Play Out the Play
A Historical Look at Theater Productions at Hofstra, 1936-1976
April 1 - August 30, 2002
David Filderman Gallery, 9th floor, Axinn Library
Students at Hofstra had plans for dramatic productions from the very first semester on campus. The students rehearsed during the fall and the first play performed was Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. On January 17, 1936, the dramatic club of "Nassau College" used the stage at Hempstead High School for this performance. In November, two students, Grace Oliver and George Williams presented A Marriage Has Been Arranged. According to The Chronicle, Modesty, a one-act play was performed in the library. Then, in December, It Can't Happen Here and Double Door were performed at Southside High School, in Rockville Centre. Following the latter performance, students were invited to a "social" held in Hofstra Hall, which cost 25 cents.
In 1937, the group was renamed the Dramatic Society and a point system was instituted for membership into the group. A variety of one-act plays were staged throughout the year. In the fall, Green Wig was formed as a student theater group with Perry Waldner as president, Wilbert Schultz as treasurer, and Harriet Euler as secretary. There were three faculty advisors for the group, Mr. Frederic Swift, Mr. Charles Stevens, and Mr. George Burnham. It was during these playful times that a student came across a green wig and used it in a prank on the director. According to Stan Studnick, "This event was the turning point of Hofstra drama history, for, from it the novel name of Green Wig was evolved."
The students staged plays on the porch of Hofstra Hall including a performance of, The Country Slicker. The plays were enacted outdoors, according to The Chronicle, because "...the Dramatic Club wanted to get underway before the gymnasium is finished...." By January of 1938 the Calkins Gymnasium was completed and that became the site for theater. Night Must Fall was the first production to be staged in Calkins Gymnasium and tickets sold for 50 cents and 75 cents for the reserved seats available in the first 15 rows.
In 1940 Hofstra's first musical comedy was performed. Entitled, Against All Principles, it was an original play by student Don Brinkley, class of 1943. The Green Wig reformed after the World War II years under the direction of Wayne Richardson. In 1948 Bernard Beckerman, faculty director, cast his wife, Gloria, in the lead role of Joan of Lorraine. This was a highly successful play and the first production to be taken "on the road," as it was subsequently performed at Long Island High Schools.
According to Dr. Wilbur Scott, it was sometime early in 1946 when two students, Morty Growman and Jack Feinblum, asked him to help in organizing a variety show and become its advisor. Scott acquiesced and the Kaleidoscopians were born. He remarked that the early days had "their hazards." Their shows seemed "to reproduce in little and, if possible, in bad taste, all the style and wit of New York night-club skits" After some time, however, they decided to do an annual show and that proved much more successful. They started with original productions and then moved onto using Broadway shows. When Dan Laurence decided to become a member, Scott recalled that it was a new era for the group. The productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Wonderful Town, and Best Foot Forward finally brought the group success, and while Wilbur Scott retired as advisor in 1958, the students continued to act in variety-show productions for many years.
Other firsts in the theater at Hofstra included Bernard Beckerman's production in 1950 of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This was so successful (an audience of over 6,000 saw the performances) that it turned into an annual event. A five-sixths replica of the Globe Theatre was created by Donald Swinney, and it was first used in the 2nd Annual Shakespeare Festival, as well as in many subsequent performances. As You Like It was the last production staged in the Calkins Gym before the move to the Playhouse. The Hofstra Playhouse was completed in 1958, and the Hofstra students took full advantage of its stage. There were over 1,100 seats and the stage was designed specifically to be flexible enough for every type of performance. The building was named for Hofstra President John Cranford Adams in 1974.
In 1957, Francis Ford Coppola came to Hofstra and his impact on the theater was felt almost immediately. He started a group called the Spectrum Players and directed several of their plays including The Delicate Touch in 1959. Later, he produced Inertia for the Kaleidoscopians in conjunction with Joel Oliansky, who went on to become an Emmy Award-winning television and movie writer and director. Coppola, who graduated in 1960, came back to the University in 1977 to receive an Honorary Degree. Other students who starred in Hofstra Shakespeare productions include Madeline Kahn, who starred in Love's Labour's Lost in 1961, Susan Sullivan, who starred in Julius Caesar in 1964, and Peter Friedman, who starred in the Two Electras in 1967 and Hamlet in 1970.
Faculty members obviously played a huge role in the life of the theater at Hofstra. Dr. Richard Mason, for example, came to the University in 1964. Many of his students went on to work on Broadway, in movies, and on many stages of theater companies across the country. One of his students, Joe Morton, starred in Broadway's A Raisin in the Sun. Mason directed a number of Shakespeare performances at Hofstra, including The Winter's Tale, with Margaret Colin in 1979, Love's Labour's Lost, with Robert Davi, and Measure for Measure. He directed over 30 productions from 1965 to 1979.
Another venue for stage productions became available in 1970. As the Physical Fitness Center was completed, the Calkins Gymnasium was renamed Calkins Hall. A flexible space known as the "Studio Theatre" was outfitted with a moveable stage and a simple lighting system. The first play to be presented in the Studio Theatre was the 1970 production of The Trojan Women. In 1974 the Hofstra alumni who shared an interest in the performing arts got together and formed the Gray Wig. This alumni repertory theater group staged two productions a year. The first production was of Guys and Dolls, which premiered in September on the John Cranford Adams Playhouse stage.
By the 1970's, theater at Hofstra had taken off to new heights. Drama Department faculty members took turns directing a wide variety of theatrical events. Director James Van Wart's production of Awake and Sing, in October of 1974, cast Thom Bray in the role of Myron Berger. Bray went on to star in television and movie roles. In 1975, Miriam Tulin directed Knots, Richard Mason directed Idiot's Delight with Robert Davi, who went on to star in License to Kill and The Goonies, and Carol Sica directed One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest with stage set and lighting by D.J. Markley.
In 1976, James M. Shuart became President of the University. As a tribute to him, the Alumni College hosted a Gala Performance and Reception with a special presentation of Fiddler on the Roof on September 11, 1976. Al "Tank" Passuello played "Tevye," in the internationally acclaimed musical. Hofstra theater had come a long way! From the first performances on High School stages and the porch of Hofstra Hall, to the main event for the inauguration of a new University president.
While today's theater groups are still going strong, the early years of Hofstra productions, truly "set the stage." It was from the enthusiasm and perseverance of the students from the 1930's and 40's that the tradition of Hofstra theater was born. While the first productions might have been held in gyms and on porches, the students were no less passionate and professional about their chosen field than those of today's students with multiple sets to choose from and a variety of stages. The history of theater at Hofstra is filled with anecdotes and memories. It also embodies the spirit of Shakespeare's remarks when he intoned, "Play out the Play!"
Geri Solomon, University Archivist