The Archivist’s Nook: From Catholic University to Broadway – The Walter and Jean Kerr Collection

Booklet title page that accompanied the “Sing Out, Sweet Land” album, 1946.

This week’s Archivist’s Nook is by Morgan McKeon, graduate student in the Department of Library and Information Science.

Walter and Jean Kerr, partners in life and art, were figures of the dramatic arts from Catholic University to Broadway. Their work spanned from the stage to the televisions of the American public. Together, Walter and Jean Kerr had a fruitful artistic and familial partnership. Their first collaboration in 1942, the musical comedy “Count Me In,” opened at Catholic University and was produced in New York in 1942. Their Catholic University musical, “Sing Out, Sweet Land,” was brought to Broadway in 1944. 1946 saw their Broadway debut as a team with “Song of Bernadette.”

Walter Kerr alongside Josephine Callan directing Sing Out Sweet Land, 1944.

Walter Kerr became a professor of speech and drama at Catholic University in 1939 after it was founded by Father Gilbert Hartke in 1937. Alongside Hartke, Kerr helped develop the department and supported it through his direction of stage productions as well as writing original works to be performed at the university. By Spring of 1939 Kerr “wrote and directed his first production at the university, a one-act play entitled Hyacinth on Wheels.”¹ While popular among the students, Kerr decided to move on from academia in 1951. Walter Kerr continued to write and direct works for the stage – he also turned his attention to criticism. For his work as a critic, he would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. In 1966 he became the chief drama critic for the New York Times. Though hired as the soul critic, Kerr made the decision to only write for the Sunday edition so that he would not be the only opinion. “I saw in advance that the power of the Times, with one man writing both daily and Sunday, would be absolute. I wanted the vote split, and the Times was quick to agree.”² Due to his writing style, he made the theatre accessible to a wide audience – Newsweek even deemed him a “supercritic”.³ Though he was an influential critic, Kerr was not without those who criticized his reviews. In 1965 The Village Voice “presented him with an award for his ‘outstanding disservice to the modern theatre.’”⁴ During his career, Kerr was often critical of work that he though too musically ambitious or overrun with pretension. Despite some critics, Kerr won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his criticism, was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1983, and was honored in 1990 when Manhattan’s restored Ritz Theatre was renamed the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Fr. Hartke and Walter Kerr.

Jean Kerr, was successful in her own right. Her theatrical works and publications were admired for their humor and “unerring eye for life’s everyday absurdities.” She won a Tony Award in 1961 for King of Hearts – but it was Please, Don’t Eat the Daisies that brought her into popular culture. Published in 1957, this collection of essays (based on her life as a mother and wife to an important critic) became a best-seller. It was adapted into a film in 1960 and made into a short-lived television series in 1965. In 1973, Jean Kerr won The National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal Award for distinguished service to humanity.

It was not until the processing of this collection that I learned about the contributions of the Kerr’s. The Walter and Jean Kerr Collection is made up largely of awards received by Walter and Jean. The Catholic University of America continues to live the legacy of Father Hartke, Walter and Jean Kerr – as well as the others that were central to the development of the Drama department. Their collection provides an important element to the holdings at Catholic University – providing another look at important figures that found themselves in Brookland. The Kerr’s found in themselves and through each other the desire to create for and support the theatrical arts. With every new production, Walter and Jean Kerr live on both at the Catholic University of America and the Broadway stage.

Jean Kerr and Adlai Stevenson, ca. 1950s.

The Walter and Jean Kerr Collection can be viewed here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/kerr.cfm


¹Mary Jo Santo Pietro, Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theatre (Washington: The Catholic University Press, 2002), 70.

²Roderick Bladel, Walter Kerr: An Analysis of His Criticism (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976), 1.

³Bladel, 1.

⁴Bladel, 2.

The Archivist’s Nook: A Very Merry Christmas from the Fathers Hartke and Magner

In 1972, Rev. Magner’s Christmas card transports us all the way to Jerusalem.
In 1972, Rev. Magner’s Christmas card transports us all the way to Jerusalem.

