Formerly Stanley King Professor of Dramatic Arts and class of 1925
Interviewed on February 12-14, 1979
Tape 1, February 12, 1979
Tape 2, February 14, 1979
Rights and Citation information
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and was edited heavily by Canfield, it varies significantly from the content of the recording.]
F. Curtis Canfield
Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Arts
36 Dana Street, Amherst, Massachusetts
February 12, 1979
Horace W. Hewlett
For: Amherst College
HWH: This is Horace Hewlett chatting with Professor F. Curtis CanfieId, former Stanley King Professor of Dramatic Arts and Director of Kirby Theatre at Amherst College. We are at his home, 36 Dana Street in Amherst, and the date is February 12, 1979.
I believe you were born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and went to High School in White Plains, New York?
HWH: How did you happen to come to Amherst College?
CANFIELD: The same way a lot of things have happened to me. I was blown here on the winds of chance. Do you want the long or the short version?
HWH: I’d be interested in how it happened.
CANFIELD: It was the middle of May 1921 and I was a Senior, just one of many who hadn’t made up his mind yet about which College to choose. Getting in was no big deal in those days. It was a buyers’ market. Few places demanded entrance examinations, and as far as I know there were no College Boards. At Amherst, as I gathered later, your chances for admission were good provided you could satisfy the college’s own rather stiff entrance requirements and could pay the tuition. It was still possible to be accepted even if you didn’t have all the required courses, as I discovered.
I had visited Yale, Harvard, and Rutgers but was still uncertain where to enroll. Then, quite unexpectedly, a classmate met me coming out of class and said he was driving up to Amherst the next day with a friend of his from New York who had a brand-new Cadillac convertible, and would I like to join them. He said it was a good time to look the College over because it was the Sub-Freshman Week-end devoted to showing interested candidates around to see what college life was like. It seemed to me a very pleasant idea and the new Cadillac in itself was hard to resist, so I accepted. I knew something about Amherst, but not much. I did know that three friends of mine from High School were in the Sophomore Class and lived at the Phi Kappa Psi House on Amity Street (now a Funeral Home). They were Clifton Wishart, Elbie Bailey and Goddard Lawrence, and when I looked them up on arrival they had no trouble persuading me to be their guest for the week-end.
Incidentally, Jack Van de Water was the owner of the Cadillac. He also became a member of the great Class of 1925, but flunked out, as did so many of our Class, at the end of Freshman year.
Sub-Freshman Day was a great success with an elaborate program run primarily by the students themselves. We toured the campus, heard talks by the Faculty, saw a ballgame which Amherst won, and went to College Hall in the evening to see the Masquers in a musical extravaganza written by a student. I can’t remember the plot, but the show was a lark, very funny, full of good spirits, and of course wildly applauded at the curtain.
Amherst was beautiful that week-end. I fell in love with the place right then and there and came to the immediate conclusion that I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I suppose the main reasons for my enthusiasm were the royal welcome I was given at Phi Psi, the general feeling all around that Amherst was indeed the fairest College they sang about, and last but not least its reputation for excellence in the liberal arts.
The next day I had an appointment with Professor Newlin of the Philosophy Department who doubled in brass as director of admissions (just as the Professor of Political Science doubled as varsity football coach). From Mr. Newlin I learned the disconcerting news that I lacked two very important entrance requirements: I was offering only two years of Latin while Amherst demanded four, and I had no credit in trigonometry, a math requirement. I was sunk when Mr. Newlin suggested I should return to high school as a post-graduate and make up these serious deficiencies. That was the last thing I wanted to do, and I told him so. At this, he opened the door again. He said, somewhat reluctantly, because he knew what difficulties lay ahead, that in view of my standing in high school he could give me the option of entering under certain conditions. I would have to pay the penalty for my deficiency in Latin by completing two years of Greek, a notoriously harsh penance, as I would eventually discover. In addition, I would have to take Math I under the severe handicap of not having had trigonometry. It was fair warning. I’m sure I must have flinched inwardly when he proceeded to outline my course program for the first year: Greek, Chemistry, Math, Social and Economic Institutions, French, and Public Speaking. For an eighteen-year-old whose cultural interests, such as they were, were concentrated on plays, poetry, acting, and the arts in general, it couldn’t be worse, entirely alien to what I was interested in, but I am stubborn by nature. I had made up my mind to be an Amherst man, so nothing daunted, I accepted the conditions and was duly enrolled.
HWH: That was in ‘21?
CANFIELD: Yes, the Spring of ‘21. In September there was no Cadillac to ride. I took the trolley car from White Plains to Mamaroneck, then the local New Haven train to Stamford, changed there to the express to Springfield, thence by the local B.&M. train to Hamp. From there I took the trolley, furnished with a wood-burning stove for heat in winter, crossed the Hadley flats (all farm land), and after almost a full day’s travel stepped off in front of Deuel’s Drug Store on the Common of the town I would call home from that day until this, although we lived for twenty years in other places before returning once more “for good. ~
HWH: As I recall you spent some time at another institution before you graduated here.
CANFIELD: That’s correct. My room-mate, Alvah Stewart, and I spent our junior year at W. & J. in Washington, Pennsylvania, not far from Al’s home near Sewickley. We had both crumpled under the weight of our original entrance deficiencies at the end of Sophomore year and had to make them up before being permitted to return. I had made up the Math deficiency, but I lost the battle with Greek, as had Al. I managed to pass Cicero and Vergil in Columbia Summer School, and the fifth year (Horace) under a fine teacher at W. & J. We both did well there and returned in the Fall of ‘24 free of all encumbrances to win our degrees with our class, later characterized by Charlie Cole, when he was President, as the “distinguished but decimated Class of ‘25.” And decimated we certainly were. Half of those who entered in ‘21 failed to graduate, most of them for academic failure. Perhaps the carnage may be partially explained as a result of our being students in a kind of hectic post-war era. Some found the courses something to be endured, not enjoyed. Others were not at all helped by being here in the middle of the Meiklejohn upheaval, with the Faculty hopelessly divided and we confused and thrown off balance by the events of the Spring of our Sophomore year, which culminated in the firing of the President by the Trustees.
For the record, let it be said that whatever I learned in Amherst about what would be my future profession was learned indirectly in general courses of liberal studies (when I finally got Math and Science off my back) rather than specialized courses in the dramatic arts and on the stage of College Hall in Masquers productions. The only course that came close to the specifics of my field was one in Shakespeare, given by Professor Churchill of the English Department, but I had no chance to take it because of his untimely death. Unfortunately, Stark Young, an authority on the Theatre and Drama, had left the year before I arrived. As a matter of fact, I never had a course in Dramatic Literature until I went to Harvard Summer School in 1926 to prepare belatedly for an unexpected entrance into academic life. There I studied Restoration and 18th Century drama under the British authority, Allardyce Nicoll, my only formal post-graduate study. Allardyce became head of the Yale Drama School, a position to which I was later appointed. Apparently Yale felt, as Amherst had before, that my lonely B.A. was sufficient academic qualification for appointment to their faculties. I certainly could not defend the absence of a Ph.D. after my name in the same sense of Professor Kittredge’s alleged question, “Who could teach me?” The simple fact was that in my student days there were no schools I knew of that gave a doctorate for work in the arts of the theatre. And I frankly think that if there had been one, I wouldn’t have attended it. Whatever I know about the stage and its literature I dug out for myself after I graduated. It was enough that Amherst helped me to grow up, to look with some detachment on the reality of the world, and to take my work seriously but not myself. Beyond that there were all the impalpable experiences or feelings one gathered in converse with one’s teachers and fellow students in the day-to-day life of the College. At least that seems to me now what it was about Amherst that helped most to turn me from a thoughtless boy to a thinking man. Who could ask more?
HWH: But you did a lot of acting and a little directing in the Masquers extracurricularly.
CANFIELD: Oh sure. That was only doing what came naturally, and learning by doing it-- not only in College Hall but at Smith and with the Northampton Amateur Players.
In my senior year I played the lead in “The New Sin,” with Ted Deyo and I handling the directing as best we could because our regular coach, Paul Hansell, who taught Speech at Smith and at Amherst, was too busy on an important project that would later figure in my future plans. Paul was a Britisher who had had considerable acting experience in the Repertory Companies of Britain. He loved to act, and was prone to cast himself in the leads of our Masquers productions. We were glad he did so because he was an accomplished professional and I, for one, learned much from him. I played one of the leads in a musical he staged (and appeared in). It reminded me of the show I’d seen in the Sub-Freshman week-end. As I recall, it was entitled “Don’t Do That, Van! ,“ and my part was that of a French bounder named Count de Camisolé. Paul also starred in what I thought was to be my farewell to the stage, Milne’s “The Dover Road,” in which I played the juvenile lead, another bounder named Leonard. In this production, Fate was still dealing the cards, as far as I was concerned. The feminine lead was played by the same girl who had acted with me in “The Constant Lover” in Hamp three years before. Her name was Katharine Newbold.
HWH: Somebody up there was pulling the strings! How did it come about that you were asked to stay on at the College after graduation as Coach in Dramatics?
CANFIELD: That, again, was sheer luck. I just fell into it, being in the right place at the right time. It began with Everett Glass ‘13. He was in charge of the Masquers when I came, the first full-time director with faculty status and the title of Instructor in Dramatics. When he left in my Freshman year to go to Hollywood, he was succeeded by Ed Richards ‘21. I acted in several plays for him until he left in ‘23 to build a successful career in the high echelons of the Red Cross. When I returned for my Senior year, Paul Hansell had taken over on a part-time basis, coming over from Smith to teach a course, Public Reading, and direct the plays.
Well, as Commencement neared I found myself with only the vaguest plans about what I was to do with myself after I got my degree. My father was a Civil Engineer, but I had no skills in that area. It seemed that I would have to try to find a business job and join the small army of commuters from my hometown who made the daily trip to the city and back. I had had several very varied summer jobs during college. I was an usher in the Criterion Theatre in New York; I was an ordinary seaman, with two other college friends, Stew Sanders and Buck Whittemore, both ‘24, on the steamship Pan America of the Munson Line plying between Hoboken and South America. That was a real adventure, a kind of circumspect mini-reprise of the earlier visits of Eugene O’Neill to Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires, which were our ports-of-call. I had also spent a beautiful summer playing golf at the Scarsdale Country Club in Hartsdale, courtesy of my job there as assistant to the steward. So all in all, I felt confident that several avenues might open up for one with such a full quota of vivid experiences-- and an Amherst B.A. to boot.
But before I began to worry about the long indefinite future ahead, Fate stepped in as it had before and certain things happened to create a situation which was to determine my whole existence.
It started when a Mr. Lyman, of Northampton, whose father had given the Academy of Music to the city, decided to make a stand against the plan to turn the Academy into just another movie house. At the same time, our director, Paul Hansell had dreams of starting, at the gateway to Smith, a professional theatre company along the lines of the British Repertory Companies. Somehow their two ambitions were conjoined. Mr. Lyman agreed to finance a distinguished acting company that would bring back the great legitimate theatre tradition of James Rennie, William Powell, and many others who had established Hamp’s reputation as an important theatre centre. Paul decided to go to London at once to sign his company. But before he went he paid a call on me. And once more it was on a lovely day in May, a month wherein many nice things have happened to me. I can’t remember the details of the momentous conversation that followed, but here is a near facsimile of how it went:
“Paul: Curt, what are you going to do with yourself after graduation?
Curt: Well, Paul, I....I really don’t know. I have nothing in mind. I haven’t decided.
Paul: Have you ever thought of going on the stage?
Curt: The stage? Well, no, not really.
Paul: I would like you to think about it seriously. If, after thinking about it, you decide to become a professional actor I am prepared to offer you a place in my company.
Curt: (Smothers a gasp-- unable to speak.)
Paul: As you know, I’m engaging British actors primarily, but you have a following of sorts in Amherst, and I think it would be good business to include one or two promising people from around here. Your salary would be $35 a week and you would be engaged for the full Season. (Curt gasps) Oh, and you might be interested to know I’m proposing the same offer to Kitty Newbold.
Curt: (Quickly) I’ve thought it over and I accept!”
