THE HISTORY OF THE MIMES AND MUMMERS
Created by Tim Kelley, Mimes Alum FCRH '81
It all began in 1855 when President Remigius Tellier, S.J. encouraged the students to “unite in giving dramatic entertainments.” Fordham University wasn’t Fordham but St. John’s College and the Mimes weren’t the Mimes but the St. John’s Dramatic Society. A young student by the name of Charles M. Walcot ‘58 heeded the call. His father was an actor and Charles would follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming the first but certainly not the only “Mime” to choose a career in the theater. His first brush with fame in 1864 was in the part of Horatio in Edwin Booth’s famous hundred-night run of Hamlet in New York. He would be best remembered for his performances with his wife, Isabella Nickinson, and their long association with the Lyceum Theater from 1887 to 1899. But it was on December 8th, 1855, when he took the part of Falstaff in Henry IV and Mynheer Hans Hoogdfit in The Seven Clerks that the St. John’s Dramatic Society (later renamed the Mimes and Mummers) was born. The sets were constructed by the students and mounted to a platform at the north end of the study hall. At the conclusion of the performance the set and stage were taken apart and stored away until another play called them forth again.
The platform would be brought forth again and again for another fifteen years. The programs were long but this did not displease the audience. As the society wrote in their program for the “Dramatic Exhibition” of 1857, we “have spared no pains to select for the occasion plays calculated to entertain the curious and the learned.” In 1871 a permanent stage was installed in the First Division study hall (now Dealy Hall) and the curtain and the proscenium were painted by an Italian scholastic visiting the college. In this year the society was officially organized. A board of directors was established and a president elected (the first recorded president is John Sweeney ’73, elected on October 3, 1872). The students adopted the name of the Dramatic Association of St. John’s College and their first “Grand Exhibition” was presented on March 29th, 1871. The Mimes have sometimes marked 1871 as their birthday but it’s more properly the year of their confirmation as a student group that had now grown-up and was here to stay.
The Association wasted no time and petitioned the president of the college to assign a moderator to their newly organized group. It took until 1873 for their request to be granted when President Joseph Shea, S.J. appointed the first moderator. We do not know who that moderator was but from the secretary’s minutes we do know that one of his first requests was to ask the Association to “please refrain from cutting any more holes in the curtain.” Over the next thirty years the college expanded. Dramatics were a favorite activity eventually superseding the public debates and not challenged in popularity until activities like baseball, football and general athletics began to offer alternatives to the students’ time and interests. Plays were regularly performed on or close to school holidays: Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, St. Patrick’s Day and Rector’s Day. It was the habit to try and keep the program a secret until the day of the performance. But as James J. Walsh, S.J. ’84 tells us, “somehow it always managed to leak out, to the great disgust of older members of the dramatics, who seemed to consider the secret connected with the Society’s dignity.”
One of those early members was Martin H. Glynn ’94. He acted in several shows and received special praise from a reviewer when he stepped in for an actor who was unexpectedly called away - “Mr. Martin H. Glynn kindly accepted the arduous task of learning more than two hundred lines in about three hours.” The reviewer went on to say, “the young gentleman did marvelously well.” Within five years of graduation Mr. Glynn would become a member of the United States House of Representatives (1899- 1901). He later became lieutenant governor of New York and then governor (1913-14) after Governor William Sulzer was impeached and removed from office.
In spite of the challenge to their popularity the importance of dramatics in a Jesuit education was a strong enough tradition to influence the agenda of University President John J. Collins, S.J. He was appointed president in 1904 and wasted no time in announcing his plans to elevate the college to university status by establishing the Schools of Law and Medicine (the School of Medicine closed in 1921). His plans included a new campus building—College Hall. College Hall was to be the home of the Law School but that was not all. In the fall of 1905 when the building was completed and the doors opened to the first law students, they discovered a surprise awaiting them one flight up—a magnificent theater.
On the second floor was the auditorium. It extended the full length of the building, occupying the full sweep of two stories to the height of forty-two feet, and having a seating capacity of one thousand. It was fitted out with every improvement, both for acoustics and scenic effects. In the decorating of the theater, no expense was spared to make it one of the most pleasing and most beautiful in New York City. It had a spacious stage and twelve adjoining dressing rooms. The third floor consisted of two classrooms and the framework of the theater’s gallery. The fourth floor was the gallery, which had a seating capacity of 400 and sloped gracefully so that every seat offered unobstructed views of the stage.
