St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2019

STOries: Scenes from Yesteryear

A pause during a twilight stroll recently gave way to a solitary moment of contemplation. As I stood by the east entrance of Thorson Hall, near a grove of immense Norway spruce and Black Hills spruce, it was not hard for me to imagine a similar, enchanting spring evening in the same location nearly 65 years earlier.

In mid-May 1955, the St. Olaf Dramatics Department staged Theater Professor Ralph Haugen’s first outdoor production featuring Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The responsive audience, numbering in the hundreds, sat on folding metal chairs under a waning full moon.

The rich tradition of rendering Shakespeare plays on campus in the open air first occurred in 1924 with Elizabeth Walsingham Kelsey’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The fledgling Dramatics Department, established in 1921, utilized a deep ravine in Norway Valley that features a gently sloping tree-covered hillside as a natural amphitheater.

Over the next 17 years, Norway Valley hosted 12 additional productions, and all but one were Shakespeare-based. The outdoor plays in this location ceased in 1941. John Berntsen, college carpenter and scenery maker at that time, said pointedly, “It wasn’t lack of culture that caused the death of Norway Valley plays; it was the mosquitoes.”

Since there was no designated theatrical stage on campus, many plays continued to be held outdoors. Haugen’s Merchant presentation stands out because it was the first open-air play to use a campus building as an integral prop. Hired in 1949, Haugen recalled spending his first few weeks “sorting bent nails and screws and various things” in addition to teaching. Yet, as he nostalgically mused decades later about the campus’ lackluster supply of theater materials, he readily appreciated the students’ spirit: “[like] the dictum of Lope de Vega (1562–1635) who says all you need with theater are two boards and a passion. We had a couple of boards … [and] students who were very excited about theater, and so you made it go.”

Thorson Hall, a men’s dormitory at the time, had just the boards Haugen needed. Its imposing staircase and porch, plus the edifice of limestone and Norman Gothic architecture, would be a perfect set piece for an outdoor production.  Coupled with the production’s sumptuous Elizabethan costumes, the building lent itself beautifully to an imagined 16th-century setting. The atmosphere exuded “carefree gaiety,” remarked a critic.

Yet behind the scenes an apropos line from the play, “All that glitters is not gold,” best manifested itself in the hours leading up to the May 12 opening night. In the late afternoon that day, Haugen and the technical crew had arrived for the final rehearsal. To their utter surprise, the entire small set of flats — boards painted with scenery to be used for the rest of the play’s set — had simply vanished.

After looking around the interior and exterior of Thorson Hall, someone pointed up in astonishment. There, on top of the 72-foot-high rickety wooden ski jump erected on the brow of “Pop Hill” and adjacent to the dormitory were the missing stage materials. The pranksters were never revealed.

After scrambling to reassemble the set in time for the show, another trying situation presented itself. A rumor had spread that the residents of Thorson Hall planned to flush every toilet in unison the moment the character played by Wendell “Wendy” Miller ’55 walked on stage. To put a stop to this, Ken Wilkens, a colleague of Haugen’s in the Speech Department, had all of the bathrooms locked during the performance.

The performance itself had a moment of unintended levity, courtesy of the very nearsighted C. Paul Christianson ’55, performing without his eyeglasses as Launcelot Gobbo. The comical result of his poor vision was an accidental pratfall as Christianson fled down the staircase into the darkness, almost careering into the building itself, and finally landing on his face.

These scenes of yesteryear, woven into St. Olaf’s rich theatrical tradition, have faded into memory. Yet before I headed home, I could hear Merchant’s character Lorenzo faintly whisper, “in such a night as this, when the sweet wind did gently kiss the tree.” And one can only picture the slender, dark-haired Haugen, standing at the far end of the dormitory, shouting “l can’t hear you — ENUNCIATE!”