That, however, wasn’t the end of it. Paul had been teaching a course here called Public Reading, which amounted to instruction in reading poetry and plays. But now, faced with his full-time job as actor-manager of the Northampton Repertory Company, as the venture was called, a replacement had to be found to take over his course as well as direct the plays. In his opinion, I was qualified for both and would have some spare time to do both jobs. I was delighted with this chance. There followed a conversation between me and President Georgie Olds which resulted in my signing up for the post for another $25 a week. All at once I was rich! I went to Harvard that summer for some speech courses and the literature courses I’ve already mentioned. The Northampton season began in September and was enthusiastically received. It was a good company, with Patrick Marle and later Charles Warburton, both well-established British directors, in charge. With that company for two seasons, plus a short run at His Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal, I had the same concentrated training as would have been given by the best Repertory Companies in England. What I learned about directing from those two stagewise directors was invaluable to me.
In that first year I managed to stage two programs of one-act plays for the Masquers, which were charitably reviewed. Unfortunately, I could not see the performances because I was acting every night in Hemp. When the Company’s first season closed toward the end of February, I was able to give full attention to the final Masquers play of the year, Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” my first full-length play. Boasting a new permanent setting prepared by the scenic artist of the Rep Company and a talented cast which included Mrs. George Whicher, Hunt Bliss ‘26, John Mayher ‘26, Allan Scott ‘28, and Linc Ferris ’26, the single performance in College Hall drew a rave from the Student. Until I saw a program recently, I had forgotten our pretty custom of tempting paying customers into the hall by offering social dancing between the acts. For this production music was provided by a small orchestra called the Amherst Little Serenaders! In the intermissions the movable seats in College Hall were pushed to the sides and the dancing began. When the bell rang the chairs would be pushed back! I’m happy to say that after “You Never Can Tell” we never again had to resort to this charming but irrelevant device.
The Repertory Company opened its second season in the Fall of ‘26. President Olds had asked me to continue directing and teaching at the College for the academic year. The Company finally closed for good in the early Spring of ‘27. It was then that that wonderful man, President Olds, appointed me to the Faculty as an Instructor in Dramatics for one year at $2,000 per annum beginning in the Fall.
HWH: That was in ‘27?
CANFIELD: Yes. On the basis of that Kitty and I were married on the day Lindberg landed in Paris-- two world-shaking events. One other thing happened that day that made me realize how lucky I was to be a part of the College with such a man as Georgie Olds at the helm. It was not for nothing that someone had likened him to Chaucer’s “parfit gentle knight.” He and Mrs. Olds came to our wedding in Hamp. But he had been at a meeting in New York City the day before and thought he might be delayed in arriving at the Church. He was so anxious for me to get a certain piece of news before the ceremony that he sent off a telegram saying that at their meeting in April, the Trustees had voted to increase my salary to $2,500. It was just one of many kind things he did that endeared him to us forever.
Well, that was how it all began.
HWH: I know that in ‘27 you were appointed Instructor in Dramatics but in ‘29 that was changed to Instructor in Dramatic Arts.
CANFIELD: I’d forgotten our subject had been upgraded.
HWH: At that time it was listed as a separate, autonomous...
CANFIELD: Right, right. I didn’t belong to any Department. I was just myself. You see the teaching of theatre subjects in colleges as well as the new formalization of work in dramatics under quasi-professional directors like myself, rather than leaving it up to the students themselves to put on their plays, was part of a national movement that had seen thousands of Little Theatres and amateur associations spring up all over the country-- an artistic explosion that went hand in hand with the new philosophy that theatre and drama were a serious and important part of our cultural heritage. I happened to come in as this movement was spreading, at a time when the study of modern drama and theatre production was offered in very few places-- including Carnegie Tech, and at Yale, as well as in a few mid-Western Universities. It was a movement that marked the gradual disappearance of the typical amateur collegiate “rags” and musical comedies where the boys played the girls’ parts and the chorus was made up of hairy-chested football players. In short, it was a time when colleges began to take undergraduate theatre seriously as an expression of an ancient art that, like Music and Painting, deserved to be included in the curriculum.
It was my lot to be forced to learn stage direction, acting, and play analysis on my own. I suppose much of what I did as a beginning teacher and “coach” was instinctive, intuitive. Both my parents were active in amateur theatricals, as I was in High School and with the group in White Plains, “The Fireside Players.”
Tuffy McGoun and I worked very hard at mastering our crafts. That was another nice thing about President Olds. He was very patient and gave us time to learn from many early mistakes. I remember that for my debut as a full-fledged Instructor in the Fall of ‘27, I directed a native American drama, “Hell Bent For Heaven.” Tuffy and I had had to paint the single setting ourselves. Not knowing any better we went ahead and used oil paint, the same as you use to paint a house. We thought we had done a pretty acceptable job, but when we lit the set, to my horror, the shiny walls reflected the lights like a mirror straight into the eyes of the audience, making it quite difficult to see the actors. We didn’t know that this problem had been solved more than a century before by using fish glue. We didn’t make that mistake again.
HWH: You mentioned, Curt, that Tuffy helped you with the sets.
CANFIELD: Oh, yes.
HWH: He graduated in ‘27 and I gather he was an actor or...
CANFIELD: No, he wasn’t an actor, although he had many walk-on parts, but he was everything else-- business manager, stage manager, scene-builder, lighting director, property manager... you name it, Tuffy did it… an all-round theatre man.
HWH: So he worked a couple of years with you.
CANFIELD: Yes, first as a student and then as Technical Director of the Masquers. He started out to be a biologist, as you know. The theatre was at first an avocation with him. In the passing of years it became his vocation.
HWH: I’ll be talking with him a little later. From what you say it almost sounds as though he took his assistantship in Biology so he could continue to work in the theatre with you.
CANFIELD: He certainly was wrapped up in what he was doing with me, but equally devoted to his fruit flies. It became a struggle for him to decide which road he should take. But then Dramatics at the College opened up into something quite different from what it had been when we were undergraduates together, and in the end he chose art over science. Luckily for me. Tuffy was a truly indispensable man.
HWH: I would be curious, Curt, about the autonomy of Dramatic Arts in the College. For a period there, up until 1933, Dramatic Art was listed separately in the Catalogue and then all of a sudden it got moved over to English. You taught English 3, Art of the Theatre, and English 10, Modern Drama. They were in addition to your directing and coaching activities with the Masquers. Did you feel at home in the English Department?
CANFIELD: No. My courses, not I, were in the English Department. I did not attend their meetings, I was on my own just as before. But my courses were essentially literary, the first a study of selected plays in the development of the Drama from the Greeks to Ibsen, and the second from Ibsen to the present. As you may have guessed, my principal interest was in the close analysis of the form, style and meaning of plays as works of literature. This naturally included some material on the way the plays were produced in the theatre and problems of characterization as faced and handled by the dramatist, together with some consideration of the actor’s methods of interpretation. The two courses illustrated the historical progress of the main types of dramatic literature, from Classicism to Romanticism and on to modern experiments. The English Department was agreeable to include the courses in their other offerings.
HWH: Did the faculty have to approve these courses?
CANFIELD: Yes, they were recommended by the English Department and the faculty went along.
HWH: Stanley King came in in ‘32. Did he show interest in the theatre or in Dramatic Arts immediately?
CANFIELD: Very much so. He was interested even before he became President. As a Trustee, he had been Chairman of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds, and as such vitally interested in the College plant. The success of the Masquers productions in the five years from 1927 to ‘31 had generated a good deal of talk about the need for a proper theatre, and he had heard some of it.
I met Stanley first one evening during the 1930 Commencement and we had a talk as we sat looking across the Common from the lawn of the Lord Jeff. He brought up the subject of a new theatre. You know that Stanley could be very dramatic in his own way, and early in the conversation he asked me to look across to the Baptist Church next to Alpha Delt. I did so. Then he asked if I thought it might be made over into a playhouse since it had just come on the market. I said I’d be glad to look at it carefully, and a short time later did so. I came to the conclusion that it was not suitable, nor large enough for our purposes, so that possibility was dropped. We would have had to build the same sort of makeshift stage and equip it but without half the space we already had in College Hall.
Stanley’s interest in our work continued when he became President. He and Peg used to drop in of an evening to watch rehearsals. At one of these, a dress rehearsal for “Yellow Jack,” with Stanley and Peg present, something happened which surely must have made him intensely aware that the sooner we got into a proper theatre the better. You were there, I think, at the time. Weren’t you in that show?
HWH: Yes, I was in the Chorus. That was in ‘35-‘36.
CANFIELD: I thought so. Well, you may remember that we had installed a sort of Meccano set inner proscenium made of metal pipes to take the place of the flimsy wooden structure that used to hold up the curtain and the various battens on which were hung the lights and some scenery. As our productions grew more ambitious we had to keep adding heavy rows of spotlights and that put more and more strain on the supporting pipes. Well, in the middle of the rehearsal, you may remember that one of the front horizontal girders began to sag dangerously in the centre. It was carrying the heavy curtain and the biggest bank of the front light borders. It was a scary moment. There was the chance that the rickety framework would give way and drop down on the actors or stagehands and kill somebody. I had to clear the stage while Tuffy and his crew got busy and took some of the equipment off and tied the girder up with ropes so that we could continue. So Stanley was given visual proof that the time had come to relieve us from the inadequate and patently dangerous conditions under which the Masquers had to work. The incident must have reinforced his determination to see to it that we got a theatre, and soon!
HWH: I can testify to that event. And some of the handicaps we faced.
CANFIELD: That’s right, you were there and knew how difficult it was to change the scenery.
HWH: To go from one side of the stage to the other without being seen we had either to crawl under the stage platform or go outside the building and come in the other door.
CANFIELD: It required a lot of ingenuity to get around the drawbacks, and made every production an adventure — in survival!
HWH: I remember Rez Tucker played Dr. Jesse Lazear in that show and Steve Whicher had a big part.
CANFIELD: And there were lots of good… Jim Selby was in your group, wasn’t he?
HWH: I think he was one of the singers.
CANFIELD: It was a very successful production, as I recall, and fortunately the overhead structure held together through all the performances. Anyway it wasn’t too long after that episode that the plans for a new building went on the drawing board and in 1938 we opened Kirby Theatre. How we got the funds to build it is a story in itself that I’ve told in another place.
HWH: Yes. It certainly was a vast change from College Hall. It was Dick MacMeekin whose father was executor...
CANFIELD: James MacMeekin.
HWH: ...or trustee of Dr. Elwood Kirby’s estate. Stanley King said the building cost about $250,000.
CANFIELD: Yes. A quarter of a million fully equipped. The original Kirby bequest was about $90,000.
HWH: I think you had to await the death of some annuitants to get the rest.
CANFIELD: Dick told me that the final proceeds from the estate came close to $100,000. That meant the College had to make up the rest of the cost. It was a lot of money for the time, but you couldn’t build it for five times that amount now. Very few Colleges of our size could boast of such a fine plant as ours.
HWH: We were the first in our peer group.
CANFIELD: Exactly. The others were makeshift, like the Students Building at Smith and the huge Alumni Hall at Mount Holyoke, all built to serve some other purpose, like College Hall which had once been the village Church.
HWH: Was there any opposition to the College’s spending money like that?
CANFIELD: There must have been, but it didn’t surface in my presence nor openly in any way. I understood that some felt there was a greater need for an addition to the Library or more Faculty offices. I don’t imagine Stanley got too much flack. Although there were some Faculty, as always, who objected to almost anything the administration tried to do.
HWH: There were such.
CANFIELD: Anyway there were very few absentees at the dedication of the theatre in the fall of ‘38, when the Faculty attended en masse in academic costume, at Stanley’s invitation.
It was a happy occasion. The theatre itself was a gem, the guests filled the house and we awarded three honorary degrees, the first to a Shakespearean scholar from the Folger Library, Josiah Quincy Adams, then to an Amherst playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner for his screenplay — “Pasteur,” my classmate, Sheridan Gibney — and finally to Burgess Meredith as the outstanding actor among our Alumni. In his speech of acceptance for his M.A., “Buzz,” as we called him, wryly began by noting that this was his first degree. The circumstances which brought that condition about provide an amusing tale which I’ll get to later.