The Law School did not remain in College Hall but the St. John’s Dramatic Association did. With a new theater on campus the idea of trying to keep dramatic programs a secret was abandoned. Much preparation went into the theater’s inaugural performance and with unprecedented fanfare A College Complication was presented on March 17, 1906 (reprised May 1, 1906). It was an original student production by J. Ignatius Coveney FCRH ’06 (the author of Fordham’s fight song, “The Fordham Ram”) and Stanley Quinn FCRH ‘08 and the first musical comedy composed entirely by students of St. John’s College. We get a flavor of their lyricism in the opening number when the chorus sings to the audience:
Let dour old age, ’gainst nonsense rage,
Let wisdom censure folly,
The world’s a stage and not a cage,
Away with melancholy.
With merry hearts we’ll play our parts,
No matter what comes after,
While sorrow’s darts and fortune’s smarts,
We’ll drown with song and laughter.
The authors adeptly handled a situation that was an unfortunate reality for their Association – no women. Since there were no female students at St. John’s, all women’s parts were played by the male students. So when Mr. Coveney and Mr. Quinn wrote their “young maiden” character, they created the part of Harold Porrill. The college high jinx of his fellow classmates required Harold to disguise himself as a woman in order to entice the boastful campus lothario to reveal his true colors as a shy and inexperienced youth. In the end the subterfuge is revealed when, at the climax of the play, hat and wig is pulled off Harold’s head.
Reverend Collins did not remain president for long. In the fall of 1906 (at the same time the Law School moved to 42 Broadway), he was made Vicar Apostolic of Jamaica and left Fordham. Yes, Fordham. Once he had received the consent from the Regents of the University of the State of New York on June 21st, 1904, and created the Schools of Law and Medicine, the name Fordham University came into use. It became official in 1907 when an amendment to the college’s original charter was approved. The Association in short order changed its name to “The Fordham University Dramatic Association.”
The light fare of A College Complication did not mean that loftier plays were not attempted. By 1921 when the group commemorated fifty years of official organization, the Association could boast three more productions of Henry IV as well as four productions of The Merchant of Venice. There were three productions of Hamlet and Macbeth and at least one production of Julius Caesar, King John and Twelfth Night. These were certainly Shakespeare’s more male-dominated plays but they were not entirely devoid of choice female roles. James M. Dunn FCRH ‘14 in his portrayal of Lady Macbeth was “a woman of refinement, at least exteriorly, devoted to her husband and full of sympathy with him in his mental torture.” But Mr. Dunn’s was not the only notable performance. In the role of Banquo a young man by the name of Francis J. Spellman FCRH ’11 appeared. “Frank” (as his name appeared in the program) would later become the Archbishop of New York in 1939 and be elevated to Cardinal in 1946. A building on campus is named in his honor.
A year after Cardinal Spellman graduated; another young thespian would make his mark on the Fordham stage. His name was John F. Hamilton FCRH ’16 and though his roles at Fordham were small they were numerous (he appeared in every show in his years at Fordham). Obviously the acting bug had bit. He achieved early fame in the Pulitzer Prize winning play Hell Bent Fer Heaven and would be later remembered for his role of Candy in the original Broadway production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
When Mr. Hamilton left Fordham, much of Europe was at war. The United States had managed to remain neutral since the summer of 1914 when WWI began but public sentiments were increasingly favoring the allies. After the discovery of the “Zimmerman Note” and Germany’s declaration that they would once again institute a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, violating the “Sussex Pledge”, Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. War fever swept the nation and the students and administrators of Fordham were no exception. In the summer of 1918 Fordham became one of the first colleges to be granted S.A.T.C. status (Student’s Army Training Corp). The university looked more like an army camp than a college and dramatics were suspended for the next year even though the war ended with the signing of the Armistice at eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
Things returned to normal by the start of the following school year and on April 19th and 20th, 1920 the George M. Cohan play, Seven Keys to Baldpate was presented to a Fordham audience. Students who entered Fordham after WWI were now performing in Collins Auditorium. No official ceremony or pronouncement can be found but by 1920 the name was in common use. It most likely coincided with Rev. Collin’s return to Fordham initially requested in 1918 and granted in 1920 when his replacement in Jamaica was named. Rev. Collins remained at Fordham for another fourteen years, teaching religion to the college students and serving as spiritual father to the Fordham Community. He died November 30, 1934.
1921 marked a real milestone for Fordham’s student performers. A young scholastic by the name of Robert I. Gannon, S.J. was in his second year as moderator of the organization. Fr. Gannon’s enthusiasm and love of the theater was evident from the start. He was the one who prompted the Association to change its name to the Mimes and Mummers. How he chose the name we do not know but it certainly was in keeping with other college dramatic societies, particularly fellow Jesuit schools like the Boot and Buskin Dramatic Guild of Le Moyne College, the Argus Eyes of St. Peter’s College and the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society of Georgetown University. Mistakes of a Night was the first play presented under this name on December 12th, 13th and 14th.
