In 1938 Washington had one "live" theater-the National; two theaters that had plays occassionally-the Belasco, on Lafayette Square, and the Rialto, on Ninth Street; Three vaudeville stages-the capitol, Earle (now the Warner) and Howard; burlesque at the Gavety and a change of downtown movie bills every Thursday.
To this born and bred New Yorker, that was slim pickings.
True, ever since the Marine Band began playing Sunday concerts on Capitol Hill in 1800, there has been high interest in the performing arts in the federal capital. All the greats relished playing to presidents and the Congress. Stars gave private readings to 19th-century White House occupants and many a notable play, from "Rip Van Winkle" to "Show Boat," had its first performances in Washington. In the '30s the Lunts, Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell brought each new venture here, and so did the major producers. All agreed that this was "a good theater town," but it was more of a town than a city.
Forty years later Washington ranks about third among America's performing arts centers, behind New York and Los Angeles, both of which are far larger cities. It also is closer in spirit to the rest of the country than to either of those communication centers.
But everywhere theater is only a part of the changing world around it. The part cannot be judged without considering the whole.
In his reams of writings, George Bernard Shaw made two observations helpful to a yound theater critic. "Those who cannot change their minds," he noted, "cannot change anything." He also declared that, "It is the business of the critic to educate." Though Shaw preached esthetics, he practiced activism.
At the end of World War II, activism seemed a vital, if medding, necessity for anyone writing about the Washington performing arts. The philosophy led far from ivory-tower theorizing, and this veteran admits to often having favored the pragmatic over the esthestic. There seemed no choice, for without pragmatic action, there could be no esthetics.
Here are some adventures from years in the hurly-burly of daily newspaper reviewing-and of purposeful strayings away from the luxuriant, reflective posture of criticism toward the nudging, shoving, pushing and "influencing" in which a critic is traditionally not supposed to indulge.
The National Theater
In 1946 Maxwell Anderson had written a new play. It was called "Joan of Lorraine" and Ingrid Bergman had accepted the title role. The busy National was booked, so arrangements were made for the Anderson drama to use Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University.
What happened next began a struggle by artists for human rights that continues today around the world: GWU stated that it would follow the practice of the National Theater-no blacks allowed in the audience.
The National's policy was that blacks could appear on the stage of the National, but not in its auditorium. Not far away, at Constitution Hall, blacks were not permitted on stage, but were allowed in the auditorium. Film houses, hotels and public establishments also followed the discrimination custom.
But the playwrights and the players decided to fight back-through the Dramatists' Guild and Actors Equity. Publisher Eugene Meyer of The Washington Post encouraged this columnist and editorial writers, who sought to uphold the protestors. Washington had four newspapers then and only The Post took an affirmative stand.
Variety's Washington correspondents, in fact, advised that paper's theatrical readership that the capital was "a southern city" and that New York's Marcus Heiman, who controlled the National, was justified in his discrimination policy.
Letters began to arrive addressed to "Richard L. Coe, The Daily Worker, 1337 E St." Butch Meyer laughed and egged me on, just as he would when an unfavorable movie review prompted advertisers to withdraw their support. "I'd save money by firing you," Meyer used to say, his eyes twinkling.
The Dramatists' Guild and Actors Equity declared that if the theater discrimination policy was not changed by Aug. 1, 1948, they would not allow their plays or members to appear at the National.
Heiman, however, refused, and when Aug. 1 arrived he dropped plays and started showing movies instead. The National would have no plays for four years.
Meanwhile, the Olney Summer Theater, under Evelyn Freyman, Reginald Allen and Glenn Taylor, was accepting mixed audiences. David Polland, a Washington publicist then as now, proved that blacks and whites could mix amicably during a series of professional open-air theater in Meridian Hill Park. For Judith Andersonhs "Medea," a mixed crowd of 20,000 gathered at the Monument Grounds. Catholic University's 10-year-old campus theater attracted blacks and whites. Citizens groups, with George Frain and the late Ida Fox among their leaders, attempted to break the stranglehold by finding alternate stages.
Burlesque was fading at the Gayety, where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had enjoyed his Sunday afternoons, so actress-producer Haila Stoddard took over its stage and a mixed audience saw Susan Peters in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street." Helle Bonnet, wife of the French ambassador, dragooned the smart set, to whicm she had introduced Dior and Marlene Dietrich, to prove that nondiscrimination could work in the '50s.
This was not lost on Lee Shubert in New York, and he got Donald Oenslager to spruce up the Gayety with New Orleans decor and renamed it the Shubert. Maurice Evans opened there in "Dial 'M' for Murder," which became a roaring hit.
At the National, producers Richard Aldrich and Richard Myers, with Julius Fleischman as associate, took over from Heiman on a 20-year lease, and on May 12, 1952, the house reopened with Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin's "Call Me Madam."
