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About American Theatre Wing

ATW History of ATW


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If a Tony is ever given to the longest-running service organization in the theatre, it should go to the American Theatre Wing. On the eve of America's entry into the first World War in 1917, seven ladies of theatre-Rachel Crothers, Louise Closser Hale, Dorothy Donnelly, Josephine Hull, Minnie Dupree, Bessie Tyree and Louise Drew-converged to discuss the possibility of forming an organization to aid in war relief. At the meeting, these ladies decided to summon members of the theatre world together to determine how to contribute to the war effort. Two weeks later people representing every segment of the family of theatre-from the internationally famous to wardrobe mistresses, stagehands, and producers-packed the Hudson Theatre to its doors.

The Stage Women's War Relief was born and began operation within the next few weeks. The organization established workrooms for sewing, with total output totaling 1,863,645 articles; clothing and food collection centers; a canteen on Broadway for servicemen; and began sending troops of entertainers to perform wherever needed. Perhaps most significantly, speakers, trained by the organization, sold Liberty Bonds. As Rachel Crothers stated in her report on the activities of the Stage Women's War Relief during the Great War, "Whereas The Stage Women's War Relief amassed for its own disbursement $241,602.72-for other War Reliefs and for our country we raised the sum of $6,996,678.87." Through the vision and patriotism of the theatre community, the Stage Women's War Relief became one of the most significant and active relief organizations in the world.

Although the need for relief activities diminished after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Ms. Crothers and her comrades continued their activities. In 1920, theatre men formed a brother committee to work with the women on behalf of the civilian population still recovering from the hardships of the war.

In 1939, the United States government asked Rachel Crothers to reactivate her committee. In January 1940, Ms. Crothers along with Josephine Hull, Minnie Dupree, Antoinette Perry, Vera Allen, Gertrude Lawrence, Lucile Watson, Theresa Helburn and Edith Atwater formed the American Theatre Wing under the auspices of the "Allied Relief Fund." Later the Allied Fund merged with the British War Relief Society. During the two years before the United States entered the War, the American Theatre Wing gave $81,760.45 in civilian aid to Britain, including more than $40,000 raised in a benefit staged by Gilbert Miller, chairman of the men's division.

During this time, many of the theatre's most distinguished performers worked far away from the footlights. Minutes from a June 4, 1940 meeting show that the workroom committee headed by Lucile Watson included Peggy Conklin, Ruth Gordon, Uta Hagen and Vivian Vance. Crothers stated of these efforts: "There is no glamour in this workroom but a great deal of glory-because of its steadfast marching growth-the result of long hours of hard work."

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Wing became an independent organization. Moving into Wing Headquarters - Louise Beck, Kim Hunter, Doris Marcuse and Patricia Neal The charter states: "To render voluntary service and aid toward the successful prosecution by the United States of the war in which it is now engaged…It is primarily a War Service Corporation with emphasis on the service functions and features of such work." Forty-three members-- a "Who's Who" of the theatre-comprised the executive board. Rachel Crothers served as president; Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Hayes and Vera Allen served as vice-presidents; and Josephine Hull was treasurer. Antoinette Perry served as both chairman of the board and secretary.

The men's executive committee included Gilbert Miller, Brooks Atkinson, George S. Kaufman, Raymond Massey, Brock Pemberton, Billy Rose, Lee Shubert, Max Gordon and Vinton Freedley.

After the United States entered the war, the Hudson Theatre again served as the scene for a mass meeting of the entertainment industry; many of the Wing's most famous and effective activities, including the legendary Stage Door Canteens, resulted from these efforts. Postcard from the Washington, DC Stage Door Canteen Eight Stage Door Canteens throughout the United States as well as in London and Paris served soldiers. In New York, Jane Cowl and Selena Royle served as the co-chairs of the Canteen. Opened on March 2, 1942 in the 44th Street Theatre, donated by Lee Shubert, the New York Stage Door Canteen serviced an average of 3,000 servicemen a night. In an average night, according to Marian Moore, the co-chair of food preparation, the Canteen served: 2000 sandwiches, 3000 slices of cake or doughnuts, 1000 half pints of milk, 80 gallons of fruit juice and cider, 25 lbs. of candy, six crates of fruit and 5,000 cigarettes. Theatrical luminaries gave of their time and talents in the Canteens. Katharine Cornell gladly cleaned off tables, Marlene Dietrich frequently assisted at the milk bar, Radie Harris brought in talent to work at the Canteen, Jean Dalrymple chaired the publicity committee and lyricist Dorothy Fields became a master at washing pots and pans. Alfred Lunt, who was considered a master chef, refused to cook. "Put me on garbage," he requested.

"The garbage?" gasped his stricken colleagues, "why the garbage?"

"Because I want to see what they're not eating," he replied, "and then we can adjust the menus."

