“The Play’s the Thing”

MUSIC HAS PLAYED an important role in the curricular and extracurricular program of the college from its very beginning. In fact music was one of the six courses listed in the first year’s program of studies for St. Olaf s School. The story of music at St. Olaf during the first forty-five years, culminating in the Choir’s first triumphal tour of the East in 1920, is interestingly related by Eugene Simpson in his book entitled “The St. Olaf Choir.”

No official recognition, however, had up to that time been accorded the dramatic arts. There had been instruction in public speaking and private lessons in elocution were given. Course offerings in English were expanded to include “Literary Interpretation” and “Interpretative Reading of Dramatic Selections.” Dramatic readings and tableaux were popular features of student programs and were in a sense the forerunner of our now long tradition of high accomplishment in the field of dramatics. In the spring of 1918 a pageant “The Spirit of America Speaks” was presented by the students under the auspices of the Women’s Student Government Association for the benefit of the Red Cross. Another pageant “America. Yesterday and Today” was given the following year. These were staged at 6:30 p.m. on the green (then the athletic field) between Agnes Mellby Hall and the former Mohn Hall. One recalls vividly Florence Simerson (Mrs. Laurence Field), the narrator, perched in a tree on the edge of the Valley. Fortunately the evening was beautiful and still. With her excellent enunciation coupled with the aid of a megaphone she could be heard over the entire field. While these performances were decidedly amateurish, the audiences both years were most enthusiastic. The participants, from those driving westward in the prairie schooner to those taking part in the “Indian War Dances” or “The Frolic of the Flowers,” were delighted at having a part. Not least was their satisfaction in adding to the Red Cross coffers.

During these years, too, several societies, particularly the Phi Kappa Phi together with the Alpha Beta Chi and the Delta Chi with their brother society The Alpha Kappa, put on several plays directed by their own members. There was a growing interest on the part of the students in dramatics and a desire for opportunity for participation in such activities on a larger scale. Finally under the leadership of Dr. George Weida Spohn a plan was worked out by which the English Department would sponsor a play each year and for which try-outs were open to any student. April 21, 1921, marks St. Olaf’s official pioneer step in dramatics with the presentation of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” on the eve of Shakespeare’s birthday, with Ruth Rorvik (Mrs. Melvin Hauge ) as Portia and Joy Nelson as Shylock.

Several circumstances had mitigated against the presentation of plays officially by the college. There was, it is true, a not inconsiderable number of the college constituency who disapproved strongly of anything that might be labeled theater. But there were other factors, too. There were no facilities for putting on such plays. There was no auditorium except Hoyme Memorial Chapel and that was not suitable. Then there was the question of securing within the limited budget a qualified director. When the Gymnasium was completed in 1920, there was great jubilation for now there would be more space not only for the physical education and athletic programs but for social events and other all-college functions, including plays. Fortunate it was, too, that Dr. Spohn was able to secure as director a next-door neighbor and close friend of the family, a woman with wide experience in the field of dramatics, wife of a local dentist, Mrs. R. D. Kelsey. Thus entered into the life of St. Olaf a woman who in spite of all the handicaps and lack of facilities that she faced was instrumental together with Dr. Spohn and other members of the English department in building up a remarkable and in some respects unique record of student dramatic performance.

It was decided to present this first play in a setting as representative of the Shakespearean stage as possible. A replica of the Old Fortune Theatre with its upper stage, middle roof-covered one, and its front stage was built. This stage, constructed by Henry Nycklemoe, served as the setting for Shakespearean plays for some half-a-dozen years following the initial performance.

The dramatic urge grew. Less than a month after the presentation of “The Merchant of Venice,” the first Norwegian play, “En Fallit” by Bjornson, was given in the Gymnasium under the auspices of the Norwegian department and directed by Ragna Tangjerd (Mrs. Oscar Grimsby). This performance was a feature of the 11th annual convention of the “Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study” meeting at St. Olaf. Thus the spring of 1921 saw the beginning of a long and distinguished tradition of Shakespearean and Norwegian classical performances at St. Olaf.

