The Fine Arts Building also played a significant role in the history of the American theater by hosting the landmark Chicago Little Theatre.
When the Fine Arts Building opened in 1885 as a Studebaker automobile show room no one could imagine the future of the elegant building designed by Solon S. Beman. In 1896 Studebaker moved its repository to Wabash Avenue and the fate of the now empty building was in the air.
Charles C. Curtiss, a well-known figure in Chicago’s music publishing world, had an answer; a Fine Arts Building modeled on the Weber Music Hall at 300 South Wabash created from a Sewing machine Company by the Weber piano manufacturers as a concert hall for serious music. The Weber Music Hall would close in 1916, a casualty of the Fine Arts Building’s success.
Charles Curtiss moved his offices to the Fine Arts Building: two theaters on the ground level, a recital hall connected to the Auditorium Theatre, and several hundred studios for artists and teachers of sundry persuasions, and Florence Ziegfeld’s Chicago Musical College, In all, the Fine Arts Building housed more than ten thousand students studying music.
Music and the visual arts dominated the activity of the new Fine Arts Building. Theatrical innovation was stifled by the development of theatrical monopolies known as the Syndicate.
Theatrical managers or booking agents with national influence united all the theatres they owned or represented into a national network. By 1900 the Syndicate controlled the approaches to all the major cities, even when independent theaters were left in the cities themselves; theatre managers no longer had any choice in the matter of what attractions would be presented. They took what the Syndicate gave them on the dates the Syndicate arranged, or their names were taken off the booking list, and they found themselves with no attractions whatso ever.
In 1911 thirty-year-old British poet Maurice Browne (1881-1955) arrived in Chicago from Florence, Italy along for his new fiancé Chicagoan Ellen Van Volkenburg (1882-1978). Ellen had some theatrical experience as a solo entertainer, but Maurice’s knowledge of the Theatre was all theoretical. He had read Gordon Craig, and the contemporary British, Irish, and continental playwrights, along with Gilbert Murray’s translations of Euripides. He had heard of the Abbey Players and the Moscow Art Theatre.
In his autobiography Browne explains their ambitions:
“Nellie Van’s ambition was to become a “really-truly” actress: mine, to write masterpieces of poetic drama; and we were both afire to see plays which the “commercial’ theatre – as we called it in those days – did not offer: Gilbert Murray’s translations of Euripides, the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw. We decided to start our own theatre; it was a logical conclusion. The fact that we had no money was of course irrelevant. But – so we thought, poor innocents – a small theatre would cost less than a large one; therefore ours was to be a little theatre.”[i]
“Little” describes both Browne’s stage and his auditorium. The dimensions of the stage were fifteen feet in width, eighteen feet in depth, and eleven feet nine inches above the stage floor to the ceiling. One wing space was approximately two feet wide. The other wing was three feet wide, so it served as prop room, storage room, scene dock, wardrobe, carpenter’s shop, paint shop and lighting booth. The back wall of the stage contained two doors, each the only way into the theater. One led onto the stage and the other to the auditorium. Lady Gregory counselled the founders:
“By all means start your theatre; but make it in your own image. Don’t engage professional players; they have been spoiled for your purpose. Engage and train, as we of the Abbey have done, amateurs; shopgirls, school-teachers, counter-jumpers; cut-throat- thieves rather than professional. And prepare to have your hearts broken.”[ii]
The auditorium itself held ninety-three seats. On the auditorium’s left stood a balustrade with pillars, behind which were several boxes. Behind the boxes was a row of French windows. Between the French windows and the boxes was the foyer in which was a book table upon which sat a bust of Ellen Van Volkenburg. On the auditorium’s left was a tearoom, adorned with Chinese tapestries and wood carvings. Tea was served, for seventy-five cents, during intermissions, at the end of the play, and on weekday afternoons from four to six. Programs printed on rice paper were available at the cost of ten cents.
Like its English and European counterparts Browne’s theater operated by subscription. Membership costs $10.00 a year, or $50.00 for life. Individual admission was $1.00, subscribers paid half price.
The first performance occurred on November 12, 1912, with two one-act plays – the British poet Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s Womankind and William Butkler Yeats On Baile’s Strand. These were followed by a performance of Arthur Schnitzler’s Anatol, seven short, related plays about a Viennese man-about town. The third production was Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides The Trojan Women. The group then decided touring might be the thing to do. The Chicago Little Theatre then set out to evangelize for their type of “little theatre” with performances in Boston, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kankakee, and Kansas City. The first season ended with the theater’s debt considerably higher than when the season opened.
