Ralph C. McGoun, Jr.

Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Arts and class of 1927
Interviewed on March 9, 1979

Audio file

Subject coverage

  • Early interest in theater
  • Undergraduate experience in dramatics
  • Producing plays in College Hall
  • Construction of Kirby Theater
  • Switch from Biology to Dramatic Arts
  • Army experience in World War II
  • Presenting "Julius Caesar" at the Folger Library
  • Faculty wives as costume-makers
  • Outstanding stage designs at Kirby Theater
  • 1947 Curriculum effected no changes in Dramatic Arts
  • Intercollegiate cooperation in casting female roles
  • Further comments on College Hall inadequacies
  • Continuing adequacy of Kirby Theater
  • Working with Kirby Theater directors
  • Gift of theater collections to Harvard and Williston-Northampton School
  • Differences in attitudes of Amherst Administrations
  • Economics of Dramatic Arts activities
  • Producing "the Belle of Amherst"


[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]

Ralph C. McGoun 
Professor Emeritus, Dramatic Arts 
March 9, 1979 
Map Room, Robert Frost Library 
Horace W. Hewlett 
For: Amherst College 

HWH: This is Horace Hewlett interviewing Professor of Dramatic Arts Emeritus Ralph McGoun in the Map Room of the Frost Library on Friday, March 9, 1979. 

Tuffy, I’d like to ask you first how you happened to come to Amherst College as a student. I know you were born in New Castle, Pennsylvania. 

McGoun: That’s right. 

HWH: You went to high school there, then came to Amherst in the fall of 1923. How did that come about? 

McGoun: At that time there were a number of New Castle young men in Amherst. I wanted to go to college and I’d heard a good deal about Amherst and that’s all there was. 

HWH: So you knew a few of the students who were here. What did you major in in college? 

McGoun: Sciences. Biology and chemistry. 

HWH: I know that when I was a student, this was in the fall of ‘32, you were running the Biology Lab for the introductory course in Biology. 

McGoun: That’s right. 

HWH: And I believe you stayed in that for quite a while, didn’t you? 

McGoun: Yes. After I graduated in ‘27, I did Masters work for two years under Plough and then continued to stay on as instructor in the Biology Department-- until 1938 when I shifted over to the Dramatic Arts. 

HWH: That’s when you became instructor in Dramatic Arts. 

McGoun: Right. 

HWH: You must have been active in dramatic arts as an undergraduate. 

McGoun: Oh yes, very. I started right in as soon as we were eligible. In those days freshmen weren’t eligible for anything except freshman athletics, so I had to wait until my sophomore year. But I’d always been interested in theatrical things for as long back as I can remember.

HWH: Did you ever act on the stage, or were you more interested in other things? 

McGoun: No, I was never an actor. Interested in all the other things. 

HWH: I mentioned to you earlier that the Masquers didn’t appear in the College Catalog until, I believe, about 1930, but I know it was started long before that. Was it active when you were an undergraduate? 

McGoun: Yes. I have just brought to the Memorabilia my Masquers charm which I received in 1925. 

HWH: As a sophomore? 

McGoun: As a sophomore. 

HWH: Were you alone in your work-- I believe you were in scenes and design-- as an undergraduate? Were you more or less in charge of that end of the Masquers? 

McGoun: Yes, I guess you could say that. In those days, in the competition for the sophomores, everybody did everything that needed to be done, such as selling tickets, putting up the posters, building the scenery, shifting it, and so on. And the top person in the competition got the Business Manager’s job. That was supposed to be the best position, although it wasn’t necessarily the most interesting. And I got that. 

HWH: As a sophomore? 

McGoun: Yes-- I was assistant business manager my junior year and then business manager in my senior year. And as I remember, there were only two of us. 

HWH: Wow! Who did the designing? 

McGoun: Students did it. As I remember, in my sophomore year it was Ketchum. 

HWH: Yes. Became famous as a color authority. 

McGoun: That’s right. I’ve forgotten just when he graduated, but he did some of the designing then. 

HWH: I think he was the Class of ‘26? Couldn’t have been. It would have been before that. Yes, Howard Ketchum ‘25. 

McGoun: Well the designing of scenery in those days was very rudimentary and the scenery was, too, because we didn’t have very good facilities in College Hall. 

HWH: Yes, College Hall has served for just about every purpose in the College. But you had a large part of the basement at your disposal, didn’t you?

McGoun: Not when I started. I can remember the first work they gave me was in the hallway of the basement, and the room on the south side was even unpaved, it was just a rough dirt floor where one couldn’t work. And the other side, as I remember, had things stored in it. We eventually took over the whole basement and had the dirt floor paved. 

HWH: I think they used College Hall at one point for storing some of the art collection, too. 

McGoun: Could have been, because College Hall was right next door to Morgan where the art department was located. 

HWH: That’s interesting. Did this take your full time? You must have been active-- you taught, too. 

McGoun: Yes. 

HWH: I think you put on then about three plays a year, wasn’t it? 

McGoun: Yes, I guess that’s about it-- sometimes there was an extra, a one-act play or something-- usually three plays. 

