It began over lunch in 1899.
Three young Indianapolis women were sharing a meal and discussing the social opportunities of the day. One of them, Miss Mary Ella “Melle” Colgan, told of a Greek play in which she had taken part her senior year at Smith College.
The friends, Nancy Baker and May Louise Shipp, were intrigued by her story, especially by the fact that male and female parts had all been performed by girls. The three women decided that it would be great fun to form a single women’s club for giving matinees. They sent invitations to 25 or so of their friends for an organizational meeting to be held at May Shipp’s. Their theme was “The Play’s the Thing,” and the response was enthusiastic.
Katherine Lewis offered the ballroom of her house at 10th and Meridian streets for the first theatrical performance. A play by W. S. Gilbert was selected, entitled Sweethearts. The cast consisted of Kate Lewis, Florence Malott, May Louis Shipp, and Jenny Graydon. It was given at 3:00 p.m., and tea and sandwiches were served following the show.
The second play, Over the Teacups, was given at the home of Elizabeth Dye. Elizabeth, in the role of the "Hero," was performing a difficult act: eating and drinking hot steaming tea. The heat dissolved the glue that attached the hero's mustache to her upper lip, and it fell into her teacup. The advantage of having men in the plays became immediately obvious. Before the next play was planned, Nancy Baker offered a revolutionary proposal: that the plays occur at night and that men be invited as guests of the club and serve as cast members. Miss Baker said, "Things are not much fun without men anyway."
The Register by William Dean Howells was chosen for the next presentation held in the ballroom of Mary Allen's residence at Thirteenth and Delaware streets (later the Knights of Columbus). The cast included Nancy Baker, Melle Colgan, Billy Taylor, and Maurice Butler, "a delightful actor, a man of most charming personality and the keenest wit, whose glorious singing voice still echoes down the corridors of time," according to Meredith Nicholson. An orchestra played behind the palms, the same used for the dance that followed, thus inaugurating the union of play and dance, which has been customary ever since.
Present on this occasion was Billy Kirk, a young man from Ireland, whose mechanical ability and talent for stage construction were huge assets for the Dramatic Club in the days that followed. The guests were delighted by the success of the affair. They begged to become “regulars,” something more than guests. Soon afterward at a board meeting, men and married people were received into membership. Elizabeth Dye was elected President. The Matinee Club thus became the Dramatic Club in 1890 with 149 members. It opened its first season with Engaged, a comedy by William S. Gilbert, given in the ballroom of the J. H. Baldwin house on Pennsylvania Street. The cast included Booth Tarkington, Horace Hord, Dan Thompson, Clarence Henning, Alvin S. Lockard, Austin H. Brown, Belle and Margaret Baldwin, Carrie Malott, Clara Shover, and Caroline Farquhar.
In a letter written on November 21, 1939, Elizabeth Dye Longnecker reminisced about the club’s official beginnings in May 1890. “We held a ‘business session’ at my home,” she recalled. “I remember that several days before the meeting Mr. John R. Wilson, an eminent lawyer, dean of the law school and a dear friend of my father's, came over one evening and told me that I needed to know ‘something of parliamentary law.’ He took me into the library and gave me two hours of intensive training. As President, I presided, nobly assisted through the tangles of organization by Mr. William Talbott and Mr. William Elliot, one on either side of me. We changed our constitution and took steps to become incorporated. Mr. Talbott and Mr. Elliot were most helpful in that.”
Among the men who became early members and were active in the success of the Dramatic Club were Hewitt Howland, Evans Woollen, Walter Williams, Samuel D. Miller, Maurice Butler, and William M. Taylor. The club's second President was William H. Talbott. His term began a tradition, maintained for many years thereafter except during the world wars, that a man would be President and a woman Vice-president. That tradition ended in 2007 with the selection of Mrs. John D. (Betsy) Cochran, Jr. as President.
William J. Brown, son of Austin Brown, called "the daddy of the Club" in its early years, was President in 1896 and again in 1911 and served on the board of directors for many years. He had great ability and a passion for acting. He loved the Dramatic Club from its beginning, and is believed to have served in more casts than any other member. Booth Tarkington, already the founder of the Princeton Triangle Club, wrote and acted for the Club and was elected President in 1894. Tarkington went on to become the famous playwright and author, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for his novel The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and again in 1922 for Alice Adams (1921), later adapted to the screen starring Katherine Hepburn.
Just after World War II, when dances had replaced the Christmas plays, Mrs. Albert Beveridge, Jr., who had come from Massachusetts, suggested the Boston custom of presenting daughters of proper age during the Christmas ball. Thinking that this proposal would add a new dimension to the dances and would please both the younger and older generations, Mrs. Conrad Ruckelshaus approached the Board with this suggestion in the fall of 1946. She did not consider it a debutante party, but a presentation of future members, both daughters and sons of current members. The first Cotillion was held in 1950 and it has been held regularly ever since. It has become a beloved club tradition with the daughters wearing white gowns and long gloves and the sons attired in tails and red sashes.
On the club’s 50th anniversary, veteran member Walter Williams looked back on the early days with fondness. “We were all active members, had to be, whether we had the talent or not. There were dismal failures, but the failures furnished most of the fun. We had little help in the way of coaching and no help from outside stagehands and scene shifters. Mr. Morris Ross, then dramatic critic with the Indianapolis News and a club member, would drop into the rehearsals at times and make suggestions. And I remember dimly Harvey Porter doing some coaching. He had been on the stage, knew some of the tricks and was a real help. But mainly we coached ourselves, put up our own stage and built our scenes. Brawn as well as brain made the actor. We stripped our own homes for properties, painted our own backgrounds when we couldn’t borrow or steal. We worked hard and loved it.”
A few things have changed from the early days. The club now hires professional directors to manage the productions and budgets about $10,000 per show. Members have had to learn the latest in sound and light board technology. In most respects, however, the club has stuck to tradition. Many of the surnames of those very first officers – Jameson, Lemcke, Bobbs, Taylor, to name just a few – can be found on today’s active roster, members still use their own homes for rehearsals, and they strip their living rooms bare for set designs.
The play is still the thing, members still work hard, and everyone still loves the Dramatic Club.
The Charter Members, with their later married names in parentheses, were:
Mary Ella Colgan, May Louise Shipp, Nancy Baker (Mrs. Evans Woolen, Sr.), May Alexander, Mary Allen (Mrs. William Mode Taylor), Emma Ayres (Mrs. William B. Wheelock), Florence Baker (Mrs. Jaquelin S. Holliday), Helen Baldwin, Margaret Baldwin, Margaret Berry (Mrs. Auchincloss of California), Elma Comly, Elizibeth Dye (Mrs. George Riley Longnecker of Maysville, Ky.), Rose Foster, Louise Garrard, Jane Graydon, Elizibeth Herod, Annie Holliday (Mrs. Henry W. Bennett), Alberta Johnson (Mrs. Joseph K. Sharpe, Jr.), Katherine Lewis (Mrs. Hall of London, England), Florence Malott (Mrs. Woodbury Treat Morris), Celina McKee (Mrs. Chase Merrill), Georgia Maxwell, Florence Miller (Mrs. Clifford Arrick), Josephine Rodison, Clara Shover, Eva Steele, Carrie Vajen (Mrs. Caroline Vajen Collins), Susie VanValkenberg.
Copyright 2016, The Dramatic Club, Inc.