An Evening of Theatre

An Evening of Theatre: For more than 15 years, Denison's Summer Theatre troupe performed under a big blue tent for the Granville community. A look back at the good times and the times when performers wished the weather - and …
Continuum - Summer 2009

Denison Summer Theatre brought the locals out for a night of entertainment. That gent reading the paper is William Brasmer, the man who ran DST throughout the ’50s and early ’60s.

Before he became a successful playwright, Jonathan Reynolds ‘65 was a student actor with Denison Summer Theatre. This was in the early 1960s, when he and other aspiring thespians staged nine or 10 outdoor shows in about as many weeks. They were young, ambitious, and tireless, performing in plays that ran Tuesdays through Saturdays while rehearsing at the same time for the next performance. Sets had to be torn down and new ones erected just like that. Sleep was for the old.

Those plays were staged on the grounds where Burke Hall now stands and performed under a big blue tent– which was both the troupe’s trademark and its nemesis. Reynolds recalls how hot and muggy it was under the canvas on those Central Ohio nights. And he remembers the times when crew members yelled “Scramble, scramble”–code for an impending storm. When storms hit, actors halted the show and ran into the audience to pull down the tent flaps before resuming the play.

Those were the days that Reynolds lived in the Theatre Arts Building, slept on a mattress on an office floor “in the 900 degree heat,” and learned to make a Scarlett O’Hara (cranberry juice and Southern Comfort). “We were young boys and girls doing theatrical things. It was great,” he says with a laugh.

For more than 15 summers, Denison allowed “young boys and girls” to do all sorts of theatrical things (well, perhaps the off-stage theatrics weren’t sanctioned by the school). Thousands flocked to that blue tent through the years to watch musicals, dramas, and comedies.

It started in the late 1940s because Denison President Kenneth Brown wanted to turn Granville into a sort of arts center during the summer. He hatched his idea in 1941, but World War II thwarted any action. By 1947, however, things began to roll under the direction of theatre professor Ed Wright. Money was raised, including a $2,000 loan, and Denison subsidized costs such as housing (at Monomoy House), publicity, and rehearsal and scene shop spaces.

“A rented tent was erected on the abandoned tennis court” near the Women’s Gymnasium, (now Doane Dance Center), according to an account by Denison Theatre Department secretary Marilyn Sundin in a book commemorating Granville’s 2005 bicentennial. “A curtained proscenium arch was placed in front of a raised stage, six spotlights were hung from a batten attached to a center pole, and 400 chairs were set in place,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the tent was not suited to theatrical performance: the row of center poles continued right up [onto] the stage.”

The inaugural season was highlighted by the appearance of John Sweet, who grew up in Granville and made a name for himself as an actor in New York and London. He performed the role of Stage Manager in the production of Our Town. Hal Holbrook ‘48, who would later become an Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated star in his own right, played the role of the Town Historian. That first season drew nearly 5,600 people and grossed nearly $7,000.

Within a few years, a new tent was purchased and the company drew bigger crowds and expanded its offerings to include more serious works. But in a report Wright issued to then-President Blair Knapp in 1952, he argued that the summer theatre could be so much more. The problem? That tent. In summarizing Wright’s report, Sundin wrote that the facility, so to speak, was plagued by “poor visibility, uncomfortable chairs, street noises, passing airplanes and trains, the small stage, and the weather.” Wright hoped one day to perform inside at an auditorium, with air conditioning.

In 1953, professor William Brasmer took over. Reynolds recalls the “enormous” influence of Brasmer, known as “Bras” (rhymes with jazz). “He was very hard to satisfy,” Reynolds says. “We didn’t have self-esteem in those days, and if we did, we didn’t have it for long. He was imaginative, demanding.” Brasmer, like Wright, never got an indoor facility. But enthusiasm for summer theatre strengthened as record crowds attended musicals such as South Pacific, Oklahoma, and Brigadoon.

It was 1961 when Reynolds, Mary Kay Williams Booher ‘64, and John Davidson ‘63, who later gained fame on Broadway and in TV shows and movies, started their DST careers. Booher and Davidson began as apprentices, but got their break, says Booher, when the director of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore miscalculated the vocal strength of the chorus. Since Davidson and Booher could sing, they got a chance to get on the stage. They rarely left after that.

Booher, who later taught drama and was one of the founders of Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, also remembers how Granville embraced the 30 or so students during those summers, especially Sallie Jones Sexton, the then-owner of the Granville Inn. Sexton would serve the students dinner for free. “It was high-class food for summer theater,” Booher adds. “She managed to get us out before the paying customers arrived.” Others, like Gay Reese (wife of former Denison trustee, Everett Reese) took roles within the DST. As business manager, Reese was the “mother hen,” says Sundin, and instrumental in running the operation. She also worked to secure sponsors for the DST, should the group ever need them. But money wasn’t the only problem that faced the theatre in its later years.

By 1963, DST had lost steam. According to a story Brasmer wrote for the Granville Historical Society newsletter many years later, “The dormitories and eating facilities formerly provided by the University were no longer available. It became apparent … that it was not financially feasible to continue to operate the Theatre …”

So after the 1963 season, the Denison Summer Theatre folded its tent for good after producing 156 plays over 17 seasons for a cumulative audience of 291,768.

In the fall of 2008, Reynolds strolled the grounds around Burke Hall with Davidson, Booher, and fellow DST alum Robert Armstrong ‘63 to reminisce about the joy, toil, and romance of outdoor theatre. Although he later pursued a writing career (he’s also written books, screenplays and a food column for The New York Times, as well as established a writing camp and residency at Denison), he says performing as an actor in college “was a great background for being a playwright.”

When he joined the others for that walk, he was there to direct Davidson’s play, Father/Son and Holy Ghost, which premiered at Denison’s indoor–and air conditioned–Ace Morgan Theatre. Armstrong played the Father and Booher served as the off-stage voice of a church secretary. She says she didn’t need that stroll around Burke Hall to stir up memories of past summers. “My memories walk with me,” she says.

Published August 2009