Voices from the FTP – a new exhibit from SC&A

We have recently installed an exhibit outside of SC&A in Fenwick Library focusing on the Federal Theatre Project titled “Voices from the FTP”. This exhibit takes the individual personal papers we have from FTP participants and integrates their story into the larger context of this government sponsored program. These may not be the most well known FTP participants but their stories are equally as interesting. Hopefully the exhibit will spark an interest in the people, productions, and experiences that transpired because of the Federal Theatre during the Great Depression across the United States.

The following blog post breaks down each of the four cases in the exhibit. Case 1 features the papers of Kate Lawson and serves as an introduction to the FTP. Case 2 focuses on the marionette units of the FTP and uses material from the Molka Reich papers and the Ralph Chessé papers. Case 3 briefly tells the story of Eda Edson and her vaudeville success Follow the Parade. Finally case 4 looks at the theme of controversy and the FTP and features Arnold Sundgaard’s play Spirochete as an example of some of the serious issues the FTP was exploring through the venue of live theater.

CASE 1 – Introduction and documents from the Kate Lawson papers

Introduction to the Federal Theatre Project (FTP)

Organized in 1935, The Federal Theatre Project flourished as the first and only federally sponsored and subsidized theater program in the United States until its end in 1939. The FTP was a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided employment for large numbers of artists, writers, and performers during the Great Depression (1929-1939). Directed by Hallie Flanagan (1880-1969), the FTP provided employment for theatrical professionals throughout the United States during the Great Depression.  Actors, playwrights, scene designers and builders, seamstresses, lighting experts, ushers, box-office men, and stagehands all found employment through the FTP.

Kate Drain Lawson: Actress, costume and set designer, technical director

Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1894, her family moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1900s. Drain left D.C. to become a nurse’s aide in Paris, France, during World War I. It was there that she met and married John Howard Lawson, and she began her theatrical career. By 1922 she was working on Broadway as a technical director, costume and stage designer, and sometimes as an actress. She joined the FTP in July 1936 and headed the Bureau of Research and Publication and was the Chief Technical Officer for the FTP in New York City. She resigned in September of 1937 and moved to Los Angeles, California to pursue a career in film and television. Materials featured in this case from the Kate Lawson papers include her letter of resignation and Hallie Flanagan’s response as well as the WPA Worker’s Handbook, an organization chart of the FTP in New York City, and production statistics. Two photographs of Hallie Flanagan are also included from the Federal Theatre Project photograph collection.

Lawson to Flanagan. Public domain.

 

 Contents of case 1 -

Kate Lawson’s resignation letter to Hallie Flanagan, September 15, 1937. Kate Lawson papers, Collection #C0222, Box 1, Folder 4, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Flanagan to Lawson. Public domain.

 

 

 

 

Hallie Flanagan’s acceptance letter in reply to Kate Lawson’s resignation, September 24, 1937. Kate Lawson papers, Collection #C0222, Box 1, Folder 4, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 

 

Our Job with the WPA (workers handbook), 1936. Kate Lawson papers, Collection #C0222, Box 1, Folder 7, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Production attendance statistics for January 4 to April 4, 1937. Kate Lawson papers, Collection #C0222, Box 1, Folder 9, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Organization chart. Public domain.

 

Organization chart, New York projects, circa 1935. Federal Theatre Project collection, Collection #C0002, Box 4, Folder 7, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Hallie Flanagan. Public domain.

 

 

 

Hallie Flanagan, National Director of the Federal Theatre Project, circa 1936. Federal Theatre Project photographs, Collection #C0205, Box 25, Folder 26, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 

 

Case 2 – The FTP and Marionettes

The Federal Theatre Project produced marionette productions around the country for children and adults alike. The FTP also sponsored classes and behind-the-scene tours so that audiences could make their own puppets and stage their own performances. Two puppeteers with collections in SC&A are Ralph Chessé who worked in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Molka Reich who worked in Miami.

Ralph Chessé: Puppeteer

“In all of my earlier experiences, I worked with people who had no previous puppetry experience. I taught them understanding and respect for legitimate theatre. I worked on the delivery of their lines, how to develop character voices, and how to feel the vibrations they sent down through the moving instrument below. I made them avoid trick manipulation and taught them to suit the action to the words as they brought the marionettes to life through their readings. They experienced the impact of this on the audience and derived the satisfaction an actor has when on stage, providing a natural exercise to the audience’s imagination.” The Marionette Actor (55)

Molka Reich: Puppeteer, writer, actress

After studying puppetry under Remo Bufano in New York City, Reich moved to Miami in 1930. While living there, she joined the Federal Theatre Project. Shortly after joining the FTP, she organized a marionette unit with several others. They made the marionettes themselves and traveled around the state performing for children and adults in school.

