World War II and "Flower Power"
During WWII many faculty were drawn into military or public service, fortunately without casualties. Adjusting to the necessities of the war years, most courses were dropped, the faculty decreased to four, the regular season of productions was abandoned, and enrollment plummeted to less than thirty.
During the annual Christmas production of 1941 an unexpected blackout was called. For over an hour 2,000 people sat in a darkened Morris Dailey Auditorium—trying to keep up spirits by singing Christmas carols—until the “All Clear” sounded.
Of this period, alumna Dorothy Shaw Somerville writes:
I am an old alumna (1944) and spent many happy days and nights in our old headquarters (as speech and drama majors) the little theatre and the makeup room and the bull pen. Those days our head was Dr. Hugh Gillis and faculty members James Cancy, J. Wendell Johnson, Ted Hatlen, Lucie Lawson, and the remarkable Dr. Margaret Letzer and Dr. Dorothy Kaucher.
We were rehearsing our Christmas play when we heard the news about Pearl Harbor. During the next four years the department continued to have performances and rehearsals--even during “blackouts.” Gradually our co-ed group declined to almost an all female group, but we never forgot that “the show must go on!”
In those ancient times the local merchants were most generous to us who were responsible for “props.” They would loan us anything we needed--especially Mr. Stackpole of Stackpole's Jewelry Store. We made our own costumes, flats and even learned how to re-upholster old furniture. We all became followers of “Improvise, Improvise.”
In spite of the war and its anxieties and loss of friends, our teachers kept us looking forward and focused. We had a wonderful experience. Harrison (Benny) McCreath returned and became a faculty member, Clarence Cassell became Clancy Cassell on San Francisco radio and others like myself became teachers. But it was that wonderful faculty group that gave us all great standards to live by. I shall never forget my graduation walk between the rows of all my professors and their smiles as each one of us marched by.
Oddly enough, in the midst of the emergency, the title of the Department was officially changed to Speech and Drama in the fall of 1942.
Alumna Lois Hartman (class of 1943) reflects:
I seem to remember one stage show that was interrupted during a blackout. At lunch time several of us met Peter Mingrove, faculty, back stage in the Little Theatre to record Red Cross appeals. The Radio Speaking Club, with Mr. Irwin, trudged up to KQW to do thirty minute dramas during those years. At year's end we celebrated with a banquet at the basement of the old Italian Hotel west of campus. Some clever members made place cards to designate our seating arrangement. We each had a quote from some show we'd done.
When the Japanese were ordered out of San José, our secretary was one of them. The Theatre group organized a farewell party for her family. I believe her name was Helen [Mineta]. We were desolate.
I remember Mendy's diction class where we breathed deeply and recited “Four score and seven years ago . . ." in unison. I still breathe deeply on occasion and think of him.
Tragically, Hugh Gillis spent some time in a sanitarium out near Alum Rock Park. When we visited, he was always optimistic and was “going to be fine” very soon.
Ted Hatlen and Marie Lucy were struggling to direct and prepare for careers. My memory is Ted's production of East Lynne in which I suffered greatly as a tragic heroine with Bill Kidwell and a fun group of hams.
Following WWII, most of the faculty returned, and the immediate increase in enrollment allowed for a drama major separate from any requirements in speech. In 1949 the department instituted the requirement that a “degree major must earn a 'C' or better in all required drama courses,” a requirement still in effect in 1999.
The Department Brochure of 1947 describes the reviving post-war program of plays on the main stage:
Plays have been staged at San José State College for the last fifty years. And since 1928 a pre-arranged schedule of plays has been sold to the public as an entire season. These productions are presented in the College Little Theatre and draw audiences from the whole Bay Area. There is a minimum of six main productions given each year, and each show has a run of five to ten nights. Tryouts for roles in the main productions are open to the entire student body and are directed by the members of the drama staff. These productions have achieved a high standard of excellence as witnessed by a steadily growing audience, highly favorable newspaper criticism, and frequent attendance of talent scouts and directors from other colleges and universities.
Duchess of Malfi
Kiss and Tell
The Doctor in Spite of Himself
Androcles and the Lion
My Sister Eileen
The Affairs of Anatole
One of the most important drama students of the post war years was Evelyn McCurdy-Sivier, the “pore little critter” (1947-51). Wayne Mitchell, in his own memoirs of this period, writes about McCurdy, “I'd never acted with adults before. Evelyn McCurdy acted women with conviction.” Now a professor emerita from Wayne State University, alumna McCurdy-Sivier remembers the department:
My years at San José add up to a very special time in my life. It was a magic time which eventually led to a new and challenging career. As to memories it is difficult to know what to include or where to stop.
