May 1988 – June 1988

The University of Iowa Theatre Building was completed in 1936 during the depths of the Great Depression. How did a public university in Iowa, a state hard-hit by economic collapse and unemployment, ever see fit to build a theatre at such a time? The answers are unique to the time: “New Deal” politics, a surge of pride in regional art and arts, and E.C. Mabie, “the Boss,” who had big plans and the drive to see the plans through. This, then, is the story of that era, the “New Deal” arts projects, of E.C. Mabie and a theatre building dedicated “To the creative spirit of the people of the prairies…”

Act 1 – Setting the Scene

The decade of the 1930’s opened in the wake of the stock market crash in October 1929. During the Great Depression which followed, the nation’s financial markets collapsed and industrial production was paralyzed. Millions were thrown into unemployment lines in a time of little governmental interest in economic planning or wide-spread relief programs. Catastrophes of nature added to this bleak picture, and parts of the country became known as the Dust Bowl.

Within this setting was a time of great change. Many new technologies – electricity, photography, and the motor car, for example – became commonplace. Developments in sound fidelity were phenomenal, as evidenced by talking movies and the use of multimedia in live theatre. During the Thirties, the machine was to become a part of everyday life.

The visual arts were most responsive to the new innovations. Other art forms, the theatre, and a new medium – the movies – offered a world of fantasy as a relief from the bleakness of everyday life. The visual arts reflected the clean edges of the machine, the streamlined smoothness of motion, and a style evolved which much later was to be named Art Deco. It became the look of the decade.

Act 2 – The Projects

In an effort to ease massive unemployment, FDR’s New Deal began many projects to provide jobs and relief. Artists and the arts profited by a number of these projects. The F.S.A. (Farm Security Administration), in an effort to promote the concept of low interest loans and subsidies for farmers, hired photographers to record the state of rural America. These photos by such artists as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn spoke volumes about the people of the era and have become timeless as works of art.

The W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration, later Work Projects Administration) was set up in 1935 to quickly and efficiently establish relief programs and then move those people on relief to private employment. As part of its white-collar relief efforts, the W.P.A. consolidated earlier New Deal efforts for artists into Federal Project Number One, or Federal One. Federal One encompassed art, music, theatre, writers and later would include the Historical Records Survey. The W.P.A.’s Federal Art Project, as well as the Treasury Relief Art Project funded mural projects for the nation’s public buildings. The Index of American Design hired many artists to record the history of items of American design. The Federal Writers’ Project resulted in such works as the American Guide Series and a large collection of transcribed interviews with former slaves. Also important were the public building projects of the C.W.A. (Civil Works Administration) and P.W.A. (Public Works Administration).

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), also part of Federal One, was formally announced in Iowa City at the National Theatre Conference in July 1935. That year’s conference was brought to the University by E.C. Mabie, head of the Speech and Dramatic Art Department, in part for the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of the new University Theatre Building. Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA and a native Iowan, spoke at the conference of his high hopes for the FTP, and announced the appointment of Hallie Flanagan, director of the Vassar College Experimental Theatre, to head the FTP. The building up of regional theatre and native playwrights was central to the original vision of the FTP. E.C. Mabie had written a long analysis on this subject, A Plan for the Organization of Regional Theatre in the United States, in 1935 and was chosen by Flanagan to head the FTP’s Midwest Region.

Government funding for the creative arts as a relief effort made the Federal One projects controversial from the beginning. Flanagan’s desire for experimentation and her interest in “new plays preferably of authentic regional material,” brought the FTP in particular under intense public scrutiny. A new dramatic form called the Living Newspaper, in which the news was dramatized without elaborate scenery, outraged some Congressional members and private citizens with its presentation of controversial stands on current issues (utilities, housing shortages, and even syphilis). Logistics dictated that most unemployed theatre people would be found in large metropolitan areas such as New York City and Los Angeles, and the widespread strengthening of regional theatre did not occur as planned. Also, the wheels of the federal government machine moved too slowly for many creative artists and many of the administrators quit. Iowa’s own Mabie, who had been closely involved with Flanagan in the FTP planning, submitted his resignation in early 1936, irked among other things by endless red tape and state WPA officials with little interest in theatre.

The Federal Theatre Project had its successes, among them a healthy children’s theatre program, the Federal Negro Theatre, and the staging of innovative versions of the classics by such up-and-coming artists as Orson Welles and John Houseman. In an era when movie houses had taken over the mass audience, an estimated total of 40 million people attended FTP productions; most FTP plays were free to the public or averaged 10-25 cents per ticket. The concept of government spending for plays, and specifically plays which could be seen as critical of the government, finally became a large enough issue to stop the FTP. In 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee took a hard look at the FTP, and in mid-1939, despite much lobbying by theatre and film personalities, the funding for the FTP (less than one-half of one percent of Roosevelt’s requested WPA budget) was cut. The Federal Theatre Project was dead and with it, the dream of a national theatre. Regional theatre still had its champions, among them E.C. Mabie.