HWH: I remember College Hall well. As a matter of fact, I was part of a chorus when the Masquers did Yellow Jack

McGoun: Oh, you were connected with that. I’d forgotten. 

HWH: And we would climb underneath the stage from one side to the other. [Laughter] 

McGoun: Yes I remember. Held up with a saw-horse. 

HWH: That’s right. 

McGoun: And a lot of dirt under there. 

As we gradually took over the place, not only did we take over the whole basement, we put in storage rooms and closets. 

HWH: Well Kirby Theatre, as I recall, was completed in 1938 and was probably used for the first time either later that year... 

McGoun: That fall-- at the opening of College. 

HWH: I’ve gone over with Curt the circumstances of acquiring funds from Dr. Kirby for that so we needn’t... 

McGoun: He knew a great deal more about it than I did. 

HWH: Of course, Curt, I believe, was the first full-time employee in Dramatic Arts in the College. He came in first as a coach. 

McGoun: That’s right.

HWH: And I believe you were working for about a year or maybe longer with Dramatic Arts before you switched from Biology to Dramatic Arts. 

McGoun; Well I continued after I graduated, while I was working for my masters. And when I was teaching biology I continued to work on all the plays-- just for the fun of it-- I wasn’t paid anything. So Curt and I worked together from the beginning of his career here, too. 

HWH: That’s right. You were probably (I’ve forgotten what year you would be when he came back)... 

McGoun: He graduated in 1925, so that my sophomore year was his senior year, when I started. Oh I remember now: he and Kitty were in that first play I worked on. 

HWH: For heavens sake! 

McGoun: I think it was called “The Dover Road,” and Paul Hansell of Northampton directed it. 

HWH: I guess Paul Hansell was one of the ones responsible for Curt staying on and eventually getting into the Dramatic Arts Department. 

McGoun: Right. 

HWH: I wanted to ask you about Kirby-- I didn’t bring it up with Curt. Either you or he told me that Kirby, being one of the first complete college theaters in the country as opposed to universities where there were some, that it was copied. It was inspected by many people and, copied by some, and I think you were the one who said years ago that Williams used almost identical plans, just enlarged it in various areas. 

McGoun: That’s right, as far as Williams is concerned. I do remember many, many people coming to look at it. Williams used a different architect, but the arrangement of things was pretty much like ours. 

HWH: Do you have recollections of trying to establish Dramatic Arts as a separate department? 

McGoun: No, a good deal of that was being done during the year that Kirby was being built, 1937-38, and I was away that year. 

HWH: Sabbatical? 

McGoun: Well, I guess you would call it that. Stanley King asked me if I would like to change from Biology to a permanent connection with the theater. I jumped at the chance and said, “Yes, I would,” and then it was arranged that he gave me the year off to go to Yale, the Drama School there, where I wanted particularly to learn something about stage lighting. 

HWH: That hadn’t occurred to me. It must have been very primitive lighting in College Hall. 

McGoun: It was indeed. In those days the equipment available was fairly primitive, too. I particularly remember the switch board which consisted of a large wooden panel with three resistance dimmers on it. They got very hot sometimes and you never were sure whether the wires were going to stay connected or not. There was an apocryphal story about one of the electricians holding the thing together with his hands to allow time for the scene to end. 

HWH: So that the current went through him, too? 

McGoun: The current went through him, too. I’m sure it wasn’t true. 

HWH: A student, no doubt. 

McGoun: A student. [Laughter] 

HWH: I don’t know which came first, the promise of the theater or the desire to create a department. I suspect, rather, because the money was available for a theater that... 

McGoun: That helped obviously. I can’t remember any courses being given in theater except the type of dramatic reading which Curt was doing. 

HWH: Yes, I made a note that there were two courses that began in ‘33-- one was called “Art of the Theater,” this was in the English Department, and the other was English 10, called “Modern Drama.” 

McGoun: Did Curt teach both of those? 

HWH: Yes. 

McGoun: I had nothing to do with teaching and I don’t remember anything about the courses. 

HWH: Well, you did give a course in the technical end of the theater, didn’t you at one time, a seminar? Or was it always just having the students to help build? 

McGoun: Not until after we got into Kirby, and some time after that. I can’t remember exactly when, as we slowly added courses to the program. I think it was during the first year in Kirby-- that would be 1938-39-- I gave a half-year course in theater history, because I do have memories of the very difficult work we had the first year in Kirby, everything was new. I was also working very hard in preparing material for the course which I was giving.

HWH: Did you take a degree at Yale? 

McGoun: No, I was only there the one year as a special student. I didn’t take any examinations and I was left free to attend any courses and do anything I wanted to. 

HWH: Sounds like a pretty ideal situation. 

McGoun: It was, it was indeed. 

HWH: Then courses-- every year you gave at least one course, in my memory, after the War. You probably began before then-- on lighting and scenery and design. 

McGoun: Well, we never had a scene design course until after Charlie Rogers came. 

HWH: Charlie came in 1939. And the year before that Henry Scott. That must have been when you were... 

