Hull House Theater: The Early Days | Letters | Chicago Reader

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Hull House Theater: The Early Days

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To the editors:

For all the acclaim given to Robert Sickinger for his success at Hull House Theatre during the 1960's [Calendar, April 28] Hull House had, in fact, established itself as a center for innovative theater many years ago. The harsh economic realities of World War II abruptly ended a long tradition of stimulating performances on the Halsted Street stage; to his credit, it was Mr. Sickinger who revived the dream Jane Addams had envisioned 100 years ago.

Jane Addams was still alive in 1933 when I became associated with the Hull House Players. In the glory days of the "Little Theatre" movement, the Players enjoyed a national and even international reputation, sometimes taking their productions on tour to Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and a score of other cities. The first community theater in the United States, Hull House traces its thespian roots back to 1889 when it began enriching the lives of neighborhood audiences under the inspired leadership of Jane Addams and the extraordinary Laura Dainty Pelham, the group's first director.

In 1907, the English playwright John Galsworthy visited Hull House during a tour of America and saw a production there of one of his own plays. He was said to be so pleased with the treatment of his drama that he granted permission for Hull House to produce his work thereafter without the usual formality of securing rights.

Early Hull House productions were ambitious and adventuresome, with work by celebrated dramatists as well as new, yet-to-be-proven plays. In 1938, I appeared with the Players in a production of Robert Turney's Daughters of Atreus which was presented at the Goodman Theatre. To quote from program notes for that performance, "The Players have an avowed purpose of giving their patrons plays that have not heretofore been seen in Chicago . . ."

I appeared in several of the plays directed by Bob Sickinger, including Who Will Save the Plowboy?, his initial Hull House production. I admit that he was a very good director. However, to give all the credit to Mr. Sickinger is to overlook the solid foundation laid down by his predecessors, particularly one Maurice J. Cooney, whose exceptional directing skills were delighting both actors and audiences as far back as 1932. During those years, I appeared in most of the Hull House plays and have wonderful memories of Mr. Cooney, now deceased, and his work. It was men and women like him who built the distinguished legacy inherited by Robert Sickinger.

Wilfred R. Cleary

Chicago

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