The next fall “The Taming of the Shrew” was given with Mrs. Kelsey, professionally known as Elizabeth Walsingham Kelsey, directing. Gonnard Felland, who had distinguished himself as Gratiano in the “Merchant of Venice,” had the part of Petruchio and Arvilla Knutson that of Katharina. Already people interested in drama in other communities had begun to hear of St. Olaf’s emphasis on the production of Shakespeare and the excellence of the performances. When, therefore, the third comedy “As You Like It” was staged in November 1922, there were many from out-of-town and from other institutions in attendance.

The following school year we adventured further. Hoyme Chapel had burned in the fall and the Gymnasium had been pressed into many extra services. Why not capitalize on our out-of-doors? The result was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” given May 31, 1924, in the Vale of Tawasentha, more familiarly known as Norway Valley. No one who saw that performance will ever forget it. The gently sloping tree-covered hillsides leading into the valley formed a natural amphitheater. At the base of the slopes three towering spruce trees with connecting stone walls made a perfect background for the greensward stage. The acoustics were excellent. The seats were primitive, plain boards that we upholstered by bringing pillows or blankets. But with the afterglow of the sunset behind us (this was before daylight saving time), the glimmer of the moon through the leaves .above us, and the colorful pageantry on the slope before us, we were transported into a world of fantasy, quite oblivious to physical inconveniences. Of the many delights of this performance, one of the most enthralling was the colored lighting effect that made the fairies appear as though they came down the hillside into the valley dancing on a moonbeam.

In the spring of 1925 on May 26th, a play was again staged in the Vale of Tawasentha. This time it was the first tragedy attempted, “King Lear.” Rain had been threatening all afternoon and the skies were leaden. A large audience gathered nevertheless, equipped with umbrellas and raincoats. There were some anxious moments early in the play when a few large raindrops fell, but no shower developed. However, just when the storm scene in the play was to be enacted, nature added realism to the show with lightning flashes, thunder claps, and winds swirling through the treetops, but, fortunately, no rain. The speeches in this scene could not be heard, but when the storm in the play was over so was nature’s little flurry and the play continued to the end with but a small portion of the audience gone.

Now for a number of years, two Shakespearean plays were given annually, one in the fall in the Gymnasium in connection with a three-day Foundation Day and homecoming weekend which took place the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nearest the 6th of November. The other was put on in the Vale of Tawasentha in the late spring and sometimes repeated at commencement. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “A Comedy of Errors,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and “Hamlet” with John Sulerud in the lead may be mentioned among those. not previously staged that were presented at homecoming. New plays given in the valley included “Love’s Labor Lost,” “Twelfth Night,” “A Winter’s Tale,” “The Tempest” with Helen Bauder as Ariel, in addition to the re-enactment of some plays given earlier.

An impromptu behind-the-scenes act is remembered with amusement by members of the cast in “The Tempest.” Adolph Lium had the part of Prospero. All at once he discovered that the property man had apparently neglected to saw his wand so that it would break easily. Suddenly he disappeared from the stage and the rest of the players could hear the unmistakable sound of a saw reducing the thickness of the wand to breaking size. At this particular point Prospero had a line to say which in itself was not too important but was the cue for the next speaker. With much relish one of the lesser noblemen gave Prospero’s line and provided the proper cue. When Prospero’s next speech was due he was back on stage with the doctored wand in hand!

When Hoyme Memorial Chapel burned in 1923, the physics department which had been located in the basement found temporary housing in the old gym in Ytterboe Hall. Two years later Holland Hall was completed and all the sciences were located in this new building. With the pressing need for some place in which to present plays, it was decided to convert the old gym into an auditorium by building a movable stage and providing folding chairs for seats. Already the French department had put on a French play for its students. Now, with this auditorium available there followed a perfect rash of plays by the French, Spanish, German, and Latin departments, by some of the societies, and one-act plays by members of the play production class recently added to the speech curriculum.

