The Department of Theatre & Dance reopened Klein Theatre on April 1 with a spectacular production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The theatre has been under renovation since August 2009 and now features state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, as well as new seats, draperies, lighting and interior finishes in the audience chamber and lobby. “We are thrilled with the opportunities our students will have in this gorgeous theatre,” remarked Gregg Stull, chair and professor of theatre. “I know our department, and our audiences, will reap the benefits of this renovation for many years to come.”
Theatre has always played an integral role in the life of the students and faculty at the University of Mary Washington. As Edward Alvey in his History of Mary Washington College, 1908-1972, wrote:
A high point in student entertainment in the second year of the school was the presentation on December 16, 1912, of Alice in Wonderland, with animal costumes designed by Olive Hinman of the faculty and made by students of the manual arts department. Over the years, theatre became central to the life of the institution, involving thousands of students in every aspect of production, as well as tens of thousands of local residents who comprise a very loyal audience for the plays and musicals produced by the Department.
Alice in Wonderland,1912
Alvey notes that a Director of Dramatic Arts was named in 1940, followed closely by the announcement of a major in dramatic arts to be offered within the Department of Dramatic Arts and Speech.
In the early years, students and faculty created theatre in the auditorium in Monroe Hall. In subsequent years, performances occurred in the open-air theatre (better known as the amphitheatre) and the theater in George Washington Hall, now known as Dodd Auditorium. Since the question of space is always a critical consideration in theatre, a brief mention in the November 14, 1950, edition of The Bullet no doubt caused tremendous excitement for the campus and community:
Dr. Morgan L. Combs, president of Mary Washington College, has announced that sealed bids are requested for construction of a Fine Arts Building which is designed to house all classes in fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, and dramatics. Bids will be opened on December 14, and it is hoped that construction can be started not later than January.
Seemingly right on schedule, The Bullet reported in February of 1951 that construction of the building was underway:
Situated on the former golf course facing College Avenue to the north of Seacobeck, the dining hall, the structure comprises a main building and two wings. The front portion of the central building contains classrooms on the first floor and two radio studios with control and production rooms, and additional instruction rooms on the second floor. Extending beyond this section is a two-story auditorium or small theatre seating around 300 persons. On one side of the stage is a scene shop and on the other a rehearsal room. Storage and dressing rooms will be located in the basement.
A mere eight months later, The Bullet reported that “under the auspices of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4, A.F. and A.M., ‘George Washington’s Mother Lodge’” faculty would join state and local dignitaries, along with the Masonic Quartet, the Mary Washington College Band, Dr. Morgan L. Combs (President of Mary Washington College), and The Hon. Colgate W. Darden, Jr. (President of the University of Virginia) to lay the cornerstone of the Fine Arts Building. The Bullet noted that
The middle front unit will be named Jessie Ball duPont Hall in honor of Mrs. Alfred I duPont of Wilmington, Delaware, and Ditchley, Virginia. Mrs. duPont is a native of Virginia and the closest living relative of Mary Ball Washington, Mother of the First President, for whom the college is named. [The] identical North and South units . . . will be named at a later date.
The Laying of the Cornerstone, 1951
Students and faculty moved into the new building at the start of the 1952-53 academic year. The Mary Washington College Theatre opened the Little Theater in the Fine Arts Center with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by Mark Sumner with technical direction by the newly hired Albert Klein and scenery by his wife, Debby Klein. In a review in The Bullet, Georgette St. Julienne noted that the production “was one of the best productions of the College Theatre of the past few years.” She further advises, “If the rest of the plays scheduled for this session are of as good quality as this first one in the series, then Mary Washington College students and faculty have a happy and exciting year of play going ahead of them.”
Blithe Spirit, 1952
The following spring, the College hosted a Fine Arts Festival to coincide with the dedication of the $1.1 million building (the second most expensive building in Fredericksburg’s history, according to The Bullet). The Concert Dance Club presented a series of folk dances, the Madrigal Singers sang a selection of pieces that represented four centuries of chamber music, and Albert Klein supervised a student-directed production of Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge. Throughout the two-day festival, an exhibit of 56 paintings by the masters hung in the galleries of Melchers Hall. The dedication included an academic procession in which more than 100 colleges, universities, and learned societies sent representatives. Doak S. Campbell, President of Florida State University, spoke from the loggia that connects Melchers and duPont Halls, praising President Combs’ vision for the College and, according to The Washington Post, described the Fine Arts Center as “tangible testimony of ‘the faith in the power of the arts to determine the equality of human living.’”
duPont Hall, 1952
By all accounts, the Department of Dramatic Arts and Speech flourished in its new home. With forays into international theatre, productions that travelled to other universities, and an active production program fueled by a cadre of dedicated students and faculty, the College became known for its commitment to the arts, and theatre, most especially. The community was stunned when on October 6, 1970, Dr. Klein suffered a heart attack and died quite suddenly. In an instant, the Department lost its much-loved leader and the College grieved the loss of one of its most respected faculty.
Albert R. Klein
In the months that followed, a group of faculty lobbied the administration to remember Dr. Klein by naming the Little Theater after him. In a few short months, this small group raised funds to not only dedicate the theatre to his memory, but also to establish a scholarship in his name. The Free Lance Star reported in September of 1971 that the College was remodeling the theatre in anticipation of the formal renaming of the duPont Little Theater as the Klein Memorial Theatre to coincide with a production of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. “A new act curtain for the theater will be installed just in time for the production, and new and specialized lighting will also be ready for the play.”
The Three Sisters, 1971
On October 22, 1971, Chancellor Grellet C. Simpson proclaimed the theatre to be thereafter known as the Albert Roger Klein Memorial Theatre, and he inaugurated the Albert R. Klein Memorial Scholarship. “Al would have taken pride, I am confident, in this building, which, in his time, he used to such great advantage. He would have taken greater pride in the awareness that his life and work would be continually remembered with new life and new work, new talent and new deeds, to body forth as best we can the essence of man’s hope and dream.”
Since the faculty began awarding the Klein Memorial Scholarships, well over one hundred students have benefitted from this extraordinary legacy that honors one of Mary Washington’s most influential citizens. Thousands more have come to know him through their participation in plays and musicals in the theatre that bears his name.
Aside from some paint and interior refreshing, the theatre has not had a significant renovation since duPont Hall opened in 1952. Over the years, lighting and sound systems were replaced as the equipment slid into obsolescence. The 2009-10 renovation of the theatre ensures that students will learn on state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. It also ensures that audiences will be comforted by new seating and interior finishes and will experience productions that take full advantage of the latest in theatrical technology. Most important, the theatre will continue to honor Albert R. Klein, whose life work continues to inspire all of us who call this theatre home.
The Department of Theatre and Dance has launched Take Your Seat, a campaign to establish the Fund for Theatrical Excellence. For more information on naming a seat in Klein Theatre, write Gregg Stull at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—reprinted from Romeo and Juliet production program, 2010