPWRHS.

Over the summer of 2015, a Change.org petition to expand or rebuild the Northtown Library collected over 600 signatures from the residents of West Ridge. The one-story building at 6434 N. California Ave. hosts 140,000 visitors each year, but it has not been renovated since opening in 1962. Petition-signers complain that the library, despite its popularity and the hard work of its staff, lacks space, needs more up-to-date technology, and offers community resources insufficient to reflect the diverse demographics of West Ridge. Additionally, they claim the library’s parking situation, practically limited to street parking in a busy neighborhood, severely inconveniences patrons. While the petition has received considerable support and is backed by 50th Ward Alderman Debra Silverman, residents will need to exercise patience. Pamela Stauffer, West Rogers Park Community Organization Chairwoman, anticipates a minimum budget of $6 million for the endeavor, which is still in its planning phase, and recent library projects in Chicago have taken four years or more to complete. The petition signers should not lose hope, however, as very similar grassroots appeals created the very successful previous incarnations of the Northtown Library.

The first Northtown Library opened on July 31, 1939 at 2502 Devon Ave. It had taken seven years of organizing and petitioning by the local Kiwanis Club, Northtown Women’s Club, Northtown Business Men’s Association, and PTA groups. By its one-year anniversary the branch, led by head librarian Marion Smith, had issued 6200 library cards and hosted 145,000 visitors and circulated nearly 200,000 books. The library building, a double storefront, quickly became one of the most popular in the city, attracting patrons from far outside of its district boundaries which ran west from Ridge Ave. to the canal and south from Farwell to Bryn Mawr.

2200 w. Devon Avenue looking east from Bell Avenue
2200 w. Devon Avenue looking east from Bell Avenue

The library’s programs quickly outgrew its space. In January 1942, Smith started a very popular Book Review Club, but it had to meet in clubrooms on Maplewood Avenue. The library offered very strong children’s programs, such as a “Bring Your Dolly” story hour started by Children’s Librarian Bernice Perley in January 1942. Soon the weekly story hours were drawing an average of 233 children, but the space only accommodated 60 chairs. This unacceptable situation led West Ridge community leaders to petition Mayor Kelly for an enlargement. Sponsors included pastors, Boy Scouts, business groups, women’s clubs, Kiwanis, and the American Legion. The city approved the purchase and conversion of the adjacent corner building, a tavern and store, into staff space and a much needed children’s room.

North Town Library -Children with rag dolls
Girls participating in Doll’s Story Hour, c. 1945.

The Northtown Library made important contributions to community morale during World War II. It provided technical books to educate the defense workers that had flooded to Chicago. Families with members serving abroad checked out books on the countries where their loved ones were stationed. Smith told the Tribune that the library helped residents “take their minds off things for a while… These persons usually ask for mystery books – something which will challenge their brains and keep their minds occupied.” The library also offered avenues for the West Ridge community to aid those affected by the war. In July 1941, the library collected books to donate to locally stationed troops, and Perley organized a Girls’ Club that collected dolls for English war refugee children. In June 1945, the Northtown Library took part in a University of Chicago adult education program based on reading the classics, the first of several very popular Great Books programs that would occur on and off throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

2502 W Devon Avenue, North Town Library -Children with Army Lt. Godlewski.
2502 W Devon Avenue, North Town Library -Children with Army Lt. Godlewski.

In 1946, the library lost its lease on 2502 Devon, and moved two blocks over to 2710 Devon, away from the bustling business district. The library was still outgrowing its space, and in July 1947 the Edgebrook Library opened as a sub-branch of Northtown, with Elizabeth Vieser as assistant librarian under Smith. The space was painted blue and white and contained 3000 books, half for adults and half for children, with Northtown’s children’s librarians conducting the story hour there once a week. (The Edgebrook library has since moved three times and is now its own branch at 5331 W. Devon Ave.) Like today, space was constantly an issue during the period, with staff having to cram patrons in or find venues outside the library for programs. The advent of television dropped circulation some, but a fresh influx of families during West Ridge’s growth in the 1950s and 1960s brought it up again. Many empty-nesters became avid readers and brought their grandchildren to the library, bringing circulation in 1957 to 215,000. The demographics of the neighborhood were also becoming more diverse, and community members began organizing to petition the city for another expansion.

