May 17, 2013

Barclay Leathem and the National Theatre Conference

Barclay S. Leathem began teaching in the English Department at Western Reserve University (WRU) in 1921 while a law student. (He received his law degree in 1924.) He moved to the Speech Department in 1927 to teach the first theatre classes at WRU.

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Barclay Leathem in the classroom, Western Reserve University, ca.1940

In 1931 Leathem became head of the Dramatic Arts Department in the Graduate School when the graduate program in Drama and Theatre was established. Leathem, Frederic McConnell, and Arthur White (WRU faculty member) had proposed this new graduate program -- a joint program between WRU and the Cleveland Play House.

With McConnell, Leathem was involved in the work of the National Theatre Conference (NTC). The NTC office was housed on the WRU campus beginning in 1937. Leathem served as Executive Secretary 1938-1959. In 1940 he traveled across the country visiting colleges and community theaters. An account of Leathem's trip is covered in the October 1940 issue of the NTC Quarterly Bulletin.

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"Travel Notes" October 1940 issue of the NTC Quarterly Bulletin

Leathem also served as chairman of the investigation of royalties and play releases. The hope was to make better plays available for amateurs and to educate public school teachers to their use. He also oversaw several projects for the NTC, including the playwriting competition for GIs, the Tryout Studio where new graduates of university and theatre programs would perform before agents and others, the Bulletin quarterly publication, and the play lists for shows performed in army camps during World War II.

Special thanks to Helen Conger, Archivist, Scholarly Resources & Special Collections, Kelvin Smith Library, for creating the content for this post.

For more information about the Cleveland Play House Archives contact the Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections.

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April 26, 2013

Frederic McConnell and the National Theatre Conference

The post-World War I era saw a number of significant changes in the national professional theatre dynamic, most notably the end of road company empires, the rise of motion pictures, and the collapse of the big stock companies. At the same time came the rise of the non-commercial theatre in cities big and small and the development of theatre studies at the university level. Together, these changes ended the traditional relationships between playwrights, agents, and American theatres by the mid-1920’s.

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Frederic McConnell directing a CPH production ca.1945. Photograph by Gordon Connor

The organizers of the National Theatre Conference (NTC) stepped into this changing scene in hopes of protecting and developing the interests of non-commercial theatres. Conceived among the faculty and graduates of nascent university theatre programs and strengthened by the rising power of the little theatre movement, the NTC began working as a small group of volunteers who shared their knowledge and experience with colleagues who had traditionally looked to New York for every cue. Their core concept of developing professionalism on a peer-to-peer basis revolutionized the world of not for profit theatre and ultimately helped insured the success of the movement.

As a graduate of Carnegie Tech, one of the earliest theatre education programs in the country, and with a national reputation based on his successful administration of the Cleveland Play House, Frederic McConnell represented the new breed of theatre professionals driving the NTC. He took early leadership roles in the group and from his address to the first conference attendees in 1925 though his retirement from the Play House in 1958, McConnell helped steer the NTC toward achieving it’s goals.


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NTC regions map ca.1933. McConnell territory shaded in blue.

Organized on a regional plan, the NTC divided the country into several sections, each represented by a regional director. Without pay, these individuals agreed to provided a consistent level of support, advice and professional development to small theatres in such complex areas as negotiations for production rights and royalties and securing plays for production. Promoting development of new plays and identifying new sources of playwriting talent came under the regional directors prevue as well. The NTC filled an urgent need for professional literature in the field with an aggressive publishing program and regional directors worked as liaisons in commissioning or reprinting works by trusted authors on all phases of theatre work and supporting the development of theatre libraries. Lastly, the NTC, through the efforts of its regional directors, maintained and made available employment registers, business directories of reliable resources for theatre equipment and standards for theatre architecture.

Through McConnell’s devotion to the NTC, the Cleveland Play House became the regional center for the exchange of knowledge, experience and resources in non-commercial theatres as well as the growing number of theatre programs at the university level. Early funding for the NTC came from foundation grants, which were administered from rent-free offices in New York; resources that dwindled as the depression deepened throughout the 1930’s. Through the generosity of Western Reserve University [a CWRU predecessor institution], the NTC took up residence on campus at no cost and with considerable support from faculty member Barclay Leathem who worked in tandem with McConnell for many years to put the finances, products and services of the NTC to good use in the theatre community.

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National Theatre Conference logo circa.1933

For more information about the Cleveland Play House Archives contact the Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections.

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March 18, 2013

The Women's Committee of the Cleveland Play House

The Women’s Committee of the Cleveland Play House was founded to further the interests of the Play House, initially serving as liaison between the theatre and the public. The first Women’s Committee meeting was held in the Brooks Theatre in May 1932 at the request of the Board of Trustees. At that time several committees were formed to assist Play House personnel in the areas of subscription sales, promotional and social events.

ballet.jpg Admission ticket to Women's Committee fundraising event.