The new moniker of the Mimes and Mummers was not Fr. Gannon’s only contribution. In 1922 he oversaw the completion of some badly needed renovations to Collins Theater. The most significant change was the addition of four parterre boxes to the right and left of the stage. The author of a one-act play manual, Fr. Gannon started the group known as the Fordham Playshop. The group was responsible for the annual Freshman One Act Play Contest, the annual Varsity One Act Play Contest (both of these presenting original student works) and was a forerunner to the annual Jesuit Intercollegiate One Act Play Festival. The Mimes were utilized almost exclusively in these productions and assumed full responsibility for their activities in short order. The last of these contests, the Jesuit Intercollegiate One Act Play Festival, survived until 1962. The finals that year were held on the Collins stage on February 24th. The Mimes won for their presentation of The Lady in Red.
In a sense 1962 wasn’t the final curtain for the Fordham Playshop. Its legacy was felt ten years later when the Mimes won the southern regional competition of the New York State Theater Festival, and today with F.E.T. (Fordham Experimental Theatre), a student group that has always worked closely with the Mimes and Mummers and often mounts original student works. Their roots were in Keating Little Theater, but they perform today in a black-box theater in the basement of Collins Auditorium. The theater was once the Mimes’ shop.
Rev. Gannon left Fordham in 1923 to complete his studies for the priesthood, but his legacy as moderator was not a curtain call. He still had a second act to play in his association with the Mimes.
For forty years, the popularity of the one-act play contests ebbed and flowed. There were years when a prize of $25 in gold awarded for the best play practically guaranteed participation. Other years relied on course assignments by the English department to produce a competitive number of plays. In the early years we find two young participants, Horace McMahon LAW ’29 and Joseph S. Fechteler FCRH ’27. Horace was part of the Mimes’ “Law School Nights” in which a replacement cast of Law School students performed. It was a short-lived experiment available to interested law students who saw theatrical performance as a supplement to their classroom studies. Horace abandoned his law career and went on to achieve fame as the stereotypical gangster in several Hollywood pictures. He is probably best remembered for playing it straight as Detective Mike Parker in the 1950’s television series Naked City.
Joe was active in the Mimes for all of his four years at Fordham. In 1927 he was vice-president of the Mimes, proclaimed runner-up as best actor in the one-act play contest and played the title role in the Mimes’ production of Beau Brummel. Although it wasn’t a theatrical career that Joe pursued, his love for the Mimes was great and he left a lasting testament in the form of an annual award established in 1959. After a three-year absence, in 1975 the award became mistakenly known as the Fechleter Award, an error that can now be corrected.
With the inauguration of the play contests we see a definite break from the lengthy programs of the past. Typically only one main stage production or Varsity Play was performed per year with the one-act play contests occupying the time and energy of the Mimes for the remainder of the year. The Great Depression of the 1930’s guaranteed this trend for another decade since limited resources allowed for only one full-length play per year. The shows, although fewer, were neither without merit nor their share of future theatrical notables. Among the impressive productions was the 1937 show Yellow Jack. An ambitious undertaking, the show included a cast of twenty-nine and several sets. The RAM commented that the play called for “technical work equal to that of any Broadway production.” By all accounts it was a tremendous success.
Horace McNally FCRH ’32 (he later changed his name to Stephen) would be the first of the famous 30’s graduates. He was a successful character actor and best remembered for his role as Locky McCormick in the Oscar nominated film Johnny Belinda. John McGiver FCRH ’37 was next. Another well-known character actor he appeared in several films and was a regular on The Patty Duke Show. He was the first to appear in the famous “Do You Know Me...” TV commercials for American Express. Last but not least was Richard Breen FCRH ’40. A member of the cast of Yellow Jack, he would become a successful screenwriter, winning an Oscar with his collaborators Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch for the 1953 film Titanic.
But the most important event of the 1930’s was the return of the well-known ally of the Mimes, Rev. Robert I. Gannon. In 1936 Rev. Gannon, the moderator of the Mimes from 1920– 1923, was appointed president of the University. Rev. Gannon set a goal of securing the educational reputation of Fordham as an elite Catholic University. By 1940 he had increased admission standards and resolved the accreditation problems of both the undergraduate and graduate schools. But to do more he needed money. With the 400th anniversary of the Society of Jesus, and Fordham’s pending centennial anniversary, he was presented with an opportunity. He encouraged, along with Mimes’ moderator, William Trivett, S.J. and Mr. Emmet Lavery, playwright and founder of the Catholic Theatre Conference, two talented students, Harry Schnibbe FCRH ’40 and the aforementioned Richard Breen FCRH ’40 to write a play for the Jesuit quadricentenary. Harry and Richard, Mimes’ president and vice-president respectively, chose the dramatization of the martyrdom of the Jesuit English saint, Edmund Campion (1540 – 1581), as the subject of their play.
