Addressing Dr. Powell as Arnie took practice. The contrast between the callowness characteristic of fledgling drama students like us and the formidable stature and charisma that Arnold Powell brought to his role as our teacher and creative mentor could have argued against such informality. How could we chirp "Hiya, Arnie!" to a figure known around the campus, thanks to his height, shining mane, intimidating intellect and booming bass voice, as The Great White God?
But Dr. Powell liked being Arnie to us. Even his two children addressed him that way. As an educator Arnie stretched our capacities to the limit and expanded our consciousness about the horizons of art, but he never took himself particularly seriously. When he chose he could be among the funniest individuals I’ve ever known, and his propensity for entertaining himself during intellectual exchanges with students in his Munger office by propelling spitballs at the pigeons who gathered on his office window ledge undermined any aura of respectful reverence he could have cultivated had he wanted to. For sure, his gravitas as an honored professor was a given, but he was also ready to be a friend to anyone of any age, as long as that friend took art itself as seriously as Arnie did.
The alumni-relations folks at Birmingham-Southern made a special effort to bring as many past theatre students back to the campus for this year’s annual alumni reunion. Why is 2008 special? It marks the fortieth anniversary of the official opening of the "New Theatre" in which West Side Story was playing, so a celebration of the building itself and all that being in theatre at ‘Southern had meant to many of us was in order. It was a great opportunity to see old friends after years of separation and to set foot once again in a remarkable performing space.
So that’s the backstory of last weekend, when a healthy selection of us old-time theatre grads with varying levels of gray in our hair, if we had hair at all, arrived in Alabama from around the country to enjoy West Side Story and shmooze at the party thrown by the school for us afterwards. I was too engrossed in conversation to capture photos of many of the old friends I saw, but below are a few pictures that I did have the presence of mind to snap (along with yearbook photos taken of the same individuals during their student days). If you squint you may be able to convince yourself that none of us changed at all during the intervening two decades.
Ah, nostalgia! How soothing for the nostalgic; how tedious for onlookers. Oh, well; what’s the point of blogging if you can’t be willfully tedious?
And while I’ve got Birmingham on my mind…
Would you believe that my home town
is awash in cartoonists these days?
Issue 11 of the Cruse Art Newsletter went online earlier this week, and only its visionary cadre of subscribers will ever know what the rest of the world is missing.
And below is a group photo of those of us who made it to a party thrown by my longtime friend Grady Clarkson, who you may recognize as half of 1963’s Grady and Howard Show, depicted here. See the caption below to match our present-day incarnations with our younger selves.
We called it the "New Theatre" when its doors opened, and we oldsters have never stopped calling it that. It’s a habit, and the label persists even as the building Arnie designed turns forty. No other name has yet supplanted the one we’re used to because, apparently, no millionaire has yet donated enough money to the school to be rewarded by having his or her name attached to the edifice.
We who spring from the school’s days of yore know in our hearts, of course, that if justice ruled the world the building could only be named the Arnold Powell Theatre. The building was Arnie’s brainchild. He envisioned every remarkable innovation that ended up being incorporated into the theatre’s structure, collaborating with architect John M. Davis to see that his concepts were successfully realized.
Money talks more than justice in the world of educational philanthropy, though, so those of us who bore witness to the realization of Arnie’s dream know that, in the long run, the building will most likely bear a name someday that’s unfamiliar to us. Disappointment will be involved, but we’ll be glad that our school is getting the funds it needs to grow—and no matter what a plaque above its lobby door reads, we’ll always know what the building’s real name is.
Also, we will remember that it wasn’t a building that changed our lives; it was a man who began working his miracles while plays were still being mounted in the basement of Stockhold or in Munger Auditorium, and before either of those locations in the long-gone student center where—as a high school student who had previously thought that the last place I would want to go to college was in "Bombingham"—I first saw Caught Dead (an original musical with book and lyrics by Powell himself), Twelfth Night, and The Fantasticks and began to warm to the idea of casting my lot with a small Methodist college in the western hills of my racially troubled home town.
There were growing pains associated with the New Theatre’s birth. Renovations in Munger Auditorium led to our College Theatre being evicted from that building’s shallow stage at a time when no other space on campus was available to us. This led to a dismal year (1965-66) that we will always grimly refer to as "the Year Without Theatre." During the summer of 1966, with ground being broken for the New Theatre, a cadre of student carpenters constructed temporary space for plays in a bare basement room of Stockholm Hall, a campus building just down the hill from Munger. With Arnie’s ingenuity operating at full force, we managed to ignore the constraints of backstage space roughly a yard deep and mount memorable productions of Women of Trachis, Blood Wedding, and Endgame. Between rehearsals and set-building binges we would wander outdoors and stare longingly at the great hole in the ground across from the Snavely Center where girders began slowly accumulating to form the outlines of a theatre most of us dreamed of perhaps actually inhabiting before we graduated.