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Women using library materials, c. 1950.

Construction bids began in September 1960 on the library’s current location, 6435 N. California Avenue, which opened January, 1962. 125 feet wide with red brick, the new building included space for 50,000 books (up from 28,000 in the previous location), a multi-purpose room for library-sponsored activities, citizenship and Americanization classes for West Ridge’s growing immigrant population, and air conditioning. This was the first location intended as a permanent space, as the Devon locations had all been rented. Interestingly, the 2710 Devon location suffered a $10,000 fire the week before the move, although most of the books had luckily already been transported. The new library opened with a new Chief Librarian as well, Mrs. Gertrude Gscheidle. Designed by City Architect Paul Gerhardt Jr., the building cost $174,438.00 to construct and $56,490.70 to furnish. Despite the expansion, the Northtown Library still struggled with containing and staffing its programs; by 1965 it had the largest circulation of any library in the north side district, with 272,051 books loaned. The library’s popularity continued throughout the century, claiming the highest circulation of any library in the system in 1986.

The library was an important venue for children's groups, including the Boy Scouts of America.

As the history of the library demonstrates, the Northtown branch has always struggled to find space for its programs. This difficulty is only exacerbated by the growing needs of an increasingly diverse population, and is made considerably worse by the lack of available parking. The library has very few dividing walls, and while this trait gives it an open feel it also prevents the existence of private study space. In the comments section of the Change.org petition page, many of the signers sadly stated that they drove to other libraries in the suburbs because they did not feel the present building could meet their needs. The petitioners can take heart, however, in knowing that the city has listened to West Ridge petitions in the past to expand or renovate the Northtown Library.

Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History

Many people are familiar with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp that held Union soldiers during the Civil War, but fewer know of Camp Douglas, a Union camp that held Confederate prisoners on Chicago’s South Side. Between October 8th and 14th, we—and others from Loyola, DePaul, and the community—worked as volunteer archaeologists on a dig with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, uncovering elements of Chicago’s Civil War past, and learning some basics about archaeology and the processes that go into a dig.

From 1861 to 1865, Camp Douglas occupied about 80 acres in what is now the Bronzeville community. Initially, Camp Douglas was a training ground for Union soldiers, and would later train enlisted African Americans. The camp was designed to be temporary, since the Union was confident the war wouldn’t last long. But by February 1862, Camp Douglas had become a prison camp for Confederate soldiers captured in battle, since the Union Army had nowhere else to put them. Camp Douglas became one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the nation and had the most Confederate deaths of any camp. Poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift wooden shelters spread disease among the prisoners, resulting in approximately 4,500 deaths (the prison housed roughly 30,000 prisoners through the course of the war).  Security was slack and escapes were frequent; an estimated 500 Confederate prisoners escaped during the camp’s operation. After the war Camp Douglas was quickly dissolved, and for the most part, forgotten.

Continue reading “Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History”

A+ for LGBTQ Organization: The Gerber/Hart Library

Last Friday, I pedaled my butt to 6500 N. Clark Street to visit the Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s premier LGBTQ research space. At first I wondered if I was at the right building, as construction equipment and workers occupied the ground level, but the second floor was attractive and very open for business. An exhibit on LGBT music and a community bulletin board/table, offering free materials such as The Windy City Times, greeted me before I even entered the library. Once inside, I received an enthusiastic welcome from the staff member who offered a tour of the library, exhibits, and even the archives and special collections. The space was bright and inviting, equally embracing its academic mission and community-development role.

