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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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.

Public History Lab in the Classroom: Bringing Communities into Coursework

Photograph courtesy of David Kogan. 

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

This story originally appeared on the Loyola History Department’s website in October 2015. It has been modified for the Lakefront Historian and updated to reflect Public History Lab activity since then. 

On August 23, 2015, Loyola history master’s student Kristin Jacobsen led a walking tour of the Glenwood Avenue Arts District in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood for the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RP/WRHS). Her walking tour stemmed from a project organized by the Public History Lab, in partnership with the RP/WRHS, and undertaken by student groups in Dr. Patricia Mooney-Melvin’s graduate Public History Methods and Theory course (HIST 480) during the fall 2014 semester. For the project, HIST 480 students produced walking tour scripts about Rogers Park and West Ridge history for the RP/WRHS. Jacobsen’s group, which also included master’s students Blake Kennedy, Lauren O’Brien, and Andrew Paddock, produced a tour that explored Rogers Park’s Glenwood Avenue Arts District and presented the concept to the RP/WRHS President and Vice-President in December 2014. Jacobsen agreed to lead the tour for RP/WRHS members the following August.

I spoke to Jacobsen about her experience.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Neglected, Seemingly Forgotten Chicago Mural Is Now Extinct, Seemingly Forgotten

"IOU": The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).
“IOU”: The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).

MIT professor of urban studies Larry Vale recently published a book that deals with what he terms, “twice-cleared” places. A prominent example he employs is the site of the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. There, a mixed race low-income and working-class community was cleared in the mid-20th century. After a generation of mass public housing, the iconic—if not infamous—Cabrini-Green towers were then razed as part of the city’s landmark demolition of concentrated projects. Upon this second clearance, officials directed the construction of lower-density mixed income housing, a Target, etc, etc.

As Vale shows, twice-cleared areas represent complicated, layered social and cultural productions of space. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—the city’s perpetual ‘next big thing’ neighborhood—there are an increasing number of twice (and thrice, and more) cleared spaces. The current iteration of ‘can’t miss’ redevelopment in Uptown centers around the $203 million renovation of the CTA Wilson Red Line station. After several years of planning, budgeting, and community feedback, demolition has finally begun. Among the first structures to meet the wrecking ball was a CTA viaduct wall that had borne witness to a contentious clearance of space one generation earlier. This wall hosted a mural painted in direct response to the clearance of a low-income area in favor of a city community college. The mural became faded and obscured by plant growth. Its sun-bleached, mournful, almost seething message could only be seen during the winter. Now demolished, the mural is only a memory, a fitting parallel to the challenge of preserving the history of displacement in Uptown.

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Public Historians at Work: Restructuring a Historical Society

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

When Public History Lab (PHL) formed, several students decided to undertake a partnership with the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RPWRHS). Loyola is located in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and we knew that the RPWRHS needed assistance in several areas. Our early meetings to define the PHL’s goals and the first few months of our partnership with RPWRHS are topics for future blog posts, but for now I will say that the Society welcomed us. One of the first large projects that we undertook with the RPWRHS was the planning and execution of a strategic planning meeting.

PHL students and RPWRHS Board members and volunteers work together to develop a strategic plan. Photograph courtesy of Rachel Boyle.
PHL students and RPWRHS Board members and volunteers work together to develop a strategic plan. February 2014. Photograph courtesy of Rachel Boyle.

The strategic planning meeting yielded a working strategic plan, complete with projects that the Society’s committees (including PHL student volunteers) began working on to meet the plan’s one-, five-, and ten-year goals. Soon after, three PHL students were invited to join the RPWRHS Board of Directors. The students—me, Katie Macica, and Dan Ott—were elected to the Board in March 2014.

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