Imagine a thorough local history on a key subject delivered in 45 minutes by three Ph.D.s who also happen to be entertainers.
That scholarly show was the highlight of the Angelina Eberly Luncheon to benefit the Austin History Center Association.
This year, the fundraiser, always full of friends and allowable nostalgia, took place at the Austin Club, which occupies the 1878 Millett Opera House, located at 110 E. Ninth St. Guests from the theater community were included among the backers of the Austin History Center, who recently helped land $14.5 million in bond money to update the semi-abandoned John Henry Faulk Library and secure space there for the center’s archives.
Charlotte Canning and Andrew Carlson from the University of Texas and Marcus McQuirter from Austin Community College started their discussion of performing arts in Austin with a speech from “My Awful Dad,” a thoroughly forgettable American play from 1875 that opened the Millett three years later.
Why would Carlson read from such a speech in such a lively manner? To remind us that a lot of what passed for theater in the 19th century — and since — was ephemeral, of the moment, not meant for posterity. Sometimes, “the play’s not the thing.”
The scholars said that theater can tell us, however, about geographic and economic growth, as well as about social trends, such as diversity and inclusion, for instance: “Austin has always been a very diverse city but not a very inclusive one.”
Although theaters were segregated well into the 20th century, Austin communities put on their own shows to represent themselves on the stage, “to show who we are and who we would like to be.”
Theaters were also segregated by class. At the Millett, those who sat on cushioned Windsor chairs in the parquet paid $1 a ticket, while the unruly “gallery gods” forked out 50 cents. To everyone’s benefit, an 1887 renovation delivered electrical lighting and probably better painted scenery.
It was a place to see and be seen. A story in the Austin Statesman advised women what style hats they should wear to see “Hamlet.”
Due to 19th-century revivals, Shakespeare was a populist playwright of sorts, and the greatest American Hamlet of the period, Edwin Booth, was the biggest star to play the Millett. The newspaper crowed in a newspaper way: “This puts Austin on the map culturally.”
Other stage material included melodramas, star turns, variety shows and racist minstrel shows. Meanwhile, amateurs were beginning to take charge of their art through the Little Theater movement, modeled on European art theaters, as well through educational theater at area colleges.
To this reporter’s surprise and delight, McQuirter reported that the Tillotson Players made national records as early as 1936, an intriguing note since Huston-Tillotson University does not now offer a theater training program.
McQuirter also brought us up to date on the city of Austin’s role in staging shows in parks and auditoriums, as well as efforts going back to the 1970s to support performances financially.
Independent and alternative theater companies followed in the late 20th century, while touring theater returned.
Nowadays, Austin theater is known abroad as cutting-edge and, at the same time, it reveals how we are working out our shared social problems.
The best quote of the luncheon was attributed to longtime Austin theater producer Norman Blumensaadt: “All theater should be of its community.”