Patrons from the city’s upper echelon of fashion and culture contributed – Arthur Aldis, Mrs. J. Ogden Armour, Mrs. Chauncey Blair, and Mr. and Mrs. Julius Rosenwald. The contributions enabled Browne and Van Volkenberg to continue to draw their modest joint salary of $15.00 a week.
A vacation to Munich Germany opened the eyes of Ellen Van Volken berg to a fascinating possibility for their Little Theatre of Chicago- adult puppet plays. Upon return to their home city Ellen brought the idea to fruition with her first of several puppet plays- The Deluded Dragon, based on a Japanese legend.
The breakout of war in Europe in 1914 caused Browne to do his part for peace. He decided to tour the production of The Trojan Women, billed as “the World’s Greatest Peace Play”. So renowned did the production become that it was the only theatrical event invited to San Francisco’s six thousand seat Panama-Pacific International Expositionl.. Meanwhile season five would prove to be the last for the Chicago Little Theatre, as Browne and Curtiss argued over past due rent, and America’s entry into the Great War made attendance at a notoriously pacifist organization almost an act of treason.
In five seasons the Chicago Little Theatre had presented forty-four plays, including works by Andreyev, Euripides, Shaw, Strindberg, Synge, and Yeats, including eighteen world premieres and seven American premieres. In addition to the full production schedule, Browne supervised a membership discussion group featuring the people in the headlines of current cultural events. Subscribers could attend with out change, non-subscribers were charged $1.00.The Tuesday afternoon get-togethers featured speakers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Harley Granville Barker, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Charles ran Kennedy, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandberg, Jane Adams, Sara Allgood, John Barrymore, Rupert Brooke, Clarence Darrow, Théodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, Percy MacKaye, John Masefield, Harriet Monroe, Catherine Nesbitt, and B. Iden Payne.
The theater’s actors had all been amateurs. Browne cast against type and encouraged simplicity of expression, and attention to the language of the text. The philosophy regarding stage scenery and costumes was influenced by the then dominant theoretician, Edward Gordon Craig. The simple and suggestive scenic elements were designed by a graduate of the Art Institute and an instructor at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, Raymond Jonson (1891-1982), who would go on to a distinguished career as a painter. The lighting of the plays was catch-as-catch-can. Footlights were replaced by boxes of lights which could be located almost anywhere. Dishpans served as floodlights, and funnels as spotlights. A cyclorama was purchased to create mood backgrounds. The house lights could be manipulated by a dimmer switch, a novelty for the time.
By the time of the Chicago Little Theatre’s demise, the syndicate was showing signs of collapse. The managers of many plays were leaving Syndicate control. Circuits of theatres were declaring their independence. Eventually 1200 small town theater owners throughout the country united to form the National Theatre Owners Association and declared their right to book whatever attractions they wished through the booking agency of their choice. The monopoly road of touring shows was over. Broadway remained the center of professional theatre activity, as they rest of the country looked for alternatives.
Cleveland, Ohio acted first. In 1915, aa small group of prominent citizens met to discuss the possibility of forming an art theater similar to that of the Chicago Little Theater. The man they named director of the Cleveland Play House, Raymond O’Neil, was, like Maurice Browne, a devotee of Gordon Craig. The founders of the Play House were, like Ellen Van Volkenburg, bohemians, suffragettes, and pacifists. In 1917 they opened the 160 seat Cedar Avenue Theater.
The Chicago Little Theatre model had taken root somewhere else. At the end of 1912 there were two Little Theatres in the country. Five years later there were said to be more than thirty within a radius of fifty miles of Times Square, more than three hundred beyond it. By the 1920s there were thousands as part of “The American Little Theatre Movement.’
What came to be known as the “American Regional Theatre Movement” sprouted from the seeds of the Chicago Little Theatre.
The existence of motion pictures had resulted in the conversion of thousands of theaters into movie palaces, and the unemployment of thousands of regional actors and stage technicians. The United States Congress passed Senate bill 2642 in 1935 to establish the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), a non-profit corporation to support 1) the presentation of theatrical productions, 2) the stimulation of public interest in drama, and 3) the development of the art and technique of the theatre through a school within the organization. Professional theater, a rarity outside of New York City, was about to spread through out the land.
In 1947 Margo Jones (1911-1955) opened the Dallas Theatre Center and Nina Vance (1914-1980) the Alley Theatre in Philadelphia. In Washington D.C,. Zelda Fichandler (1924-2016) started plans for her Arena Stage. The Ford Foundation encouraged the trend by funding the Theater Communications Group in 1961, which by 2014, had 700 member professional theaters across the country.
[i] Maurice Browne, Too Late to Lament. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956, p.111.
[ii] Browne, p. 116,