The play was called Who Ride on White Horses and it was too important to remain a purely campus event. The show was presented in Manhattan at the Heckscher Theatre on January 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th, 1940. It was meant as a vehicle to help kick-off Fordham’s Century Fund Appeal and could not be viewed as an amateur college production. As a result a few Mimes “traditions” were ignored. A professional actor named Robert Speaight and not a student played the role of Edmund Campion. The director was also a professional by the name of Albert McCleery. He was the first professional director hired to direct a Mimes’ show and would play a prominent role in both the success and controversy associated with Fordham Theater after WWII.
But the most important break from tradition was Mary Schneider. Mary was a faculty member in Fordham’s School of Education, and was cast as Queen Elizabeth. She had previously appeared in plays produced by the School of Education (a group later known as the Thalians), but her role in Who Ride on White Horses was a Mimes’ first. Not strictly a Mime by the definition of the day, she represented the solution to the Mimes “women problem“. The problem was not completely resolved until Fordham’s Thomas More College opened in 1964.
Though not the success Rev. Gannon had hoped (Fordham’s Century Fund Appeal achieved only 60% of its goal), there was enough money for improvements that would benefit the Mimes. Early funds helped complete projects in Keating Hall left unfinished when the building opened in 1935. Among these was the completion of Keating Little Theater. A short play, Lee of Virginia and Lights and Shadows an Intimate Revue made up the theater’s initial offering on December 6th, 1940. Collins Auditorium was next and underwent another series of renovations. In 1941 the parterre boxes were removed, auditorium seating was reduced to approximately 700 in both the orchestra and gallery (now described as two loges) and two side stages were added alongside the main stage. The “triple stage” was considered a unique theatrical design. Collins reopened with “The First Play Cycle of 1941-1942.” The short plays El Greco, The Most Dangerous Game and We’re with You—a Fordham Farce were presented on December 12th and 13th, 1941. The final Mimes-related benefit of the Century Fund was the Ted Collins Penthouse Theatre (a.k.a. The Arena Theatre). It was a small eighty-seat theater in-the-round constructed on the fourth floor of Collins Auditorium. The Servant of Two Masters, with Mary Schneider in the cast, was the theater’s first show on April 23rd, 1942. The following fall the Mimes would produce Martyr without Tears. The play was written by the recent Fordham College graduate, Lieutenant John Thomas Dugan FCRH ’41. It would be the last major Mimes production produced exclusively by the Mimes for the next ten years.
It’s likely that the theater improvements were part of a larger plan to create a Drama Department at Fordham in the fall of 1942. But the plan was delayed when by the spring of 1942 it was clear that American life had changed. The United States was fully engaged in the war and young college men were being called upon to participate. After a Martyr without Tears, theater at Fordham went dormant except for the occasional skit or radio play. No full-length productions were mounted until nearly a year after the war ended when the play A Saint in a Hurry was presented to a Fordham audience on June 7th, 1946. It didn’t specifically credit the Fordham University Theatre as co-producer with the Mimes but the show was arranged and staged by Edgar Kloten, one of its future directors. Another notable name in the program was John Leonard, S.J. who served as the master electrician. It was his first Mimes production and the start of his over sixty-year friendship with the Mimes.
In the fall of 1946 the Department of Communication Arts was inaugurated. Courses in a theater division were available to both matriculated and non-matriculated students. A Master of Fine Arts degree was possible. Albert McCleery returned as the department’s first director with a staff that included William Riva (the highly regarded set designer), the aforementioned Edgar Kloten and eventually the distinguished Shakespearean actor Vaughn Deering. Vincent de O’Beirne, S.J. was chairman of the department (and the Mimes moderator) until the fall of 1949 when Alfred J. Barrett, S.J. took over. That same year Edgar Kloten became the theater department’s second and last director.
The shows produced by the Fordham University Theatre (F.U.T.) were often quite challenging, professional and drew an audience from the greater New York City community. They relied on a robust subscription campaign ($3.00 for six shows or a $1.20 per show) to cover expenses. The Mimes always received credit as co-producers. But its members, if not students in the theater department, were often relegated to bit parts or crew positions. One of the best examples of this is the 1948 production of Eugene O’Neill’s play Lazarus Laughed. The Fordham production was the New York premiere of the play. The only other time the play had been presented was at its world premiere at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in 1928. Perhaps the reason Fordham had the honor of producing the play was Mr. O’Neill’s family tie to Fordham. His son, Eugene, Jr., was a classics professor at Fordham while a generation earlier, his brother Jamie had been expelled from St. John’s College. The administration had not approved of Jamie bringing a prostitute on campus; an incident Mr. O’Neill had dramatized in his play A Moon for the Misbegotten. Or more likely, it was Fordham’s willingness to do the play. It was an overwhelming undertaking. One of O’Neill’s pageant-dramas, it was a four act play calling for a cast of 240 in the style of Greek plays, the majority making up the all-important chorus.