The English department, too, felt that now it could branch out in its all-college productions to other plays that could be presented on a smaller stage. The first deviation from Shakespeare was a morality play, “Everyman. ” This was followed the next year by an early American play, “The Contrast,” written by an ancestor of Mrs. Spohn and recently revived by Cornelia Otis Skinner. Among succeeding plays presented during these years may be mentioned “The Goose Hangs High,” “Little Women,” “The Rivals,” “The Black Flamingo,” “Charles and Mary Lamb,” and “Giants in the Earth,” dramatized by Mr. Thomas Job of the English department at Carleton.

It now became the custom to give only one Shakespearean play a year and that usually in the spring, most often in the Valley. Several times the green between Agnes Mellby Hall and the woods of the valley served as the stage; another time the play was given on the athletic field with the lilacs half way down the southeast slope of Thorson Hall forming the background. More recently “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was given in front of Old Main. This play was made memorable by the resourcefulness of our present director, Ralph Haugen, when faced with the news in the morning on the day of the performance that his lead and another of his players were too ill to participate. Mr. Haugen himself took one part and Mr. Ishmael Gardner of the department of speech, who had once played Falstaff, stepped into the breach and with book in hand to jog his memory “out-falstaffed” Falstaff. It was a wonderful fun evening!

To be pioneers in St. Olaf dramatics required a great deal of patience, fortitude and perseverance. In view of the very limited facilities for dramatic presentations, the high calibre of the Shakespearean performances and likewise of the Norwegian plays is a tribute to the directors, the students participating, both those of the cast and of the production staff, and to the campus crews whose assistance was invaluable. Rehearsals had to be arranged wherever classrooms were available and sometimes at the oddest hours. The Gymnasium had to serve so many purposes that the stage for the play could be put up only a few days before the public performance. For several weeks rehearsals for the out-of-door plays were held before breakfast beginning at five o’clock. It was sometimes quite chilly even then. Invariably Mrs. Kelsey brought coffee and doughnuts or rolls with her to wake-up and warm-up her cast. For the out-of-doors plays there was always concern about the weather, the dampness of the valley, and mosquitoes. Then there was the problem of costumes. Many were rented but others had to be made, some by the players themselves, many by Mrs. Kelsey, others by the ever-helpful Mrs. Hannah Glasoe. These became the property of the department. Some valuable period costumes too were donated to the department by interested people. But there was no place to store them. Mrs. Kelsey became in a very literal sense “The Mistress of the Wardrobe” for she assumed the responsibility of keeping all of them at her home. It was a familiar sight to see her before dress rehearsals tripping across the campus her arms laden with costumes. Of wonderful help was Mrs. Spohn, affectionately known as “Muddy.” With her delicious sense of humor and her contagious chuckle as well as her intense interest in every production, she was a tonic for everyone, director and members of the cast as well. She faithfully attended rehearsals for several weeks before the performance and by her presence and spirit gave encouragement and support.

It was a big step forward when Ytterboe Hall Auditorium became available for staging plays. But the difficulties were by no means all overcome. This was a many-purpose room still available for smaller group social affairs. There were problems of getting it reserved for long enough periods and suitable hours for rehearsals. No place was provided for the storing of costumes and equipment. Mrs. Kelsey still came a couple of days before a play with her arms full of costumes, or bringing some special furniture or accessories from her treasure trove of antiques.

It was interesting to watch Mrs. Kelsey at work. At times one would see her over at one end of the auditorium play-text in hand, seemingly just talking with one of the players. Some minutes later she would be engaged in similar conversation with another. In between she would listen to those going through a scene on the stage. She had a remarkable ability to draw a student out. As she herself said, “I can tell them how to give each speech, how to inflect their voices to bring out the meaning of each line. Or, I can do as I have done, help them see the meaning and then guide them in the interpretation of these characters. It has been thrilling to watch them develop.”

