Cap and Bells: 100 years of drama and famous names

Cap and Bells, the only student-run theater organization at Williams celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Founded in 1898, the organization has tenaciously survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and the introduction of a college theater department.

Before Cap and Bells was founded, six student theater organizations had existed on campus. The first of these was the Williams Dramatic Association begun in 1871. However, by the time Cap and Bells produced its first play, all six of the theater groups had disbanded.

Shortly after its inception, Cap and Bells began to influence theater at Williams by increasing the number of campus theater productions each year. Between 1871 and 1898, only 20 productions were staged on campus. Between 1898 and 1925, the Cap and Bells staged fifty-three productions.

During the Great Depression, Cap and Bells was forced to cut back on its production schedule and limit its touring dates as the organization faced depression-related problems. College enrollment dropped to unprecedented levels, and the Cap and Bells’ budget was slashed from $1300 in 1929 to $59 in 1930.

In 1931, Cap and Bells began recruiting faculty wives to play women, and in 1934, the organization began recruiting actresses from Bennington College for its productions. Before the 1930s, Williams productions used college-age men to play the women’s roles. The most famous of these cross-dressing student actors was future President James Garfield, who played the lead female role in an 1884 production.

In 1941, the Cap and Bells performed its first show, Marco’s Millions, in the newly constructed Adams Memorial Theatre, but by 1942, the resilient Bells were once again fighting for funding. With little or no money to spend during World War II, the group staged relatively small, inexpensive productions. During the war, theater played a small role on campus. For its six productions, during the war years, the Cap and Bells spent a meager $153.00.

With the end of the war came new problems for the Cap and Bells. Despite producing two or three plays a semester, Cap and Bells found that student interest in theater was waning. The Adams Memorial Theatre and Cap and Bells tried various means to increase campus interest in theater including the broadcast of a radio show entitled “Cap and Bells on the Air.” Their efforts to keep theater alive on campus eventually led to the institution of the first student activities fee: $2.50 charged to every student’s term bill in order to fund drama activities on campus.

Student interest in theater slowly began to increase. During its 1951-52 season, attendance at Cap and Bells productions reached 8535. By the next year, Cap and Bells was the largest extracurricular activity at Williams. Cap and Bells run of success continued throughout the early and middle 1950s. However, by the end of the decade, the theater program was once again in decline.

Many in Cap and Bells criticized the Williams student body for being too career-oriented and not interested enough in a well-rounded educational experience. Nevertheless, Cap and Bells withstood this student apathy toward theater. In 1975, with the institution of a theater major, theater and Cap and Bells once again flourished on campus.

Today, Cap and Bells receives technical aid from the theater department, and the two groups share theater space. However, Cap and Bells remains a completely autonomous student organization free of curricular and faculty pressures.

In its 100 years of existence, Cap and Bells have produced a wide variety of plays, many of which were student written, including the 1948 musical “Phinney’s Rainbow” staged by T.S. Horton ’48 and composer Stephen Sondheim ’50.

Sondheim is not the only Cap and Bells’ alumnus to have made a mark on the performing arts world. Other former Ephs in show business include William Finn ’74 (March of the Falsettos); director John Frankenheimer ’51 (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Manchurian Candidate); Academy Award winning writer and director Elia Kazan ’30 (On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire); playwright A.R. Gurney Jr. ’52; actress Sydney Walsh ’83; actor Max Gail ’65; and actor Gordon Clapp ’71.

Throughout its 100-year history, Cap and Bells has remained at the forefront of student theater at Wiliams. Although the organization has faced turbulence that has threatened its very existence, the group’s ability to withstand difficulties bodes well for the future. With the proposed performing arts center and a heightened interest in student drama, the start of the second century of Cap and Bells’ productions is looking exceedingly bright.

Factual information for this article was gathered from “The Place of Williams College Dramatics in Student Theatre: History and Prospects,” a thesis written by Jon Spelman, ’64.

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