Clubs, Societies, and "The Players"
By the end of the nineteenth century, several faculty-sponsored clubs on the San José Normal School campus were devoted to the study of speech and drama, particularly the Sappho Society, Erosophian Society, Shakespearean Club, Young Men's Normal Debating Society, and the Allen Rhetorical Society. The extracurricular dramatic production activities of these societies and clubs preceded and, in part, justified formal curricular training. Any history of play production, theatrical entertainment, and even film production must begin with a record of these dramatic activities on the college campus. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the level of extracurricular dramatic activity was unequaled by extracurricular activity in any other area of the college, including athletics.
The theatrical activities of the early decades (1898-1927) often took the form of dramatic readings, variety shows, pageants for special occasions, or a series of “acts” presented by the societies. The first recorded evidence we have found of a specific play production was Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged on-campus by the Sappho Society in 1898 or, more likely, 1899. The Sappho Society, which evolved into the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority, was a social club devoted to the study of literature and art. Organized in 1898, it produced a version of Midsummer as one of its first activities. This production thus begins the history of live drama and eventually the electronic and film arts at San José State University.
From the June, 1899 Normal Pennant (9):
The Sappho club gave Midsummer Night's Dream. A pleasant feature of the term's work is to be the entertainment . . . on Friday evening, June 9th, in Normal Hall. The clever and amusing farce is being rehearsed for the occasion. The admission is fifteen cents, and all are welcome.
A second literary society, the Erosophian, which would later become Alpha Phi Sorority, produced Shakespeare's As You Like It in 1906. This society drama was probably the first campus production to achieve significant visibility. A few days before the play was to be presented, the Great Earthquake of 1906 devastated the campus and destroyed many of the buildings, including the building in which the performance was to be given.
Estelle Greathead, at that time a member of the Erosophians, writes:
The Erosophian Literary Society was organized in the spring of 1900. Early in 1906, the society decided they would give As You Like It on the lawn as part of Commencement week festivities. Then came the earthquake! We were without a building. All activities stopped. Classes were held in the Training School building. We were terribly crowded. Some classes were held on the lawn. We gave up the idea of giving As You Like It. There was no place to practice, and we had no heart for it if there had been. But President Dailey insisted that all activities go on as usual in order to keep up the morale of the school. To please him we decided to go on with the play. The rehearsals took place in the back yard of my home, 435 South Second Street. A stage was erected on the lawn a week before the play was to be given. Finally, As YouLike It was twice successfully given, in spite of the fact that the electricity went off during the evening performance. Professor Wilson finally got it going again. One of my treasures is a picture of the players in costume. (pp. 75-76)
1889 Midsummer Night's Dream, Sappho Society, director unknown
1900 Who is Who or All in a Fog, unknown, Miss Daniels
1902 Mock Trial, unknown, minstrel show
1903 Trying It On, unknown, Gertrude Payne
1904 A Mislaid Proposal, unknown, director unknown
1905 An Evening with a Missionary, unknown, director unknown
1906 As You Like It, Erosophian Society, director unknown
1907 Tommy's Wife, Dramatic Club, first production
1908 none recorded
1909 Going to Mauro, Normal Dramatic, Miss Larson
1910 Sleeping Beauty, Dramatic Society, director unknown
1911 Tyrolean Queen, Dramatic Society, director unknown
1912 The Fairy Shoemaker, Dramatic Society, Gertrude Payne
1912 Merchant of Venice, Dramatic Society, Miss Davis
1912 A Christmas Carol, Dramatic Society, Henry M. Bland
1913 In the Vanguard, Dramatic Society, director unknown
1914 Grasshopper and the Ant, Senior Class, Miss Bradley
1915 Follies of the Fair,** Men's Glee Club, director unknown
1915 Miss Fearless and Company, unknown, Miss Miller
1916 Stubbornness of Geraldine, unknown, director unknown
1916 History of California, unknown, benefit pageant
1917 none recorded (some one-acts)
1918 The Pioneer, Senior Class pageant
1919 A Vaudeville Show, unknown, director unknown
1919 CALIFORNIA, Senior Class, Miss Wood
* After 1917 hundreds of productions are listed in the departmental booklet called Drama Productions 1898-1962 and in the appendix of Hugh W. Gillis' Speech and Drama at San José State College
** “as the first big gun in the campaign for a men's rest room.”
The literary societies soon gave way to clubs specifically devoted to dramatic production, and in 1909 the first Normal Dramatic Society was established under the leadership of Miss Florence Larson with a membership of thirty, including six men. In the first year the club produced three one-acts. One of these, Going to Mauro, was staged by dividing the club into three sections and repeating the play in three styles. The following year the club changed its name to the Dramatic Society. Larson’s successors were English instructor Gertrude Payne and later Dr. Henry Meade Bland. In 1912, under Bland's supervision, a yearlong project began to select and produce a grand Christmas production chosen from “Greek, Mission, Shakespeare, or Dickens plays.” In the final decision, the choice was Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with tableaux and dialogue.
