The Penn State Thespians was founded in 1897 by Professors Fred Lewis Pattee and John H. Leete, although in a program for The Fair Co-Ed, done in 1921, Pattee gives Leete the credit for providing the spirit of the organization and states that it was Leete who gave the club its name.
In 1898, when the Thespians performed in their first production (The Rivals), there were only three women at the College, and none of them were interested in theatre. So began a tradition; women did not perform in any Thespian show until World War I, when a shortage of men forced the club to cast women in It Pays to Advertise (1919). Women have been in every show since then, but were not allowed to be members of the club until 1953.
In 1972 Penn State Thespians established their Distinguished Alumni Awards. The awards had two categories: Distinguished Service to the Thespians, and Distinguished Contributions to the Performing Arts. The first awards for Distinguished Service of Thespians were given in 1973 to Hummel Fishburn, J. Henry Frizzell, Ray T. Fortunato, and J. Ewing (Sock) Kennedy, among others. At the same time, the Thespians honored former members Gene Kelly, Julius Epstein, Edward Binns, and Donald Taylor for their contributions to the performing arts.
The club has existed from the beginning as a student-run (although closely advised) organization devoted to the performing arts, producing quality performances every year by its member students. It continues today as one of the oldest student organizations on campus, now in its 121st year.
A dramatic association has been formed under the name of ‘Thespians.’ It is to be a permanent organization, new members being elected each year from the lower classes.” -The Free Lance, Nov. 1897
The first Thespians meeting was called to order on October 22, 1897, by our founders, Drs. Fred Lewis Pattee (author of Penn State’s “Alma Mater”) and John H. Leete, both professors at the University. At this meeting, the club acquired its name, Thespians (suggested by Leete), the officers were elected, and the first show was selected. The Rivals was Thespians’ first performance, held in the college chapel of the original Old Main on February 14, 1898. The scenery was borrowed from the Garman Opera House in Bellefonte, and the costumes were rented from a company in Philadelphia. The show was performed at the Garman Opera House a few days later, partially to facilitate the return of the scenery.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Pattee was the head of the Department of English, and Dr. Leete was a professor of Mathematics. Neither had roots in theatre, yet both came together to form Thespians. This tradition continues today, as many of our members are not actively pursuing degrees or careers in theatre.
Musicals did not become standard Thespian faire until 1912, with the production of Popocaterpillar VII. Costumes and rights were secured courtesy of the Cornell Masque.
To generalize our shows and styles, Thespians performed one show per year until 1919. At that time, we began producing one show per semester. Until 1910, our shows were mostly theatrical classics. From 1910 to WWII, we switched to musical comedies. During WWII, farces were presented, primarily for economic reasons. Finally, after the war, Thespians saw a return to musical theatre, which has continued to the present day.
WOMEN IN THEATER - SOCIAL CHANGE
For the first two decades of the Thespians’ existence, the shows were cast exclusively of men, due in no small part to the low numbers of women on campus. Men cross-dressed for female parts and danced in such musical numbers as the “Hula,” “Bunny Wiggle,” “Japanese Glide,” and “Gorilla Hug.”
The sex barrier was broken for a short time in 1918 because so many of Thespians’ members were called to service during World War I. Four women were allowed to be part of the cast of “It Pays to Advertise,” and Margaret Fishburn (’19) landed the first female lead in a production. There was a comment in the program concerning the integration of co-eds into the cast, stating: “The difficult parts. Verily, the war works wonderful changes.” This was, however, only a temporary change. Shows returned to all-male casts at the conclusion of the War.
In 1926, a woman was again permitted to perform onstage for a Thespians variety show. This performance led the way for an all-female chorus in the 1929 production of “H.M.S. Pinafore,” and by 1931, women became commonplace in Thespian productions. Because they were still not permitted to become members of the club, Penn State women formed a sister club, the Masquerettes. The club existed alongside Thespians from 1934 until 1953, when women were finally inducted into Thespians as full-fledged members. As an interesting aside, it wasn’t until the 1991 constitutional revision that women were permitted to serve as president of the club. Despite this regulation, there were three female presidents prior to the change.
