Growing up in a small town in the middle of our country in the 1920-1930s (long before the arrival of television and the Internet) was not unlike growing up on a small island isolated from the surrounding world. Oh there was radio, the movies, books, newspapers and magazines, but with traveling exacerbated by the Depression, exposure to that surrounding world was limited. I didn’t see my first professional theatre production until I was seventeen years old, when I made my first long trip out of Iowa on a visit to Philadelphia. I saw a few more in 1943 in San Francisco when (in the army) I was based for a short time on the Stanford University campus. I was living in San Francisco prior to entering the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre when I had a defining moment reaction to a play. I was seated in the balcony of (I think) the Curran Theatre when the curtain fell on the National company production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE starring Pauline Lord, and I remember sitting, unable to move, totally mesmerized. I had been enchanted by theatre since my involvement with Myrtle Oulman in my final year of high school, but this was a new revelation. I hadn’t realized theatre could be so powerful.
We now fast forward to June 1948, when I graduated from the Pasadena Playhouse and returned to Mason City with plans to continue my education at the University of Iowa, which I knew had a very fine theatre department. It was at Iowa City a few weeks after I entered that my plans underwent a major change. My father had a heart attack, and I took a sabbatical from school to return home until he fully recovered. But then a series of events occurred that had an enormous effect on my future. Velma Grippen, an old friend and a past neighbor, phoned. I don’t know how she knew I was back in town, but she was directing a play for Mason City Little Theatre, had just lost an actor and wondered if I would be available to step in as replacement. The play was STATE OF THE UNION; the role was Spike, the press representative (with a lot of funny lines), and I said, “Yes.” Then something else occurred that affected the direction of my future plans. Being back in Mason City and acting in that play led to my being asked to direct the next Mason City Little Theatre production going into rehearsal in January. Again I said yes. The play I picked? THE GLASS MENAGERIE! Six years earlier when Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical THE GLASS MENAGERIE opened in Chicago, it was a play drastically new for theatre. Claudia Cassidy’s headline in her review read: “Fragile Drama Holds Theatre in Tight Spell.” The world as Tennessee Williams wrote it was vastly different from what American theatre was used to.
Viewing the scene now, 67 years later, I am seeing a 25-year old lad (too old to be called a boy, but theatrically far too young to be called a man) who had directed only 2 plays in his senior year at the Pasadena Playhouse, both modern realistic plays, both curricular assignments under faculty supervision, both precast with members of the senior class on curricular assignments, and both plays to be presented in one of the two small Balcony theatres used exclusively for senior student productions. With his choice of THE GLASS MENAGERIE that 25-year old novice was daring to go down that still very new road that Tennessee Williams had opened. Seated in front of my computer this 92-year old veteran looking back at his younger alter ego has but one thought: the lad had chutzpah!
I don’t remember conducting the auditions, but I must have conducted them; I had a cast that included Olga Sternad as Amanda, D.L. Stahl as Tom, Ellen Moore as Laura and Gene Kroening as the Gentleman Caller. Only Gene was involved in the entertainment world. He was working as an announcer on one of the local radio stations. I set a 6-week rehearsal schedule. The Theatre Group had an arrangement that rehearsals were held in the Knights of Columbus hall on the top floor of a building on the SW corner of Federal Avenue and 2nd Street. The ground floor space facing Federal Avenue was a retail establishment, the Golden Rule, where I sold shoes as a 16-year old and got my Social Security Card. Entering the building at the entrance on 2nd Avenue there was an elevator that didn’t work and a very long flight of stairs up to the next level with six apartments (I knew that building well; in 1932 during the depths of the Depression we lived in one of those apartments) and then a final flight of stairs to a very large room that housed the Knights of Columbus. In my directing class at the Playhouse we were told that in preparation for directing a play, we should read the play the first time only for our emotional response to it. Well in this instance I had been provided a better introduction to THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I had seen that remarkable performance, and I’ve told you my response to it. Now that hall was to be my laboratory where for the next five and a half weeks I was going to try to put together a production that would produce that same response in my audiences, and in doing that, hopefully I would sprout my director’s wings.
