Women Take Center Stage in Baylor University’s New Texas Theater Exhibit

The Alamo Theater Choir in Waco (top photo) represents one of the ways women have contributed to theater in Texas. Photo courtesy of The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Once described by one reporter as “a pint-sized whirlwind,” Waco theater manager and pianist Gussie Oscar was a force to be reckoned with. Born in 1875 in Calvert, where her family owned the Casimir Opera House and Grand Hotel, she was arrested at least twice for opening the Waco Auditorium on Sundays – allegedly scheduled ‘racy’ acts like football games. wrestling and backup singers dressed in boyish outfits – in violation of the city’s Sunday closing laws. She was also the conductor of an all-female orchestra.

Oscar is one of many intriguing showbiz pioneers featured in the exhibition Texas Women and Theater: People, Places and Performances. To see at Texas Collection at Baylor University through May 31, it shines the spotlight on several Texas women who may be unknown for their contributions to the theatrical arts.

“We wanted to show the diversity of women in the history of Texas theater, not only culturally, but also in terms of the women who wrote, performed, directed, managed and supported live performances in the state” , explains Sylvia Hernandez, archivist of the Texas Collection who co-organized the exhibition.

Along with photographs and audio recordings, the exhibition features posters, scrapbooks, programs, scripts and other theatrical ephemera. All materials on display are drawn from the collection’s extensive holdings, described in a university brochure as “Texana’s largest collection in the United States”.

When it comes to performer diversity, you can start with Doris Goodrich Jones, aka the “Waco Puppet Lady.” She is pictured with four audio recordings of her puppet shows and her handmade puppet by prolific German sculptor Elisabet Ney, who has lived most of her life in Austin. Jones, who was born in Temple in 1902, toured all over Texas performing puppet shows for which she did everything: voices, sound effects, movements and music. As the little dog Kickapoo says in the sketch of Jones To make friends“I know everything.”

Then there’s mezzo-contralto Laura W. Maverick. Described as “one of the first performers of his status to incorporate Mexican music into his repertoire”, Maverick was born into a legendary family in San Antonio in 1878. His grandfather, Samuel Maverick, signed the declaration of Texas independence. A large promotional poster featured in the exhibit was created and distributed by his New York management company after his acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall in 1912.

One of the most powerful women in Houston theater was actress, educator, and director Nina Vance, who sent out 214 penny postcards in 1947, soliciting responses from those interested in starting a new theater. More than 100 theater enthusiasts answered the call, giving birth to the Alley Theatre. Vance is represented in the exhibition with the programs of two productions she directed, Rudolf Wilhelm Besier The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Thornton Wilder The skin of our teeth.

In the early 1930s, playwright Annie K. Randle became one of the first black female students at Baylor. After moving to Waco with her family at age 19 in 1906, she attended Central Texas College and was introduced to acting. Later in her life, she was chosen to attend Baylor, where she learned more about professional theater. She then taught drama in local schools and wrote plays such as The voice of the thread and The blood is calling. A program for a production of the first title is included in the exhibition.

Erma Lewis was another influential black contributor. His story is featured in a book on black performance in the state called Stages of Struggle and Celebration: A History of Black Theater Production in Texas by Sandra M. Mayo and Elvin Holt. She founded the Sojourner Truth Players in Fort Worth in 1972, and until her death a decade later produced many well-known dramas about the black experience for Cowtown audiences.

Throughout the exhibition, there are interesting elements that resonate with today’s audience. A program for a 1917 recital in Marlin that featured Waco soprano Naomi Ruth Cobb and her soon-to-be-famous nephew, baritone Julius L. Cobb “Jules” Bledsoe, warned, “Perfect silence is demanded of the audience during Numbers .” The past version of “turn off your cell phone”.

A small section of the exhibit discusses the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 and how it prompted many artists to migrate north of the Rio Grande. Books on the history of Mexican American theater offer visuals and information on institutions such as La Compania Villalongin de San Antonio and Colon Theater from El Paso.

Founded in Nuevo Leon in the late 1840s, the family troupe La Compania Villalongin performed occasionally north of the border before establishing a residence in the town of Alamo in 1911. In West Texas, El Teatro Colon opened in 1919, with offerings that included live performances. of silent film actress Mimí Derba, concerts by Lerdo de Tejada’s orchestra, and the 1919 film about a real crime wave of 1915 in Mexico City, El automovil gray.

For clues to how far American and Texas culture has come, just look at two illustrations in a souvenir booklet from the 1910 Majestic Theater in Houston. The first shows a “Men’s Smoking Room”, while the other depicts a “Downstairs Ladies’ Nursery and Retirement Room”. The latter is described as “essential to the pleasure and convenience of women and children”.

Enlightening and revealing, these little-known stories about the women who contributed to Texas theater might inspire a budding historian or archivist to create a second act on the subject. Or it might inspire a young woman to believe that she, like Gussie Oscar or Nina Vance, can find her own place in Texas theater history. If so, I’ll be lining up to buy a ticket.

The Texas Collection is located in the Carroll Library at Fifth and Speight Streets on the Baylor University campus. More information can be found here.

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