HWH: Curt, in the designing and building of Kirby Theatre, since there were few if any prototypes to speak of, except perhaps in the larger institutions, how did you decide what size it should be, what facilities-- what lighting and stage equipment-- all of the many parts that go into a theatre capable of handling the making of scenery, costumes, properties, and so forth?
CANFIELD: I guess it’s not generally known but we had three stabs at that design problem including the final solution that was chosen. The first was Stanley King’s suggestion, made before the Kirby bequest became a possibility, that we try to devise a playhouse for around $50,000. The prospective site talked about was where the skating rink now stands, south of the Cage. Limited by the figure quoted, the edifice would have had to be wooden, like a barn, with very small seating capacity and the absolute minimum of equipment, shop-space, dressing rooms, and storage. I spent some time trying to fit in everything that would be required and finally concluded that we would be just as well off in College Hall. But it gave Tuffy and me an opportunity to solidify our ideas about what would be needed in the way of space and equipment if enough funds ever materialized. I can’t remember whether our second try came before or after we knew about the Kirby money, but in any event it was serious enough to allow Stanley to authorize a full-blown study for the development of plans by J.K. Smith, the College architect, who was then head of the well-known firm of McKim, Mead & White in New York. The site was tentatively selected, the lot north of Converse at the corner of Boltwood Avenue and College Street, now used as a parking lot. As you know, J.K. was an architect in the classical tradition, as his many Georgian buildings on campus testify. What he brought forth as a design for the theatre was in the best neo-classical tradition of the late 16th century, with variations. To me, the stage looked something like the one in the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza but narrower in length; the auditorium, however, was not in the U-shape of the ancient Roman style but a pulled-out oval with the long side, the length of it, parallel to the stage. From above, in plan, it was a fine design, and I suppose archaeologically correct. But its stretched-out length was much longer than the stage opening and the result was that only those spectators sitting in the exact center of the auditorium could see the whole stage, those at the sides could see very little. As a matter of fact, the theatre at Carnegie Tech, which has a good theatre school, was designed in the ‘20s and closely resembles J.K.’s plan. To this day, Tech has never been able to overcome the handicap of its bad sight-lines.
I’m sure J.K. would have seen the practical difficulty of the plan, but as it happened he had no need to revise it. Borings were made of the site and the reason why no building had ever been put there became clear. There are springs running all over the site not too many feet below grade. J.K. admitted that to overcome the problem the theatre would have to be built like a boat to float on the water.
Our third and final try came when it became clear that the Kirby gift was at hand. The search for a suitable site was now made in earnest. J.K. was right in feeling that the huge stack of the stage house, which was to go up some sixty feet in the air, would have to be hidden, possibly against a hill. But empty hillsides were at a premium on the campus. Again it was Stanley, I believe, who came up with a brilliant suggestion. Professor and Mrs. Arthur Hopkins lived in a College house facing the South Common just below the hill west of the Biology Lab. It would be a perfect location, central for access, with ample parking space. There was, happily, a fine area available on Woodside Avenue across the Holyoke Road among other College houses to which the Hopkins house could be moved almost in a straight line. Stanley lost no time. The Hopkinses were agreeable to the change, and their home was soon on its travels with very little inconvenience to them.
Well, our experience with the two previous suggestions made it clear that we needed expert technical help on practical matters-- of sight-lines, stage machinery, rigging, light placement, shop equipment, storage, and, most importantly, lighting control. I suggested that we appoint as consultants two experts on the technical aspects of theatre design from the Yale Drama School whose work Tuffy and I already knew of. Jim Smith agreed. Professor Stanley McCandless and Professor Edward C. Cole were appointed, and the final result was an auditorium which provided maximum comfort for an audience, a full view of the stage from every seat, and perfect acoustics. Its architectural style was strictly utilitarian, all interior decoration being suppressed so that the concentration of the spectators’ attention could be given not to the surroundings but to what was happening on the stage. Backstage, the necessity for economy both in cost and space meant that utmost care had to be used in meshing each space for maximum ease of operation and in workable relation with the others. This was done, and in addition they were equipped with the latest and most efficient devices to obtain fully-professional stage effects. J.K. concentrated on the exterior which he made fully compatible with the Georgian feeling contained in the earliest campus buildings. His striking columned circular entrance turned the corner very nicely to draw the eye around and up toward the Chapel, the historical center of “the College. And the elegant marble floor of the domed lobby with a richly furnished Lounge gave a needed touch of formal dignity to the Kirby memorial.
HWH: Was it difficult to dissuade J.K. from staying with his original inspiration from the Classics?
CANFIELD: Although he sometimes referred to the shape of the auditorium as being based on an automobile headlight, I think he was very happy with the new playhouse just as it was. His opinion was reinforced, I daresay, when Williams built its theatre following the Kirby plans scrupulously.
HWH: Even before Kirby, wasn’t it true that the Masquers had quite a reputation — even an international one? I recall you were invited to perform in Austria in 1933.
CANFIELD: To Vienna, that’s right.
HWH: How did that invitation come about?
CANFIELD: The dice were rolled once again in our favor by the lords of chance. I was in the right place at the right time, directing “Uncle Vanya” for the talented Northampton Players. A friend of mine dropped in to see a rehearsal bringing Frau Scheu-Riesz, a visitor from Vienna. She was the head of the Vienna Theatre Guild and was studying civic and collegiate theatre in this country. We chatted after rehearsal and she seemed to be impressed with what she saw. I told her about the Masquers and she became interested and inquired further. As a result she invited me to bring our college group to Vienna as guests of the Guild the coming summer to illustrate what a representative company from the educational theatre of the U. S. could do. This was followed by an official invitation from the Austrian government through the Commissioner of Education to perform in the Court Theatre (built by Marie Antoinette) at the royal palace, the Schoenbrunn, then housing a theatre school conducted by the famed director, Max Rheinhardt. With some financial help from the Clyde Fitch Fund, we were happy to accept the invitation, and in July our troupe of 34 students and faculty sailed from New York on the “Bremen.” We presented a program of three modern American plays: Hecht and MacArthur’s “The Front Page,” O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” and Elmer Rice’s expressionistic drama, “The Adding Machine.” We played to full houses before what the Viennese press described as a most distinguished audience including most of the American and English colonies, the latter led by the British Ambassador. The critics were friendly. One said the students acted with the exactitude of Stanislavsky, and Paul Mitnick’s performance as the Emperor Jones was favorably compared with that of one of their leading stars, Oscar Homolka. Other players were singled out for special praise: Bob Marshall, Dan Seymour (Cy Klotz), Bill Stuek, Janet Morgan, Kitty Canfield, Miriam Earner, and Constance Morrow from Smith, and several more.
We were officially welcomed by the Burgomaster at the Vienna City Hall.
HWH: Tuffy and other members of the faculty were with you?
CANFIELD: Oh yes — Tuffy and some of the Masquers technical crew, along with George and Harriet Whicher, Charlie and Janet Morgan, Miss Keiber from the Student Affairs office who handled our finances — and Helen Hudnut, my mother-in-law who had been made an honorary member of the Masquers for her many appearances in character parts in College Hall. George was surprisingly good as one of the hard-bitten reporters in “The Front Page,” and Charlie brought his Hasty Pudding experience to the fore as a Policeman in “The Adding Machine.” Dwight Morrow and Dick MacMeekin were prominent members of the party. Not too long afterwards, Dick was responsible for the bequest that made Kirby Theatre a reality. And last but not least there was Al Guest, whose entourage supplied the bulk of the female side of the Chorus for “The Adding Machine,” his sister, Alice, and the three Montignani sisters, including Mahat who, as everyone knows became Mrs. Guest. I’m sure that much of Al’s expertise in arranging the Sabrina tours began when he took his charges on a whirlwind tour of Europe after the Vienna engagement. Altogether our trip was a rewarding venture, and the entire company was enchanted by the friendliness and hospitality shown by our hosts. Even those Austrians in our audiences who must have been somewhat bewildered by the Negro dialect in “Jones,” the slangy Americanisms in “The Adding Machine,” and the relentless pace of the action and the dialogue in “The Front Page,” took it all in stride and responded heartily with many curtain-calls.
HWH: That leads to another question on my mind, Curt. You’ve had quite a few students under you who’ve gone into theatre and made their names professionally; and there were many who performed remarkably well in Amherst but went on to success in different careers. I’ve jotted down a few names that occurred to me. I think first, of course, of Burgess Meredith whom you mentioned in passing. Is there more you could say about him?
CANFIELD: Just that the gods of luck and chance that had been so cooperative with me in the past must have been nodding when he came. They apparently slept all the way through his all-too-short career at Amherst, and I never had a chance to work with him in a play, at least through rehearsal to performance. He was unhappy about it and I was, too, for I was denied the use of an unmistakable acting talent that was easy to perceive in him even as a teenage Freshman.
I’ll never forget his first and only tryout. I was casting Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” in a cold and austere classroom in Williston, not the ideal environment for evoking artistic inspiration. I had to sit on the platform behind the desk while the candidates had to stand below me among the wooden chairs as if they were reciting a lesson. The Masquers president and the stage manager flanked me on either side, and we must have appeared, especially to the scared Freshmen, like a trio of grim judges about to sentence somebody for a capital crime. There’s always tension in the air at such a time because in many cases the boy has never acted before, hasn’t read the play, and has no idea what part in it may be suitable for him. So you try to get their minds off the coming ordeal by chatting with them for a moment about where they came from, what their hobbies are, if they had been pledged, and so on. Nine times out of ten, this stab at breaking the ice only serves to increase the candidate’s nervousness, but at least you can get a slight idea of what his voice is like, and you can quickly jot down a few quick notes (later found quite undecipherable) about his appearance, height, weight, and general deportment. This preliminary inquisition ends when you strain to find some part that by a wild shot might be suitable for him to essay. All in all it’s generally too much under the circumstances to expect the shaking tyro to develop the mood of the scene and create even the semblance of the character’s reality. This time I was in for a surprise.
Up stepped this young, short lad with wild reddish hair who said his name was Burgess Meredith but that most people called him “Buzz.” I asked a few questions about himself, which he answered readily and agreeably-- and I began to realize that he was trying to put me at my ease. He was calm and poised and very much in control of the situation, as if he’d gone through this sort of thing many times before. I looked at him more closely, and expecting the usual negative response, asked him if he had read the play. I was astounded to hear him say that he had. Somewhat awed, I asked if he had found any role that he’d like to try for. “Certainly,” he replied. Now the prevailing response from most students but particularly from those having their very first audition, no matter how green they are, is to name the starring part, be it Hamlet, Lear, or Oedipus Rex. The sky’s the limit. You can imagine how dumbfounded I was when Buzz said he would like to try for the Old Man. I had to pull myself together and think for a moment who this obscure character was and where in the text he appeared; I finally located him in a brief scene just before Faustus delivers his final speech. But Buzz had his book already open to the page. In spite of being somewhat taken aback by the unorthodoxy of his reactions, I was not prepared for another shock, that came when he began to “read.” It was no reading, it was a performance, with all the stops pulled out! He acted. He became, in a sudden unexpected transformation, the Old Man, palsied, bent over, but with a still vigorous step as, instead of standing still in front of the desk like everybody else, he moved, gesticulating, all over the room. And the voice, tremendous! The voice of doom — (Here Canfield spoke some of the lines in imitation of the rendition) —
“Accursed Faustus, miserable man,
That from thy soul exclud’st the grace of heaven...
My faith, vile hell, shall triumph over thee.
Ambitious fiends!...Hence, hell! for hence I fly unto my God.”
There was stunned silence when he finished. I am sure I was visibly shaken. Those waiting in their seats for their turn to read were thoroughly cowed. It was obvious that we had dropped the hook and come up with an Actor, with a capital “A.” Had it not been my custom to start Freshmen off slowly, I would have cast him in a more important part, but as it turned out, alas, I was glad I hadn’t. Shortly after we had begun rehearsals the six-weeks’ marks came out and he was deemed ineligible for extra-curricular activities because of low grades. Unfortunately for the Masquers, the ban remained in force until he was asked to leave for academic failure at the end of his second year. So that was that. Burgess did act, however, at Smith where the ineligibility law was not in effect. He scored a success there in a bill of Shakespearean scenes directed by Sam Eliot.
Buzz was a brilliant fellow-- a really fine writer, you know. He just hadn’t the temperament for nor the interest in the rigid requirements of the academic life of the time.