These early assignments quickly expanded to encompass twenty-one committees devoted to such tasks as event coordination, ushering, children’s theatre efforts, marketing campaigns and major fundraising drives which essentially relieved the Play House of the expense of administrative staff in the hard times of the 1930’s. Their stated goal was “To assist in every way possible in any way help was needed” which resulted in the cultivation of a dedicated and multi-talented volunteer work force supporting every operation of the theatre for eighty years.

Fundraising was an important function of the Women’s Committee and their aim was to have fun doing it. Planning and executing countless luncheons, balls, benefit performances, fashion shows, comedy revues, gift shops, tours and commemorative publications over the lifespan of the committee raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid the theatre and spread good will throughout the community. Over time, the group laid the foundation for a Men’s Committee to broaden the volunteer base among Play House members. Perhaps best known for establishing and managing the Play House Club in the 1960’s, the Men’s Committee also engaged in a wide array of projects designed to support the Play House.

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In October 2012, membership of the Women’s Committee closed the first chapter of their history with the Play House by organizing one last luncheon, the proceeds of which were combined with the balance of their treasury to create the Women’s Committee of The Cleveland Play House Endowment Fund.

Contact Special Collections for details about our current exhibit of Cleveland Play House Archives material.

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July 17, 2012

The Printer's Art and the Playbill

Though the Cleveland Play House struggled early on to find it’s financial and managerial footing, there was never a lack of artistic talent available to produce first class promotional material for a wide variety of productions each season. By 1922, the number of hand-drawn programs and playbills had been augmented by professionally typeset works by local printers. The Play House was the recipient of two beautiful works of art by master printer Horace Carr in the playbills he created for The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus (March 31st to April 9th, 1922) and The Tragicall History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (January 12th to 29th, 1923)

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Carr, Cleveland’s most celebrated printer, enjoyed an international reputation as an innovative and meticulous creator of typeset works. He was an active participant in the Cleveland art scene from the establishment of his Cleveland printing business in 1893 to his death in 1941. Carr was a student of the earliest printers and a devotee of the practices developed in the hand press period as well as those refined in the works of William Morris. Of note in the playbills featured here is Carr’s signature use of the Caslon typeface and pleasing arrangement of text and ornamentation to convey the spirit of the Elizabethan stage of Marlowe and Shakespeare.

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For more information about the Cleveland Play House Archive please contact Special Collections or visit the Cleveland Play House web site.

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July 06, 2012

Summer Interns

Our processing efforts received a boost this summer through the work of three students, Mike Muth, Michael Wilson, and Char'ta Cleggett.

Michael and Char'ta were part of University Circle, Inc's Future Connections program, a summer internship program for rising high school seniors. Mike joined us as an intern in Kent State University School of Library and Information Science's Circle Undergraduate Internship Program.

Together, our students contributed over 160 hours, during which they:
• Physically processed over 20 linear feet of photographs of the Cleveland Play House's 860 productions from the 1917 through 1985 seasons.
• Created item-level descriptions of nearly 950 photographs.
• Digitized over 155 photographs.

Besides this very high level of productivity, Mike, Michael, and Char'ta asked stimulating questions and made helpful suggestions for improving our processing procedures.

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June 12, 2012

Cleveland Artists and Early Play House Promotional Artwork: John Lorin Black

Among the items selected for display at the March 26th event announcing the donation of the Cleveland Play House Archive to the Kelvin Smith Library were several wooden printer’s blocks used in the creation of early publicity pieces for the organization. Of these, one block (below) resonated with exhibit creators and visitors alike. That item, with the simple heading: "You Are Cordially Invited to a Marionette Evening" was the work of Cleveland artist John Lorin Black (possibly 1894-1963).

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image detail on reverse of printer's block. Cleveland Play House Archives

Here's what we have learned about our interesting artifact to date:

On March 15, 1918, the Play House puppet group presented two short marionette plays; Shadowy Waters by William Butler Yeats, and, The Soul of Chopin adapted from Liszt's Life of Chopin. Black designed the set and served as a reader for Shadowy Waters in addition to creating the announcement on the aforementioned printer's block. The following amusing description of the evening is from chapter nine of Julia Flory's The Cleveland Play House: How it Began.

"The scene of this first play was the deck of an ancient ship with a golden sail against a purple sky. I was up on the bridge this time manipulating the strings of the queen with "hair the color of burning" while statuesque Martha Yeager, perched nearby, read the lines and provided the forlorn "keening." There was much keening, much Gaelic gloom, weird beauty, poetic grief.

The other manipulators were Emma Joseph, Blanche Nicola, Marian Morris, and Helen Joseph, while the zealous readers were Harry Mereine, Ralph Silver, Lorin Black (Johnnie) and Ray W. Irvin.