As I have done since, I carefully preplanned and blocked everything. I then put the actors on their feet and blocked them. As the actors were able to put aside their scripts, I made changes in the blocking. The play was with me constantly. I don’t think I have since immersed myself in a script like I did that one. At home I kept a note pad by my bed. At night before falling asleep or sometimes in the middle of the night when I would wake up, it was there for me if I had an idea to make changes in blocking, or if bits of business would occur to me, I would write them down. The cast was marvelous. There were no complaints as we rehearsed every night and afternoons on the weekend. And my father, now recovered from his heart attack and accompanied by my mother, climbed those many steps many times, to watch me for the first time functioning in a career that was totally foreign to him.
We performed the play on the stage of the Mason City High School in the same auditorium where a decade before I had sat beside Myrtle Oulman, taking down her criticism notes. I had designed the set, but I don’t remember where or how it was made and painted. The lighting equipment on the stage was antique. There was a bank of border lights and footlights. Each had three circuits for red, blue and green lights with dimmers for each. There were a couple more dimmers and I think 8 or 9 spotlights. I planned the lighting and actually climbed up on the tall ladders to set those few lamps. I think we set up the flats and had our first walkthrough for the cast on the weekend, followed by dress rehearsals Monday and Tuesday evening. After all that work, we only performed two nights, as I remember Wednesday and Thursday.
The play required music. The original music score written by Paul Bowles for the Broadway production was available for community theatre productions, but I was too much of a purist to use it. (Chutzpah again?) For the Menagerie/Laura music I recorded the gentle music of a music box. For the music to open the play, I regret that production was before the age of digital cameras, so I can’t show you the play’s opening, I can only try to describe it.
The house lights slowly faded to half till the audience quieted. Then MOOD INDIGO played as the house lights faded to black. Tom entered in the darkness and crossed to downstage center. MOOD INDIGO stopped. MEMPHIS BLUES began. Since I can’t hum it for you, I can only tell you that on the 16th note Tom struck a match to light his cigarette as a spotlight faded up on him. He started the beautiful narration, the music continued as he slowly crossed to downstage right.
MEMPHIS BLUES continued as background till Tom said: “That is the social background of the play.” That was the cue for the music to crossfade into the music box MENAGERIE music, as the house curtain slowly rose, revealing the Wingfield tenement apartment.
There was a bit of business early in Act II that I wanted to change. Amanda had exited to dress for the Gentleman Caller, who was expected. In the script Laura, left alone, crosses out to their stoop to listen to the dance music coming from across the alley. I thought it was too brief a moment that didn’t provide enough time for Amanda’s costume change, and I thought there was a chance to enhance Laura. Because of a childhood illness, her one leg was shorter than the other and she walked with a limp. I changed the business so that Laura, who has taken out the “falsies” her mother has urged on her and hidden them under a cushion, hears the dance music and is drawn by it as she limps out to the stoop. As she came through the door, the music was louder and louder; coming from the dance hall there were brilliant colorful lights flashing in the alley-like approach to their apartment. Laura literally leaned into the music, revealing her inner desire to participate. Then as Amanda entered the living room, calling out, the colorful lights faded, and the dance music crossfaded into the MENAGERIE music.
We opened. We played to two full house, but not on the two scheduled nights. There was a snow storm Thursday, and the performance was canceled and rescheduled for the following Tuesday night. Our one review (that was a small town, and there was only one newspaper, the Mason City Globe Gazette) was good.
D.L. Stahl (Tom) and Olga Sternad (Amanda)
Ellen Moore (Laura)
But another chance meeting and my future plans were about to take another unexpected turn. After one of the performances Martha Barkley came up to me on the stage. I had never met her. Her eyes were aglow as she raved about the performance she had just seen. I soon learned that Martha was an extremely accomplished actress who had not pursued it as a profession. She had graduated from Northwestern University as a theatre major. She praised the school and raved about one instructor, Alvina Kraus. She urged me to continue my studies at Northwestern. A return to Iowa City started to dim, but I knew I had to return somewhere. I had directed one production, and I felt like I had used up all I had learned in my two years at the Playhouse.