Leaving, he told me he had a notion to seek a career on the professional stage. We were moving into the worst of the Great Depression and I tried to dissuade him from trying to crash one of the riskiest and over populated professions in the country. In my wisdom I argued that he was not equipped physically for straight juvenile or leading roles, and that this meant as a natural character actor, which he was, he would have little or no chance to compete for character parts like the Old Man against actors who were the same age as the parts required. “Don’t do it, boy, you’ll starve to death!”
Within weeks Eva La Gallienne had engaged him to play Tweedle-Dum or Dee, I forget which in her Civic Repertory Company in New York. And not too long after that he rose to stardom as Mio in Max Anderson’s “Winterset,” following that with “High Tor,” written especially for him. So much for my dismal prediction.
I had very little opportunity to discover in our brief encounter in “Faustus” a potential that he developed fully in his professional career. It was that blend of sensitivity and toughness, fire and ice, that’s demanded in so many great classical roles. It was there in his throaty yet hauntingly uncommon voice (still unmistakable in his T.V. commercials). He was a most unusual fellow to begin with, an original. The mixture of these things made him perfectly able to adapt to such contrasting roles as the slum-hardened Mio on the one hand and the poetic Marchbanks in Katharine Cornell’s great revival of “Candida,” wherein he caught the essence of the character’s ambivalence.
Had he stayed in College, I’m sure that I would have had him play “Hamlet” or “Peer Gynt” — or both!
HWH: Have you ever talked to him about his Amherst experience?
CANFIELD: Some. I think he was unhappy here, because he couldn’t be in the plays and was bored with much of the required curriculum. An artist without an art to practice. He never studied.
HWH: The only time I saw him at Amherst was when he came up to present to you in Kirby the motion picture equipment.
CANFIELD: Yes, a camera for talking-pictures.
HWH: And I recall that when you suggested he endow the gift, his answer was, “Curt, when someone gives you a Cadillac you don’t ask him to add a gallon of gas.”
CANFIELD: “... to fill up the tank.” Yes. Very funny. He and Paulette Goddard, his wife at that time, presented another one to Hallie Flanagan at Smith for use over there. Actually my suggestion wasn’t much out of line. We shot one scene from “The Seed and the Sowers” and found, to our dismay, that to exploit the medium properly we would have had to put everything else aside. It took too much time. And the cost of the film, the processing, and the extra equipment-- lights, soundproof studios and so on-- would have beggared the Masquers treasury. We finally gave the camera back to them, as did Smith.
HWH: It was a little bit ahead of its time.
CANFIELD: I don’t think the study of movie techniques has a place in a small college like ours. The big universities can handle it and several, like UCLA and NYU, have (or had) separate departments for it.
HWH: What about other students? You mentioned Sheridan Gibney.
CANFIELD: Yes. As far as I know, Gib was the first alumnus since Clyde Fitch to find success as a writer in the theatre, though his reputation came mostly from his work in Hollywood. His “Pasteur,” starring Paul Muni, won an Academy Award as best picture of the year. He was also President of the Screen Writers Guild and has won considerable respect in the motion picture world for the style and quality of his many original scripts and adaptations.
There are others who have made careers in the so-called educational theatre in our colleges and universities as well as on the professional stage and in television. Allan Scott of ‘28 wrote a Broadway hit called “Goodbye Again” not long after he finished his years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. The play started him on a long and fruitful career in the movies. He’s still active. His daughter, Pippa, has been a successful movie actress for many years. Buzz and Allan phoned me from Buzz’s house in Malibu last summer. It seemed that they were sitting around one Sunday afternoon, got talking about Amherst, and decided to call up to see how we were. They promised to drop by the next time they came East.
HWH: Didn’t Allan Scott have difficulty with the Unamerican Activities Committee?
CANFIELD: No, that was his younger brother Adrian, Class of ‘34, one of the “Contemptible 10,” who were blacklisted for so-called subversive activity. As a result he was banned from working in pictures. Like his brother, Adrian had acted for me in the Masquers but wasn’t as active in the Masquers as Allan had been. Al was Masquers president in his senior year and appeared as the lead in Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell.” Adrian finally left the country and set up as an independent movie producer in England, where he lived for many years. He wrote for the stage, too. I produced a fine, touching play of his for NBC Television in the early ‘50s, “Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers,” about how a little girl persuaded the President to grow a beard. Adrian continued to write and produce in Britain until his death.
HWH: There must have been many others who started at the College.
CANFIELD: Lord, yes. I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but the past of fifty or forty years is as clear as if it had happened yesterday and I remember all of the early ones. There was Jack Shaw ‘29 who eventually had his own movie production firm. A strong, powerful actor, he helped solidify the start of my career at Amherst. His talent led me to risk doing some big plays right away and his ability brought them off successfully-- ”Faustus,” “Liliom,” O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” — he played the title roles in these and principal comedy roles in two comedies, “Arms and the Man” and “March Hares.” In my opinion he had high professional potential as an actor. Unfortunately, he damaged his hand and arm in an accident in World War II, which brought an end to his acting career.
Similarly, Wally Alexander ‘43 had great promise for the stage, one of the best I’ve worked with. He made a splendid Macbeth, and in his last Masquers appearance handled with much skill and believability the leading part in the American premiere of “Bed Rock,” by Philip Wylie and Milton Geiger, which dealt with a hypothetical invasion of New England by the Nazi army. The promise of a brilliant career was ended when Wally was killed in his tank in Belgium in 1944.
Jim Maxwell ‘49, a brilliant student, was Brutus in the “Caesar” we took to the Folger and televised from there. Our production, by the way, was the first full-length Shakespeare in history on a national network. Jim starred as the rebel artist Dubedat in Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” and had a major role in the “Seed and the Sowers,” which you may remember as a play about the founding of the College. He decided to become an actor, and he concluded, I think rightly, that he would have more opportunity for a decent living in the theatre in Britain and moved there. I saw him in London not so long ago. He has made a solid reputation for himself as an actor and director in television and movies, as well as on the stage. The other day I ran across a mention of him in the British magazine “Country Life.” It was a very favorable review of Pinero’s “The School mistress” given at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester under his direction.
Jim Douglas, Jr. ‘51, the son of the Jim in my Class, is another among those who began here as an actor and moved into producing in TV and the movies. Like Matthews he has found his niche abroad, in Canada, although he spends some time in Hollywood.
Doug Kennedy ‘37 and Bill Snow ‘38 were two invaluable actors for me in our final productions in College Hall. Both became professionals. I managed to get Doug Kennedy a screen tryout in his senior year and as a result he got a start in pictures on the West Coast. One of his finest performances in the Masquers was as the cowboy hero, Curly, in “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the play that eventually became the musical, “Oklahoma!” I suppose it was inevitable that Doug should continue in similar parts in the movies. In his career he played in many Westerns, often type-cast as the Sheriff.
Bill Snow began his acting career at the famous Mt. Kisco Playhouse, making his debut in “Rain.” He switched to acting and announcing in radio and retired in 1953. He deserves to be included in this list of theatrical professionals because of his long record and as character actor supreme as well as the driving force in the Sarasota Players Theatre, a long-standing bastion of culture in that place. As an amateur, Bill has compiled an awesome record for the number and diversity of roles he has appeared in with this group. In the span of more than 25 years he has played over a hundred leading parts, ranging from the romantic lead in “Kiss Me Kate” to Jeeter Lester in “Tobacco Road.” From the beginning of his work with the Masquers, Bill showed his versatility. A master of dialects, with planes in his facial structure that made it easy for him to play elderly character parts with a minimum of make-up, it was inevitable that he should monopolize many fine mature roles both in serious plays and comedies. I think his first was Old Beppo in Milne’s “Ivory Door,” then came Silas Wegg in Dan Wickenden’s adaptation of “Our Mutual Friend,” followed by one of the Knights in “Murder in the Cathedral” and major supports in “Paths of Glory” and “Green Grow the Lilacs.” Bill’s greatest regret was missing a chance to act on the Kirby stage. He graduated in ‘38, three months before we opened the new playhouse.
Among those who have made theatre their life-work is Ray MacDonnell ‘52, a luminary in dramatics in the period after the War. Like other returning veterans, older and with considerably more experience in life than the usual undergraduate, he was one of that remarkable group who made the post-war period the richest and most exciting in the history of the Masquers. With one exception, and I’ll talk about that later. As for MacDonnell, he started, you might say, at the top, as Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” in his Freshman year. Some idea of his range, in classical parts, is seen in the fact that he played in his four years here Caliban, Thomas Mendip in “The Lady’s Not For Burning,” and John Wilkes Booth in the American premiere of Peter Yates’s “The Wind Was North.” He rounded out a remarkable record as a Kirby star with a fine performance as Hamlet. Ray brought a powerful physical presence to the stage primarily because of his strong flexible voice and rugged facial features, to say nothing of his ability to understand the complexity and depth of the characters he was called on to play. He was the kind of actor, like Jim Douglas, who was capable of getting to the heart of a role without much help from the director. You just had to tell him where to go, and when, and he did the rest.
I suppose Ray has had the most uninterrupted career as an actor of all the students who worked with me. Thanks to television and the popularity of afternoon serial dramas, he has plied his profession continuously in that medium and with sustained success for more than a quarter century. Quite a record.
I should mention Tad Mosel ‘44 who also found success in TV, but as a writer. His first taste of the medium came when I cast him in the bit part of a Chinese musician in what was my own debut as a TV director (during a summer vacation) at NBC. Tad had done a lot of acting with the Masquers. He was Mosca in “Volpone” under Jim Michael’s direction and the old servant Firs in “The Cherry Orchard,” the last play I did before going into the Navy. His performance in both these plays was on a high level. But his heart was set on writing. He became one of a small stable of first-class writers who were assembled in the early days of television at NBC by Fred Coe, the noted producer. That group of five or six playwrights was responsible for the programs of dramas on Sunday nights in the ‘50s that proved that the medium could create visual art of the highest order, when it wanted to. Tad contributed greatly to the success of Studio One, the Philco Playhouse, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and many other prestigious programs. He wrote some of the episodes of the “Adams Chronicles” a season or two ago. You knew, of course, that he also won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in ‘61 as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play of that year. It was “All The Way Home” derived from James Agee’s novel “A Death in the Family.”
HWH: Has he done anything recently, Curt?
CANFIELD: Well, he’s just had published an excellent biography of Kit Cornell called Leading Lady: The World and Theatre of Katharine Cornell. A magnificent job, a big book of over 500 pages. It came out, unfortunately, during the strike at the Times and hasn’t yet been fully reviewed. He liked doing it so much that he tells me he’s now thinking of writing another biography, but he didn’t tell me whose. We’re proud to have presented several of his one-acters, as well as a full-length play about college life, during his undergraduate days here. It’s nice to think we gave him a start.
While we’re about it, Bud, I think I should say a word about those students of ours who have found their niche in the Theatre Departments of our Colleges and Universities. Going way back, there’s Art Wilmurt ‘28.
HWH: I noticed that he earned an M.F.A. at Yale but not until ‘46, and yet he was an instructor at Yale from ‘37 to ‘46.
CANFIELD: I knew he had a degree from the Drama School. I believe his principal field was Design and Technical Directing, but he was an all-round theatre man, as it turned out. For instance, he translated and adapted from the French, André Obey’s “Noah.” It must have been in the early ‘thirties or even before. I saw a production of it in London starring John Gielgud. It was a great success there. He’s just retired from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh after many years of service teaching Playwriting and Design, an unusual combination.
HWH: I notice that his wife ‘s maiden name was Zelda Schumann-Heink. I wondered if she was any relation to the famous singer?
CANFIELD: She never mentioned it to me but I’m certain she must be related-- a double-barrelled name like that. Kitty thinks Zelda was the great singer’s niece. They came up for Art’s 50th reunion last year. We saw much of them in Pittsburgh when I was at the University there. Art played a minor role in one of our earliest College Hall hits, Molnar’s “Liliom.” He resembled Buzz Meredith in that he seemed best in older parts, and unless I’m wrong, he took over from Buzz the part of the Old Man in “Doctor Faustus” and was quite convincing in it, if not as electric as Buzz.