McGoun: No, Charlie came while I was at Yale. He came in 1937. 

HWH: Oh! The catalog shows him for the first time in ‘38. 

McGoun: Maybe he hadn’t been appointed to the faculty. All he did was the design and the technical work that first year. No teaching. And then he got a job at Wellesley. He worked there part-time and worked here part-time until the War. After I came back, he did designing at Kirby, but I did all the technical work. 

HWH: You were absent during the War, I know. You were in the Army and I believe you were in Europe... 

McGoun: Part of the time. Three years I was in the Army. 

HWH: Was it ‘42 to ‘45? 

McGoun: I went in about Christmas time——it must have been ‘42—— and got out Christmas ‘45. 

HWH: And you were in Europe and the Mideast and Africa? 

McGoun: No, just in Europe, for less than a year. 

HWH: What part of the Army were you attached to? 

McGoun: I was in the Medics. That was an interesting little connection, how I got into that. Would you like to hear that? 

HWH: I would. Yes. 

McGoun: I was drafted and went to Devens. Going through the indoctrination there, I had an interview with a young fellow who had been a biology student of a very good friend of mine who taught at the University of Vermont, whom I had known at Woods Hole for many summers at the Biological Laboratory there. He said, “Well, the Army has no classification for theater people, but since you’ve been in biology, why don’t we see what we can do about putting you where you can use that information, that experience?” So I got into a medical company in an infantry division. 

HWH: For heavens sake! You were an enlisted man? 

McGoun: Yes. 

HWH: Did you think of applying for officer training? 

McGoun: Two or three times while I was in the Army I attempted to do this, but the red tape was so great I gave up finally. 

HWH: Seems to me you were thirty-seven at the time you were drafted; that struck me as being a little old to... 

McGoun: Well they were taking people up to forty, at that time. 

HWH: Yes, I’d forgotten that. 

McGoun: And at the time I was drafted they were taking the older people and the very young-- seventeen or eighteen. The 100th Infantry Division that I was put in, was composed mainly of these two groups of people, and with the older people in it, it turned out to be such a fine training group that they kept us in this country-- kept bringing in new people whom we trained. So that’s why it took us so long as a Division to get into action-- over two years. 

HWH: And were you sent to the front area? 

McGoun: Eventually. We went over and landed at Marseille. As I remember, we were the first troops to come into Marseille after it had been liberated, and then went up into the Vosges Mountains area and were there at the time of the Battle of the Bulge and the armistice. After the war was over, there were so many troops in Europe, it took a long time to get them back home and you may remember that they set up Army Universities... 

HWH: Yes. 

McGoun: One in England and one in Biarritz, France. Anyone who had any teaching experience was transferred to one of these Universities. So I had an interesting few last months in Europe. 

HWB: At which one were you teaching? 

McGoun: Biarritz. 

HWH: Do you remember what you taught?

McGoun: There was a theater department. When I arrived I was asked, “That can you teach?” I said, “Well, I’ve been a biologist.” “No,” they said, “we have a full department.” “Well,” I said, “I’ve worked in theater.” “Oh, maybe they can use you.” And they sent me over to that department which had everyone they needed except a technical man. They were delighted to see me. 

HWH: Great. And from Europe did you come right back to Amherst? 

McGoun: Right back to Amherst. 

HWH: That was in ‘45. 

McGoun: Well, I got back around Christmas so that I began to work again in the second semester. 

HWH: February of ‘46, January of ‘46. Did you accompany the Masquers to Vienna in ‘33? 

McGoun: Oh yes. But I spent a lot less time than they did with the social activities, because we had to get the scenery together. But that was interesting in that we were taken into the basement storeroom of the State Theaters-- the Opera and various other theaters-- to find what scenery they had in stock that we might be able to use for our productions. 

HWH: For heavens sake. Did it work out happily? 

McGoun: It worked, yes. It wasn’t quite what we would have had in Amherst, but it worked. But that was a very interesting experience and we had a lot of fun. 

HWH: Everyone who went on that trip seems to have enjoyed it and gotten a lot out of it. There was someone, I think Curt mentioned, Frank Wilson was the only one who traveled first class on the way over and back. Everyone else was in tourist or second class. 

McGoun: I can’t remember that he did. I have a vague memory that Dick MacMeekin traveled first class. 

HWH: It may have been Dick. It may well have been Dick. Yes, I think you’re right. I just remember Frank, though, as being a very wealthy young man... 

McGoun: He was. 

HWH: ...as a student-- living a little different kind of life than most undergraduates did. 

McGoun: Did Curt tell you that he came down with malaria while we were there?

HWH: No, he didn’t. 

McGoun: He had picked it up on an African safari at an earlier date and it recurred every year or so. He had an attack while we were there in Vienna. 

HWH: I think the only other time the Masquers traveled was down to the Folger in Washington, wasn’t it? 

McGoun: Well we’ve taken one-day trips to various places. 

HWH: Nearby places. 

McGoun: Yes. But the Folger was the only relatively distant place. 