Continue reading “A+ for LGBTQ Organization: The Gerber/Hart Library”

Gender Gap Set in Stone

Chicago’s 580 parks are littered with statues of historically significant men. Some of these men may be familiar to you: Nicolaus Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Others may be unfamiliar: Greene Vardiman Black, for example, the “father of modern dentistry.” While the accomplishments of these notable figures vary, their gender does not. In fact, there is not a single statue in Chicago that honors a historically significant woman.

The lack of public statues honoring women has received recent attention in the local media, and for good reason. In a city home to such important female leaders like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, how can public depictions of women remain absent in Chicago’s parks?

The Chicago Park District told WBEZ Chicago that this absence is an issue of timing; the heyday of public sculpture in the city occurred before women earned the right to vote and were therefore not involved in public life. Yet this argument does not explain why men continued to be honored in Chicago parks long after women earned the right to vote in 1920. As recently as 2006, the Chicago Park District has added a new bronze statue of a male figure to its expansive park system.

Continue reading “Gender Gap Set in Stone”

When Police Brutality Protest Was White

The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, and the resulting community reaction, has put police brutality protest in the spotlight. The mass marches, limited looting, and confrontations with aggressive or ‘militarized’ law enforcement that typified the Ferguson protests seem like a relic of an earlier age. Many have been quick to draw parallels to Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Camden (1971), among others. I would like to add one more historical note, pulled from a chapter that I just so happen to be drafting this month. My case involves several similarities to Ferguson, but it is remarkable mainly because of a difference. The August 12, 1966, Summerdale March in Uptown Chicago was almost exclusively white.

A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)
A bandaged Uptown protester marches on the local police precinct. (Edgewater-Uptown News, August 16, 1966)

An uncommon density of vacant low-rent housing in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a postwar job crisis at home attracted tens-of-thousands of working-class and poor whites from Appalachia and the south through 1970. By 1960, many considered Uptown the nation’s foremost “Hillbilly Ghetto,” even though the area’s low-income community also consisted of American Indians, non-southern whites, a smattering of African Americans, and a growing Latino population. Uptown’s postwar southerness has been ‘discovered’ time after time by various segments of the dominant culture: urban renewal advocates, social workers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, country music radio executives, the New Left, sisters religious, the War on Poverty, and on and on up through…urban historians.

When the SDS created the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP) in 1964 to work towards an interracial solution to urban poverty, Uptown was a natural choice for one of the early projects. By 1966, SDS members were clamoring to be part of the Uptown ERAP effort known as Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). Noted organizers like Rennie Davis, Richard Rothstein, Vivian Leburg Rothstein, Todd Gitlin, and Casey Hayden lived in Uptown, undertaking the slow and uneven process of pushing locals towards political action. Early successes included a sit-in at the city welfare office, and tenant strikes that resulted in contracts between collectivized renters and landlords. These efforts antagonized most of the local political and social elites. The notorious “Red Squad” of the Chicago Police Department quickly placed JOIN under surveillance, and soon relied upon information from a local JOIN member who had become disgruntled with the outside activists’ “Unamerican” opinions about increased involvement in Vietnam. A law student soon infiltrated JOIN on the CPD’s behalf.

Meanwhile, patrolmen from the local precinct prosecuted an aggressive policing of Uptown low-income teenagers and young people. When outside JOIN organizers—operating under the banner of “participatory democracy”—sought to create political consciousness around the grievances expressed by locals, police brutality came to the fore. JOIN leaders were mostly unprepared and unwilling to base organizing around the issue, preferring instead to confront economic injustices and the shortcomings of the local War on Poverty “Urban Progress” program. Yet anger simmered, most notably with the politicization of the “Uptown Goodfellows,” a street organization of southern and Appalachian tough guys. The Goodfellows took cues from similar black and Latino groups that were beginning to evolve from gangs into political units.

Read the rest at dvhunter.com