Estelle Greathead writes:
A dramatic society functioned intermittently at various periods of the school's history. In 1912 the society presented some modernized Shakespearean drama. In 1921 it took on new life, was called The Masque and Key, and presented some creditable dramas. Dramatic productions have always played a large part in the life of the school, but have not always been the output of the Dramatic Society, which for one reason or another has not until recently stood on a solid fundamental basis.
In the SJNS yearbook, an exuberant “Mamie” pens what is possibly the first drama review on campus in June 1912:
A dramatic society was organized last September under the leadership of Letitia Bernhardt—you remember her, do you not? Much interest was taken by both students and faculty in the organization. Miss Payne, Miss Bradley, and Miss McKenzie kindly consented to supervise the various undertakings. Though a great deal has been accomplished, so they tell me, within the society, no production has been placed before the school. Excellent things, however, are being planned for us next term. Perhaps you know some of the officers, President, Vera Silvey; Vice-President, Gertrude Pyle; Secretary, Grace Sanbourn; Treasurer, Eliza Wright; Reporter, Hazel Clayton; Sergeant at Arms, Myrtle Loughridge.
The alumni gave a ripping good vaudeville in the evening. It's really surprising the amount of talent that SJNS people, past and present, possess! They can't be beaten! I don't care if you are going to a different school, Betsy, I simply can't help telling the truth.
Your Loving, Mamie.
The Dramatic Society became temporarily defunct in 1914 because of “no help from students,” but was revived the following year and held open tryouts. The revival was due to the greatly welcomed return of Gertrude Payne, who had been on sabbatical for a year of additional study at the Boston School of Expression. Nevertheless, there appears to be a gap of some years (the World War I years) when no organization existed. In 1921, the club was reactivated and presented a series of skits and an “entertainment” in honor of a group of visitors from Chico State. The club again changed its name the following year, this time to Masque and Key, and produced Green Stockings, under the direction of Miss O'Rourke. This was the first major production played on the newly built stage in Morris Dailey Auditorium.
Virginia Sanderson (about whom much more will be written later) joined the English Department faculty in 1922 and became faculty leader of Masque and Key. “Dramatics now has a dramatic coach. Miss Sanders [sic], the new public speaking teacher, is right in touch with everything that is new in the line of play production,” stated the student newspaper. Sanderson promised a major production every term from Masque and Key.
In April 1924, the organization's name was changed once again, this time to the San José Players, a title that it carried for more than fifty years until its dissolution in the late 1980s. Masque and Key was a title reserved for an honorary group within the Players. The Players group organized with ten charter members. Membership was open to all students through written or oral tryouts in lighting, costuming, stagecraft, dramatic dancing, pantomime, dramatic music, and stage direction. By 1928, over 200 students had gained membership with only seven being dropped as “deadwood.” The first Players production (1924) was Constance Smedley's short play, Belle and Beau.
Weekly Players meetings were held with mandatory attendance. Two unexcused absences was cause for automatic dismissal with reinstatement possible only through a second tryout. The group was enthusiastic and included most of the leaders in college life, even student body officers and athletes. Great formality surrounded the gaining of membership (names of successful auditionees were kept rigidly secret until announced to the individuals by telegram); an impressive initiation ceremony conferred “pledgeship,” which continued for one year; a further ceremony conferred full membership.
From the college newspaper during the 1920s:
It's a wonder that the San José Players have not suffered a great dearth of leading men or a walkout of the few good ones in the dramatic organization. Surely, if many more plays are produced which bear in the title such uncomplimentary and derogatory allusions as The Fool, The Scarecrow, or The Poor Nut, such a strike may occur among title role players. To save the situation the Players should produce, say, The Emperor Jones or the Demi-God. However I anticipate something more like The Old Soak and The Showoff.
During the 1925-26 academic year, Viola Mae Powell acted as advisor and coach while Virginia Sanderson studied in Europe. Upon her return, Sanderson regained the reins until 1930 when Hugh W. Gillis became faculty advisor.
A Players’ project, somewhat pioneering in nature, was the making of a film in the summer of 1929. A sum of money had been inherited by one of the Players who was interested in this particular dramatic medium, and about twenty-five Players went “on location” for three weeks and produced a Western called Galleon Gold. This film was shown not only on campus but also in a downtown theatre and soon earned more than its cost.