Going back even further, John Mayher ‘26, who was a year behind me in College, starred in “You Never Can Tell. “ John belongs in this category in a restricted sense, at least. He taught history at Exeter for many years, but he also served as Director of the Exeter Dramatic Club with uniformly laudable results. His younger brother, Laurie, was also a popular and useful actor in the Masquers.
Another distinguished teacher-director is James Elder Michael ‘32. He worked backstage in College Hall, but like so many others who studied here he was interested in all the facets of the theatre. He graduated with an M.F.A. from the Yale Drama School, majoring in Design, but became proficient, as well, in Playwriting, and Acting, another all-round theatre-man. After the war we produced one of his plays in Kirby, “Red Two,” based on his experiences on the aircraft carrier Princeton. As a matter of fact, Jim went overside when the Princeton was sunk by the Japs but he survived the ordeal. Anyway, he became Professor of Theatre Arts and Director of the Theatre at Kenyon and finished a fine career there by bringing into being, after much work, a beautiful new theatre on the campus. Kenyon showed how much they thought of Amherst graduates by appointing Tom Turgeon to succeed Jim as Head of the Department upon Jim’s retirement last year.
Among others in the collegiate field are Nebs Blaisdell ‘51 at Wisconsin; Bill Francisco ‘55 directing at Wesleyan; Chandler Potter ‘44, designer at Middlebury; Bruce McMullan ‘56 technical director at the Hopkins Centre at Dartmouth, and Philip Eck ‘54 designer at Tufts.
Likewise, there is Steven Coy ‘53 who, after a whirl in business, won his M.F.A. and doctorate under me at Yale. He now teaches and directs at the University of South Carolina. He is remembered here for some fine productions staged by him in Kirby when he served as an Instructor in Dramatics at Amherst in the early ‘60s. We can also celebrate the success of Ralph Allen ‘55, another Masquer who won his D.F.A. at Yale. He assisted John Gassner in the Playwriting Department while working for his degree, which he received in 1960. After serving as head of the Drama division at Pitt, Ralph moved to Canada where he was Chairman of the Drama Department at the University of Victoria and directed the professional company attached to it. From there he returned to warmer climes in Knoxville where again, as head of the Department at the University of Tennessee, he formed a company with the English actor Antony Quale as star. Ralph’s success in bringing the theatre to outlying regions of the State, as well as establishing the reputation of the University as a centre of dramatic interest in the South, has brought him national attention. Incidentally, besides writing scholarly books and articles, teaching, administering the Department, and managing as well as directing his professional company, he has continued his relaxing hobby-- researching the history of American Burlesque! I read recently that he has put together a compendium of the best samples of old-time burlesque and the result is a show, “Sugar Babies,” that is scheduled to go to New York next season starring Mickey Rooney! This proves, no doubt, that there’s no limit to the interest which a good theatre historian takes in every aspect of his subject.
HWH: Can you think of any other of your students in this category? What about Bob Brustein?
CANFIELD: Oh, yes. He’s had a brilliant, if sometimes hectic, career. He took my Drama course. A fine student. I had him for only his senior year, ‘46-’47. He was here for three years while I was in the Navy, and I think he was away in the Merchant Marine in the year I was Dean of Veterans. At any rate, he was deeply interested in Dramatic Literature and the theatre in general. I happened to be in Amherst one time during the war and saw him acting the lead in “The Inspector General” that Charley Rogers had directed. I thought he was very good. When I came back I cast him as the Inquisitor in Barrie Stavis’s “Lamp at Midnight” and he was excellent in the part. He spent a year at the Yale Drama School, didn’t like it, and then got his Ph.D. at Columbia in Literature and taught there in the English Department until called to Yale to succeed me as Dean of the Drama School.
HWH: I know he’s been controversial every place he’s been.
CANFIELD: He doesn’t dodge controversy and holds strong critical opinions. He’s had his ups and downs at Yale, and recently was fired as Dean by Bart Giamatti. Now, as you know, he is set to take over the Loeb Theatre at Harvard, repeating in reverse the noted exodus of George Pierce Baker from Harvard to Yale. I would say that Bob has become the most widely-known figure in the educational theatre ever produced by Amherst.
HWH: Did Mike Todd, Jr. ever participate?
CANFIELD: No, he never did anything in dramatics here, no talent.
HWH: What about those who were outstanding in the Masquers under you but who chose not to follow the theatrical profession?
CANFIELD: Amherst, as a liberal arts college, had many such of course. Some of them were enormously talented. A few, in fact, could have become stars, in my opinion. But the purpose of the Dramatics Department was not to develop actors, directors, or designers, nor even critics but rather to make our students aware of the beauty and power of the art of the theatre. In the last analysis we tried to inculcate in them and in our audience the sense that the theatre was a medium for the kind of enjoyment-- aesthetic, emotional and intellectual-- that could be had and should be pursued by cultivated people, as a means of enriching and broadening their lives. We couldn’t even come close to this goal without producing plays and performances that came as close to fulfilling high professional standards as amateurs could make them. That was the goal that drove me and, I believe, the people on my staff. As for the students, I hope that as participants in this process with its demands on precision and diligence, they learned the importance of at least one college venture where perfection, or at least the try for it, was mandatory. Under the eyes of our knowing public audiences, no performance was likely to be accepted under the grade of A, and it was my duty to make sure the students understood the seriousness of this test.
Given that some of our most talented actors chose not to make the theatre a career, I hope that their experience in the medium and the serious demands we made on them in terms of time and effort contributed to their development in whatever fields they ultimately went into.
Many decided on careers wherein some knowledge of stage technique would in the least do them no harm,-- the ministry, for example. Roger Hazelton, Bill Clark ‘33, Don Roberts ‘49, and Perry Williams ‘45 come to mind as successful alumni in this category. Don Roberts was one of the best comedians we ever had, his Algernon Moncrieff in “The Importance of Being Earnest” was a masterpiece, as was his “B.B.” in “The Doctor’s Dilemma.”
Dan Seymour ‘35 had enormous flair as a character actor and might have had a career on the stage. You may remember his Claudius to Frank Wilson’s Hamlet. Frank, of course, made a lasting impression as the Prince, sensitive, young, handsome; it’s a pity he didn’t persist in his try for the theatre. But to get back to Dan. I can’t praise him enough for his performance as Robert Emmett in the American premiere of Denis Johnston’s “The Old Lady Says No,” which we did in his senior year. I knew how good he could be in heavier parts like the King’s, and I still laugh when I remember the great scenes he had with Bob Marshall in “The Front Page.” Dan played the frantic Mayor of Chicago and Bob was the bumbling Sheriff and you never saw two more devious scalawags. But Emmett was a romantic hero, as every Irishman knows, although in this wild satire he was shown catapulted forward in time trying to adjust in his nightmare to the raucous vulgarity and skepticism of modern Dublin. Dan made of it a splendid tour de force, and showed a versatility in range that I didn’t know he had.
He had an interesting early career. I helped him start on his way, since he wanted, on graduation, to get into radio. I sent him to Jack Esty, who at the time was with his brother William’s advertising firm in New York.
HWH: I didn’t know that.
CANFIELD: Oh, Dan was a stem-winder, into everything on campus-- Scarab, Student Council, you name it. He was one of those you knew would qualify for election as the Senior most likely to succeed, and he did. Well, Jack looked him over and recommended him for an announcer’s job on a program they handled for one of their biggest clients. I think it was Camels. He was hired and went from there to the Texaco program, writing much of his material. Then he joined J. Walter Thompson, the biggest advertising agency and went up the ladder fast to become Chairman of the Board and chief executive officer, a spectacular career. He retired recently.
A footnote: while acting in the Masquers production of Philip Barry’s “The Animal Kingdom,” which we did with Mount Holyoke girls in the female parts, he met Louise Scharff who was also in the cast. It was the theatre that drew them together, as so often happens, and led to their long and happy marriage.
Incidentally, as an undergraduate Dan persuaded Student Council to include admission to the Masquers plays in the extracurricular activities fee that covered athletics and various other student enterprises. This action not only encouraged student attendance to our offerings but gave us a financial nest-egg at the start of each academic year on which we could base our budget for the season’s productions. It made a great deal of difference to us and I’ve always been grateful to Dan for his help in establishing the precedent.
There are so many boys who starred in our plays and went on to successful careers elsewhere that it’s hard to pay tribute to them all without extending this interview to unusual lengths. So let me mention just a few: Ken Berry and Ben Brower of ‘30, Jean Webb ‘31 and Dan Wickenden ‘35-- novelists; George Burchell ‘32, a fine actor who played leads in “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” Galsworthy’s “Escape,” and “The Front Page.” He has made a name for himself in Westchester County government and is now a leading judge in White Plains. There was Johnny Bean ‘41, who played among other things Jonah in Bridie’s “Jonah and the Whale.” A one-time transocean pilot with PanAm, he is now an entrepreneur in Minneapolis and has served his city in many capacities, including membership on the board of trustees of the famed Guthrie Theatre Foundation.
You must remember Jack Reber ‘42, who finally went into TV on the management end. Of all the students with whom I have worked I would put him with the first four or five, and I mean that to include those I directed at Yale, for TV, and the professional stage. He was the son of John Reber ‘16, who was himself active in dramatics here, and later became Vice-president of J. Walter Thompson, in charge of all their TV productions. Jack had everything-- physique, voice, range, vitality, and brains. I think it was Lim Sprague who told me that he was one of the best mathematicians he ever taught. He had a natural God-given talent, and I was sorely disappointed when he decided against going on the stage. It would have been easy for him to do so. Theresa Helburn, the director of the Theatre Guild, saw him play Cyrano at Kirby and immediately offered him a job in the classical repertory company the Guild was in the process of forming. Through his father, he had at hand a number of helpful contacts with producers and directors in Hollywood and New York who, no doubt, would have been willing and possibly anxious to start him on his way. But in spite of these opportunities, Jack was not overwhelmed by the prospect of an actor’s life nor by the people he already knew in the profession. He wanted to marry and settle down in a more conventional groove, so he chose the management end of television, not unlike his father’s option. After familiarizing himself with the field at NBC-TV in New York, he became the manager of a TV station in the state of Washington.
It was the theatre’s loss. I believe he had never acted in prep school. He entered Amherst in ‘38, in our opening season at Kirby, and I first saw him when he tried out for our third play in the cycle of four Maxwell Anderson’s works I had picked to start things off in our new home. His choice for the audition was as modest as Buzz Meredith's years before, that of the minor part of Jamie, a young soldier of the Queen in “Mary of Scotland.” He didn’t read it very well, stumbled over the words, but his appearance was so striking that I gave him the part anyway. It was a fortunate bit of casting for as time went on and his experience lengthened he got better and better. That made it possible for me to schedule certain classical dramas I wouldn’t have dared to do without his extraordinary talent. As you probably know, Bud, it was always my policy wherever possible to choose plays that in my judgment exploited the personal qualities and acting strengths of our leading actors in any given year. In Jack’s time in college, from the Fall of ‘38 until he enlisted before graduation in ‘42, there were at different times seven classes in residence on campus. The number of good actors in those classes was impressive. I’m sure there are those around here who remember many of them: Jim Hart and Harmer Ker ‘39; John Pillsbury, Phil Orth, John Dobson ‘40, Jack Whicher, Geoff Bruère, Johnny Bean ‘41; Reber and Roelofs ‘42; Dolph Zink, George Shenk, Dave Carson, Wally Alexander ‘43; and Tad Mosel, Ralph Longley and Perry Williams in later classes who may have overlapped with Jack. They seemed like the Masquers’ golden years which the war brought to an abrupt stop. They were a remarkable group, and I take nothing away from their outstanding gifts when I say Reber’s capacities for success on the stage were a notch or two above some and the equal of all.
It was apparent from his brief appearance as Jamie that he had the kind of personality that “carries” at once to the audience; I guess “charisma” is the popular term to describe the magnetism that some actors generate on stage. He certainly had it.