To begin, I must return to my introduction to San José State. During the years 1947-1951 I had the dubious fortune to be what movies have called “Mother was a Freshman.” The war was over and veterans were beginning to take advantage of tuition grants. I was not alone in starting college at the age of thirty, but as a woman, not a mother and not of the military I did not quite fit the mold. Earlier I had worked on the “Subway Circuit” in New York, acting in shows which traveled to Long Island and as far as the subway would take us. When war was declared I was back in California, married during the war, and in 1947 found myself alone again. The war had finally ended and I had time to think of the theatre. I heard about the good productions at State and wanted to become involved. College had always been a goal but the depression, marriage and the war interfered.
The Speech and Drama faculty at the time was of such high quality that standards of excellence were almost a requirement. Dr. Hugh Gillis was Chair, Dr. James Clancy, Mr. John Kerr, Wendell Johnson, Berneice Prisk, Beth Loeffler, Dr. Dorothy Kaucher, Dr. Marie Carr and several others were fine educators who followed Dr. Gillis in his quest for excellence. The well-known Helen Mineta was secretary to Dr. Gillis at that time. These people became my friends as well as mentors, especially Marie and Helen.
I was cast in numerous productions and can relate events with a clear sense of pride. For example, the onset of polio during the second act of The Late Christopher Bean. Stanley Schwimmer, the male lead, lost his voice completely. Out talented cast together with our director devised a plan to sit Stanley at his desk with the rest of the family surrounding him. They managed to take his lines and make it look natural. It was a sad day when we learned Stanley had polio, but fortunately it was not a major case and he recovered with very little disability.
Other mishaps occurred during Uncle Harry when props forgot the all-important murder weapon. It was not easy, but I'm afraid the script was slightly rewritten before we were back on track. We had zippers breaking on stage, illness with no understudy and countless others. I remember my nightly surprise when I looked at the baby in my arms with great tenderness only to find spiders, pigs, and the like. My lines were often “pore little critter” in Margaret Flemming and I lived with that nickname for quite a while.
There are so many memories of those people and those shows, this letter is only a small remembrance of good shows (many standing ovations) and good times. San José State was good to me and for me.
The photographs I have enclosed are the only ones I have had copied. I have many more, together with programs and some news clips. The copy of the news item was also enclosed to illustrate the spirit of the department and the school. The trophy was from a Western Speech Conference held in Los Angeles. Our faculty was especially pleased to beat such schools as UCLA and USC. The Student of the Year Award was presented to me (make-up and all) in the big auditorium. To my surprise, Mr. Kerr stretched the intermission of Noah and I was escorted there and back. Dr. MacQuarrie had held up that portion of the program for the few minutes it took to get me there.
After all these years I still work in the theatre when an “older” lady is needed and sometimes as an acting coach. It is not enough to suit me, but it keeps me in the swing of things.
In 1951 Drama added an MA program. On order from the state government in Sacramento, the college was restructured into divisions, with the Speech and Drama Department a part of the Division of Fine Arts. Hugh Gillis was appointed chairman of this division.
In 1952, the BA in Drama was divided into three types: Acting-Directing, Theatre Production, and Drama/English with an emphasis on writing and literature.
In 1953, the BA in Radio was expanded to include Television and shifted to the Drama side of the department.
Alumnus Wayne Mitchell (class of 1954) writes about the activities and personalities of the 1950s:
I knew nothing about San José State College in 1948. My high school drama teacher advised me to try their summer drama program. I am thankful to this day! Top to bottom the department faculty was excellent.
Secretary Helen Mineta ably assisted dept. head Hugh Gillis. James Clancy was probably the “star.” He directed and acted. His “King Lear” was memorable.
I remember Rose of the Rancho. It was a period piece done in the old outdoor “Quad.” Dr. Clancy huddled in the audience during rehearsals. He was battling bleeding ulcers. The medication was a thermos of warm milk. Every time he left it unattended, it disappeared, only to be found on stage somewhere. I can still hear “Who has my warm milk?” echoing through the quad. I was in Rose. I played a cavalry lieutenant who saved the day. The biggest challenge was wearing a sword on my hip. The damned thing kept sliding between my legs. It was hard being heroic while straddling the silver sword.
