Hugh Gillis and His Hall
Much of the faculty energy in 1954-55 was spent in preparing for and executing a transition from the quarter system to the semester system. Curricular problems caused by this shift were still being felt in 1962 when Gillis wrote his history of the department. During the post-war boom years of 1952-1954, the new Speech and Drama Building (now Hugh Gillis Hall) was planned and built at the juncture of 5th and San Fernando Street. Prior to that time the department had operated out of the Little Theatre located as one of the connected buildings of the College quadrangle. As the department grew, the scene shop, costume shop and several faculty offices were set up in Quonset huts acquired after World War II. They were located outside the building and behind Morris Dailey Auditorium. From 1941 onward, Hugh Gillis was the driving force behind the construction of the new Speech and Drama Building at Fifth and San Fernando streets. It was completed in 1953 and dedicated in 1954, with a total area of 50,422 square feet at a cost of $1,284,866. Of particular importance in the new building were radio and television studios. The 1953 building was a single story structure; the second floor was added afterwards. In 1982 the Speech and Drama Building was re-dedicated and named in his honor, Hugh Gillis Hall.
Construction progress on the new building had not been without its difficulties, including a work stoppage following a breakdown of negotiations between the Association of General Contractors of Northern California and the AFL laborers' union. Four thousand laborers throughout the county were involved in the shutdowns. Negotiations broke down, according to the contractors association, over union demands for a 15-cent an hour increase. The contractors offered a 10-cent an hour pay raise.
Another problem arose when Wendell Johnson, the department Scene Designer, returned from a sabbatical leave and toured the new theatre prior to the dedication of the building and discovered a serious structural omission. The stage house had a grid to support the weight of scenery and lighting equipment that would be suspended from it. He pointed out, however, that the “strong-back,” two integral and major I-beams, had been omitted during the construction phase. The strong-back was the location for the head-block pulleys to which all the cables from the pulleys located through-out the grid system were gathered to be controlled by a counter-weight “fly system” for raising and lowering scenery and lighting equipment prior to or during the performances. A fly system is a major necessity for the successful operation of a theatre. Wendell Johnson had pictures taken and eventually had to appear in Sacramento to plead for additional funds for the inclusion of the strong-back I-beams. As a result of this omission, the theatre could not be used until the oversight had been corrected. Performances were still presented in the old Little Theatre, forcing students to apply their make-up and put on their costumes and then, rain or shine, dash from the new building to the old theatre across campus. Once approved, the construction crew had to cut holes in the roof and walls of the building in order to introduce the fifty-foot-long by two-foot-tall I-Beams into the building and create support for them.
The theatre eventually opened with the inaugural performance of Hamlet, featuring faculty and students in the cast and starring faculty member James Clancy.
The drama faculty held their weekly staff meetings in the department library during the 12:30 lunch hour. Sometime between 1965 and 1967, just after the start of a meeting, student Stanley Anderson rushed into the room to announce that there was a fire in the theatre. The staff rushed to the theatre where they joined students in “manning” the fire-hose. The main velour act curtain was on fire and the flames had ignited an accumulation of dust on the electric raceways, battens, and grid floor, setting off the automatic sprinkler system that covered the entire stage. Many of us were hoping the backstage switchboard would be involved so that a new one would be installed in the room at the back of the auditorium, as had been included in the original design of the building.
No such luck! The major damage was to the act curtain and teaser curtain as well as considerable water damage to the scenery and equipment on stage and in the trap room beneath the stage where all the rugs, lighting equipment, stair units, and large props were stored. All the lighting equipment had to be brought up to the stage and immediately dried out to avoid rust damage. That process took several days of volunteer labor.
All of the fuse links were replaced on all the sprinkler heads on stage, and then the fire inspector turned on the main valve on stage. This was to test whether some sprinkler heads had been overlooked. Everything appeared to be working. Several weeks later, however, the Buildings and Grounds Department discovered that the main fire hose valve for the building had been turned off at the time of the fire but had not been turned on again. So some kind soul turned it on. We immediately discovered that several sprinkler heads on stage had been missed when replacing fuse links, and we had another minor catastrophe and mop up.
Before San José became a town, the northwest corner of the current campus was a marsh where natives used to hunt wild fowl. While the Speech and Drama building was being built, redwood pilings were driven down to bedrock to give a solid base to the building. (The same thing was done when Walquist Library was built at a later date, but re-enforced concrete pillars were pounded into the ground instead of the redwood posts.) The local water table was very high at this location. Often during high tide water from the lawn sprinklers would not soak into the ground and the resulting layer of water on the grass would only disappear when the tide went out. Consequently, a sump pump was installed in the paint well of the scene shop to evacuate water that would seep into a long, narrow, four-foot-high trough during the rainy season. It was activated by an automatic switch, which meant that at any time during the day or night the pump would “kick in,” creating a loud racket that would echo throughout the back stage. In order to turn off the pump during performances, a by-pass cutoff switch was installed in the shop adjacent to the stage. Unfortunately, stage managers sometimes neglected to turn the system back on, causing the water to accumulate in the well and create a musty odor. That was an indication to turn on the system again.
Ken Dorst relates:
During my career at San José State it was revealed that the city of San José and especially the downtown area had sunk on an average of 12 feet because of the overdrawing of ground water. Once the ground settled, there was no space left to be refilled with rainwater. Therefore the sump pump was not activated as often. During the 1970s, we experienced a prolonged drought in the valley and the pump was no longer in action. At the end of the drought, water started to replenish the ground basin. One day I lowered the orchestra lift to the basement to get some lighting equipment. While down below, I lifted the lid of the remote control outlet to insert the cable that raised the lift. I was shocked to discover a mirror-like surface reflecting light back. We discovered that since the sump pump had dried out and was not working the water had filled the paint well and overflowed through a drainage pipe to the orchestra lift well. The drainage pipe had been designed for the emergency condition of removing water from the lift area. It reversed the process. The hydraulic tubes for the lift were filled with water. The entire system had to be refurbished at a great inconvenience to the production program.
After 18 years as department chair, Hugh Gillis resigned in 1955 for reasons of health. He was replaced by Harold Crain who brought with him a new emphasis on playwriting, dramatic literature, and a tighter organization of the Drama staff. Crain took on curriculum revision, the addition of new faculty, development of Children's Theatre, and the construction of a second floor on the Speech and Drama Building. Dr. Ward Rasmus was appointed associate head. Hugh Gillis retired in 1962 after a thirty-three-year year tenure in the department. The Speech and Drama Building was renamed for Hugh Gillis as an act of affection and respect.IIn 1957, Benjamin Gilbert wrote of the Gillis legacy in his book Pioneers for One-hundred Years, stating “The department is one of the largest in the West and has evolved into a cultural center for drama in the community.”