“Winterset” was our final play in the Anderson cycle and I broke another one of my rules never to give an unseasoned Freshman a starring role, particularly in the case of such a difficult and risky part as the hero, Mio Romagna. But, what the hell, you have to take a chance in this game once in a while, and the gamble paid off. Jack gave a memorable performance in a play that in itself tempted fate by combining a realistic plot involving modern slum characters in a depressed setting with soaring poetic dialogue-- more suited, perhaps, to the seventeenth century than the twentieth. Jack, to be sure, had the added advantage of being supported by an extraordinary cast. Jim Hart, who had already proved himself a master of verse-speaking as Thomas à Beckett in “Murder in the Cathedral” and Boswell in “Mary Queen of Scotland,” played Judge Gaunt with complete authority, as did Jack Whicher as Esdras, the old Rabbi. Geoff Bruére was really sinister and believable as the gangster, Trock. Rounding out the cast in what I felt was one of our most perfectly balanced companies to that date were Flo Hagenau from Smith as Miriamne, Harry Rudden as Garth Esdras, and Gerritt Roelofs as the Hobo. He later became a Navy ace and is now Professor of English at Kenyon.
In his second year, Reber played Cyrano with humor, pathos, and the required brio. Theresa Helburn, the director of the Theatre Guild came up to see him in the role. As a result she invited him to play Prince Hal in a Repertory Company the Guild was planning to sponsor in New York, a venture that never materialized. Next came Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” by all odds the biggest and perhaps the best production I ever had anything to do with. We gave the work in its epic entirety, something never done before in this country, as far as I know. It required 48 sets and a prodigious number of original costumes. Also, we found out, it took about seven and a half hours to perform!
We used the full Grieg score with all its songs and dances, played beautifully by Professor Vincent Morgan and Mitchell Bailey ‘40 on the piano and organ respectively.
The play, as you remember, is in five acts and carries its hero through his adult lifetime, from his teens to old age. Since many of the characters at the beginning reappear at the end it was necessary to use the same actors throughout. For this reason as well as the obvious one that the students would not have the time nor the energy to encompass the whole play in a single performance, I split the play in two. We gave the first three acts (Peer’s Youth) as a unit and followed it three months later with the long 4th Act (Peer’s Middle years), together with the final Act which shows Peer’s return at his life’s end to the scenes of his youth. Judging from the sold-out houses and the extended runs, it was clear that few who saw the first part failed to return for the second. Many in the audiences came from New York City, Boston, New Haven, and other distant places. I suppose I have directed more than a hundred plays. The public response and general approbation for this one exceeded that of any single work we ever gave here. It was hailed as a triumph.
To get back to Jack, who carried the whole burden of the work: I knew from his handling Jamie and Mio that he could do the young Peer, the rascal and dreamer, with no trouble, but he was untried in the portrayal of the wild absurdities and extravagances of Peer in his foolish middle years and the pathos and regrets of old age as Peer at last realizes that his life has been futile and he himself a nonentity. I needn’t have worried. This superb actor was completely convincing throughout. More than that, it seemed to be the consensus that it was an achievement so grand in scale as to prove we had in him indeed a rising star.
There was only one more role I could think of that would equal Peer in importance and be a worthy challenge to Jack. Hamlet would be his farewell to Kirby. But as I said, the war intervened. Like many others at the time, Jack left College in the second term of his Senior year to serve his country, being awarded his B.A. honoris causa in absentia in June 1942. I think we both regretted the circumstances which prevented our providing what would have been a fitting climax to his career as a student actor, but it was not to be.
[TAPE TWO MATERIAL]
HWH: This is Horace Hewlett in a second conversation with Professor F. Curtis Canfield at his home on Dana Street in Amherst on Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 14th, 1979.
Curt, in our first session we ended up talking about Jack Reber and some of your former students who had considerable promise in theatre but who went into other professions. There must be a great many in this category.
CANFIELD: Oh, there were. Some went into the ministry, a profession which I have always thought of as being closely linked to the theatre. For example Don Roberts ‘49 whom we’ve already mentioned. Upon graduation Don was seriously considering a life on the stage but chose the ministry instead. I think he was right to do so-- not that Don had no potential in the theatre; quite the contrary, but the Church was his real vocation. I saw him after he had been installed in a pastorate, I believe in Pelham, New York. He described for me, somewhat humorously, a dilemma he faced when he first started preaching. He unconsciously found himself reverting to the style and manner of some of the characters he had played in Kirby. In one sermon it might be President Heman Humphrey, his part in that deathless drama about the founding of the College, “The Seed and the Sowers.” The next time he would be more like Galileo in “Lamp at Midnight” and so on. He said it took some time and effort to throw off these assumed personalities and be himself in the pulpit.
Roger Hazelton ‘31 was another who has had a very distinguished career as Dean of Theology at Oberlin and as professor at Andover-Newton Seminary. In addition, he has written several books on religious subjects.
Perry Williams ‘45, likewise, is an important churchman at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral. In addition to his acting ability, Perry possessed a remarkable singing voice, I was lucky enough to put both his talents together in “Knickerbocker Holiday.” He played the Walter Huston role and the musical was a smash hit. Nor shall I forget him in the lead in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and as the redoubtable landowner in Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” our last play in Kirby before we were both swept into the Navy. I daresay that what these students learned about effective speaking and moving on stage was of some help in their jobs.
HWH: What of some of the later ones in the post-war era?
CANFIELD: Some of the best went into business and have done very well. You remember Bob Lehrman ‘55.
HWH: Yes, I think he’s an officer in Consolidated Edison.
CANFIELD: And very successful — just as he was in his handling of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” in his junior year. That, by the way, was one of our most moving and effective productions. Although I’m beginning to sound like my own press agent as well as the Masquers’, let me say that George Morgan and Bill Francisco couldn’t have been better as his sons, and of course I’ll always remember the play as Kitty’s final appearance with the Masquers. In my admittedly slanted view, she was superb as Linda Loman. I’ve never added up the number of parts she played, beginning with Julie in “Liliom” more than fifty years ago in College Hall. There were many. The quality of her playing lifted each one to a high professional level.
Some of our character actors made a lasting impression on our audiences. For the record, I should mention a few. Let’s start with an original, John Pillsbury ‘40.
HWH: I never knew him, but I’ve heard a lot about him.
CANFIELD: A real character — terrific! Big John from New Hampshire. He went around in zero weather in shirt-sleeves and sometimes barefooted. He used to bring Kitty great armfuls of pussy-willows every Spring, picked on his customary tramps through the woods. As Falstaff in Henry IV he was in every sense immense, and suitably menacing as the fanatical John Knox in “Mary of Scotland.” But his starring roles were as the heroic Adam Trueman in our revival of “Fashion!” and as Jackie Boyle the rascally “captain” in “Juno and the Paycock,” which began our second season in the new theatre. There’s a story goes with that production: On the day of our first dress rehearsal John appeared for morning Chapel wearing a hat. This in itself was unprecedented. I doubt if anyone had ever seen one on his head before. Strangest of all was the fact that John kept the hat on all through the service, which was being conducted by Stanley King. Knowing Stanley, I would say this breach of decorum must have made him turn quite pale with emotion. As is well known, Stanley took seriously the responsibility for taking cases of student discipline into his own hands. The service over, Stanley as he was marching out, leaned into John’ s pew and demanded that he appear immediately in his office. As reported, John was eventually shown into Stanley’s presence, presumably after an interval in which the President must have tried to cool down a bit. To make matters worse, John entered the office with his hat still on and didn’t take it off even when Stanley, who had a quick temper, began to lay him out in the proverbial lavender. Whereupon John interrupted by saying, “But Mr. President, would you prefer that I had appeared like this?” And with that he whipped off his hat to reveal his head shaved to the bone from the ears up. He had readily accepted my suggestion that such an operation would make him look older as Captain Boyle. Stanley, when he learned the reason for the skinning had to smile and agreed that John’s overnight baldness would have caused an even greater distraction than the hat. So, as the story goes, they shook hands and parted friends. This, by the way, was but one among many stories about Stanley’s relations with students that proved he had a strong sense of humor.
HWH: Paul Mitnick was another character man like Pillsbury, wasn’t he?
CANFIELD: Very much so, and like John he was as good in comedy as in serious plays. He was the comic gangster, Diamond Louie, in “The Front Page,” but his chance came in “The Emperor Jones.”
We had a remarkable pair of unforgettable comics: Jim Daggitt ‘53 and Howie Ziff ‘52. They were the Mayor and the Judge respectively, first in “The Lady’s Not for Burning” and then as the two leading clowns in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Daggitt, by himself was a real Boston Brahmin, to the lips, one might say, in “The Late George Apley.” Jim became a lawyer and Howie teaches Journalism at UMass.
Gene Plumstead ’38 comes to mind as another who followed a related profession. In college he was interested in backstage work as well as acting. His biggest role was in James Bridie’s delightful dramatization of the Bible story, “Tobias and the Angel,” in which he played Tobias, the mild and apprehensive youth who becomes a man under the tutelage of the Archangel Raphael. This neglected work proved to be one of our most charming surprises. Gene shared the honors with another fine actor, Steve Whicher, who played the angel.
HWH: Then there was Peter Winn of ‘48.
CANFIELD: Oh yes, Peter. For the record let me say he is married to my daughter, Sylvia. They celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary here two years ago-- when Kitty and I celebrated our 50th! President of the Masquers and a very capable actor, he was a senior when I returned to Kirby from the Navy. I cast him in every play I directed in the ‘47-’48 season with major parts in “A Highland Fling,” “Lamp at Midnight,” and “The Seed and the Sowers,” as well as the leading role in the American premiere of MacDonough’s “Happy as Larry.” He is in the public relations business and keeps his hand in by occasionally producing commercials on TV.
Dan Wickenden ‘35 and Jim Michael ‘32 were two active Masquers who have written for the stage. Two of Dan’s plays were given in College Hall as major productions: “The Bright Blade,” a play of college life, and “The Golden Dustman,” a dramatization derived from “Our Mutual Friend.” Both were well received. Dan has continued writing fiction while serving as an editor for Harcourt Brace. Jim, as I’ve already mentioned, has had a fine career as head of the Drama at Kenyon, but besides that he has written several plays. We were delighted to give his “Red Two” in Kirby as a major production in the early ‘50s.
“Red Two” brings to mind Scotty Monteith ‘52 who played its hero. Scotty was a solid performer in the naturalistic style and one of the many students it was a joy to work with. In fact, looking back, I was fortunate indeed working with so many fine young people doing what I had enjoyed since boyhood. For like so many others, I had begun early, putting on my own entertainments in the attic of my White Plains home before an audience of small contemporaries who had paid in pennies or pins to see the magic I had prepared for them. As I may have told you, my mother and father first met in an amateur operetta “The Bohemian Girl,” in which my mother sang the lead and my father was a member of the chorus. He, by the way, had a life-long interest in all forms of theatre from the circus up; and had quite a reputation as a director of local amateur groups. He came to see many Masquers productions and was never backward with advice about how I could improve them! Let’s get on to something else.
HWH: Well, Curt, you introduced, after Kirby was constructed and maybe before, quite a squad or team of seamstresses made up of faculty wives and others to make the Masquers’s costumes. How did that start?
CANFIELD: Ah, those ladies became a major addition to our staff and their handiwork contributed greatly to the beauty of our productions. At the start we rented all our period costumes from a small firm in Springfield, Bucholz’s, and the results were just about what you would expect. The goods were often shopworn, fitted badly, and were seldom related in color to the sets or to each other. For bigger productions we tried larger firms in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York but the same problems remained. For contemporary plays we usually asked the actors to wear their own clothes, often with unhappy results. While we were in College Hall, the thought of making our own costumes hardly occurred to me. I was a stranger to needle and thread and so was Tuffy, although I’m sure he could have learned sewing if he put his mind to it. Then, when it looked as though our new theatre was to become a reality, with facilities for costume-making, we began to think seriously about the subject. Just at that time, Jim Cleland, our Professor of Religion, brought his new wife, Alice, to town. She happened to be skilled in building stage costumes, making patterns, and the right methods of fitting and sewing. She also knew materials. I was delighted when she agreed to head up the sewing group. Meanwhile, in preparation for the move to Kirby, Stanley had allowed the necessary budget for me to go ahead and find a designer and I brought in Charles Rogers, fresh from Yale. Charlie Morgan and I worked out a deal whereby Charles taught drawing and painting in the Fine Arts Department half-time, and designed sets and costumes for me the other half. Later he would teach Stage Design in our Theatre Production course. With Tuffy McGoun as Technical Director, Charles as Designer, and Alice and her volunteers responsible for building the costumes, we had a small but exceptionally strong group, assisted by another indispensable man, Michael Kapinos, our custodian, who proved to be a skilled carpenter, upholsterer, motion-picture projectionist, electrician, plumber, painter... you name it — Mike could do it.