The set was to be the most intricate and elaborate ever seen on campus. The design was sixty-four feet by thirty feet and forty feet in depth. There were eight scene changes. A new cyclorama from the largest single piece of cloth ever woven was used with scenic projections from backstage. Eugene O’Neill planned on attending rehearsals but had to send his wife instead when he was hospitalized after breaking his leg. Mr. McCleeery cut the cast down by just about half, but he still needed every Mime he could get his hands on. They made up the chorus almost exclusively. As Paul Couglin, a former secretary of the Mimes, FCRH ’51 recalled, “I was third spear-chucker from the left.” Paul’s most lasting memory of the show was Marlene Dietrich. Ms. Dietrich was Bill Riva’s mother-in-law and she would attend the shows, especially if her daughter Maria had helped out. On the opening night Ms. Dietrich was late. The curtain had to be held so that Ms. Dietrich could “make her entrance.”
New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson attended the opening on April 8th, 1948, and reviewed the play. Of the play itself he wrote, “shallow, sophomoric and hortatory, Lazarus Laughed is practically unbearable in the theatre.” He was kinder on the production, “Fordham mummers have put together an elaborate production...the details and the various elements of the performance are good and often excellent.” The praise was enough to help keep the theater department operating for another four years.
Although the Mimes willingly worked alongside the staff and students of the Fordham University Theatre Department and the two groups mingled freely with little or no distinction between the two, the Mimes did display a degree of independence in the lunchtime productions they presented in Keating Little Theater. Their independence was the by-product of a certain generalization about the two groups that was often truer than not. A member of the Mimes and Mummers tended to be a fully matriculated student and an undergraduate in Fordham College. As such he was required to complete a core curriculum and remain a student in good standing. His schoolwork did not necessarily include courses in the theater division and he often participated in all aspects of student life at the university. In contrast, it was not unusual for a student in the theater department to skip classes or fail to complete course work. The staff of the theater division often held a blind eye to such irregularities. The play was the thing. In fact, if a particular actor was needed, he might be enrolled for a semester as a non-matriculated student just to fill a part. This contrast is embodied by two Fordham students of the time. William Windom, the famous character actor known for his role as Dr. Seth Hazlett in Murder, She Wrote, in addition to his numerous stage and screen appearances, starred as Romeo in Fordham’s 1948 production of Romeo and Juliet. He had been a paratrooper in WWII and joined the Biarritz American University Theatre in the summer of 1945 when he was stranded in Frankfurt as part of the Army of Occupation. Albert McCleery was the organizer and director of the Biarritz Theatre. When both men returned home, Mr. McCleery cast Mr. Windom as the lead in Richard III for the 1946 “Seminar of Theatre Practice” at Fordham. The seminar was a precursor to the theater division that would start the following fall. After the seminar, Mr. Windom joined the American Repertory Theatre, having signed a two-year contract with that organization. Free in the fall of 1948 when Mr. McCleery was in need of a Romeo, Mr. Windom was cast in the part.
Daniel Patrick Harrington FCRH ‘50 was the more typical Mime. He was a political theory major and elected a member of the Mimes’ Board of Directors his senior year. He was also the head of the social committee and featured in the more Mimes-dominated productions, the Ramblings of 1947 and the Ramblings of 1948 presented in the Penthouse Theatre. They were musical reviews, with most of the material original student work. Pat wrote the sketch “Still Life in the Ozarks” for the Ramblings of 1947. Of course Pat Harrington, like William Windom, would go on to a successful acting career. Another multitalented character actor, he is best remembered for his role as Dwayne Schneider in the popular TV sitcom, One Day at a Time. He won an Emmy for the role in 1984.
In 1949 Rev. Gannon retired as University president and left Fordham to pursue other interests. He served three terms as president of the State Association of Colleges and Universities, wrote seven books, including a biography of Cardinal Spellman whom he served as adviser during their twenty-year friendship, and even recorded the entire Jerusalem Bible on forty-eight cassette tapes for the blind. He died on March 12, 1978 at the age of 84. His successor was Laurence McGinley, S.J. Like President Gannon he warned against the dangers of liberalism but without a soft spot for dramatics, President McGinley was not predisposed to tolerate a division lacking in academic integrity. Factions within the Department of the Communication Arts were becoming more vocal in their opposition to the irregularities within the theater division. Of course, it didn’t help that old stereotypes regarding the loose values of “theater folks” were being fueled by rumors of drinking in Collins, women remaining in the theater long after rehearsals had ended and nonspecific accusations of activities not “representative of Fordham.” As Raymond Schroth, S.J FCRH ’55 wrote in an article for his 45th reunion book, “the drama department was a poisoned well of gossip and infighting.”