In one form or another, Thespians has maintained a Board of Advisors since the very inception of the organization. The major ups and downs of Thespians’ history coincide with changes to this Board, and its history is valuable in understanding our own. Indeed, Drs. Lewis and Pattee are listed as its earliest members. In the early years of the club, the Board functioned as an integral part of Thespians. Because the club’s founders were on this Board, they had a vested interest in the success of the club from the onset. They were involved with club affairs and ensured our initial success as a student organization. From the club’s birth, Thespians had been travelling the east coast by taking their shows on the road. This started out as a relatively simple process, and the club remained largely in Centre County. As we began doing musicals, the casts and equipment necessary began to require much more capital to travel, and destinations were pushed as far away as New York City.
Gradually, debts accrued. The First National Bank of State College was the chief creditor of Thespians, as it became “tradition” to take a note (or add to an existing one) when the club fell on tough financial times. Because the bank’s president, Claude G. Aikens, was a supporter of Thespians, no great pressure was applied for the repayment of the loans. Out of town creditors, however, were not as munificent. Eventually, pressure on both the club and College (there was no University yet) led to the “great audit” of 1926. The audit revealed a debt of $10,205.06 (over $100,000 in today’s money) and assets of only $269.97 (about $3,000 today). This major discrepancy was caused by Thespian’s first financial disaster: taking Wooden Shoes on the road in 1925.
While the organization improved after that first fiasco, the height of our debt would not be reached until 1928, when a financial statement noted liabilities of over $15,000. At this point, the Board of Advisors, then known as the Board of Directors, shifted gears. The College installed a graduate manager to oversee club finances, and the Board held a tight grip on the financial reigns of the club. Throughout the 1930s, the club continued to pay off its debt.
In 1932, however, a new problem was to plague the Thespians. At the time, Thespian shows were performed during commencement weekend at Penn State. An original show, We, the People, was highly resented by four female members of the College’s Board of Trustees. Those women wrote a letter to then-president of the College, Ralph D. Hetzel, complaining of the vulgarity and lack of respect to the flag demonstrated in the show. Dr. Hetzel politely informed the women that he had no control over student groups and that he felt coercion and censorship to be ultimately detrimental to student success. Their concerns, however, were not truly dismissed.
Working through the College’s chain of command, word of the displeasure of the trustees reached Thespians’ Board of Directors. They resolved, among other things, that the Board would appoint a “Production Committee” (currently the Production Staff). The only student representation during this appointment was the Thespian president, and only then as an ex-officio member. Additionally, all scripts and budgets had to be approved by the Board before production started. At this time, the Board had become heavy-handed in all aspects of Thespian production, a far cry from the relative freedom the club experiences today. After a brief bout with financial problems in 1939 (creditors tried to hold the College responsible for Thespians’ remaining debt of $8,000 to no avail), Thespians found themselves amidst another controversy over vulgarity. After our 1942 show, dean Warnock made several suggestions to the College. These included assuming Thespians’ remaining debt and integrating control of the club with the Department of Music. Ultimately, however, these suggestions only resulted in, again, a revised Board of Directors (now the Board of Control). By 1951, the debt of 1928 was finally paid off in full. With that, the final historical “Oops!” was overcome.
Gene Kelly Participated in three shows for 1929-1930 before transferring to Pitt.
Julius Epstein Wrote lyrics for Thespians and went on to write more than 30 screen plays, including “Casablanca.”
Oliver Smith Built sets for Thespians. Won Tony Awards for stage settings on Broadway productions of Brigadoon, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and Hello Dolly.
Carrie Fishbein Robbins Performed as “Mammy Yocum” in Lil’ Abner with Thespians. Won a Tony Award for her costume design of Grease.
Jonathan Frakes Started classes at Pennsylvania State University, enrolling as a psychology major. The next summer, he worked as an usher for the local theater and observed his peers thoroughly enjoying acting. He was motivated to switch his major to theater arts and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1974. He performed with Thespians and is known for his role as Commander William Riker in “Star Trek: Next Generation” and subsequent spin-offs.
Mary Lou Belli Played in the Fantasticks with The Penn State Thespians in 1975/76 and is now an Emmy award-winning director. Mary Lou Belli who has also earned multiple honors for her work in television and theatre.