In 1971, actress Paula Laurence reminisced about life in the Canteen: "Those of us who could entertain the troops, did; those who couldn't, danced with the servicemen, waited on tables or washed dishes with considerably more skill than the high-priced help which served us at home. We were all performing a needed service and vice-versa, for all these activities were wondrously therapeutic in relieving the guilts we all suffered because our lives were comparatively undisturbed; we weren't flying bombers or being shipped to crematoriums."

Providing a magical escape from the War, the Stage Door Canteens served both a moral and a spiritual duty-enabling soldiers and civilians to joyously remember a time of peace and to look forward to the day when the forces of justice would again triumph.

Although the famous Stage Door Canteens provide the fodder by which legends grow, the Wing's reach extended well beyond 44th Street. At the height of the war, the Wing sponsored fifty-four separate programs-in New York and around the world-any one of which ranked as a major war service. With the money earned from the movie Stage Door Canteen, the Wing gave $75,000 to the USO to inaugurate legitimate drama as entertainment for soldiers overseas. Katharine Cornell, the veritable actress of such dark beauty, starred in the first play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

The Victory Players, which also produced legitimate theatre, enlightened and inspired civilians on the home front with its plays teaching families how to deal, emotionally and pragmatically, with their loved ones returning from war. From February 1942 through October 1945, the Victory Players gave 1004 performances in the New York area comprising 4451 individual performances by actors. The Victory Players even performed to an audience estimated at 100,000 in Central Park.

The weekly radio program "Stage Door Canteen" raised income and just as in the Great War, the Wing trained speakers to sell bonds. The "Lunchtime Follies", a series of revues, entertained workers in defense plants, although lunch often occurred at midnight.

Wartime also saw the launch of the Hospital Entertainment program, which still prospers today. Esther Hawley, who later won a Special Tony Award®, organized the hospital committee in 1943. Vera Allen, Ben Grauer, Elaine Perry and Russel Crouse are but a few who were active on the hospital committee. In total, during the War and the first eight months after, the Wing sent out nearly 6,700 ward units. At the Wing's peak the hospital program served 25 hospitals within a radius of 75 miles of New York. The Wing sent out about 1,200 entertainers each month. During the same period, flying with the Naval Air Corps, the Wing sent units to ten Naval and Marine hospitals. In all, the Navy flew in 97 units, including plays, using 617 people, for weekend hospital performances.

During the first postwar year, the Hospital Program still sent out 650 people a month. Branches of the Wing in Washington, D.C. and Boston had equally impressive records.

When the war ended, the Wing turned its attention to the returning veteran. On September 13, 1945, a letter went to all members calling for the first meeting of the planning committee for postwar activities. The committee met the following week, and soon the Wing adapted its programs to fill the needs of post-war America. The Wing's two lofty purposes-to further the welfare of the theatre itself and to utilize the resources of the theatre in the service of the community-remained at the forefront of the Wing's actions and undertakings. The changes at the Wing mirrored the changes of the Allied Powers, as victory brought a renewed focus on life at home. For those families beginning to face the homecoming of wounded and the problems brought on by separation, the Wing changed the name of the Victory Players to the Community Players. The Community Players commissioned plays for such organizations as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the American Red Cross and the National Association for Mental Health. These half-hour sketches focused on many problems plaguing domestic society-poverty, cancer, safety, race relations and mental health. Written by outstanding American playwrights, these plays served as catalysts for family discussion. Katharine Cornell and Mrs. Henry N. Pratt led the Community Players as co-chairwomen, and Vera Allen, Mrs. Paul Raymer and Cornelia Otis Skinner served as vice-chairwomen. In 1958, the Community Players were rechristened Plays for Living.

In the spring of 1947 the Wing took another dramatic step. A specialized recreation program was launched, and the teaching of its technique to staff and volunteer workers in each of the neuropsychiatric hospitals under the Veterans Administration was started. Teams of Wing actresses, selected for their experience and particular qualities, resigned their theatre and radio jobs for a three-and-a-half month tour.

The Wing also dedicated itself to educating those who served the Allied Powers during the War and put into motion a plan to build a theatre school for the returning veteran. Founded by Vera Allen, Mary Hunter and Winston O'Keefe, the American Theatre Wing Professional School opened its doors on July 8, 1946. Theresa Helburn, Maurice Evans and Louis Simon were among those on the advisory committee. Mr. O'Keefe served as director, later succeeded by Mr. Simon.

School hours were 10 AM to midnight, and the students hailed from all areas of theatre, representing every theatrical union. The original curriculum grew from twenty-three to fifty courses offered.