Nineteen fifty-two marked the breaking point when Mimesnite, an annual year-end Mimes’ variety show popular in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, was presented to the Fordham community. It included two controversial numbers both being performed for a second time (each number had been part of January’s A Trip to Syracuse production). One was a risqué number about a couple that no longer had to sleep together to stay warm now that they had an electric blanket. The second was a comic ballet in which a line of chorus boys danced with a decidedly atypical ballerina (she was short, overweight and not very graceful). The number was very funny and popular with the audience but considered vulgar by some in the administration.
The reaction was fairly swift and implemented unceremoniously in the summer months of 1952. When the students returned in the fall, they learned that Rev. Leo P. McLaughlin, S.J., the director of WFUV, had replaced Fr. Barrett as the head of the Communication Arts Department. Edgar Kloten and Bill Riva had “resigned” and all classes and productions in the theater department were suspended. Among those associated with the glory days of F.U.T. and the Mimes, only Fr. Barrett and Vaughn Deering remained. Fr. Barrett was moved to the Business School to write and teach religion and Mr. Deering taught speech and eventually became the director of practically every Mimes show from 1955 until 1968.
The exit of F.U.T. and the entrance of a newly independent Mimes and Mummers marked the exit and entrance of two more Mimes’ notables, G. Gordon Liddy FCRH ’52 and Alan Alda FCRH ’56. Mr. Liddy was a member of the Mimes and the business manager for several of the shows. He is currently a successful radio personality but is probably best remembered for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. He was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping, and received a twenty-year sentence. He served four and a half years in prison before his sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Liddy is a second generation Mime. His father, Sylvester Liddy FCRH ’23 served as Mimes’ president from 1922- 1923. Two of his sons, James FCRH ’84 and Thomas FCRH ’86 participated in Mimes’ shows in the 1980’s.
Alan Alda entered Fordham just as F.U.T. ended. The lack of a theater department, however, did not affect his desire to perform. He was an active Mime, participating in several main stage productions as well as the Jesuit Intercollegiate Play Festival. Mr. Alda has gone on to a successful acting career and is probably the Mimes’ most illustrious alumnus. An Oscar and Tony nominated actor, he is the only person ever to win an Emmy for acting, writing and directing. He is probably best remembered for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce in the television show, M*A*S*H, and is known to today’s audience for his role as Senator Arnold Vinick in The West Wing.
Although the Mimes had returned to their roots as a student group responsible for bringing theater to the Fordham Community, it wasn’t quite the same as the days before WWII. They proudly proclaimed in the program for the May 1953 production You Can’t Take It with You, “this is the first season in almost a decade in which the Mimes and Mummers have produced plays exclusively on their own resources.” But by the time Alan Alda graduated and the Mimes celebrated their centennial anniversary with the Thalians in a performance they named Etapes (the French word for stages), a definite shift in their position on campus was underway.
By 1956 the Mimes were losing their preeminence as a student activity. It wasn’t just the loss of the theater department but several factors. Student interests were changing and dramatics didn’t seem to have the appeal it once had. The Bronx was also changing. People were moving to the suburbs and the population around the university was undergoing a transformation. Without F.U.T.’s backing, the idea that an audience outside of Fordham might be interested in a Mimes’ production no longer seemed possible. Finally the University was less interested in dramatics as part of a student’s Jesuit education. Leftover resentments from the days of F.U.T. and the fear of making the same “mistakes” might have played a part, but in truth the focus had shifted downtown. Plans for a Lincoln Center campus would occupy the energy of the administration for the second half of the 1950’s and eventually shift any serious educational interest in theater to that location.
Fortunately, Vaughn Deering and Rev. John Leonard, S.J. were still at Fordham and had not given up on the Mimes. Both men tread softly in the wake of F.U.T.’s demise. Fr. Leonard had only just returned to Fordham in the fall of 1952 (having left in June of 1947 to complete his studies for the priesthood) and did not become moderator of the Mimes until 1954. His first contribution of note came in 1955 when he sought and received permission from Jesuit Superiors in Rome to enlist women from other Catholic colleges to participate in Mimes’ productions.
At first, Mr. Deering concentrated on teaching but gradually worked his way back into the theater. By 1955 he was directing the Mimes’ shows but the apathy of the administration and much of the student body was a challenge. By 1958 there was barely enough interest to get the shows produced let alone sustain an active student organization. In fact in 1959 and 1960, the Mimes’ Board of Directors ceased to exist when no officers were elected. The nadir occurred in early 1960 when an article in the RAM appeared, titled “Revive Theatre.” In it the author wrote, “the Mimes and Mummers have reached a standstill.”