In the history of The Catholic University of America, two priests are truly larger than life:  Father Gilbert V. Hartke (1907-1986) and Rev. Msgr. James Magner (1901-1995). Both men served the University community for decades: 28 years for Magner and 37 years for Hartke. Best known for running CUA’s theater program, CUA’s playhouse still bears Father Hartke’s name today, while Rev. Magner was renown on campus for leading world wide tours to such far flung places as Mexico, India, and even behind the Iron Curtain.

“May the joys of Christmas shine brightly for you throughout the New Year.” Signed Lady Bird Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967.
“May the joys of Christmas shine brightly for you throughout the New Year.” Signed Lady Bird Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967.

Nothing makes these big personalities more human and relatable than the several dozen Christmas cards they’ve left behind. Rev. Magner meticulously kept track of the names and addresses of each person he sent a Christmas card to every year. Here at the Archives, we have many copies of his personal cards from the 1940s to the early 1970s. His cards have a somewhat trademark style drawing on his adventures abroad; they usually involve a solo shot of this well-traveled priest in an exotic location. Some of our favorites include Japan, Costa Rica, Alaska, Jerusalem, and Ireland.

Although show-biz priest Fr. Hartke did not create signature personal Christmas cards, he certainly received them! He received not just one, but a total of five White House Christmas cards from then President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson. These large, gold framed Christmas prints showing White House winter scenes remain part of the Archive’s museum collection today.

Merry Christmas to our High Flying Friend!
Merry Christmas to our High Flying Friend!

While we were unable to locate a presidential Christmas card among Rev. Magner’s papers, he did get three impressive hand drawn cards from a devoted pair of ladies. Whoever they were, Helen and Betty really captured something of Rev. Magner’s glamorous, jet setting lifestyle. In one card, a Hawaiian shirt clad Magner climbs into an old fashioned cocktail while another depicts a fez wearing Magner flying a magic carpet and simultaneously smoking hookah.

Judging by their Christmas cards, these two priests effortlessly lead interesting and adventurous lives. These ephemeral items give a glimpse into the personal lives of two men who redefined their roles as priests and did great things for Catholic University in the process. Whether making and receiving Christmas cards or living life to the fullest, each of these men did it in their own memorable way. Merry Christmas from the Fathers Hartke and Magner!

The Archivist’s Nook: To Be or Not to Be – Shakespeare on Campus

One can imagine paper mache Hartke exhorting his Shakespearian thespians. Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
One can imagine paper mache Hartke exhorting his Shakespearian thespians. Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Perhaps the best known and most oft quoted line of legendary English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” For the Drama Department of The Catholic University of America (CUA) the question was decisively answered with its founding in 1937 by the brilliant and charismatic Gilbert V.F. Hartke (1907-1986), the “Show-Biz Priest,” subject of a recent blog post by my colleague Maria Mazzenga. With the work of Shakespeare a staple, Hartke, a D.C. icon, directed over sixty CUA productions and many more for the National Players, his touring company. He also wrote five plays and toured with his students both nationally and internationally. Today, the theatre at Catholic University bears his name and is still performing Shakespeare on an almost biennial rate.

An eerie scene from the 1952 production of MacBeth. Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
An eerie scene from the 1952 production of MacBeth. Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The last play of the 2016-2017 season, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the CUA Drama Department, is the return of MacBeth, otherwise known as ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘The Bard’s Play’ to Hartke Theater for the first time since 2004. Anticipation of this event prompted me to examine the rich history of Shakespeare at CUA. While there were small scale performances of The Bard’s plays by various student groups before the Drama Department was created in 1937, the focus here is on the larger scale productions of CUA Drama since then, in particular because the CUA Archives preserves so many of the records, including photographs, programs, prompt books, reviews , cast lists, scene breakdowns, an and analysis of the plays. The 37 known Shakespeare plays are divided into three genres, with about a dozen each as comedies, tragedies, and histories. CUA Drama has performed nineteen of the plays, many multiple times in the eighty seasons culminating with MacBeth in 2017. 