To name all those who taught would be to list almost every distinguished name from theatre, television, the opera, and music. Lehman Engel, Leon Barzin and Joseph Rosenstock taught conducting. Alfred Lunt, Eva Le Gallienne, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Cyril Ritchard, José Ferrer and Maureen Stapleton taught acting. Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, José Limon, Charles Weidman, Ray Bolger and Katherine Dunham taught dance. Kermit Bloomgarden lectured on producing and brought in fellow producers as guests. Delbert Mann and Ezra Stone headed TV workshops.

There were courses in Hebrew liturgical singing and repertoire, business and stage management, and one on music for actors and directors taught by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. John Houseman, Uta Hagen, Harold Clurman, Henry Fonda, Tennessee Williams, Alfred Drake and Arthur Miller all gave guest lectures.

Among Wing students, all professionals, but not yet famous, were: George Burns, Richard Chamberlin, Bob Fosse, Charlton Heston, Pat Hingle, Gordon MacRae, Russell Nype, Geraldine Page, Christopher Plummer, Tony Randall, Jason Robards, Jr., William Warfield and James Whitmore, as well as leading singers of the Met and the New York City Opera Company who came to improve their acting. Marge and Gower Champion, already a starring dance team, came to study music.

At its peak, the school enrolled 1,200 students, many of them studying on their GI Bill of Rights. The school continued to fulfill its obligation to veterans until its close in 1965. In 1951, the program opened to civilians, and in 1952, to experienced non-professionals.

Isabelle Stevenson

Throughout the years, many of the most eminent women in the theatre community have led the Wing. Vera Allen succeeded Antoinette Perry as chairman in 1946 for one term, followed by Mrs. Martin Beck and Helen Menken who served in that position until she became president in 1957. Helen Hayes succeeded Rachel Crothers as president in 1950, and Helen Menken followed Ms. Hayes as president in 1957. After Helen Menken's death in 1966, Isabelle Stevenson, who had been a board member since 1957, assumed the presidency. Under her leadership, the Wing's programs continued to expand. She created the "Working in the Theatre" seminars and also the Theatre-In-Schools program. In keeping with the tradition, Mrs. Stevenson had been actively engaged in the theatre and, prior to her marriage, appeared in theatres throughout the country, Europe and Australia. Mrs. Stevenson served as president until 1998 when she became chairman of the board and Broadway producer Roy A. Somlyo took the helm as the first male president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing. Somlyo was succeeded in 2003 by Executive Director Howard Sherman, a veteran of not-for-profit theaters and Connecticut and New York.

A primary activity of the American Theatre Wing is its "Working in the Theatre" seminars, begun in 1973 and televised on CUNY-TV since 1979. Held in the spring and fall of each year for students, professional members of the theatrical unions and members of the American Theatre Wing the seminars offer the opportunity to listen and talk to some of America's most distinguished actors, directors, producers, designers and playwrights. Theatre professionals moderate these seminars, which have been hosted by Isabelle Stevenson. The list of participants includes such luminaries as: Glenn Close, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Sandy Duncan, Mary Tyler Moore, Ann Reinking, John Malkovich, Sigourney Weaver, Marlo Thomas, Swoosie Kurtz, Blythe Danner, Frank Langella, Lynn Redgrave, Michael Crawford, John Lithgow, Kate Nelligan, Ed Asner, Madeline Kahn, Joan Allen, Vanessa Redgrave, Kathleen Turner, Jane Alexander, Stockard Channing, Richard Dreyfuss, Martin Short, David Cassidy, Mickey Rooney, Gregory Hines, Christine Baranski, Judd Hirsch, Julie Harris, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Valerie Harper, Nathan Lane, Nell Carter, Joel Grey, Billy Crudup, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Harold Prince, Tommy Tune, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Patrick Stewart and Brian Dennehy. The seminars conclude with a period of questions from the audience. Taped at the studios of the City University of New York, the seminars are shown five times a week on CUNY-TV, on MetroGuide, and cable systems in California. The Wing distributes edited versions to schools and libraries across the country and PBS offers them to educational systems nationally; they are also now available as streaming video on this website.

A supplemental video series, "Guides to Careers in the Theater," features noted practitioners within the many disciplines that make up this creative industry discussing their particular area of expertise. These programs are also available on this site and have been distributed, like the seminars, to schools and libraries across the country.

In recent years, the Wing's grant programs have been expanded to encompass 50 of the city's not-for-profit institutional theaters, ranging from Theater by the Blind and INTAR and to Roundabout Theatre Company and Lincoln Center Theatre, as well as service organizations like ART/NY and the National Alliance of Musical Theatre.

The Wing remains a not-for-profit organization, and private and corporate contributions, membership dues, fundraising efforts, and a portion of the proceeds from the annual Tony Award telecast support its programs. The idea of professional service to the community and high quality of performance exemplified by Rachel Crothers back in 1917 continues in the Wing's present activities.