The salvation of the Mimes occurred the same year when the Mimes presented The Curmudgeon. It was an ancient Greek comedy by Menander that had only recently been rediscovered in Switzerland in 1958. It is Menander’s oldest complete comedy and the Mimes’ 1960 production, in association with Fordham’s Greek Academy, was its American premier. Gilbert Highet, a Columbia University professor translated the play and Vaughn Deering directed. The show was a hit and boasted audience attendance comparable to days past. There were more than a thousand spectators of which less than one quarter were Fordham students.
The team of Vaughn Deering and Fr. Leonard or “Dutch” (as he was often called by the Mimes in those days) hit their stride in the 1960’s. After The Curmudgeon, things improved. The Board of Directors was reestablished in the fall of 1961 and Gabriel Lopez became president. For the Mimes of the 1960’s, Vaughn Deering was a much beloved mentor, credited by many as a guiding influence in their lives. His impact was particularly felt by two Mimes at Fordham at this time. Former Mimes’ vice-president, Philip LeStrange CBA ’64, credits Mr. Deering for much of his success. After graduation, Mr. LeStrange obtained a Masters of Fine Arts from Catholic University and started acting in regional and repertory theater. He returned to New York for the 1987 Broadway revival of The Front Page. Other Broadway credits include the original cast of Six Degrees of Separation and the recent musical comedy, Never Gonna Dance.
Encouraged by Mr. Deering to develop his writing skills, the one act plays Cooper’s Yard and Child’s Play by Ed Kelleher FCRH ’65 were performed by the Mimes in 1964 and 1965. Mr. Kelleher went on to achieve a certain cult status as the screenwriter of several B science fiction movies including Shriek of the Mutilated. But Mr. Deering’s most illustrious recipient of theatrical advice came late in his life. In 1974 he encouraged Denzel Washington to transfer to the College of Lincoln Center. Although not a Mime, Mr. Washington performed in many productions at Lincoln Center. He has been nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two. One for a best supporting role in the 1989 film Glory and as lead actor in 2001 for Training Day.
Another sign of the Mimes revitalization was the start of the Barrett Award first presented in 1964. In its inaugural year, two Mimes were selected as recipients, the aforementioned Gabriel Lopez FCRH ’64 and John Garbarino FCRH ‘64. The Barrett Award is presented in memory of Alfred Barrett, S.J. (the former head of the Communication Arts Department) who died November 9, 1955. The award is given to the Fordham College student who has exemplified the high levels set down by Fr. Barrett in theater at Fordham.
Two years later, the last remnant of F.U.T. was eliminated. Fordham’s theater-in-the-round, the Penthouse Theatre, the first theater of its kind on the East Coast, was converted into office space. It had been closed and used only as rehearsal space for several years but in 1966 it was gone for good.
By the late 1960’s American college campuses were becoming hotbeds for student protests. The Vietnam War was raging and young people were demanding to be heard. The sheer volume of the first baby boomers was forcing people to listen. Fordham was not exempt. In 1968, after Mr. Deering left the theater to teach full-time in the Communications Department and Fr. Leonard took a year-long sabbatical, control of the Mimes and Mummers passed from the hands of the faculty to the students. In a nod to the emerging student sentiments of independence, outgoing President Rev. Leo McLaughlin, S.J. urged Fr. Leonard to not return as moderator in the fall of 1969. The Mimes were officially without a moderator for the first time since 1873.
Considered a “club,” the Mimes became eligible for student activity money (subscriptions and box office receipts had funded the shows in the past). Their initial grant was generous and included a separate $4,000 (later reduced to $3,000) for a director’s fund. The Mimes also had the money to hire a full-time technical director, Gerald Patt. Under his tutelage the Mimes experienced a glimmer of some of the special technical effects of the past, but it was difficult for the theater to support real innovation. Falling plaster, poor ventilation, heating problems and deteriorating acoustics forced the Mimes to use outdated and dangerous equipment. Two accidents occurred in 1969 in preparation for the production of It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman. Frayed pulley ropes snapped under the weight of the actors. One student broke his arm and the second suffered head injuries. The University took no action and the Mimes used student activity money to try and fix some of the problems themselves.
Money may not have been a problem in its first years as a student club but independence was. New University President Michael Walsh, S.J. did not agree with his successor’s urging that the Mimes exist without a Jesuit moderator. He tried to reverse his predecessor’s decision but failed. University solvency and student protests like the one regarding Professor Friedland were more pressing issues. Professor Friedland was a popular teacher who had been denied tenure. In protest, students occupied the Administration Building on April 13, 1970. Classes were suspended for a day but the Mimes production of Marat/Sade went on. The play’s radical political overtones and a metaphor that questioned who were the real “inmates running the asylum,” was an irony not lost on the audience and the administration. The Mimes continued to challenge campus sensibilities with the 1971 production of The Balcony, whose poster featured a woman’s naked profile and a nearly bare breasted actress on stage. The initial generosity of the University, however, did not last and money soon became the more dominant problem. Productions became less controversial. Only the 1974 production of The Boys in the Band and the 1980 production of The Ritz, with their frank and unapologetic treatment of homosexuality, raised eyebrows in the administration for the remainder of the decade.