John Kerr was the master of comedy timing.
Beth Loeffler did most of the modern plays.
J. Wendell Johnson was a genius in set design. I remember him painting a portrait for a set with a spray gun.
Jim Lioi and Doug Morrison took care of the scenery. Jim was up and down ladders and ropes. One day on his way to the “grid” he missed a step. He fell to the stage. It wasn’t long before he rejoined us, crutches and all.
Miss Prisk was the costumer. I somehow passed her class after battling the sewing machines for a quarter.
Bob Guy headed the Radio dept, Wallace Murray, Marie Carr, Benny McCreath, Ted Balgooyan and Jim Greenleaf taught speech.
Ward Rasmus did Voice and Diction. I learned dialects from him.
For the first time, I was in classes with adults. Gray-haired men, home from the service, made hair whitener unneeded.
Don Holliday, Jackson Young and Matt Pendo were outstanding, mature actors.
Cliff Roche was the comedic star. Jim Jensen and John Calderwood did most of the romantic leads. Jim Forrester played the “strange” characters, Dottie Williams did many of the ingénues and Betsy Smith was a great vixen.
I’d never acted with adults before. Evelyn McCurdy played women with conviction. Bill Furnell and Don Pearlman were very talented and Russ Scineca played Russ Scineca, hilariously.
Ivan Van Pere went from S.J.S. to the San Francisco Opera as a stage manager. Len Weiss was into dramatic literature and taught at the Community College level.
Pete Hayden did a little of everything, very well.
Gerry Charlebois became Michael Forrest and worked a lot of “Soaps” and “Westerns” on T.V. His first break came on Lux Video Theatre with Lillian Gish.
Gwen Damm was busy on the “Soaps.” Shirley Wilbur was active in N.Y. theatre. Others I’m sure were successful, but I’ve lost track of them.
We had the opportunity to do five shows in the summer. I remember rehearsing one show while performing in another.
During the regular year the “classics” were emphasized. Medea, King Lear, and Androcles and the Lion gave many of us a chance to carry spears. There was even the student produced Revelries once a year.
I might be biased but I can’t imagine Northwestern having a better program. Stanford? Santa Clara? No contest!
Alumnus Michael Handler (class of 1970) was here when “flower power” made its mark on the department:
One of the craziest events I attended at SJS was the Space Leak . . . ever hear of it? Well, it was a “happening” like they had in the '60s . . . well, it WAS the 60s!!! about ‘69 I think. We students gathered UNDER the main stage. We were all given Colonel Sanders masks to wear . . . weird music and lights were piped in, as well as compressed air shot under the stage from above. The pit was awash with color and light, and hanging items and materials were everywhere. I don't remember why we did this exactly, but I remember everyone asking, “Is it leaking yet? Is it leaking yet?” OK . . . so now you know what we were really doing in the '60s! I don't think Dr. Todd was there . . . I was looking for my official Space Leak T shirt but could not find it. The KFC mask is long gone . . . it was a most bizarre experience.
The school year 1969-70 experienced many student demonstrations opposing the Vietnam War. Student/faculty marches through many buildings eventually ended when student protesters occupied the Administration Building. The governor ordered the National Guard to San José. They bivouacked on 6th Street and occupied positions on San Fernando Street. During demonstrations tear-gas would seep into the ventilating systems of adjacent buildings. The Drama Department was in rehearsal for Man of La Mancha, the season's final production. The student protest demonstrations finally forced the administration officials to declare the campus closed. All activities on campus were halted. This created quite a dilemma for our production. Dr. Todd finally arranged with the Catholic Women's Center at the corner of 5th and San Fernando to use their large meeting room for rehearsals. This meant “invading” our sealed building to obtain necessary materials and props for rehearsal. Our production continued rehearsing before a nightly audience of curious nuns who lived in the center. Cast members were confronted with a problem. Many of them were sympathetic with the demonstrations on campus but also loyal to the production. The Students For Peace San José Student Offensive used Cervantes' speech from Man of La Mancha as a rallying cry for their protests. I [Ken Dorst] was proud that our cast members maintained their loyalty to the production, but also that they wanted to show their support for their fellow students. The cast presented a benefit performance to help pay the telephone bill accrued by the San José Student Offensive. Letters to the cast from faculty and the public expressed appreciation for a production that stressed the values of “The Impossible Dream” during such a turbulent time.