HWH: And did you have a free hand down there, or did the television people kind of take over? That was at the end, though, wasn’t it? 

McGoun: Yes. We played for a week, and then the television people came in and took over. The television people, of course, were all unionized and they had to have a lot of people who sat around in nice clothes who were supposed to be doing the things that we did, such as working the switch board. Of course we knew the cues and so on, so we had a good deal to do with the running of the TV production. 

HWH: I remember Curt being almost put aside. I guess he was put aside for the actual telecast. But that was about the first of its kind. 

McGoun: I think it was the first full-length Shakespeare that was ever broadcast on TV in this country. 

HWH: And that was too early for videotape, by far, and too... 

McGoun: We do have a... 

HWH: Kinescope? 

McGoun: Yes, kinescope. We just found it in the Memorabilia. I knew it was there somewhere, but nobody knew where. 

HWH: Oh great. Do we have the machinery to project it? 

McGoun: Just a 16-millimeter movie projector. It’s a positive print. 

HWH: Black and white? 

McGoun: Yes. 

HWH: Be anxious to see it sometime. 

McGoun: It’s long. 

HWH: You came to know quite a few students who were involved in the department or the Masquers either as actors or as your assistants. Do any names stand out in your mind as being outstanding? 

McGoun: Most of them who went into the professional theater were actors and I never knew them as well, of course, as Curt did. I can’t remember any that... 

HWH: Continued on the technical side? 

McGoun: Yes, there was one: Bruce McMullen, of whom I’m very proud. He has been very nice to tell me that I got him started and that I was a great help in his beginnings. He went to Yale Drama School and is now one of the important people in the theater department at Dartmouth. 

HWH: Was this post-World War II? 

McGoun: Yes. 

HWH: Did he know John Callahan at Dartmouth? 

McGoun: I don’t know. When was John there? 

HWH: I think he graduated in the early or mid- ‘fifties. I don’t know whether you knew that John went from there to Yale. 

McGoun: Yes I knew he’d been in the drama school. 

HWH: It’s not important. 

McGoun: No, it’s not important. He might have, because he was a student when Pettit was here. That was the mid-’fifties. 

HWH: Then he must be involved with the Hopkins Center. 

McGoun: Yes. We tried to get him to come back here when I retired, but he was doing so well at Dartmouth he decided to stay there. 

HWH: Do you recall when faculty wives began serving as seamstresses and costume makers? 

McGoun: That was back in College Hall days, but they were active long before I came to Amherst College. 

HWH: I didn’t know that. 

McGoun: It’s too bad you never had a chance to take down the reminiscences of Ethel Manthey-Zorn, because she was connected with Masquers at the end of the first World War and she used to help them make costumes. 

HWH: Well, she was still active when we came to Amherst. 

McGoun: Oh yes, she worked even at Kirby-- did very special things that they wanted done on the costumes.

HWH: It was a remarkable group of women. 

McGoun: Yes. Alice Clelland was one of the first-- she and Kay. 

HWH: Kay Morgan? 

McGoun: Kay Morgan. 

HWH: And Alice was Jim’s wife? 

McGoun: Yes. She’d done things of that sort before they came to Amherst. I can remember them working down in the basement of College Hall. But certainly back in the early ‘thirties and maybe before that. 

HWH: Peg King never did, did she? 

McGoun: No. 

HWH: But I remember Glad Weathers, Nina Soller, and, as you mentioned, Kay Morgan, and Mary Hewlett did for several years. 

McGoun: Oh yes, Mary did a great deal, particularly at Kirby. I ran across a picture of her in one of the publicity pictures, maybe it was for... 

HWH: Maybe it was getting ready for the Folger trip. 

McGoun: That or “Cyranno de Bergerac.” There were a lot of pictures taken of backstage workers at that time. 

HWH: I think more care went into the designs, sets, costumes of the Masquers than most other college theater programs. 

McGoun: I think that’s true. 

HWH: Do any sets occur to you, including costumes, as being outstanding-- that you remember most? 

McGoun: Yes and particularly since I have been recently going over them. Certainly I think the height of Charlie Roger’s design work was with our production of “The Oresteia,” by Aeschylus, in 1960. In both the scenery and the costumes that was a really fascinating and handsome production. But “Cyranno de Bergerac” was very highly praised by people. That was a most interesting show to work on. 

HWH: What I remember most wasn’t really the Masquers; it was Giotto’s Frescoes, which were remarkable. Do you know whether the sets and the costumes for those still exist? 

McGoun: No, they don’t. We first did “Giotto's Frescoes of the Nativity” in 1935 in College Hall and repeated the production every three or four years. We moved the production to Kirby and performed them last in 1957. In a period of twenty-two years the scenery just wore out. Being stored in the basement, where it sometimes got damp in the summer, the stuff disintegrated. Kay Morgan, Gladys Weathers, and I were almost the only ones that were left who had had anything to do with the original production. 

HWH: Wasn’t Janet Morgan involved too? 

McGoun: She’d been in the choir. 

HWH: I recall Doris Abramson, too: she was one of the readers. Peter Winn did it. 