An Irish looking Juliet from the 2007 Romeo and Juliet set in Fascist Italy. CUA Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
An Irish looking Juliet from the 2007 Romeo and Juliet set in Fascist Italy. CUA Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

CUA’s focus has been primarily on the tragedies, performing nine of them to date:: Coriolanus 1938-1939 and 1961; Cymbeline 2011; Hamlet 1956; Julius Caesar 1953, 1962-1963, 1972, and an abridged version called Brutus, 2012-2013; King Lear 1948-1949; MacBeth  1952, 1976, 2004, 2017; Othello 1951,1960; Romeo and Juliet 1949-1950, 1960, 1980, 2000, 2007; and The Tempest  1951-1952, 1968-1969. The most performed play is Romeo and Juliet. A Washington Post reviewer found the first production in 1949 to be “performing smoothly” and ‘commendably faithful”¹, but more recent efforts have been quite innovative, including an interracial version in 2000, jointly produced with Howard University, and the 2007 show set in twentieth century Fascist Italy.

Program from the 2001 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also marked the thirtieth anniversary of Harkte Theater. CUA Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Program from the 2001 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also marked the thirtieth anniversary of Harkte Theater. CUA Drama Department Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The comedies are also well represented, with seven featured so far:  As You Like It, 1964-1965, 1986, 1997; Love’s Labor Lost 1986, 2005; Merchant of Venice 1957-1958, 1978, 2014; Midsummer Night’s Dream 1959, 1979, 2001; Much Ado About Nothing 1946-1947, 1993; Taming of the Shrew 1959, 1984; and Twelfth Night 1956, 1982, 2003. As with the tragedies, the comedies were generally well reviewed, with the Evening Star stating that the 1959 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream showed “a proper respect for the imagination of audiences.”² Less attention however has been paid to the histories, with only three performed to date: Henry IV 1953-1954, Richard II 1965-1966, and Richard III 1954-1955, 1988-1989. A finding aid, or collection guide, for the papers of Fr. Hartke is available online. For more information on the CUA Drama Department records please email lib-archives@cua.edu.


¹Richard Coe. The Washington Post, November 7, 1949, p. 12.

²Harry MacAthur. The Evening Star, December 7, 1959, p. C-6.

The Archivist’s Nook: Show Biz and Then Some – Father Gilbert Hartke’s CUA

In 1939 the musical Yankee Doodle Boy was first performed at CUA. Based on the life of songwriter and entertainer George M. Cohan, the production was made into a film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney, in 1942. Here, Father Hartke studies a script of Yankee Doodle Boy with Cagney in 1941.
In 1939 the musical Yankee Doodle Boy was first performed at CUA. Based on the life of songwriter and entertainer George M. Cohan, the production was made into a film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney, in 1942. Here, Father Hartke studies a script of Yankee Doodle Boy with Cagney in 1941.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on Bishop Fulton Sheen and his popularity in the mid-twentieth century as the TV show, Life is Worth Living, gained millions of viewers. Sheen was a well-known presence on the CUA campus from 1926 until 1950, after which he became a nationally known television expositor of the Catholic way of life.

There was another star on campus during these years, and in fact, beyond. About a decade younger than Sheen, Reverend Gilbert Vincent Ferrer Hartke, O.P., served as the founder of CUA’s theater program, and later, the Department of Speech and Drama in 1937. Hartke Theatre bears his name today—a fitting tribute to an educator who initiated and ran CUA’s theater program for 37 years. During his tenure as chair of the Drama Department many celebrities were trained at CUA, including Ed McMahon, Jon Voight, Susan Sarandon, and director Robert Moore.

Born in Chicago in 1907, Father Hartke attended the Jesuit-run Loyola Academy, where he discovered a love for both acting and football—he even stayed on at the academy to coach football for a year. By 1929, he decided that he wanted to be a priest and entered the Dominican Order. After attending St. Joseph’s Seminary in Ohio, young Gilbert, or “Gib” as he was known, found his way to Immaculate Conception College in Washington, D.C. Following his early love of theater, Hartke began writing plays for the Black Friars, a group affiliated with the Dominicans. In 1935 he was sent to the Dominican House of Studies, just across Michigan Avenue from the CUA campus.

Inspired by his work with the Black Friars, and the author of three plays by age 28, Father Hartke thought he might start a theater program affiliated with the Dominicans. This didn’t come to pass, but he began attending CUA when he lived at the Dominican House, and “Within These Walls,” his play about a prison chaplain, was performed by the CUA Theatre troupe in 1936.

