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The Past is Prologue

By Kirsten Wille

"Art is so deeply imbedded in our lives
that it can become as invisible as the air we breathe."

-Phyllis Haskell MFA'71,
Dean, College of Fine Arts, Associate Vice President for the Arts

The notion of Utah as a culturally constrained outpost of American provincialism has become so commonplace that it's almost unseemly to insinuate otherwise, much less claim pride in the state's rich artistic heritage. But mention any shortcomings to students of Utah's performing arts, and one will likely receive an earful about such luminaries as Maestro "Big Mo," ballet master "Mr. C," first lady of theater "Miss B," and the learned "Doc Lees." There is tremendous admiration in the state for Utah's performing arts and artists.

Amusing nicknames aren't all that these cultural giants have in common. They were also affiliated with the University of Utah, part of a tradition of artists, scholars, administrators, and patrons who, since the University's founding in 1850, have helped breathe life into the legacy of Utah arts.

The Era of Civilization
"Why were the arts so important to those early American settlers from the East Coast and Europe? Because good art is a very large part of what civilization is all about....Like the grandeur of our setting, the importance of the arts has never been in question in Utah."
-Robert Olpin BA'63, chair, Art and Art History

The truth is, Utah has never been without music, dance, or theater. Just months after the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley in 1849, the Tabernacle Choir held its first public performance. Also in 1849, at the request of one of the state's founding fathers, Brigham Young, the Deseret Musical and Dramatic Society was organized. And despite the interruption of two wars with the Ute Indians, several famines, and infestations of crop-ravaging grasshoppers, the old Salt Lake Theatre, host to numberless operatic, musical, and theatrical productions, was built in 1862.

Likewise, the U never lacked the civilizing influence of artists. In 1868, a published list of the first "Official University of Deseret Faculty" included Harmal Pratt, professor of instrumental music. Also among those teaching at that time were George Careless, skilled composer and conductor of the Tabernacle Choir and Salt Lake Theatre orchestra (the forerunner of the Utah Symphony); J.J. (John Jasper) McClellan, a 34-year-old Payson native, who also led the orchestra; Squire Coop, founder of The Oratorio Society of Utah, the oldest continuing musical organization in Utah outside the Tabernacle Choir; and Arthur P. Freber, symphony conductor and popular music teacher.
In 1869 John R. Park was appointed the University's first active president. As part of a successful reorganization program, in 1888 he created a school of music, answering "a sentiment throughout the Territory favorable to" it, he reportedly said. Among the four teachers comprising the music school's faculty was its principal, Evan Stephens, an accomplished vocalist and conductor of the Tabernacle Choir.

The music department was temporarily abolished in 1892. But even without formal organization, instruction continued, and, through the dedication of professors such as McClellan and Stephens, students in the 1900s organized several glee clubs, a Chapel Choir, and the University band, "the like of which [the] school [had] never seen before," according to The Chronicle.

Theater and dance appeared on campus with the 1892 arrival of Maud May Babcock. Affectionately known by her students as "Miss B," Babcock was the first woman on the faculty. She founded the U's departments of speech and physical education (the forerunners of theatre, dance, and the College of Health). By her retirement in 1938, she had produced more than 300 plays throughout the state and formed the University Dramatic Club, which holds the record in North America for the longest unbroken number of performances. Its now-legendary first production, Eleusinia, a revival of the old Greek festival of fruit and flowers dedicated to the goddess Demeter, occurred in 1895 at the Salt Lake Theatre. She also organized the first American professional theater company sponsored by a university, the Varsity Players. Babcock convinced British director Maurice Browne and his wife, Ellen, to head the company, which enjoyed great success until the flu epidemic of the '20s temporarily brought an end to public activities.

In 1929 the Salt Lake Theatre was razed. But construction of the University's Kingsbury Hall, a 2,000-seat performance space, was well under way. In 1930 the hall, which has since hosted first performances of the Repertory Dance Theatre, Ballet West, and the Utah Opera, opened with a production of Maeterlinck's The Bluebird. The venue has also been the residence of other University-grown, professional companies such as the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, the Utah Symphony, and Children's Dance Theatre.

During this formative period, the beginnings of ballet and modern dance are also evident. During the McClellan years of the Utah Symphony (1908-1911), concerts were held at the Christensen Dancing Academy, 137 East First South. It was probably during this time that the symphony forg-ed the beginnings of a lasting relationship with Utah Ballet. The academy was run by four Christensen brothers, one of whom, Willam F. Christensen (Mr.C), was founder and director of the University Theatre Ballet, now Ballet West, in the 1950s.