When we became involved in World War II, even the facilities of Ytterboe Auditorium, limited as they were, were no longer available, for the entire building was given over to the Navy Pre-Flight unit. For a number of years dramatic production was largely limited to plays put on by a group called the Campus Players who initially were interested in getting experience for directing high school plays. They were assisted by Mrs. Kelsey as advisor and by her play production class. After the war, application was made to the government for a war surplus type of a building suitable for a little theater, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile in 1948 when Ytterboe “Auditorium” was again vacated, it was once more taken into use for dramatic performances. Its facilities were meagre, but it did have a stage constructed by the play production class on which were presented, among others, “Pygmalion,” Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” and “Candida.” The “Imaginary Invalid” was put on in the Gymnasium in 1949.

Finally in the spring of 1950 a little theater which had been dreamed of and struggled for during many years became a reality. For now under the direction of Edward Sovik Jr. of the department of art, Ytterboe Auditorium was completely remodeled and transformed into a theater seating 250 people, with a proper size stage, upholstered seats, and a graduated system of seating, with dressing rooms and wardrobe space. The ceiling was insulated, a ventilating system installed, and an attractive entrance with lobby provided. The first play to be presented in the new little theater, now known as the Drama Studio, was Robert Bennet’s dramatization of “Pilgrim’s Progress” on April 21, 1950. Since the studio was not quite completed at this time, the dedication. was set for June 2 when “Twelfth Night,” already presented for the students was produced for the commencement guests. It was a joyous day for everyone. It was especially so for Mrs. Kelsey of whom a reviewer said, “the faith of thirty years has brought a fitting reward to an indomitable spirit” and for Mr. Ralph Haugen, who had joined the staff that year and co-directed the initial performances in the Drama Studio.

Inadequate though these facilities are for the size of our present student body, the Drama Studio has served us well during these years and has enabled St. Olaf to maintain a splendid tradition of student dramatic performances.

Following the initial performance of “En Fallit” in 1921, the annual presentation of a play in the Norwegian language continued for almost thirty years. During those years quite a number of the students spoke the language fluently. Among those carrying leading roles are found such names as Joseph Simonson, Nora Fjelde, Theodore Jorgenson, Julia Rognlie, Delia Danielson, Gustav Odegaard, Kathryn Jorgenson. Except for a year when she was on leave, Miss Esther Gulbrandson was the enthusiastic and dynamic director of these plays. She faced the same problems of staging and costume storage as did Mrs. Kelsey. During her year of absence Mr. Theodore Jorgenson and Mr. Clarence Clausen co-directed Holberg’s “Jeppe paa Bjerget.”

Most of the plays staged were by Ibsen and included such productions as “Samfundets Stötter (The Pillars of Society),” “De Unges Forbund (The League of Youth),” “Et Dukkehjem (A Doll’s House),” “Gjengangere (Ghosts),” “Vildanden (The Wild Duck),” “Hedda Gabler,” “Peer Gynt,” and “Brand.”

In May 1925 instead of staging an Ibsen play the department put on Bjornson’s spectacular “Sigurd Jorsalfar (Sigurd the Crusader).” This involved some fifty participants and included not only speaking parts but chorus, solos, and orchestra with complete musical score by Grieg. So impressive was this presentation that five years later its re-enactment was requested. After that it was repeated every five years, and was performed four times. For the 1935 performance the part of Sigurd Jorsalfar was given to Walter Fleischman (now known by the name of Walter Craig) who already had demonstrated exceptional histrionic ability in English department plays. Like his counter-part brother King Oystein, played by Gustav Odegaard, he was an excellent singer. However, he did not speak nor understand one word of Norwegian. But he was an excellent imitator. By process of word for word pronunciation and interpretation of the play under the tutelage of Mrs. Gertrude Boe Overby and Miss Gulbrandson, he surmounted this language handicap and enacted the part of the fiery and adventurous Sigurd in flawless Norwegian with all its characteristic intonations. The acting in all of the plays presented received high praise from audience and reviewers. Especially remembered among the many notable scenes is that of Aases’s death in “Peer Gynt” with Alvin Grundahl taking the part of Peer and Gladys Glendenning (Mrs. Frank Andrews) that of Aases’s mother. These plays attracted not only students and faculty members but many Norwegian-speaking people from the cities as well as from Northfield and surrounding communities. The annual presentation of such drama in the Norwegian language was unique among midwestern colleges. With World War II this tradition was interrupted; for three year no plays were staged. Then after the war with the number of students who spoke the language steadily decreasing, the task of directing became increasingly more time-consuming and difficult. “Til Seters” put on in 1950 brought to an end this fine dramatic tradition at St. Olaf.