“We went to places where no one had ever seen anything like this… but they were so enthralled and it was marvelous for the children. And the adults loved it just as much… We’d go into these schools, particularly the underprivileged schools. At first everything was free but after a while a charge was made. We would divide the money on a 60/40 basis…The underprivileged schools paid nothing. The money was used by the P.T.A. for the children’s luncheon program.” – WPA oral histories collection, 1977

(information about Molka Reich was taken from a previous Vault217 blog)

Contents of case 2 -

 1930’s string puppet made by Lora Pattison who taught puppetry under the WPA Recreation Project at Oneonta Grammar School, South Pasadena, California. Mrs Pattison received her puppet training in the Pasadena WPA Recreation Project.

Clown marionette, 1930s. Federal Theatre Project personal papers, Collection #C0227, Box 3, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Ralph Chessé. Public domain.

Ralph Chessé setting the stage for the marionette play “Crock of Gold”, March 1936. Ralph Chessé papers, Collection #C0224, Box 1, Folder 4, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Chessé, Ralph. The Marionette Actor, Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University Press: 1987.

Molka Reich oral history interview conducted by John O’Connor, March 19, 1977 (cassette tape). Works Progress Administration oral histories collection, Collection #C0153, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

How-to bulletin created by the Federal Theatre of Oklahoma, it includes play scripts as well as directions for making puppets and stages; all one would need to stage their own puppet show. The WPA supported creativity and enabled people to create their own art and theatre.

The foreword reads: “Federal Theatre hopes that those who are as yet uninitiated in the mysteries of puppetry will find helpful guidance and direction in the accomplishment of their undertakings.”

The Vagabond Puppeteers – We Produce a Puppet Show, circa 1936-1939. Federal Theatre Project collection, Collection #C0002, Box 269, Folder 7, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Jack Marvin and Grace Leahy. Public domain.

Jack Marvin and Grace Leahy working on marionettes for the production “Crock of Gold”, March 1936. Ralph Chessé papers, Collection #C0224, Box 1, Folder 4, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 “You don’t have to be a Barrymore to panic a party with a bib puppet play. Just tie a puppet around your neck and you will find yourself performing in a way you never thought possible.”

Hall, Baird. Bib Puppets, Crowell Collier Publishing Company: 1940. Molka Reich papers, Collection #C0229, Box 1, Folder 5, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Molka Reich with Bimbo, circa 1930s and circa 1970s. Molka Reich papers, Collection #C0229, Box 2, Folder 24, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 

Case 3 – Vaudeville, Unemployment, & Follow the Parade

Eda Edson: Writer, director, conductor

Edson’s career started in New York City as a writer and actor in vaudeville. She also worked on Broadway as an orchestra conductor. In the 1930’s she moved to Los Angeles to try and break into the film industry but was unsuccessful. Instead she organized her own orchestra show titled “Eda Edson and her Gentlemen Friends” that played at supper clubs in Los Angeles hotels. It was during one of these shows that she was spotted and recruited to work with the FTP as director of the Vaudeville Unit.

 Her largest and most successful show was Follow the Parade, a vaudeville production that took unemployment as its main theme. It ran for ten weeks in Los Angeles during the spring of 1936 and then moved to Dallas, Texas for the summer. Critics wrote favorable reviews about the production, and one review described it as “part topical revue, part circus, part dramatic show.”

Follow the Parade consisted of multiple scenes tied together through a common theme. Some of the titles to the acts were: “‘Round the World by Television” and included Russian and Hawaiian dancers, “The Trend has Changed,” which took place in a casting office of the Colossal Picture Corporation, “The Absent-Minded Princess”, “St. Louis Blues,” which included scenes set in a jungle, on a plantation, and in a Harlem Night Club, “Magic Toy Shop,” and “Let’s go to a Movie”.

Contents of case 3 -

Excerpt from transcript of oral history interview. This work may be protected by copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you believe that you are the rights-holder and object to Masons use of this image, please contact speccoll@gmu.edu.

Excerpt from transcript of oral history interview, conducted by Diane Bowers, May 30, 1976. Eda Edson papers, Collection #C0218, Box 1, Folder 2, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Eda Edson with orchestra. This work may be protected by copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you believe that you are the rights-holder and object to Masons use of this image, please contact speccoll@gmu.edu.

Eda Edson with orchestra, circa 1930s. On verso it reads: “To my dearest Dad – Merry Christmas from my Band and me. Love Babe.” Eda Edson papers, Collection #C0218, Box 1, Folder 7, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Telegram to Edson from Gerwing. This work may be protected by copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you believe that you are the rights-holder and object to Masons use of this image, please contact speccoll@gmu.edu.

Telegram to Eda Edson from George Gerwing, April 13, 1936. Eda Edson papers, Collection #C0218, Box 1, Folder 9, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Telegram to Edson from Flanagan. This work may be protected by copyright laws and is provided for educational and research purposes only. Any infringing use may be subject to disciplinary action and/or civil or criminal liability as provided by law. If you believe that you are the rights-holder and object to Masons use of this image, please contact speccoll@gmu.edu.

