By Eleanor Sharp
In the spring of 1927, a group of twenty people met at the home of Mrs. Robert Roessel in Webster to discuss the possibility of forming a non-professional theater group. Mrs. Blanche Fluornoy and Commander Gordon Hall probably originated the idea and were active in carrying it out. Then,in the fall of 1927 fifty people met in the parlors of the Congregational Church and organized what was then called The Webster Groves Theatre Guild. The name has now been changed to The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves.
The first play, a three-act, was produced in the church parlors, followed by two more in the high school auditorium in the winter of 1927-8. One-act plays were done at the church that year and until 1931 which was in the depth of the Depression. The membership of the Guild, and consequently funds of the Guild, dropped alarmingly, and the idea of having monthly programs at the Monday Club originated. This plan put new life into the group and two three-act plays, as well as some one-acts were done there. The three-act plays went back to the high school in 1933-4. One-act programs continued to be produced in the Monday Club until the Guild acquired their own building in the spring of 1951.
In 1936, a brave, youthful member got the idea of asking high school authorities for the use of a classroom for rehearsals. Up to this time, rehearsals were held in homes, and for one play, a vacant room over a store on Lockwood. The high school granted the request and for many years, rehearsals of three-act plays were held there. Tryouts were also held in the high school recitation rooms.
For several years, the Guild had no sets for the Monday club or high school. One-act plays were done against the walls of the Monday Club stage, and the three conventional sets of the high school used for all three-act shows. How weary the audience must have become of the old “blue” and the brown wainscoted sets. The kitchen or cottage interior was painted on the back of the “brown.” Then, in 1935 the Board of Education was approached with the plan that the Guild stage crew build a set to be financed by school funds, for use of the school as well as the Guild. The Guild was to be allowed to paint it as often as they wished. The suggestion was taken, and the set was built in an empty store building at the corner of Gore and Lockwood.
During the first two years of the Guild, a professional director was hired. Then came the Depression, and this plan had to be abandoned for financial and other reasons. And for years all plays, even three-acts were directed by Guild members who charged no fee. However, we were fortunate in having one professional director, a charter member, Irma Schira Tucker and two or three other members experienced in directing, and the plays were of high caliber. In 1946 Bob Miller was hired as a professional director and directed three plays. In 1947 Ben Nochtman was hired to direct two plays, and Allen Richardson directed a third one.
In 1948 another professional director was procured. She was Dorothy Gillan. It was during her regime that the March of Dimes approached the Guild and asked them to do a play for the cause. We did two plays for them and turned over all money above expenses. In 1948 “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” made $1275 for the March of Dimes. This play, even with a blizzard raging, probably broke a record in attendance, and on one night there was “standing room only.”
In 1950, Harry Gibbs, our present director was hired. We have produced five plays under his direction.
No historical sketch of the Guild should be written without mentioning the outstanding achievement of its one-act play-writing contests, and the winning of a prize by Tennessee Williams. The prize was a silver plate presented to him by our present President, Russ Sharp, who was serving his first term in that office in 1936-7.
Of course, the greatest achievement of the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves is the purchase of their own building and the rehabilitation during the summer, fall, and winter of this year. Nothing short of a miracle has been performed, most of the actual labor having been done by Guild members themselves, who have worked long and weary hours to make this building beautiful and suited to our use.