HWH: It was quite a group.
CANFIELD: Wonderful! By the time we moved to Kirby we had a dozen devoted ladies in the sewing room: Alice as head, Kay Morgan, Kitty Cole, Peggy Craig, Janet Morgan, Mary Hewlett (as you know), Nina Soller, Kitty Canfield (specializing in hats), Ethel Manthey-Zorn, Merne Thacher, Ruth Kidder....
HWH: Glad Weathers.
CANFIELD: Oh, yes, Glad, and others who helped out occasionally.
HWH: The costumes were sumptuous.
CANFIELD: The combination of Charles’s designs, which invariably caught the essentials of the character’s personality in color and line, and the ladies’ skill in choice of materials, pattern-making, and the like, brought to our productions a professional style and finish of a high order not ordinarily seen in an amateur theatre.
When the Clelands left for a new post at Duke, Kay Morgan took over as head and there was no hiatus in the excellence of the results. Kay, in fact, became an expert in the craft. When they went to New York one summer for Vincent to do some research, Kay took advanced courses in pattern-making and sewing, the fruits of which she passed on to her faithful aides. The ladies loved working for Kay and their morale and high spirits affected not only us on the staff but the students as well. That system is ended now, and I am told they pay the help. Too bad.
HWH: I wonder over-all, Curt, if you think Amherst provides a good background for a student who has his or her heart set on a professional career in the theatre?
CANFIELD: Well, you know someone once said that Harvard had spoiled more playwrights that it produced, but I should think a broad general education was just as good for our profession as for any other. The theatre is a popular art with many ramifications-- the stage, mime, ballet, movies, television, opera and the rest, and there are obviously many different avenues leading into it. Think of the number of people without much formal education who have become stars, directors, producers. They started in vaudeville, the circus or burlesque, or had been cowboys, athletes, models or rock singers. But serious drama (including farce whose form must be taken seriously) whether it is shown live or in pictures, is a compound dealing with feelings as well as ideas. This means that an approach to it is often ambivalent — emotional or instinctive on the one hand and rational or objective on the other. Objective analysis is usually the principal initial concern of the director, the actor, and the playwright. College courses in the development of drama, play analysis, and the fundamentals of directing and acting are thus legitimate electives for the drama major, along with general courses in literature, philosophy, history, and psychology. If Amherst is still as good as it was twenty years ago in these areas, I would say that it was a very good place to prepare for a career in the theatre.
HWH: Did you ever have actors who brought an interpretation to their part that was a contribution to an understanding of it?
CANFIELD: That’s a good question. Frankly, I suppose I was the kind of director who was prone to say: “Be reasonable, do it my way,” and proceed to show them how! The bulk of my students were just learning something about the craft and many didn’t plan to continue in it. I was not Stanislavski. who could rehearse a play for six months before putting it on. I found that the students generally needed and wanted to be told the outlines of a character as it looked to me. After all, I never went into rehearsal without giving the text considerable study. How the student actor, with my help, filled in the details of his picturization was the burden of our work in rehearsals. If a student showed interest in trying to build his character on his own, I let him alone, reserving the prerogative of disagreeing with the interpretation if it seemed to clash with the overall view of the playwright’s intention as perceived by me. It was not unusual for our students to adopt a self-reliant attitude toward acting. Jim Douglas, to take an example, played an old eccentric westerner in Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” named Kit Carson. Jim was then in his fourth year with me and had had considerable experience on the Kirby stage. He was also heading for a try as a performer. After the blocking, Jim, with my blessing, tried various approaches to old Kit trying in rehearsal first one and then another. In the end he developed a concept that resulted in a most effective characterization. I could name others who could take the bit in their teeth and go ahead with little coaching. That is, once I saw they were on the right track-- Jim Hart, Wally Alexander, Jack Reber, Ray MacDonnell, and Dan Seymour come to mind. For others you had to show them how to move, how to read a line, and so on — “doing it my way.” This method had the advantage of keeping the level of playing consistent, and at least as good as the director’s acting ability. At any rate, I think both types learned something about the standard of precision in technique that was demanded as well as the need to take the work seriously. Likewise, they appreciated, I hope, what it meant to face a large public audience which had paid to look at them. The first lesson was that no grade under “A” was acceptable-- either by the audience or by me. In a course, a student could pass without knowing 40% of an examination. In our theatre it was clear that no-one would tolerate an actor who knew only a little more than half his part or appeared inept or stumbled in and out of character. Perhaps some students earned an extra dividend by getting the hang of speaking clearly, and by that I don’t mean just articulating but forming a sentence with the proper rhythm and stress in order clearly to convey its sense unmistakably. Then, too, it never did a student any harm to learn how to move without awkwardness or use his hands deftly or gesticulate naturally without giving the impression that they are entities unattached to his body.
HWH: I want to come back to your experience as Dean of Veterans, but continuing on this subject for a moment-- just after the war Gail Kennedy and his committee devised a new 1947 curriculum. Did that have any effect on you or on the Kirby program?
CANFIELD: None whatsoever. We won the battle to establish a Department of Dramatics in 1938 when the Faculty, over opposition, admitted into the curriculum courses in Theatre Arts, namely in Acting, Directing, Design and Lighting to be taught not as vocational in purpose but for making the student aware of the visual as well as the aural potential of theatre-going. Kennedy’s attempt, almost ten years later, to overturn this Faculty action and dismantle the Department must have failed, because I never heard of it again after I returned from the service in 1946. We continued to give our theatre courses and our productions exactly as before.
HWH: Now about your term as Dean of Veterans. I believe you served in that post for the year ‘46-’47. How did you get tagged for that?
CANFIELD: With the veterans returning and the College coming back to normal, Vincent Morgan, who had the job, was anxious to get back to teaching. Stanley King, whose recommendation had got me into the Navy in the first place, was aware of the administrative experience I had had as Officer-in-Charge of the big V-12 Unit at M.I.T., so he asked me to postpone my return to the Faculty for a year to help the veterans make the transition to college and I was glad to do so. I was in need of some sort of period of transition myself, having been away for more than three years in service.
HWH: Was this full-time, Curt?
CANFIELD: Full-time, oh yes. We had a great many servicemen, as you know. You were one of them...no you graduated before the war started, of course. It was an interesting job, much like what I’d been doing at M.I.T.-- academic and personal problems, counseling, and in general helping take the load off Scott.
HWH: Your office was next to his, wasn’t it?
CANFIELD: Just across the hall. Of course the atmosphere was altogether different from the Navy. The boys didn’t come in as if they were scared to death as the V-12ers seemed to be when they saw my two and a half stripes. I’m sure some of our students would have outranked me anyhow. They were a marvelous group of men and their presence made the College vibrant and alive. In that office I learned a lot about the College that I didn’t know before. It was a new perspective.
HWH: Was there any particular thread or direction in which the veterans seemed to have difficulties or problems?
CANFIELD: No, I think the great majority were so glad to be here, so relieved that the war was over and they could get on with their normal lives, they settled down quickly. They worked hard and played hard, as if they were aware of what a privilege it was to take advantage of everything Amherst could offer. They were serious about getting an education. Of course there were a few who were disgruntled and disappointed with some of their teachers, and I was in something of an embarrassing position to hear some very frank criticisms of my colleagues. Their impatience seemed to be directed toward a few instructors who didn’t fully take into consideration that these men were three or more years older than the usual undergraduates, mature adults. They were disappointed that the level of course material did not challenge that maturity nor make the demands on their time and energy that they were more than ready to expend. At least that was my impression-- they expected more than they got-- in some instances.
I can’t recall a single case of the veterans’ behavior that was serious enough to cause disciplinary action to be taken by my office. I suppose this was so because they were disciplined and responsible adults, serious about their work and anxious to succeed. It was a very happy time to be in College. One of the most significant changes that came over life on the campus in that immediate post-war period was the presence, for the first time in the history of the College, of a large contingent of married undergraduates. Heretofore, if a student got married while in college, he was summarily expelled. As we know, some did marry but managed to keep the news secret until after they graduated. All that was changed and G.I. Village was filled with dozens of married couples, many with families. This had a beneficial effect on the spirit and morale of the whole College-- a steadying influence on the environment.
HWH: Do you recall the origin of the G.I. Village?
CANFIELD: The Quonsets were already up when I got back, so I don’t know the answer to that. My guess is that Stanley King was the one who got them from the government in the first place, for the various service groups which were assigned here for training, for they were put to good use as well after the war.
HWH: Can we talk a little bit about your experience with television at NBC and elsewhere?
CANFIELD: It was only at NBC in New York-- the summer of ‘49, and a nine-months sabbatical in 1950. Charley Denny of ‘31 was president of the company at that time which was feeling its way in the new medium. I first became involved in 1947 or ‘48 when Charlie asked me to be a long-distance critic of the plays NBC was offering in the industry’s infancy. I accepted and went on the payroll before we knew I could even get the broadcasts this far away from Hartford or Boston. We were on the outer periphery and there were only few sets that I knew of here in town. NBC duly supplied one to me, but when I had it installed in my house on Walnut Street, I was upset to find I could get nothing but snow. You know at that time the TV screen was quite small, the range short, and the signals weak.
HWH: An enormous box and a tiny tube.
CANFIELD: It became clear the only alternative was to put the aerial in one of the highest spots around and the most convenient place was the tower of Johnson Chapel. In spite of some disapproving mumbling about such use of our most revered monument, Charley Cole let me put the aerial up by the flag and, gave me permission to install the set in his outer office, and gave me a key. From there I monitored as best I could the often dim and snow-filled programs of the Philco Playhouse and other NBC dramas. Most of those I could see through the static were on a high level of competence, particularly those done by Fred Coe, who later became a most successful theatre producer and director.
HWH: That was the day of one or two cameras only.
CANFIELD: That’s right. Well, when Charley Denny asked me to join NBC’s production staff as a director-producer, I met Fred Coe. We became good friends-- but not before he had had his say about one of his programs which I panned (in one of my monthly reports) for poor camera work. It was a play starring Paul Muni if I remember correctly. The static was bad that night and to make matters worse, Coe, who was directing and using three cameras, seemed perversely to use only two and then only one, which he held on a static long shot to the very end as though be had forgotten that variations from close-ups to medium shots were standard devices for preventing boredom in the audience. When we were introduced, he seemed surprised and not too pleased. He said, “So you’re Canfield! Didn’t you review a show of mine with Paul Muni in it?” I admitted I had. Then Fred said, “If you’d known what happened that night in the studio (all shows were live) perhaps you wouldn’t have been so cranky. First we lost camera number one, a fuse blew. Ten minutes later we lost number two, and I had no choice but to hold a long shot on all the remaining scenes.” I apologized. He forgave me and proceeded to break me in to the mysteries of TV production. Sometime later, when I’d gone to Yale, Fred, who was an alumnus of the Drama School, served as Chairman of our Alumni Committee and was a great help to me.
HWH: What programs were you connected with?
CANFIELD: I started a series called “The Academy Theatre” based on one-act plays. It ran that first summer with some success, judging from the reviews in the Times and other papers. I thought our best were three Thornton Wilder one-acts and a delightful work by a former student of mine whom I’ve already mentioned, Adrian Scott ‘34. It was “Mr. Lincoln’s Whiskers.” I used some of my Amherst boys in that series: Tad Mosel, for one, Ralph Longley ‘44 and last but not least Peter Winn. I brought Peter up from Florida, where he was starting a career in television, to play opposite Anne Jackson in Synge’s “In the Shadow of the Glen.” That also went very well. It’s funny how fate intervenes in these things. Peter got acquainted with my daughter, Sylvia, during those rehearsals, with the result you know about.
Speaking of Anne Jackson reminds me of the time she came up to play the lead in the premiere American production of MacDonough’s “Happy as Larry.” Peter played the co-starring role, as I think I’ve said. The story of how Anne came to get the part is amusing because it involves Julie Harris, who made such a hit in Kirby last year as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst.”