Act 3 – Meanwhile, in the Midwest

E.C. (Edward Charles) Mabie came to the University of Iowa in the summer of 1920 to serve as Acting Head of the Department of Public Speaking, and was appointed Head of the Department of Speech and Dramatic Arts in 1925. Although brought here to teach debate, Mabie’s interest in the theatre was allowed and encouraged to flourish. Around the turn of the century, a University Dramatic Club had been formed on campus and had used the proceeds of its first production “to help defray the University Athletic Department debt.” By the time of Mabie’s arrival, plays on campus were produced by a wide variety of groups and clubs, ranging from literary society efforts to an annual Law Jubilee. Many of the plays were performed on the stage of the Englert Theatre and when the Englert raised its rental fees in 1921, eight campus clubs joined together to form the Associated Dramatic Enterprises of the State University of Iowa. This new “University Theatre” was headed by E.C. Mabie, who began negotiating with University administrators to outfit the auditorium in Macbride Hall for University Theatre productions. The Out-of-Door Players were formed in the summer of 1921 and with the involvement of both the University and the community, put on plays each summer through 1925 in such places as the Quadrangle courtyard, City Park, and the slope west of the Old Capitol. Mabie was a true believer in the value of regional theatre and those playwrights who would reflect themes inherent in their own lives far from Broadway and the east coast. He felt theatres should “…serve as community institutions in the way in which do such institutions as the public library and the municipal art gallery.” Along with this long-serving goal, Mabie began his (and the department’s) strong support of student playwrights and the production of original scripts. In a November 1937 letter, Mabie explained “my elementary class in playwriting has been writing and producing Living Newspapers since the opening of the session.” By taking spot news on Tuesday, writing a first draft by Thursday, and revising and producing the script by the following Thursday, “news is on the stage nine days after we get the paper.”

Macbride Auditorium was not suited for full theatrical productions: the stage was too shallow, the back wall was a quarter sphere plaster dome, access to the stage was gained through two small doorways once scenery has been maneuvered up narrow stairs or in a small freight elevator. Other locations on campus were used for some productions, among them the Studio Theatre located first in the Liberal Arts Annex (on South Capitol Street), then the basement of the Iowa Memorial Union. Costumes and scenery were made in a variety of campus locations. Plans had been underway since the early twenties to include a theatre in the proposed Memorial Union. Final plans were drawn up in 1928 for a 775-seat auditorium to be built on the south side of the Union and fund drives were begun, but the Depression intervened and the project was abandoned. Mabie continued his drive for a theatre and in the mid-1930’s, circumstances combined to make his efforts successful.

Act 4 – The Stage is Built . . .

Until the early 1930’s, the land on the west side of the Iowa River (where the Art Building, Art Museum, and Theatre Building now stand) was a swampy area often used for dumping. Plans were being formulated at that time to control flooding on the Iowa River and included the building of retaining walls along the west side of the riverbanks. The University acquired the low land on the west side with the hope of turning it into a “riverside campus for the arts.” Then began the scramble for sufficient funding for both an art building and the theatre. Sources tapped included money pledged to the defunct Union Theatre, Carnegie Foundation funding for an art building, and project money from the New Deal’s Public Works and Civil Works Administrations. In addition to enabling the construction of both the Theatre and Art Buildings, PWA and CWA project money was also used to construct the Union footbridge. E.C. Mabie also was able to obtain grants for building a scene shop from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Plans were drawn up for the two buildings and bids were taken. The Theatre Building, designed by architect George Horner, Mabie, scenic designer Arnold Gillette, and theatre staff, was to be a state-of-the-art structure and would include a 36-foot motorpowered revolve, or turntable, built into the stage. Art faculty member Grant Wood was to paint a mural on the walls of the main auditorium. When funding came up short, Mabie and other staff members managed to cut enough non-essentials – Grant Wood mural included – to allow contracts to be let. Mabie headed to New York and the Rockefeller Foundation once more, with elaborate plans in hand for a total westside arts campus to include a music building, an auditorium, and a limestone amphitheater. More funding was obtained, although not enough to furnish and open the theatre with what we today might call “necessities” – there were no drinking fountains in the building (until 1939 the audience, students, and faculty drank bottled water); sidewalks around the building were not finished until 1942, when the scene shop addition was built; and in 1939, people were still being requested not to flush toilets during the performance because no silencer valves had yet been obtained.

The new theatre building opened on 7 November 1936 with a production of “Two Hundred Were Chosen” by faculty member E.P. Conkle. This play, originally produced in the Experimental Theatre Seminar in the summer of 1936, was, appropriately enough, about pioneers in a government-sponsored settlement in Alaska.

The Theatre Building was slowly completed, including plaster and paint for the auditorium walls in 1937-38, and motorizing of the scenery revolve in 1938. The north scene shop was completed in 1941-42, bringing the cost of the building to near $240,000, less than a quarter of which was state appropriated funds. With the completion of phase one of the theatre (the total plan, never realized, was to build another wing to the south), Mabie saw a major portion of his Iowa dream come true. Now there were other areas to be explored.

Act 5 – . . . And Continues to Build

E.C. Mabie and his well-qualified faculty in Speech and Dramatic Arts spent much time in the 40’s and 50’s exploring the new world of television and broadcasting. Television broadcasts had been done from one campus building to another in the 1930’s and in the grand west side arts campus plan of the mid-thirties, Mabie had included a television studio in the blueprints for a future theatre addition. The department took over the north wing of the Old Armory in 1952, remodeled it into a television studio, and Mabie brought former student John Winnie back from USC to head the television broadcasting unit. Ever the technology buff, Mabie and his students experimented with measurement of audience responses utilizing two different types of machines. Mabie suffered a serious stroke in 1950, but he continued teaching until his death in February 1956. He died, after a full day of teaching, of heart failure. His dream of a Theatre Building with multiple theatres was realized in 1985 with the dedication of a sizable new addition to the Theatre Building. Two new theatres, as well as new and improved technical and classroom facilities complete a building envisioned 50 years ago as a state-of-the-art performance center for “the people of the prairies.”

This exhibition was prepared by Mary McInroy and Harlan Sifford. Special thanks to Earl Rogers and Pam Mabie Stewart. Thanks also to Sydney Spayde, David Thayer, John Winnie, Maude Rate, Lewin Goff, Greg Bratcher, Eric Sellen, Lauren Goetz, Rick Cooper, and Denise Schieffer.