Frank Persico, CUA Alum and current VP for University Relations and Chief of Staff, 1974. Of Father Hartke, Persico says, “He was impossible not to like. He was generous to a flaw and showed interest in each and every one of the students in the drama department. He was a wonderful and prayerful man. To say that I knew him - - and knew him well - - is an honor for me and a everlasting memory.”
Frank Persico, CUA Alum and current VP for University Relations and Chief of Staff, pictured in downtown DC in 1974. Of Father Hartke, Persico says, “He was impossible not to like. He was generous to a flaw and showed interest in each and every one of the students in the drama department. He was a wonderful and prayerful man. To say that I knew him – – and knew him well – – is an honor for me and a everlasting memory.”

Another well-known presence on campus, Vice President for University Relations and Chief of Staff Frank Persico, studied with Father Hartke here at CUA in the late 1960s and early 70s. As he puts it, “Father Hartke was larger than life. When he came across campus from the Dominican House with his white robes and white hair flowing in the breeze, he could not be missed–and would not allow himself to be missed, either! Everyone knew Father and he had an uncanny way of knowing every one, too.” Father Hartke, in fact, was known for his hair. A 1985 USA today poll declared him one of the ten best male heads of hair in Washington!¹

With the launch of the theatre program and the Department of Speech and Drama, Father Hartke proceeded to influence theater in Washington, D.C. as well. He breathed life into local theater, incorporating a group of Shakespearean thespians known as the National Players in the 1940s, and in the 1970s, he was critical in the reopening of Ford’s Theater and was the creator and director of The Olney Theatre in Olney, Maryland. He was, moreover, a key figure in ending discrimination in D.C. theaters. Persico notes “it was a time before the nation’s capital was saturated with theaters,” and a time when Father Hartke brought in leading national theater luminaries to “be part of the CUA drama department family,” among them Helen Hayes, Cyril Richard, Pat Carroll and Stephen Joyce. “I firmly believe,” says Persico, “he is one of the reasons why drama and theater is so popular in the Washington area today. One need only point to Olney Theatre or Arena Stage, to name just two–and you will see Father’s fingerprints all over them.” In 1981, Washingtonian Magazine called him “one of the five most powerful men in Washington, D.C.”²

The Archives holds the papers of Gilbert Hartke: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/hartke.cfm.

Hartke Theatre, named for Father Gilbert Hartke, was dedicated in 1970 and remains a lovely backdrop for azaleas in 2006.
Hartke Theatre, named for Father Gilbert Hartke, was dedicated in 1970 and remains a lovely backdrop for azaleas in 2006.

We also have an in-house finding aid for the Drama Dept. records, available upon request as a PDF if one emails lib-archives@cua.edu.

A press release on Father Hartke as “The Show-Biz Priest” exhibit held at Mullen Library: http://publicaffairs.cua.edu/releases/2013/hartke-exhibit.cfm


¹Mary Jo Santo Pietro, Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), Preface.

²Santo Pietro, Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater, Preface, xi.

The Archivist’s Nook: If This Table Had Ears!

The Table, up close and personal, photo by Angela Geosits, 8-13-2015.
The Table, up close and personal, photo by Angela Geosits, 8-13-2015.

This week’s post is guest authored by Angela Geosits, archives assistant and doctoral student in English.

Any visitor to McMahon Hall is likely familiar with the massive marble table which dominates the central foyer. Set between the two great staircases out of the flow of foot traffic, this stately table blends in with the neutral colors of the space and feels as if it has always been there. But contrary to all expectations, this 2 ½ ton marble table is surprisingly well traveled, and even enjoyed a misspent youth loitering in the lobby of Loew’s Capitol Theatre, the last surviving Broadway vaudeville house. Some traces of this thespian origin can be seen in the detailed carvings of Comedy and Tragedy on the table’s supports.

But how on earth did our table get from a vaudeville theatre in New York City to an academic building at Catholic University in Washington, DC? The story begins in the winter of 1967, when the roof of the Army surplus theater the Drama Department had been using as their performance space collapsed under a heavy load of snow. Enthusiastic fundraising efforts began in order to fill the desperate need for a new stage. CUA Drama alumnus Ed McMahon (no relation to Monsignor James McMahon for whom the building is named) knew the Loews and organized a special benefit for the CUA Drama Department on the last night of performances at the Capitol Theatre. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: If This Table Had Ears!”