Telegram to Eda Edson from Hallie Flanagan, William P. Farnsworth, J Howard Miller, July 28, 1936. Eda Edson papers, Collection #C0218, Box 1, Folder 9, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Program for Follow the Parade Los Angeles productions, 1936. Federal Theatre Project collection, Collection #C0002, Box 310, Folder 6, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Follow the Parade, Texas program, 1936. Eda Edson papers, Collection #C0218, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Texas Centennial Exposition. Public domain.

 

 

Stage at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas, Texas, 1936. On verso: “After the tornado – the day before we were to open.” Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, Collection #C0205, Box 26, Folder 14, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 

 

The Mad General and Quartette from Follow the Parade;  April 1, 1936. Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, Collection #C0205, Box 26, Folder 10, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

The Mad General from Follow the Parade. Public domain.

Quartette from Follow the Parade. Public domain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Case 4 – Controversy and the FTP

Hallie Flanagan encouraged playwrights to write about the social and political issues of the day. Living Newspaper plays tackled a number of issues including the migration of farmers due to the Dust Bowl, union workers verses business tycoons, tenet housing, access to electricity, and in the case of Arnold Sundgaard’s Spirochete, public health. In 1938 the House on Un-American Activities began investigating the FTP due to its sometimes controversial nature and the FTP was disbanded by Congress on July 30, 1939.

Arnold Sundgaard: Writer

Sundgaard worked for the Chicago Federal Theatre Project from 1936 to 1938 as an author and play reader. In relation to the FTP, he is most known for writing the splay Spirochete. The main theme of Spirochete is the history and spread of syphilis from the 15th century in Europe to the 1930s in America. The play was politically- minded and current in relation to the Marriage Test Law of 1937. If passed, the law would require a blood test prior to marriage.

The play opened in Chicago on April 29, 1938, and had showings in Seattle, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Portland (Oregon). The play was met with minimal protest and overall it garnered enthusiasm from critics and audiences alike. It was the second-most performed Living Newspaper play after One-Third of a Nation.

Contents of case 4 -

Oral history excerpts:

—the conversation about syphilis in those days was… unthinkable. Opening nights… two priests came down and took blood tests. The Catholic Church got behind it… There was [sic] free blood tests in the lobby. And I remember two priests volunteered to take the blood tests, which was a sort of an important step.

John O’Connor: Later productions had to change Christopher Columbus’ name.

Arnold Sundgaard: That was in Philadelphia. Oh, when that came up, Emmet Lavery called from New York; Emmet was a Catholic. And Emmet said, “The Knights of Columbus in Philadelphia are objecting to use of Christopher Columbus’ name bringing syphilis back to Spain. They said he was a good Catholic and a very virtuous man and he couldn’t possibly have picked up a venereal disease, or his men couldn’t have. So,” he said, “could you change it?” I said, “Well, it’s impossible to change that.” I was adamant about it. I said, “You can’t possibly change that, Emmet.” I said, “Call off the production. I don’t care.”

He said, “Wait a minute now, let’s think this through.” He said, “Would you mind calling it an unidentified explorer who returns to Spain in 1493?”

So I said, “No, not at all.” As a matter of fact, it kind of improved it because people in the audience nudged – they were very knowledgeable – and they said “Oh, he must mean Columbus.”

…the U. S. Surgeon General’s Office got behind [Spirochete] and made it much more important than the original production could possibly have been… They gave it a lot of publicity that it ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten. As a matter of fact, for years after that I was considered by people to be kind of an expert on syphilis. I remember years later getting calls in the middle of the night from frantic young men who wanted to know where I might recommend a doctor.

Arnold Sundgaard oral history interview conducted by John O’Connor, September 5, 1976 (cassette tapes). Works Progress Administration oral histories collection, Collection #C0153, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Spirochete promotional flyer for Chicago production, April 1938. Arnold Sundgaard papers, Collection #C0226, Box 7, Folder 18. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Spirochete program for Philadelphia production at the Walnut Street Theatre, February 1939. Arnold Sundgaard papers, Collection #C0226, Box 7, Folder 18. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Two actors with Sundgaard. Public domain.

 

 

Two actors, J. Barney Sherry and Ruth Tate, with author Arnold Sundgaard at a Philadelphia production of Spirochete, February 17, 1939. Arnold Sundgaard papers, Collection #C0226, Box 8, Folder 25. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 

 

 

 

Conductor’s copy of sheet music for “Dark Harvest” from act 1, scene 2 of Spirochete, 1938. Federal Theatre Project collection, Collection #C0002, Box 348, Folder 11, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Spirochete script, July 11, 1938. Federal Theatre Project collection, Collection #C0002, Box 248, Folder 5, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Boat scene from Spirochete. Public domain.

 

 

 

Scene on a boat with actors Billy Jones and Al Ray from Philadelphia production of Spirochete, February 27, 1939. Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, Collection #C0205, Box 69, Folder 18, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

 

Poster for Spirochete in Philadelphia. Public domain.

 

 

Street scene featuring Spirochete poster on building in Philadelphia, 1939. Federal Theatre Project photograph collection, Collection #C0205, Box 69, Folder 19, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

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