The National. its discrimination policy ended, got swiftly back on its feet, and the city and the world learned that blacks wouldn't be kept out of buildings in their own city.
The outrage had been ended by the protests of activist playwrights, players and press.
When 12 million men and women got out of uniform after World War II, they'd journeyed far beyond their home towns, many of them thousands of miles into Europe and Asia. They'd seen how rich the performing arts were elsewhere. One of them was a Michigan youth who wound up in London for the Navy, Roger L. Stevens.
What would happen in Washington recurred in scores of cities across America.
Washingtonians were aware of sorry facts. What I dubbed "shower curtains" served the Sadlers Wells Ballet at Constitution Hall, where waxed floors caused such leading dancers as Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn to land on their families with President Truman looking on. The Metropolitan Opera resumed visits at the Capitol Theater, but set changes took almost an hour. The Bolshoi Ballet played Uline's ice house, the Coliseum, on wooden planks.
The late Melvin D. Hildreth, then chairman of the city's Democratic party; impresario Patrick Hayes; Father Gilbert V. Hartke, Catholic University's drama head, and this reporter issued a call for concerned citizens to discuss these inadequacies. On a cold, wintry night the Smithsonsion's auditorium was packed. Congressional leaders such as a Sen. William Fulbright and Sen. Hubert Humphrey joined such public-spirited citizens as Agnes Meyer and Robert S. Fleming. There were hundreds more.
It took several chairman before New York real-estate financier and theatrical producer Roger Stevens gained presidential, congressional and theatrical confidence. The murder of President Kennedy prompted some congressional funds and a change a name from the National Cultural Center to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
It was exactly 25 years from my first column mention of such an imagined place to the opening of the Kennedy Center-which soon will have its sixth auditorium, the new studio theater presented as a Bicentennial salute, to open late next month.
Without Roger Stevens, the Kennedy Center would not have been achieved. Why not name the new theater for him? Why not let people know that we value their labors? The Center had the Jack Warner Theater of the American Film Institute while Warner, its major donor, was still alive. It has the Patrick Hayes Green Room, with the impresario very lively indeed.Why not the Roger L. Stevens Theater next?
In the summer of '49 a slip of a college girl (at least that's what she seemed) came to see me about starting a theater on a boat. The National was closed and, she said, "something has to be done." Zelda Fichandler didn't get her boat, but she and her GWU professor, Edward Mangum, did find a dumpy old movie house on New York Avenue off Ninth Street, the Hippodrome.
It became the first Arena Stage, but its 249 seats meant that unless every one were sold, the spiralling budget and rent couldn't be met. It opened in August '50 with "She Stoops to Conquer," with unknown players. George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen and Lester Rawlins are now Broadway stars. A director came over from Catholic University, Alan Schneider, now head of Juilliard's drama school and internationally respected.
But Fichandler and husband Tom had to risk a dark year to find more viable space. That was dubbed The Old Vat because it was in the Hospitality Hall of the Heurich Brewery. It would be torn down in a few years to make way for the Kennedy Center, buy by then Arena had built the first stage of its present complex, giving the first Washington exposure to architect Harry Weese. Later, Weese became Metro's architect-another effective Arena bow.
Arena explored zoning and financial methods under economist Tom Fichandler, who gave up his own career to serve his wife's. Threading through governmental and foundation mazes, Arena blazed a trail which scores of regional theaters now follow.
With Margo Jones' Dallas theater as her exemplar, Zelda Fichandler has turned Arena Stage into one of the nation's major theaters. Watching it mature into leaderships has been one of the satisfactions of choosing pragmatism over esthetics.
The Washington Audience
Why did these institutions flourish?
Washington is, after all, not like London, Paris or Vienna-great cities which happened to become capitals. Our capital is more like Ottawa, Canberra and Brasilia, also founded purely as seats of government.
But around the Beltway live 3 million people, most of them dissatisfied with elsewhere and, as the sociologists say, "upwardly mobile." College graduates mostly, they've passed Civil Service exams. They come not only from 50 states and territories but from 120 nations around the globe. They've heard about the arts, they look into them and come away uplifted.
So, for theater, music, dance and the other arts, audiences here are like nowhere else in our industralized land. These audiences created these theaters and by their presence activated other areas as well.
Government And the Arts
This audience climate led to increased government activity in the arts. Congresses and administrations perceived the interest. One truthfully can point out that the government always has been "into" the arts. Postage stamp design, service bands, the Congressional Library, the Smithsonian, Department of Agriculture films and the PWA arts programs formed a slowly evolving tradition. August Heckscher, as arts counsel to President Kennedy, made a brilliant blueprint of the alliances in 1962.
Melvin Hildreth and the rest of the activist foursome sparked into other areas. Ford's Theater, a storage house for years, was to be renovated into a museum by the Interior Department. A bill of Sen. Milton R. Young (D-N.D.) came out for a workable "living" stage for Ford's as part of its renovation. That was in 1948 and though it took nearly 20 years, the restored building got its working stage thanks to Sen. Young.