The Alumni Benefit Play
The building of our present athletic field was one of many projects of the St. Olaf Alumni Association. Fund raising activities of various kinds were undertaken by alumni groups. Alumni members at St. Olaf decided that they, too, should do something special for this cause. The result was a benefit play put on in the Gymnasium by alumni and faculty members, “The Rise and Fall of Silas Lapham” with Mrs. Kelsey directing. This play will probably be best remembered for Arthur Paulson as the villain and his expressive long-fingered hands. Another scene will be recalled with amusement. It was at a serious moment almost at the close of the play when the “stone wall” behind the speakers, unknown to them, fell backwards. The actors were stopped by the unexpected laughter of the audience. They had barely started again when there was another outburst of even greater hilarity. The bewildered actors turned around to find that the stone wall was slowly rising into place again every stone intact. The play finally ended serenely and successfully. It netted a thousand dollars for the athletic field.

The 75th Anniversary Pageant 
THE ANNIVERSARY PAGEANT, “An Adventure in Faith,” presented on the 3rd and 5th of November 1949 is in the minds of many the most spectacular and impressive dramatic presentation so far staged at St. Olaf. The entire college was involved. All its artistic forces — literary, dramatic, music, and visual were utilized. The general chairman of the pageant committee was Ella Hjertaas (Mrs. Herman Roe). Esther Gulbrandson was chairman of the script writing. Other members of the pageant committee were William Benson, Arnold Flaten, David Johnson, Evelyn Jerdee, Nora Solum, Elizabeth Kelsey, and student representative Daryle Feldmeir. The pageant was directed by Mrs. Elizabeth Kelsey and Esther Gulbrandson and coordinated by Mr. John Manning. The art department under Arnold Maten and the campus crew under John Bernsten took care of the stage construction, scenery, lighting, et cetera. And assisting were many unnamed and unheralded students and faculty.

From the stirring opening chorus of the Vikings leaping from their ship singing “Noronna Folket de vil Fara” from “Sigurd Jorsalfar” to the climactic recessional of the cast of over 400 who in spirit of high exaltation burst forth with ascending fervor and intensity in the challenging strains of Tram Fram Christmen Crossmen,” it was an artistic and spiritual adventure. One dramatic and emotion-packed episode followed upon another. One of these representing the story of the St. Olaf Choir was especially startling. Dr. F. Melius Christiansen had by this time been retired for some years and was not very well. When the time came for the choir to sing, with its long-time soloist, Gertrude Overby, in her old place, to the almost shocked astonishment of the audience Dr. Christiansen stepped out from amid the shadows of the partly darkened stage and directed the group with his old-time vigor. The response of the Choir to the old master’s directing was almost electric and that of the audience overwhelming.

The story of St. Olaf is so full of drama and so excellently portrayed in “An Adventure in Faith” that it is to be hoped that the group that gathers for the 100th anniversary of the college may also have the opportunity through this same dramatic presentation enlarged by events of the last twenty-five years to re-live these high points in St. Olaf’s story. The adventure will not cease with the 100th anniversary for St. Olaf will always be an Adventure in Faith.

Manitou Analecta

Chapters:

Introduction and Foreword
Early Contacts
St. Olaf Builders
Loyal and Faithful
Student Life
Ytterboe Hall Boarding Club
War Comes to St. Olaf
When the Chapel Burned
Dearest of “Homes on the Circling Heights”
A Dream Come True
Second World War Years
Getting Back to “Normalcy”
Some Distinguished Campus Visitors
“The Play’s the Thing”
‘Once Upon a Time’ Traditions and Other Miscellany
Our College Songs