Modern dance began to take shape with the efforts of early faculty members such as Myrtle Clancy Knudsen, who believed that dance should be a creative art rather than an athletic exercise. She also organized Orchesis, a troupe that performed outdoors each May on the lawn west of the Museum of Natural History, until construction of Kingsbury Hall was complete and the performance was moved indoors.

The Modern or Postwar Era
"The fields of music, drama, dance, art, and architecture [should] be brought together and administered in a new School of Fine Arts."
-A. Ray Olpin, University President

As is the case with most universities, degree programs in the arts at the U are a product of this century. Ironically, it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that prompted the move of the arts from special schools and conservatories to college campuses across the nation. As fortunes of patrons dried up, desperate but resourceful artists sought sanctuary at government-subsidized educational institutions. This, coupled with an influx in enrollment associated with the return of WWII veterans in the mid-'40s, signaled the beginning of immense growth and change for universities and the arts.

At the U those changes were initiated by A. Ray Olpin who, in 1948, had the foresight to organize a College of Fine Arts and encourage a relationship between the University and luminaries such as LeRoy Robertson and Maurice Abravanel of the Utah Symphony; C. Lowell Lees (Doc Lees) BA'26, the nation's first recipient of a doctoral degree in theater; modern dance pioneer Elizabeth (Betty) Hayes; and the ubiquitous ballet master Christensen.

Suffering from a major financial crisis, the symphony requested rehearsal space in one of the buildings formerly occupied by the military at Fort Douglas. Olpin agreed, and in return, the orchestra's musicians, including its director and conductor Maurice Abravanel (Big Mo), instructed thousands of U music students. The eventual success and critical acclaim of the symphony is generally attributed to Abravanel, who, despite attractive offers, declined to abandon the orchestra during 32 years at its helm. Another benefit from the arrangement was the University's collaboration with LeRoy Robertson, a world-renowned composer, who is credited with having developed the U's doctoral program in music.

The Utah Symphony and Maestro Abravanel made the U's music department their home for two decades. As a result, many U students were recruited by the symphony to play-so many, in fact, that in 1958 the college's dean, Lowell Durham BA'41, asked Abravanel to refrain from hiring freshmen. He worried that students were neglecting their studies for professional advancement.

Even before this arrangement, however, the orchestra had performed in the pit at the U's Stadium Bowl for productions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Jerome Kern's Showboat. Both were produced under the direction of C. Lowell Lees BA'26, who came to the U in 1943 to run the theatre department, which became independent from the speech department under his direction in 1962. Lees is recognized as one of the nation's key figures in decentralizing and encouraging the growth of regional theater. His two goals for the department-to construct a duplicate of the Salt Lake Theatre on campus and to organize a theatre company -were fulfilled with the 1962 construction of Pioneer Memorial Theatre and the expansion of the University/Community Theatre from a nucleus of actors to a professional company offering an entire season of performances.

The success of Abravanel and Lees' stadium performances hastened plans for an annual summer festival. The first U Summer Festival performance, Promised Valley, appeared in the summer of 1948. Directed by a committee of "town and gown" professionals led by Abravanel, Lees, and newcomer Willam Christensen, the festivals were a smash hit for 11 golden summers.

The festivals also marked the rise of ballet in Utah and the Mountain West, owing to Mr. C's involvement. Because of his experience establishing the San Francisco Opera Ballet, Christensen was asked to handle the festival's dance portions. Not long afterward, he joined the U staff and founded the University Theater Ballet, which evolved into Civic Ballet and then into Ballet West. In 1955 he directed student performances of The Nutcracker to sellout crowds. The production was the first full-length Nutcracker, which served as a model for ballet companies across the nation.