With some embarrassment I now chronicle that, after many weeks of these rehearsals in unmitigated gloom, the reaction of the cast was natural and complete. When the final curtain fell, a group of them grasped hands and dashed down to the Roxy (Burlesque) Theatre as an antidote."

Black was a Cleveland artist whose work is occasionally found at auction and/or cited as being held in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Black signed his Play House piece with his initials "JLB" but later signed his paintings Lorin Black. According to contemporary reports in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Black had several entries accepted in the CMA May Show in the late 1920's and early 1930's. He is also listed on the Cleveland Arts Prize web page as a Cleveland region/WPA artist though his work is not represented in KSL Special Collections WPA Artwork holdings.

Little else is known about Black's later career and details about his personal life are also sketchy. Readers with information to share about John Lorin Black are encouraged to leave comments on this post.


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June 07, 2012

Cleveland Play House Photo Essay

In early March we welcomed photographer, Laura Webb, and CWRU Think Magazine's Tricia Schellenbach and Melissa Evans Persensky to Kelvin Smith Library for a sneak preview of some of the gems in the Cleveland Play House Archives. It was a fascinating glimpse at how skilled photographers set up near-studio conditions using an astonishing array of portable lights, reflectors, cameras, stands, lenses, and other equipment. We witnessed what must be the writer's and designer's version of rapid development as Tricia and Melissa designed the layout and wrote the text on the spot. The result of the morning's work is a photo essay about the collection in the spring/summer 2012 issue of Think

Think Cleveland Play House photo essay PDF

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May 17, 2012

Curtain Pullers at Cleveland Play House

The Play House was interested in education at many levels. One program which was extremely successful was The Curtain Pullers.

Originally known as The Children’s Theatre when it was founded in 1933 by Play House actress Esther Mullin, the Curtain Pullers produced plays acted by children for children. Local schools were asked to select their 2 most talented students, aged 5-12, for positions in the Play House School at no cost. From 1936-1940 the Curtain Players grew to 500 children and their productions had an audience of 6,000.

Three productions were presented each season: at Thanksgiving, during the Christmas holidays and in early spring. Many of the productions were from original manuscripts. All the students were eligible for tryouts. There was also a continuing program of creative dramatics. "The Play House feels that the objectives of creative dramatics are to give the child an avenue of self-expression, to offer a controlled emotional outlet, to help build good attitudes and appreciations, to provide opportunities for growth and social cooperation and to help develop the latent imagination of the child. To this end, the youngsters are provided with an atmosphere of freedom, understanding and enthusiasm." (1)

Alumni of the Curtain Pullers include actors Paul Newman and Joel Grey.
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Here is Paul Newman at age 11 in a 1936 production of St. George and The Dragon.

This program eventually evolved into the Play House Youth Theatre.

(1) Ruth Fischer, The Cleveland Play House. The Nation's First Professional Resident Theatre Company (October 1963).

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May 10, 2012

The Cleveland Play House Club

Planning for a non-profit theatre supper club, to be called the Cleveland Play House Club, was begun in the late 1950’s by the Men's Committee. Their goal was to enhance the theatre going experience and bring added income to the organization. The only requirement for membership was that the applicant be a season subscriber to the Play House.

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Membership form for Cleveland Play House subscribers. 1960

The original club was located at the 77th Street Theatre facility and was designed by architect Francis K. Draz. His design converted a seldom-used rehearsal hall into a 6,000 square foot kitchen and a dining room with seating for 60 guests.

A noted feature of the club was a stained glass window with one word embellished at its center: "love." A relic from the building’s pre-Play House years as a Christian Science Church, the window was salvaged when the club was re-incarnated at the 86th Street location in time for the 1982-1983 season. The club then boasted a lounge with seating for 50 and three private dining rooms with combined capacity to seat 90. In conjunction with the launch of the new club facility and the popularity of signature club dishes prompted publication of Rave Reviews: A Cookbook of the Cleveland Play House in 1983.

For more information about Cleveland Play House Club and the Cleveland Play House Archives at the Kelvin Smith Library contact Special Collections or visit our CPH web page

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May 04, 2012

"Pantomime by Member of Play House Group Opens New Home”

Thus did the December 9, 1917 Cleveland Plain Dealer announce the opening of the Cleveland Play House’s new home at East 73rd and Cedar. The first production in its new home was an original pantomime, The Garden of Semiramis, written and directed by Olive Russell.

Although we haven’t finished processing all the production records, we believe this is the earliest production photo in the collection. The print is an enlarged reproduction, which accounts for much of the blurring.