Children under 14 weren't allowed on Washington stages, effectively keeping out such contemporary hits as "South Pacific," "The King and I" and "Member of the Wedding." Ralph Becker, through his Board of Trade committee assignment, worked to amend that law and pressed his committee into other areas through his ties to the Eisenhower White House. He pushed on the National Cultural Center and ultimately became the living building's chief counsel. All these matters has to pass both houses of Congress through appropriate committees. It took legal know how and hundreds of caring citizens to press for action.
Presidents set a tone. In his day President Truman was scorned as a hick, but he went to more theater and music events than any president has since Loncoln. He was interested in two black productions touring abroad, Howard University's "Hamlet" and Ibsen in Scandinavai (with a young actress named Patrica Roberts as leading lady; now she's Patricia Roberts Harris. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and "Porgy and Bess" across Europe. Truman paved the way for Eisenhower's creation of the State Department's Cultural Exchange Program. And it was the soldier who read Westerns, Eisenhower, who signed legislation for the Kennedy Center and the arts and humanities endowments.
Presidents Kennedy created an invaluable mystique for the arts. Lyndon Johnson would do more for the arts than all the presidents who preceeded him. The scorned Nixon budgeted even more public funds. The Carter White House entertainments with distinguished artists have been of notable high quality. Joan Mondale has become a determined activist, using the second lady's position to a degree never before envisioned.
Why is the government interested? It's good politics. Audiences are perceived as caring and wanting more.
The New York View
As a New Yorker, I know why New York takes so dim a view of the rest of the country, so neatly illustrated by Steinberg's famous, myopic map.
New Yorkers know that they've got the best and the most. And indeed they do. They also believe that if you don't make it in New York, what's wrong with you? They are truly surprised that you might not want to make it in New York.
The results is that there are now two American Theaters-New York's and the rest of the country's. New Yorkers are in business for-and infatuated with-the new, the faddish, the different and, if necessary, the outrageous. Down with the king, long live the king.
But Washington is attuned to a wider public and so is the rest of the country. They listen to less whimsical, less shifting values. Americans are increasinly aware of their past, not simply their own past but the past of theater, films, music and dance.
So people are finding other ways of life than the New York jugular depicted on screens TV, and in the press. People are perceiving a saner mode of life and, being markedly provincial, New Yorkers can't understand what's happened. When the Kennedy Center opened, the influential New York Times couldn't find a kind word for it. But their critics now cover its events. Forgive the New Yorkers. The can't help being edgy with all that steel, concrete, noise and lack of greenery.
The Rest of the U.S.A.
When our revolution got rid of kings, dukes and princes, it also got rid of such of their trappings as drama, music and dance. Americans have been feeling their way to novel financing of arts which often have a least partial public funding elsewhere.
The first American state to contribute to a theater was Virginia with a $10,000 annual subsidy to the Barter Theater in the mid-1940s. The most recent is Alaska, whose Alaska Repertory Theater, based in Anchorage, last year had a tour of the huge state.
If it's hard to believe that Alaska has a professional acting company, it may be even harder to realize that players and playwrights now make more outside of New York than in it. There are more jobs and more audiences; 20 million in the New York area, but 200 million more elsewhere. Towns and universities vie for reputations in the arts.
Here again, the activist press has played a vital, educational role, assaying public grants. In an uncertain world, the view across America is far brighter, livelier than it was in 1938.
So, the postwar activists have gotten their theaters and players. What of the playwrights?
This is today's most nagging block. Financing plays is a risky business. New York's blessing is deemed vital, but is it really? Some playwrights are beginning to exist in the regionals and one effective production can lead to others elsewhere. Since the rise of Arena Stage and the Folger, Washington's most stimulating new instutution is the New Playwrights' Theater. What comes from such places as this and Arena's In-the-Process series will be indicative.
Will the playwrights find lasting values in their views of history and contemporary life? Aware that viewers are turning from TV's waste, will the new writers to be able to hold new theater audiences?
Theater will continue to exist somehow, outcropping the way old ivy does through cracks in stones. It will be different and yet the same. The audiences are here, so are the players. Make way for the playwrights!
Publishers and editors have allowed an activist critic his hunches, though on reading this summation perhaps meddling would be a more accurate word for the critic's role. Whatever the case, 30 years ago-when the National's stage was empty-Washington had no professional theaters. Now, off and on, there are 15. CAPTION: Picture 1, Capitol Theater in 1927; Picture 2, Kennedy Center at its opening; Picture 3, Lauren Bacall with Coe in 1957; Picture 4, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn at Olney in 1951 in "The Fourposter,"; Picture 5, the "newly decorated" Gayety in 1950; Picture 6, and the Earle in 1937, 13 years after it opened