McGoun: Walter Boughton did it. He and Doris did it the last time we performed it. Curt did it once, too. 

HWH: Did he? That was before we came. 

McGoun: It would have been in College Hall. The first performances were done while he was away on a Sabbatical, his first sabbatical I think, when he was in Ireland getting material for his book on Irish playwrights. We’d write and tell him what we were doing here. He’d write back, “What are you doing tableaux for?” He thought it was going to be pretty awful, but he admitted afterwards that it wasn’t so bad. 

HWH: Did that originate at Amherst? 

McGoun: Peggy and Henry Scott were the innovators of it. Henry had been at the University of Pittsburgh for a year or two before he came here, and they had done it there and it had been very successful. They interested us. Peggy Scott had written the script and Henry designed the sets and we built it all in the basement of College Hall. 

HWH: It was very impressive. I recall Alumni being invited to perform in some play at Kirby-- this was after World War II. One alumnus got here late-- I don’t know whether you would remember. He was lifted onto the stage in a cargo net, he was a little “high” at the time. Do you recall that at all? [Laughter] 

McGoun: I don’t remember a thing like that! That sounds to me like one of those stories. 

HWH: I saw this one. 

McGoun: Oh! I know what you mean. Oh yes. That was a Commencement performance of “Mister Roberts,” that took place on a supply ship in the Pacific. In one of the scenes the drunk sailors are brought back on the ship by cargo net. A couple of the alumni put on the actors’ costumes and took their places for that scene. 

HWH: It was very funny, I remember that.

McGoun: I’d forgotten all about it. One of them is a Trustee-- the architect... 

HWH: Bob Carington? 

McGoun: Carington was one of them, yes. 

HWH: Well, Tuffy, on another subject: Did you feel the effect at all of the New Curriculum of 1947 in your activities, teaching, or in the technical end of the theater? 

McGoun: No, I don’t remember that it made any difference. 

HWH: In some departments they found students in their courses that they wouldn’t have otherwise because of the requirements of the curriculum. I wondered if that had happened in Dramatic Arts? 

McGoun: In this period, immediately after the War, there were a great number of student-written plays being performed. Many of the students were more mature and I remember that that certainly made a difference. 

HWH: The state of the arts kind of advanced, too. 

McGoun: Right. They became more respectable for some reason. 

HWH: Well now, after the curriculum changes and the advent of Five-College Cooperation, first, of course, Four-College Cooperation, do you recall students from elsewhere coming to Amherst to take Courses? I’m not thinking so much now of the drafting and building of sets and such, but just courses per se. 

McGoun: No, I don’t remember that we had very many-- one or two girls once in a while came to take a technical course which wasn’t being given at Smith, or particularly Mount Holyoke. But it didn’t make much difference with us and I’m sure it didn’t make much difference in the girls being in the plays which they’d always done anyhow. 

HWH: That was going to be my next question. You did have cooperation, intercollegiate cooperation, for many years. Was that when you were a student, too? 

McGoun: Yes. Plays every once in a while were done with all Mount Holyoke girls, or with all Smith girls. The play would be done at Amherst with our Director and then be taken to the other college for additional performances. 

HWH: You had a particularly close relationship with Smith didn’t you? Hallie Flannagan? 

McGoun: Well, there was an association when she was there, but that was during the War, and I wasn’t here most of that time.

HWH: I didn’t realize that. 

McGoun: She came just before the War, or just after the war had started. And I can remember a meeting that Curt and I had with her and some other people from Mount Holyoke and the University concerning what they were going to be able to do during the War. But I wasn’t around much longer, and neither was Curt. 

HWH: Well Smith has certainly developed its program in Dramatic Arts. 

McGoun: So has Mount Holyoke. 

HWH: Well, so has Amherst. 

McGoun: That’s right. 

HWH: I don’t know whether you have checked recently-- I did. 

McGoun. The number of courses listed is astounding. But of course half of those are at Smith and Mount Holyoke, the way they list them nowadays. Particularly dance courses. 

HWH: Yes, dance is an entirely new activity at Amherst. I had a note somewhere giving the number of courses that are available to students in the Valley. 

McGoun: I know. It’s tremendous. 

HWH: It is, and there’s a resident dance group, as you know, at various times over the year. 

McGoun: Yes, second semester, usually. 

HWH: Yes. I recall a group of starlets that came up quite a few years ago. I’ve forgotten who arranged it; Curt did, I think. 

McGoun: Through his TV connections... 

HWH: In New York. 

McGoun: In the summers for a couple of years there he did TV work. 

HWH: There was a time, too, during the College year when they would come up for a specific play. You may recall that. That did not work out too well. 

McGoun: Well, it was hard to find someone who would give up the time to do it. One of them became a well-known actress. 

HWH: Is that so? 

McGoun: Anne Jackson. She’s still acting in New York.

HWH: We’ve covered most of the things I’ve jotted down, Tuffy. I’m sure there are other things that I have not jotted down that occur to you that haven’t to me-- some aspect of developing the Dramatic Arts program at the College. 