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For those interested in the archival behind-the-scenes details, the first phase of processing the nearly 1,300-foot Cleveland Play House Archives is proceeding on two parallel tracks. On one track archivists are producing summary box-level descriptions, linking boxes to series, and identifying additional physical processing needed (re-foldering, conservation treatment, etc.). This will allow us to begin answering users’ questions before the collection is fully processed as well as help us plan next steps. We’ve completed around 250 boxes and our average time is 3.5 minutes per box. (Rigid self-control and peer pressure are necessary to resist the temptation to delve deeply into the boxes at this stage.)

On the other track, our students have begun creating detailed descriptions of series that need little or no additional processing and that we believe will be in high demand. The first such series is production photographs. For the seasons from 1917/18 through 2003/4 there are over 1,100 productions for which we have photographs. Skillful work by Cleveland Play House staff before the collection was donated to Kelvin Smith Library resulted in photographs that are properly housed, well-labelled, and well-organized. Our students are building on this good work by transcribing folder labels to create a basic searchable inventory. That effort went faster than anticipated (1.5 minutes per folder). The next step, just getting started, is to prepare the photographs for digitization and to transcribe image labels to capture searchable details (Do we have any pictures of Margaret Hamilton? In what seasons was Antigone produced?). These descriptions will be turned into metadata accompanying the digital images when we begin digitization – Soon, Very Soon.

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April 20, 2012

Historic Cleveland Play House Stages

The historic stages of the Cleveland Play House, from it’s inaugural year in 1915 through the closing of the East 86th Street complex in 2011, were created for and adapted to the changing needs of the theatre.

Early Play House productions were staged in buildings located on the estate of Francis E. Drury near E. 86th Street and Euclid Avenue.

Growing attendance at increasingly ambitious productions led to the purchase and renovation of a church building at East 73rd and Cedar in 1917. Ten years of continued growth brought a need for a much larger, professionally designed physical plant. In 1927 the Play House returned to the site at East 86th Street to build a new home, unique for it’s two theatres (Drury and Brooks) under one roof.

An increased emphasis on educational activities fueled the acquisition and renovation of another church building in 1949. Located at East 77th Street and Euclid Avenue, this location would also host the Play House Club from 1960-1983.


Open Stage at 77th St. & Euclid Avenue. This model of the "open stage" amphitheater, based on the design of Frederic McConnell, was new and revolutionary. Without curtain or proscenium it allowed the actors and the audience to interact in harmony.

Planning for consolidation of all Play House activities at the 86th Street location began in 1975 and culminated in the 1983 opening of the Cleveland Play House complex designed by architect Philip Johnson.

For more information contact Special Collections


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April 09, 2012

Early Relationships between CWRU and the Cleveland Play House

CWRU established a joint degree program with the Cleveland Play House in 1931 when the Administrative Board of the Graduate School of Western Reserve University at a meeting on 5/11 approved a trial year for graduate work in Drama and the Theatre to begin in the Fall of 1931. As described in the 1931/32 Catalog, “The distinctive feature of this program of graduate study is the cooperation of a theatre and a university. The unusual opportunity to receive instruction from the director and members of the staff of the Cleveland Play House assures emphasis upon practical experience. To this is linked a study of the drama in its historical, critical, and cultural aspects as literature.” Barclay Leathem (WRU faculty member), Frederick McConnell (director of the Play House), and Arthur White (WRU faculty member) had presented the proposal for the graduate program. From 1927 until this time, Cleveland College of WRU had offered 1 undergraduate course, Play-Production, for 2 credit hours. Instruction had been given by Mr. Leathem and members of the Play House staff.

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Earliest extant brochure of joint program with Cleveland Play House

In addition to the curriculum, the two institutions shared personnel and spaces for productions. Cleveland Play House assistant director K. Elmo Lowe directed the WRU student production of The Cassilis Engagement as part of the Western Reserve University Centennial celebration in 1926. The WRU Adelbert College Sock and Buskin Club produced the Somerset Maugham play, The Sacred Flame, on campus in 1930 and at the Cleveland Play House during the 1934/35 season.

In an interesting twist, the Play House produced the Joseph Remenyi play, 30 Jefferson Arcade, in 1918 – nine years before Remenyi became a faculty member of WRU. Remenyi (1891-1956), novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, was a faculty member in Comparative Literature 1927 until his death in 1956.

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March 30, 2012

Packing the Cleveland Play House Archives

During 5 days in December 2011, 25 Kelvin Smith Library and Cleveland Play House staff spent over 100 hours packing more than 1,000 boxes of documents, books, posters, and models. The purpose of this marathon effort was to prepare the Archives of the Cleveland Play House for transport to its new home at Kelvin Smith Library.

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Some of the aisles were narrow. The boxes were certainly heavy.

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Many of the shelves were high. A few of the items tested our packing ingenuity.

But the job was completed - on time and under budget.
A promising start to an exciting addition to Kelvin Smith Library's collections.

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