In the Spring of ‘48, through the good offices of Buzz Meredith, I’d been given the rights to do the play. Buzz planned to bring it to Broadway the following season. He and the producer, Louis Singer, thought it might be a good idea to see it performed somewhere, so when I asked for the chance they let me go ahead with it. It was a special situation so I decided to get two professionals from Broadway for the leading female roles. A friend of mine, Joe Magee, from the casting offices of the William Morris Agency, agreed to arrange an audition for me. I could offer no salaries but would provide the two girls who were to be selected room and board for five weeks-- the rehearsal and performance time. I was greatly surprised when I got to New York and found that Joe had assembled about 30 young actresses who had apparently been influenced by the prospect of being seen onstage by the producer of “The Glass Menagerie” and a star of the first magnitude. Both men, incidentally, made good their promise to be present for at least one Kirby performance. Well, I held the tryout in the Morris offices. There was no problem finding a character type for a supporting role. Terry Hayden won that hands down. But I had a very hard time judging which of two remarkable candidates to choose for the forth right young heroine. They were Anne and Julie Harris, then unknowns, just setting out on what would become spectacular careers. Each was perfectly capable of doing the part well, of course, but I had to pick one. I finally settled on Anne as being a touch more rugged physically for the part. As it happened, Anne was great as Mrs. Larry and I didn’t regret having cast her, but her rise to fame took a little longer than Julie’s who, soon after the tryout, rocketed immediately to stardom as the child in “A Member of the Wedding.” In the interim those who knew about my choice of Anne over Julie couldn’t resist needling me about my failure to see Julie’s great potential. In the end, Anne’s success brought the picture into balance, along with my temporarily tarnished reputation for good casting.
Thirty years later I wrote Miss Harris to say that but for me her appearance as Emily would have been her second, rather than her first, Kirby appearance. Her good-humored reply was that her friend Anne had more than once been selected for parts over her. We had another good laugh about it at the President’s party in her honor after her triumphant first night performance at the College.
But to get back to NBC. Once you got the hang of the camera technique and the use of multiple sets, which often filled the studio, the problems of the director were much the same as in the theatre. You had to learn as you went along and get used to the confusion of an army of technicians and assistants on the floor, as well as the tyranny of the clock and the relentless tension when you were on the air.
HWH: These were live performances, weren’t they?
CANFIELD: All live; there was no going back.
HWH: It was in black and white of course, and before the day of the kinescope.
CANFIELD: They taped some shows but not ours. It was an expensive procedure in those days. You never got a chance to correct a mistake or re-shoot a scene. Anything might go wrong — and often did. I directed some pilots, one including Chester Morris in a detective serial. Then I started a series — The Armstrong Circle Theatre, an elaborate big-time affair financed by the Armstrong Cork Company.
HWH: That was very successful.
CANFIELD: It became so. But my job was to get it started, a formidable task. As producer, I had to put a staff together, line up writers and a director, find a suitable announcer, and a hundred other details. The idea for the series was a good one. We were to do only those plays that reflected reality, so that the pervading effect would be that of a true documentary. One difficulty was that the available writers were not too familiar with this new approach and had to take time to get into it. I tried my best, but the trouble was, as I have hinted before, that I was used to doing things my way. I found the company representative, a brilliant but difficult man, equally determined to do it his way. This led in the end to my resigning from the assignment, with our fine director, Bill Corrigan, joining me. Instead of firing me, NBC let me do a series I had wanted to do in the first place-- a program based on important plays from Shakespeare to Pirandello as a summer Sunday night replacement for the Philco program. We had a good budget and I was able to choose some first-class stars, including Jessica Tandy, Kent Smith, Boris Karloff, Margaret Phillips, Eva Gabor, Walter Abel, and many others. We offered an assortment of classics which, for the time, was for literary merit at least, a source of prestige for the network-- ”Uncle Vanya,” “The Rivals,” “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” and others of equal worth.
When the series ended, I said, “Well, now it’s back to Amherst for me.” Some of my colleagues thought I was daft. One said, “Where is Amherst!” They pointed out that I was in on the ground floor of an enterprise that was bound to lead to fame and fortune - particularly fortune. But the whole business was too hectic and life in New York too unpalatable for the three of us, so we came back to where we belonged.
HWH: Did you ever have an urge to go back?
CANFIELD: Not at all. The pressures were ulcer-producing, too much for a simple country type like me. All the same I was grateful to Charley Denny for making the experience possible.
HWH: Wasn’t it about that time that you were involved with one of the first network telecasts of a full-length Shakespeare — “Julius Caesar” done at the Folger Library?
CANFIELD: Yes, that was the Spring of ‘49 on NBC, and was a prelude to my going to New York that summer. It was sponsored by... ah...
HWH: Socony Vacuum.
CANFIELD: Right. Freddy Fales ‘96, who was Chairman of our Alumni Visiting Committee, arranged the whole thing. Freddy was a good and faithful friend of mine. He was also Vice-president of Socony, in the long line of Amherst Alumni who have been prominent in Standard Oil.
HWH: A fine man.
CANFIELD: He sold the idea to his company. I think it was actually Socony’s first plunge into TV.
HWH: I recall the whole thing very vividly. I was part of the advance group...
CANFIELD: So you were-- handling the P.R. end.
HWH: We met with Socony in New York, with a fellow named McCarthy who came originally from Holyoke. He loved the production.
CANFIELD: He must have been referring to the regular staged performances we gave the public on the Folger Elizabethan stage-- we played a week. After that we had about two days to get the broadcast ready. Our regular shows were great — fine audiences filled with senators, congressmen, members of the Supreme Court, diplomats, and bigwigs. But the TV production was badly done. In fact it was a disaster.
HWH: Why do you say that, Curt?
CANFIELD: The producer, director, and staff they sent down from New York couldn’t cope with the limitations of the stage, which was a tiny replica of the Globe Playhouse, nor with the short time they had to transform the stage play into something suitable for the camera medium.
They were frantic, building a huge platform over the seats for the cameras, while at the same time they were trying to conduct an endless stop and go rehearsal with the whole cast present for the sake of establishing camera shots and angles, positions, shot sequences, and matters of lighting and sound. All this, or a great deal of it, could have been worked out beforehand if the directors could have seen a performance or two in Kirby — or even in the Folger for that matter. You remember that our setting at Amherst was a carbon copy of the replica of the Globe stage in the Folger. Instead, confusion reigned. The students were tired enough after a week’s intensive run as it was. Now they were kept going night and day while the technicians struggled and the carpenters hammered. To make matters worse, they started cutting the lines which meant the actors had to relearn their parts!
HWH: I remember the building of the platform.
CANFIELD: They raised hell with the theatre. Louis Wright, the director of the Library, must have decided then and there not to allow productions on that stage during his administration. The main trouble with the TV performance was that the cast was exhausted. I saw the kinescope in Kirby later. Awful. All our best actors — Jim Douglas, Ray MacDonnell, Jim Maxwell, Don Roberts — croaking the lines hoarsely, George Bliss so fatigued as Caesar that he seemed half-dead already. (here Mr. C. mimics the sound-track) The lighting, at least in the tape, was bad. The students, on the stage in full costumes and make-up since sun-up, simply worn out, looked haggard in the imperfect light; fright beards coming loose and everything else. A live audience had been invited and were crowded into the few seats that hadn’t been covered by the platform. At one point, when Caesar fell in the murder scene, the camera panned away from him to center on the conspirators. Then George Bliss, as rehearsed, being off-camera, scrambled up and walked off the stage. The audience, perhaps unaware of the camera shift, tittered. The bewildered millions out there, must have wondered what was so funny about the assassination. Anyway, in spite of the TV fiasco, we all had a marvelous time in Washington. The reviews of our regular performances were full of praise for the professional work of our company. But the Library’s director and the resident Shakespearean scholars at the Library must have breathed a sigh of relief when we departed and the natural serenity of those dignified and impressive surroundings was resumed.
HWH: We were speaking earlier about the coincidences of friendship. You mentioned Charley Denny as being head of NBC television at that time, and I’m sure you knew he was a roommate and close friend of Bob Marshall. They had gone to Law School together and roomed together at Amherst.
CANFIELD: Yes, I did. Right.
HWH: They made quite a combination.
CANFIELD: They did. Two remarkable men who were brilliantly successful in business.
HWH: Curt, we’ve covered most of the things I’ve jotted down. There must be some things that you’d like to add.
CANFIELD: I’ve gone on much longer than I intended to!
HWH: I do have a note — checking in the catalog prewar and postwar. Just after the war, your Department consisted of three people — you, Tuffy, and Charley Rogers. Now the catalog lists twenty-two courses.
CANFIELD: Good God! That’s inflation with a vengeance. Actually, we had only 2 1/2 people. We shared Charley Rogers with Fine Arts, as I told you.
HWH: There are five courses in Dance here at Amherst, plus seven courses under Five-College auspices, plus two special topics courses.
CANFIELD: Five courses given in Kirby, I suppose.
HWH: The Department takes up seven pages of course descriptions in the Catalogue.
CANFIELD: How many teachers?
HWH: There are four in Dramatic Arts and one of these is in Dance alone.
CANFIELD: The dance seems to have taken over.
HWH: Not quite, there were seventeen courses in Theatre...
CANFIELD: I can’t believe it!
HWH: And twelve in Dance, but some of these are given as Five-College courses.
CANFIELD: You mean that there are a lot of teachers from the other colleges?
CANFIELD: To me that’s just one more step in the dilution of the integrity and uniqueness of Amherst College as a special and separate institution. But let’s not go into that, it’s a sore subject with me.
HWH: Well we haven’t said anything about your experience at Yale. A lot of people wondered why you left here to go to a hick place like that.
CANFIELD: I’ve often wondered about that myself. But, seriously, it was an agonizing choice. Our roots were down deep after thirty years. It was a choice between staying in a place we loved or facing the challenge of what was generally accepted as being the most influential position to be had in the educational theatre. I suppose in the end it was the dare that prevailed. But there were tearful regrets on our part, I can assure you. And now, with the “hurly-burly done,” we’ve hurried back to the home we had never left in spirit.
HWH: Well, Curt, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
CANFIELD: Just that one of the things I regretted most when I left, at least on the academic side — the teaching side of my life here — was giving up the Humanities course jointly given with Vincent and Charlie Morgan.
HWH: This was post World War II?
CANFIELD: Yes. It was a good deal more than a three-part introduction to our three subjects: Music, Fine Arts, and Theatre. It was that, of course, but beyond that we tried to show the elements that the three fields had in common. I think that it was easiest for me, inasmuch as the theatre depends so much on the other two and uses them both. It was a most exciting and enjoyable course for me because it opened up each field to the student in such a way that he could perceive both the differences between each art and also the important ways in which they used similar principles in form, style, and theme. It stressed also the way each art shifted and developed in accordance with the important historical periods and the changes in each field as they conformed to, or resisted the changing ideas and ideals of each epoch.
We taught it for eight years, but it was given up the year after I left. It was the sort of experiment that could work best, I suppose, when it was conducted by people who knew each other very well, as was our case. We were very close friends and we had a ball working it out together. Even making up and marking the exams together was fun. Bill Wilson told me that the course had considerable impact on those who elected it.
HWH: I’ve talked to Charlie Morgan and he also mentions this as one of his most exciting teaching experiences.
CANFIELD: Does he?
HWH: He said what you did, that you had to know each other almost inside out to make it work.
CANFIELD: I’m convinced it’s the best way to run an interdepartmental collaboration, but it isn’t often you can get the kind of meld our temperaments made. Giving it up was one of the many painful things about our leaving.
HWH: I’m glad you’re back now.
CANFIELD: I can’t tell you how much it means to Kitty and me to be back again among our oldest and dearest friends.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to reminisce in this way.
[END OF INTERVIEW AS REVISED AND EDITED BY PROFESSOR CANFIELD
Final transcript finished 7/26/79]
The interviewer and interviewee place no restrictions -- other than standard literary credit -- on the use of this transcript.
Suggested citation format:
Oral history interview with Curtis Canfield, 1979 February 12, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 6), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/curtis-canfield>
For information about the Amherst College Oral History Project Records please see the collection's finding aid.
For further information, please contact Archives & Special Collections at email@example.com.