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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)