Elizabeth Roth Hayes, one of a small cadre of women in the United States responsible for developing dance as a viable university subject, is credited with founding the nation's first teacher certification and major in dance at the U. The dance department has facilitated female leadership on campus ever since. For it was Hayes, Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe BS'50 (founders of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company), Linda Call Smith BFA'54 (founder of Repertory Dance Theatre), Virginia Tanner (founder of the Children's Dance Theatre), and later, Phyllis Haskell MFA'71, Abby Fiat, and Anne Riordan BS'56, who built the U's exceptional program. If not for the efforts of Hayes, Ririe, and Woodbury, dance might still be part of the U's physical education curriculum. Instead, dance's two cooperative yet autonomous departments, ballet and modern, are ranked in the nation's top three in their respective fields and housed in the Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance, one of only a handful of buildings around the world designed specifically for dance. And the success of the children's dance program on campus, developed by Virginia Tanner and Anne Cannon in the mid-'40s, has prompted public schools all over the country to better integrate arts training into their curricula.

In addition to symphonic music, the postwar era was also a period of growth for choral music. The music department appointed John Marlowe Nielson (1941-73) vocal instructor and choir director. He directed the University's Men's Chorus and, in 1950, founded the University Civic Chorale, which later became the Symphony Chorus (the official voice of the Utah Symphony). In 1976 he also founded the Pro-Musica choir, specializing in literature especially suited for a small virtuoso ensemble.

The Era of Professionalism and Experimentation
The U's pioneering efforts in film scholarship were a "product of the political youth movements of the '60s and the rejection of conventional academic disciplines by students on college campuses across the country."
-Tom Sobchack, professor of English and film studies

The early '60s heralded an era of professionalism for the U's established performing arts departments and experimentation for newer departments.

Often described as a "one-man music factory," music professor Ardean Watts MA'60 (1965-78) founded and served as the artistic director, producer, and conductor of the University Opera Company, which staged three productions a year. He also had his own jazz band before joining the U, where he taught opera workshop, chorus, orchestra, theory, and computer composition. In his spare time, he was associate conductor of the Utah Symphony, chaired the dance department, and conducted Ballet West performances. Other names of note are Bernell W. Hales BA'47, who joined the music faculty in 1965 and founded the Chamber Choir; Bill Fowler BA'50 PhD'54, who launched a jazz major and organized summer jazz festivals on campus; and Newell B. Weight, co-director of the Civic Chorale.

In 1964 Keith Engar BA'47 MA'48 was appointed chair of the theatre department. Having built the largest season subscription audience of any of the arts organizations in the state, he is noted for professionalizing Pioneer Memorial Theatre, one of about 15 professional theaters in the country affiliated with a university. In 1964, Babcock Theatre opened, providing a unique performing space for students.

In the summer of 1967, the U offered its first film class, a summer workshop on narrative film designed and taught by English Professor Tom Sobchack. The class grew in popularity and a year later was expanded into a three-quarter sequence in film history and theory to meet student demand. About the same time, the art department hired experimental filmmaker Mort Rosenfeld, who began teaching film production while working on his own films, Down in the Valley and Circle Game. The University became a base for a dynamic group of filmmakers, including Trent Harris, Ren Weiss MFA'74, Mike Cassidy, Judy Hallet, and C. Larry Roberts.

The U's film program, which was recently granted division status and autonomy from the theatre department, developed in sync with the local industry. Sobchack, Rosenfeld, and other innovators in film education helped launch and run the Utah Film Commission (1974), the Utah Cinema Council (1976), the Utah Film and Video Center (1979), and the first U.S. Film Festival (now the Sundance Film Festival), which was held in Salt Lake's Trolley Corners theaters (1978).

Finally, strides were taken in both dance departments with the formation of the Performing Dance Company (1978) and Utah Ballet (1980). Both resident groups compete and perform internationally.

These historical highlights hardly touch on the myriad people, events, and landmarks that have contributed to the performing arts at the University and at large. But it is undoubtedly through their efforts that the College of Fine Arts' performing arm represents one of the finest conservatory-studio campus operations in the country, as described by Olpin in a newsletter commemorating the U's sesquicentennial.

"We are now more than 100 teacher-artists, scholars, and specialists with 40 fields of expertise, holding faculty and staff appointments in five academic departments (art and art history, ballet, modern dance, music and theatre, and film and video studies)," he wrote.
There are many ways to measure the effect of these individual and collaborative efforts. The departmental lists of alumni who have "made it big" on the stage, in the boardroom, or in academia are staggering, as are the number of accomplishments and awards faculty receive every year. Top national rankings are held by both dance departments and by different components in music, theatre, and film. But perhaps the best way to measure the significance of the performing arts at the U is to think of life without them. Impossible, isn't it?

-Kirsten Wille BA'92 MA'97 is a writer in the office of University Communications.

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