McGoun: Let me just go back a bit. We were talking about the facilities at College Hall, how bad they were. And incidentally, I’ve just come across a clipping from 1880... 

HWH: Really? 

McGoun: ...in which they complain about the facilities in College Hall for giving dramatic productions. It went back that far. But when I came here, the arrangement on the stage, which was very bad to start with because the stage sloped gently forward from the back wall, and then to make it large enough, an addition had been added to the front and that had been built level with the auditorium floor, so the stage sloped gently down hill and then flattened out and it was terribly difficult to put the scenery on it and make it stay put. Also, there was a large framework of wood that was put onto the stage so you could hang things. And there were great, huge, canvas—covered flats that went across the front of this to cut the backstage areas off from the audience. Well, this was very rickety and unsafe, because it was just made out of wood. Everybody felt that we needed to have something better. Georgie Olds was President at this time and he was very much interested in the dramatic work and was a great help to us in replacing that with a pipe framework. We didn’t get the stage leveled off, but we did get, for the plays, a decent framework from which we could hang our lights and scenery, and so on. He also gave us enough money to have a set of stock scenery made-- in Northampton. The professional man in the stock company over there did it for us. So I remember Georgie Olds very kindly as helping us out when we badly needed it. 

HWH: Did you assemble and construct this framework for each play? 

McGoun: Yes. The B & G men put it together for us. It came in sections which bolted together. 

HWH: The plumbers, steam fitters. 

McGoun: Even then, although it was much better than the wooden framework, it still wasn’t adequate to hold all the equipment we needed to hang from it. 

HWH: We’re almost at the end of this side. A couple of questions occur to me. I’d like to just turn this over, if you have the time. 


This is Side two of the tape recording my conversation with Professor McGoun. 

HWH: Tuffy, I don’t understand, going back to College Hall, how you had the facilities and the framework to set up the lights. You had to hang some from somewhere. 

McGoun: To begin with, we didn’t have much equipment and it consisted mainly of some home-made footlights-- a piece of tin across the front, with some electrical sockets in it. And almost the same thing hanging above. But as the years went on, we were able, with what little funds we had, to purchase a few spotlights and some decent strip-lights to hang. Then we used to mount spotlights around the edges of the balcony. But no, there was not much there and, as I mentioned earlier, the switchboard was very inadequate. 

HWH: It must have been a maze of wires. 

McGoun: Oh wires went everywhere. Sometime before we left College Hall, I vaguely remember, we did get some kind of a switch board with a metal frame to replace the wooden one. 

HWH: The one installed in Kirby was about the latest in design that was available at that time? 

McGoun: It was when it was put in. Of course, that was in 1937-38 and that’s been replaced since by a much better one. 

HWH: When you retired in ‘71, did you find Kirby still adequate for anything you wanted to do? 

McGoun: Oh yes. 

HWH: And I presume it still is. 

McGoun: The only thing that directors nowadays find difficult about Kirby is that it is basically a proscenium theater and so many plays now are done by pushing the performances closer to the audience-- bringing the stage out and the audience around it. We can bring the stage out to a certain extent at Kirby, but we cannot get the audience around it. But otherwise I think it still works very well. 

HWH: Has it been used very often for musical accompaniment? Has the pit been used? 

McGoun: Yes. As far as the regular program, the Masquers productions are concerned, musicals have not been given very frequently, but it’s always been adequate. In some of the student productions which have required relatively large orchestras or special musical equipment or there is just too much to get into the pit, it has been necessary to raise it up onto the level of the auditorium. Right now they’re doing a Mozart opera and the student who is directing it is doing his honors work in a combination of dramatics and music. A harpsichord with an orchestra is required which will probably mean raising the pit. It usually has worked quite well. It’s a small pit, but in that small auditorium you seldom need a large orchestra. 

HWH: Have people been generally satisfied with the size, the capacity of the theater? 

McGoun: Yes, I would say so. 

HWH: It’s large enough, I think it’s about 435. 

McGoun: It originally was and we remodeled the back of the auditorium at one time and added two more rows of seats so we’re up to about 450 now. 

HWH: When I was a student the plays were performed-- oh, maybe three times at most. 

McGoun: We started out at Kirby with three performances of each play, but it built up over the years to six and sometimes-- for a particularly popular show, one that everybody wanted to see, such as The Tempest or Hamlet or Cyrano de Bergerac-- we gave as many as eight performances. 

HWH: This must have been quite demanding on the students particularly. 

McGoun: They love it, you know. And they’ve done all the work. When I go over some of the old material and realize the amount of time they must have worked in the old days in putting on only one performance! This was often true in College Hall. 

HWH: One person who has gone on in the academic side of dramatic arts is Jim Michael. He went to Kenyon, I believe; and became head of the department there, and I think, recently retired. 

McGoun: That’s right. Just a year or so ago. 

HWH: I would gather his star graduate alumnus would be Paul Newman. 

McGoun: Oh, yes, indeed. 

HWH: He was here for a year, during one year of Curt’s absence, and you worked with him. Was there any difference that you felt of someone coming in on a temporary basis? 

