Monday, May 18, 2015

Rev. Bridge and Drama in Grinnell

One of Rev. Bridge's first contributions to Grinnell was to institute a regular dramatic reading on campus—every Monday evening. "I believe we need to hear more literature," the Scarlet and Black quoted Bridge as having said; "To speak our literature is to humanize it." Thereafter the campus newspaper regularly reported on Bridge's readings, which were sometimes supplemented by Mrs. Bridge singing.  Readings drew from the classics as well as from plays now largely forgotten—including among the former Shakespeare's "Hamlet," and among the latter J. M. Barrie's "The Will" and Edgar Burrill White's "Master Skylark."

Spring semester 1921 the college drama class took over alternate Mondays, offering short dramas with student directors.  In late February they put on "These Mothers" written by Mary Harris (evidently a student in the class), followed in April by "The Tricking of Malvolio," based on extracts from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
Colonial Theater

In February, 1921 Bridge himself took to the boards to star with his wife in Oliver Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," presented at the Colonial Theater at Fifth and Main.  According to the rarely critical Scarlet and Black, "Mrs. W. H. Bridge, together with Mr. Bridge, were the real stars, both in name and in of the most successful productions seen here for some time."

Summer 1921 the Countryside Community theatre of Grinnell put on twelve plays "under God's stars" in the six weeks between July 4th and August 12th.  "Mrs. Pat and the Law" by Mary Aldis; Margaret Cameron's "The Burglar"; Richard Harding Davis's "Miss Civilization" and Doris Haiman's "Will o' the Wisp" were among the plays featured in the summer. In an adaptation of "Pied Piper" Elizabeth and Edward Ricker joined others to represent the "children and rats," and Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Child, Jr. took the leads in "The Wonder Hat" and "A Tramp and a Night's Lodging," a comedy base upon a Swedish folk tale.  Hallie Flanagan, a college drama colleague, joined Bridge to direct the shows, and also starred in "Suppressed Desires."

What Bridge called "the people's playhouse" featured a wide range of adult and child actors, often  under the direction of Bridge himself.  The Kiwanis club provided basic support to the enterprise (guaranteeing to cover any deficit), and numerous Grinnell merchants advertised on the pages of the programs.
Courtesy of Digital Grinnell; original copy in Collection #100, Local History Room, Drake Community Library

Receipts indicate that the endeavor was a big success.  In the second bulletin Bridge reported that from the first seven shows they had collected about $370, despite what he recalls was some initial opposition to charging for admission.  As Bridge put it, "The only way to make Community theatre a democratic institution is to give everybody a chance to 'chip in.'"  Over and above admission receipts, many in town evidently volunteered to help out—with stage building, music (an orchestra was assembled and became a regular feature part-way through the summer schedule), and in many other ways. But the Kiwanis were the volunteer backbone, supporting Community Theatre with a "General Committee" (that included B. J. Ricker, G. H. McMurray, H. L. Beyer and other local worthies), a Finance Committee (Beyer, Ricker, McMurray and J. H. Patton), a Productions Committee, and a Building Committee (that featured two of the town's lumber merchants).

With the continued support of the Kiwanis club (this time Jesse Fellows was among Kiwanians responsible for "General Management"), in December, 1921 the Community Playmakers (as they styled themselves) put on Haddon Chambers's four-act play, "Passers By" at the Colonial. Bridge directed (again with the assistance of Hallie Flanagan) and also was responsible for makeup; Mrs. Bridge took the part of Mrs. Summers, and young Joan Chandos Bridge filled the role of Little Peter Summers. Again the college newspaper found much to praise, calling the production "clever," and praising Mrs. Bridge and her co-star, Mrs.Virden.  Moreover,  "Joan Chandos Bridge was delightful in his [sic] part of Little Peter Summers."
Joan Chandos Bridge (; photo credit unknown)
The play's success generated invitations to repeat the production in Sioux City and Des Moines, and, perhaps because Bridge was an officer in the Iowa Little Theatre Committee, the group was invited to stage the production in Chicago at the national convention of the Drama League of America in April, 1922, with Mrs. Bridge and Joan Chandos Bridge reprising their roles. By all accounts the drama proved a success, and Bridge had a chance to address the convention. According to the report later published in the Grinnell Herald, he argued that the "middle western town or small city has as much culture and appreciation for art per capita, as have Chicago and New York.  His plea was for greater recognition of the smaller cities."

Much the same sentiment appeared in an article in the group's journal, The Drama: "Grinnell, Iowa, is a little college town of only 5,000, yet it has some of the most active, up-to-date successful [drama] centers that we have, with a membership of over one hundred...They belong to the Iowa Little Theatre Circuit and are supplying a company for touring in 'Passers By.' Moreoever, they are to have the first exchange performance on the circuit..."

So well-received was the 1921 community theater that there was considerable sentiment in 1922 for repeating the previous summer's outdoor theater. A major obstacle arose, however, when Bridge  declined to be part of the project: a June issue of the college newspaper speculated that an advanced drama student would be put in charge, but local newspapers made no further mention of the summer theater, suggesting that the plan had collapsed.

Despite his reported enthusiasm over dramatic developments in little towns in the heartland, when granted academic leave in early 1923, Bridge immediately took the opportunity to move to New York City where he anticipated attending lots of plays "and in doing some writing which he has long had in mind."  And so began a new chapter in the life of this remarkable clergyman and drama enthusiast.

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