Zach Theatre is older than it looks.
The standard history — which Zach itself has touted and which I’ve repeated — states that Austin’s regional theater was born in 1932.
Not so, it turns out. According to contemporary stories in newspaper archives now easily available online, what eventually became Zach premiered as the Austin Community Players in 1921. That troupe turned into Austin Little Theatre in 1927. It took the name Austin Civic Theater in 1949 and then Zachary Scott Theater Center in 1967.
Jazz hands: The troupe shortened its name to Zach Theatre in 2008.
Like other Austin arts groups that have reached or are reaching their centennial mark — in this series about artistic perseverance, we have already profiled the Austin Art League, Austin Symphony and the Contemporary Austin — Zach has gone by different names and has played different roles in the city.
Yet it has survived and thrived by putting on shows. In fact, it had done so well — spectacularly well — at the box office during recent years that the coronavirus pandemic hit Zach’s bottom line hard, leading to layoffs.
Like many other accomplished American regional theaters of today, Zach emerged from the independent and art theater movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that revolted against commercial theater, widely was seen as crass and itself threatened by the rise of cinema.
Even towns and cities smaller than Austin — the U.S. Census counted 34,876 residents here in 1920 — supported nonprofit "little theaters," part of a national movement that started out to provide experimental homes for drama. Artists, some paid, others not, often performed in intimate spaces with ambitions of literary seriousness and social reform.
In truth, these troupes often produced a lot of light entertainment, as well.
The first newspaper reference to the Austin Community Players, the direct ancestor of Zach, was published May 22, 1921. Charles D. Casey, president of the group, penned a manifesto under the headline "Little Theatre Movement in Austin: Art for Art’s Sake Is the Fundamental Idea."
On June 2, the Players announced its debut with three one-act plays — "Suppressed Desires," "The Course of Love" and "Neighbors" — to be performed at 8:15 p.m. on June 3, 1921, at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
The 1922 city directory lists that hall, likely upstairs, at 114 1/2 E. Ninth St. It was probably a remnant of the old Long’s Opera House, no longer standing.
Admission was set at 50 cents. On June 4, an unsigned review in the Austin Statesman deemed this premiere a "success."
Even during its first year, however, the Players faced a problem that plagues the Austin arts community today: "Organization Badly Handicapped by Lack of Some Suitable Place for Assemblies."
In October 1927, the Players "got serious" by adopting the earnest Little Theatre name, according to a newspaper announcement at the time. Mrs. Martin Anderson presided over the group that planned to compete in the Little Theatre one-play contest on April 1928 in Dallas. Its first show, however, was the comedic drama "The Patsy," which opened Nov. 4, 1927, at the Labor Temple. The show traveled to Lampasas and New Braunfels.
The Austin Little Theatre, which officially incorporated in 1932 — hence the confusion about the founding date — continued to produce regularly as late as 1949, when it was reorganized as the Austin Civic Theater. During the intervening years, the company had grown more ambitious in play selection, while its status on the social scene rose. It was considered an honor to become an invited member of the group, and membership allowed one to audition.
"Incorporating during the midst of the Depression says a lot about the fortitude of the thespians who founded the theater," says Zach Theatre artistic director Dave Steakley, reacting to our findings, "and the importance that entertainment, escape and storytelling plays when we are facing a national crisis. It also speaks to the central role that Austin Little Theatre was playing in the civic and cultural life of the city."
Here’s where the Zachary Scott name first comes in: The future Hollywood and Broadway star, scion of a locally distinguished family, directed shows at the Austin Little Theatre during the late 1930s, according to the Handbook of Texas. He went on to star, usually as suave characters, in more than 30 movies, including "Mildred Pierce" and "Danger Signal." He was nominated for an Academy Award for his acting in "The Southerner." In that movie, Scott was cast against type as a poor farmer.
In 1949, New Braunfels-born Mel Pape became the first paid director-manager of the Civic Theater. His first show was "The Drunkard" — the troupe produced a lot of such melodramas, often for comic effect, over the early years. The membership-based company still moved around from hall to hall, although Pape led the charge to build the troupe’s first semi-permanent stage.
By the mid-1950s, Pape had opened the "Playhouse" at 2828 Guadalupe St. There, Pape directed the group’s longest-running show up to that point: "Tobacco Road" played for 13 weeks in 1956.
A devastating fire destroyed the Playhouse later that year. Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield, who got her start with the Civic Theatre earlier in the decade, promoted a rebuilding fund.
The Playhouse reopened next at West Fifth and Lavaca streets, which this paper’s amusements editor, John Bustin, called "plush new quarters." Pape, however, left for a new post in Florida in 1957; there he became involved in the movie and television industries.
In 1959, the cheeky musical "Pal Joey" became the troupe’s next titleholder for longest-running show.
In 1965, the Civic Theater moved to yet another Playhouse, this one at 204 E. Fifth St. Its first attraction was "110 in the Shade," a musical written by University of Texas grads Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, best known for "The Fantasticks," the longest running musical in the U.S.
On June 11, 1967, the Civic Theater changed its name to the Zachary Scott Theater Center to honor the hometown hero who had returned to Austin often and died in 1965.
The troupe remained at its crumbling venue at 204 E. Fifth St., a onetime livery stable. Among its first directors were Chester Eitze, and, briefly, K. Orville Johnson, later known as prolific playwright and director Ken Johnson.
Without a home during the early 1970s, Zachary Scott Theater Center moved into its current campus at Riverside Drive and South Lamar Boulevard in 1972. It opened in April with the Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes," inside a new $175,000 structure built on city land. Donors raised most of the money.
Under various directors for two decades, the troupe produced balanced seasons of comedies, musicals, classics, children’s theater and newish plays. For instance, its first full season, announced for its new home in August 1972, consisted of "Blithe Spirit," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail," "The Tinder Box," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
In-house leaders such as Alice Wilson, Mavourneen Dwyer, Elota Patton, Ann Ciccolella, Alex Alford and Elisbeth Challener helped raise the profile of the company — long called "Zach" before the official name change — with expanded training, theater for youth, an added arena stage in 1990, then the magnificent Topfer Theatre in 2012.
Yet, first as managing director starting in 1991, then as artistic director beginning in 1998, it was Steakley who put his permanent stamp on the theater.
Steakley, who had cut his teeth with musical revues in the 1980s, never lost his golden touch with musical theater, from "Beehive" and "Dreamgirls" to "Gospel at Colonus" and "Ragtime" and beyond. He also deepened the theater’s links with formerly ignored audiences hungry for gravity by producing hard-hitting shows such as "Angels in America," "Notes from the Field," "All the Way," and "The Great Society."
In 1995, I wrote about the "Austinization of Zach." The company that was born from idealistic dreams many decades ago had come a long way from imitating theatrical trends from Europe and the East Coast. It had become truly indigenous and locally popular at the same time. It was a rare theatrical troupe that had crossed over into popular culture.
Plus, almost all longtime Austinites feel connected to Zach.
"Almost every night that I am in the theater someone approaches and says, ‘My grandad ...,’ ‘My aunt ...,’ ‘My mom ...,'" Steakley says, "and what follows is that their relative was either an actor, a designer, on the board of trustees, in a class where the theater brought performances to their school, a business that provided goods in support. The roots of Zach run deep and wide into the community and there is civic pride in its success, growth and national prominence."
I’m convinced that, once this pandemic is over, Zach will parade triumphantly into its 100th anniversary celebration.