McGoun: Well, of course it’s different when they come in on a temporary basis or if you know they’re going to be here a long time, but in getting the work done, no. We had Jim Michael that year-- that was right after the War. Curt was a Dean at that time, as I remember. 

HWH: Yes. I think Jim Michael was here ‘46-’47. 

McGoun: Something like that. 

HWH: And you had Denis Johnston a couple of times, I think, when Curt was away. 

McGoun: Well, one sabbatical: that was in the late ‘forties, early ‘fifties. 

HWH: Yes, that was ‘49-’50 and it was just one semester. 

McGoun: Then we’ve had another one of our graduates, Steve Coy, who was here when Walt Boughton took a sabbatical. He was very interesting to work with, as Jim Michael was, too. Completely different. 

HWH: We won’t go into another period when it was not so pleasant. 

McGoun: All right. While we are talking about our graduates and Jim Michael-- another one of our graduates from Kirby Theatre was Torn Turgeon, who is taking over Jim Michael’s job. 

HWH: I’m glad you put that in-- at Kenyon. 

McGoun: At Kenyon. Whether he’s actually head of the department in name yet, I don’t know, but he certainly will be. 

HWH: He was a versatile young man. 

McGoun: He certainly was. 

HWH: Another question I wanted to ask you about was your very attentive interest to plays, all kinds of theatrical productions anywhere, I think particularly of New York. Have you ever kept track of how many performances you’ve attended? 

McGoun: No, I never have. But I just recently put together the programs that I have saved, beginning in the late nineteen-twenties, of all the shows that I’ve attended to send to Harvard to the theater library there, Of course, this includes all the ones that I attended around here-- amateur shows as well as professional ones-- and there were well over a thousand programs. 

HWH: But I believe you’ve attended performances all over the world, haven’t you? 

McGoun: Oh yes. When I’ve taken sabbaticals I’ve made an effort to see as much theater “things” as I could, not only plays but museums and so on.

HWH: Can you think of any shows you’ve seen or any situations you’ve been in in seeing a show that might be of interest-- out of the ordinary? 

McGoun: Out of the ordinary? No. 

HWH: You’d have a language barrier, I’m sure, in some places. 

McGoun: In many places. But I would study up ahead of time about the type of theater I’d be seeing, particularly in the East. 

HWH: You mean the Far East? 

McGoun: The Far East, where I had a fascinating time, especially in Japan where I spent about a month going to shows day after day. And they were very fascinating. 

HWH: Is there a connection between this and your outstanding collection of dolls and other costumed figures? 

McGoun: In the process, I collected artifacts of theater every place I went-- masks and theatrical dolls. 

HWH: Do you have plans for your collection? 

McGoun: Yes, that’s going to Harvard, too. Of course I would very much like it to stay here, but at the moment at least, there’s nobody around here who’s interested and absolutely no place to store it or show it. The Harvard theater collection is one of the finest in the world and they have just moved into brand new quarters where they have such facilities. They were delighted to be able to receive the collection. 

HWH: It will certainly get much more exposure there than it would here. 

McGoun: I think so. They don’t have it YET, but they will get it. 

HWH: You have them very nicely displayed now, and I’m sure you have others that are not yet on display. 

McGoun: Didn’t you ever get to my basement? 

HWH: Not since you’ve expanded it there. 

McGoun: Well, most of the other things are now on display in my basement. It’s a regular museum. The next time you come you must go down and take a look. 

HWH: I must. I’d like to, very much. 

McGoun: I don’t know whether I’ve ever told you that my theater library, which is quite extensive, I am giving to Williston-Northampton School.

HWH: How did you become connected with Williston? 

McGoun: Charlotte Turgeon was working there. She went there when the Northampton School for Girls joined with Williston. She told me they were doing interesting shows and took me over to see several. I was much impressed, for a prep school, with the kind of work they did. I met the two men who are in charge and I liked them very much. Some day, of course, my library is going to have to be distributed, and there was no point in giving it to Smith or Mount Holyoke or Amherst or the University, because they have most of the books, so it just dawned on me that it might be nice to give it to them. 

HWH: Very nice. 

McGoun: They’ve got most of it now. One thing I’m very pleased about: they’re in the process of building a new library and they’re going to have a special room where they’ll keep the library intact. 

HWH: Good. This must be a pretty extensive library. 

McGoun: Yes-- a thousand or more books, all on various aspects of the theater. 

HWH: I hadn’t realized that. 

McGoun: Mostly theater history and technical things. 

HWH: Well we come again to that point, Tuffy, where I think I’ve exhausted the specific questions I had in mind, but I invite you to make any other comments. 

McGoun: I could tell stories for years. 

HWH: I’d like to hear some. 

McGoun: Well I don’t know where to start. 

HWH: You mean stories of your experiences here? 

McGoun: Experiences here and there. 

HWH: Do you feel you’ve had the full support of the administrations you’ve served under? You began of course with, I think you said, Georgie Olds. 