To achieve solvency, University costs were cut. In the fall of 1971, the full-time position of Collins Administrator, filled only three years earlier by Gerald Patt, was eliminated. A parttime position existed temporarily but even that was gone within another year. In 1974 the University eliminated the director’s fund and appointed Rev. Paul McCarren, S.J. director of the Mimes. The Mimes and Rev. McCarren got off on the wrong foot immediately. Arguments developed over McCarren’s direction and supposed lack of technical know-how. After his first year the Mimes refused to allow him to direct their shows and hired their own directors out of their student activity budget. After three years Rev. McCarren was gone but the Mimes never got the director’s fund back.
To combat some of the fiscal problems, the Mimes tried more audience-friendly fare. They settled on a format of producing four shows a year, typically that of a comedy, a classic, a musical and a drama. Musicals became the real crowd pleasers. The classic musical comedy Anything Goes, presented in 1974, started a pattern of producing at least one musical per year. The musical has remained a mainstay of the Mimes’ annual performance schedule and continues to be the Mimes’ most popular show every year.
Typically performed in the spring, the musical was also the transitional show for the organization’s Board of Directors. In 1974 Eric Schultz FCRH ’74 was the outgoing president of the Mimes but the incoming president was the real transition. Christine Boris FCRH ’75 was elected president but immediately resigned and vice-president-elect Sally Parry FCRH ’75 became the first woman to serve as president of the Mimes. Women continued to be leaders of the group. Over the last thirty-one years women have served as president eighteen times. A lasting monument to one such woman’s contribution was a scaffold purchased in 1978. A necessary piece of equipment for hanging lights in Collins Auditorium, the scaffold in use had been around for as long as anyone could remember. It was in a dangerously dilapidated condition. Two-term President, Alexandra Shepherd CBA ’79, lobbied the University tirelessly to obtain the funding necessary to replace it. The scaffold was christened “Alex” in her honor.
Nineteen seventy-eight was an important year for another reason. The vice-president of the Mimes, Tod Engle FCRH ’79, established the Johnny Awards (the appellation chosen for theater’s namesake). It’s a night for the Mimes to recognize the commitment of the outgoing seniors and to celebrate the success and failures of past performances. The evening ends with the presentation of the Johnny Award to a deserving senior who missed out on the Barrett or the Fechteler Awards. Nick Tullo FCRH ’78 was the first Johnny Award recipient. Mr. Engle probably didn’t realize it, but his efforts had a link to the past. In the 1920’s and 1930’s the Mimes had an annual dinner in which pins were presented to the Mimes who had earned enough points to be deemed worthy of such an honor. In the 1940’s and early 1950’s the Mimes had the MiMi’s. But it’s the Johnny Awards that have lasted. The Johnnies were enhanced in 2002 with the addition of the Miles Swanson Award, presented to the graduating senior that most contributed to the technical aspects of stagecraft while at Rose Hill. Jennifer Saeger FCRH ’02 was the first recipient.
Another link to the past was resurrected a few years later in the fall of 1981. The policy that all student groups must have a moderator was being enforced. Fortunately for the Mimes, Fr. Leonard had remained in the wings. From 1969 until 1981 he had been a dean and teacher at Fordham’s Prep school and was instrumental in the success of the dramatic program there. When the Mimes needed him he answered the call. The role of moderator had changed. The Mimes continued to choose the shows and hire the directors but in Fr. Leonard they had an advocate who was capable of stepping in when friction between a now more secular administration needed the reminder that dramatics were still a Jesuit educational tradition worth preserving.
Ten years later the University celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary. Times had definitely changed. Only fifty years earlier, when the University celebrated its centennial anniversary, the Mimes were an integral part of the celebration. This time around a theatrical fund-raiser for the 150th celebration was a professional affair that had nothing to do with the group except for the Mimes volunteers solicited to assist celebrity attendees at the event. The Mimes remained unfazed. In the years that followed they have continued to produce shows that have not only challenged the performers and the audience but also kept the tradition of dramatics alive on Rose Hill.
As Joseph Fechteler recognized in 1957 when he wrote to President McGinley, S.J. to establish the award bearing his name, “I am convinced that the training and experience provided by college stage productions contribute materially to the full development of the students who participate.” It’s that development that is the essence of the bond that connects all Mimes, a bond that is forged in the challenges presented in working together purely for the love of the outcome and the magic it can create.