AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History

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Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich in “True West”, at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in 1982.

July 1877 (145 years ago)

A touring troupe, Slavin’s Combination, in partnership with the Georgia Cabin Singers, presented a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Adelphi Theater in Chicago. The production was part of a series of unauthorized stage adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, based on her serialized story published in The National era. Historians estimate that more people have seen stage adaptations of the book in the United States and Europe than read the novel. In July 1877, at least three different Uncle Tom’s Cabin productions criss-crossed the United States: Chicago Adelphi’s Métis production, a Blackface production by the Wilkinson Combination in Portsmouth, NH, and a Blackface production at the San Francisco Opera.

July 1892 (130 years ago)

In Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania, the Chautauqua Auditorium was built. Originally built as part of the larger Chautauqua movement “for the advancement of literary and scientific knowledge among the people and the promotion of popular culture for the benefit of Christianity”, the auditorium was a fine addition to the grounds from Mount Gretna, but was rarely used. In 1927, actor and director AE Scott proposed turning the auditorium into a summer theater, and in June the Chautauqua Playhouse’s first season began. Currently named the Gretna Theater, the theater remains one of the oldest summer theaters in the United States.

July 1902 (120 years ago)

The Columbia Amusement Company of New York was incorporated to create the eastern “wheel” of burlesque shows under the direction of Sam A. Scribner. Also called the Columbia Wheel or Eastern Burlesque Wheel, this tour produced reasonably priced performances deemed “clean” or respectable for all sensibilities in theaters across the Eastern states. The circuit provided months of work for artists and hosted burlesque personalities such as Will Rogers, WC Fields, Fanny Bryce and Sophie Tucker. In 1927, the wheel began to slow its turn as cinemas, rival companies, and cultural tastes moved away from burlesque.

July 1922 (100 years ago)

After the death of their son, Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, lumber magnate William Goodman and his wife Erna Goodman donated $250,000 to the Art Institute of Chicago to establish a theater company and drama school. Kenneth was a playwright and an early proponent of the Little Theater movement. He intended to open such a theater in his hometown of Chicago, but he died of pneumonia at the age of 35. The Goodman Drama and Drama School was finally completed in 1925.

July 1937 (65 years ago)

Max Ferra.

Max Ferrá, director and founder of the Intar Hispanic American Arts Center in New York, was born on July 14, 1937 in Camagüey, Cuba. Shortly after arriving in the United States in 1958, he started Intar with seven others, initially producing plays primarily in Spanish. As the company grew, its members began to reframe what it meant to be a Latino in the United States and also began producing work in English. Ferrá produced early works by Caridad Svich, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Nilo Cruz, among others, providing a theatrical space for Latino writers to find their voice. He passed away in February 2017, leaving a lasting theatrical legacy in new Latin American playwriting.

July 1947 (75 years ago)

During the early years of their respective film careers, actors Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer established the La Jolla Playhouse, a professional summer theater located on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Their first production was Night must fall written by Emlyn Williams and directed by Richard Whorf. It starred Dame May Whitty, who reprized her 1937 film role for the stage. The theater’s proximity to Hollywood made the Playhouse an attractive stopover for movie actors eager to hit the boards once again, if only for a summer.

July 1982 (40 years ago)

Sam Shepard’s play true west, under the direction of Robert Woodruff, had failed to captivate critics or audiences during its 1980 run at the Public Theater in New York. This did not deter the fledgling Steppenwolf Theater Company. Directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise and featuring Sinise, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, their solid production of true west was a hit in their original theater space at Chicago’s Jane Addams Center Hull House. To capitalize on the success, the show moved in July 1982 to the larger Apollo Theater, while the company itself moved to a new location two miles south in the old St. Nicholas Theatre. The Apollo Theater Series true west attracted critical attention, and in October 1982 the production moved again, this time to the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City. It was Steppenwolf’s first production to make it to New York, and cheers soon followed for everyone involved.

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