McGoun: I can’t say exactly, “No.” But I can’t say, “Yes,” either. Some presidents, were more interested than others. Georgie Olds and Stanley King were extremely interested and, of course, it was through Stanley’s help that we got the money for Kirby Theatre. I think the main problem about not getting much interest from the presidents is-- well, they weren’t interested in the theater to start with and they didn’t know anything about it. They never seem to learn what really goes on in the theater, what the various people do. So we have had our problems with them-- Charlie Cole, Cal Plimpton. I’ve always felt sorry for them because they didn’t know what they were dealing with. 

HWH: It’s my recollection as an undergraduate-- and perhaps I’m thinking of the Glee Club-- that there was no student tax at that time, as there has been for some years, so that money for the Masquers and for the theater program came mostly from what? Was it attendance? 

McGoun: Yes, back in College Hall days it was, as far as I know, almost completely, maybe completely from the attendance. 

HWH: In the Glee Club each member had to pay so much a year to presumably take care of the cost of the music. 

McGoun: Well, the only time I ever remember any money being asked from the people participating in the shows was the time we went to Vienna. We received some money from the College, but everybody had to pay part of their passage over and back and they were fed and housed while they were there. And then there was money for those who couldn’t afford it, but otherwise, no. We’ve never had to do that. 

HWH: I believe the Dramatic Arts Department has a pretty sizeable budget currently, but it strikes me that for years up to the war, and then for quite a time after the war, Kirby was supposed to be about self-supporting. 

McGoun: With the student tax, it was self-supporting into the early ‘seventies. I don’t think the student tax exists any more. 

HWH: I think it does. 

McGoun: Oh, does it? 

HWH: Yes. 

McGoun: I don’t think the theater gets anything. I’m not sure. 

HWH: Let me check that. 

McGoun: One of the problems with the student tax was that some of the students didn’t feel that they should give money to things they weren’t interested in, which is very reasonable. And we never knew whether we would receive enough money to make up any deficit there might be. But usually at Kirby, we were able to make a little, at least a little, on every show and keep going. Then, I can’t remember when this happened-- was it after Curt?, probably was-- the College finally decided that they would give the Dramatic Arts Department the amount of money which would normally come from the student tax. 

HWH: I suppose that if money were made available from the Student Tax, the College would then reduce its ante, anyway.

McGoun: Well I don’t know what they would do now. But the understanding was, at that time, that the students would get in to all of our performances free of charge, and that still... 

HWH: That still obtains. Well you must have learned a great deal about just the management of tickets. 

McGoun: Yes. I did a tremendous amount of work in the box office. We had to in the old days: we did everything. And as I said, I was Business Manager when I started out in College Hall. I’ve done everything but act and direct, although I have appeared silently several times on the stage. 

HWH: Did you in Europe, at Vienna? 

McGoun: Yes I did in Vienna because we couldn’t take an extra person for that job. And once or twice at Commencement time when somebody in a mob scene couldn’t come back for that performance, I’d fill in. 

HWH: I recall you were called back when the Belle of Amherst was presented at Kirby to try to get the College out of the ticket mess it got into. 

McGoun: Oh it wasn’t really in a mess. That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that, not only getting back into theater work but getting connected with the professional theater again. 

HWH: I think Julie Harris really enjoyed her stay here. 

McGoun: I think everybody did: all the people backstage did, too, I got to know some of them. They were very pleasant and nice. 

HWH: Did you come to know Charles Nelson Riley? 

McGoun: No. He never stayed “put” long enough for anyone to get to know him. 

HWH: He was a real character. 

McGoun: He certainly was. But I was much amused with John Callahan, who would love to be an impresario and he just loved:this whole business, because his theater background and interest got a chance to be used. He loved it. And he’s very good at that sort of thing anyhow. 

HWH: I think everyone involved really enjoyed that series of performances. And I think Julie Harris also said that Kirby was the ideal size... 

McGoun: Of course it was for that type of play. The only people who were upset about it were the people who couldn’t get in.

HWH: That’s what I meant by a “mess,” Kirby seating about 450 and the demands in the thousands. 

McGoun: You know we could have run-- if we had known in advance-- for two weeks, but I still don’t think we could have taken in enough money to pay for it. 

HWH: No, it was very expensive. 

McGoun: But staying over a second week wouldn’t have been nearly as expensive as the first week. 

HWH: Well, Tuffy, it’s... 

McGoun: Have we done enough? 

HWH: ...lunch time now and we’re more than halfway through this side of the tape-- and this is a 90-minute tape, incidentally-- and if something occurs to you, or to me, that we’d like to add to this, it’s very simple. 

McGoun: Nothing at the moment. 

HWH: O.K. Well you might give it some thought. You might wake up some time in the middle of the night next week and something will occur to you. 

McGoun: All right. 

HWH: Thanks very much. 

McGoun: You might think of something, too. 

[Final Copy Made: August 1979]

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Suggested citation format:
Oral history interview with Ralph McGoun Jr., 1979 March 9, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 14), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/ralph-mcgoun>

For information about the Amherst College Oral History Project Records please see the collection's finding aid.

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