Arnold Powell’s 40-year-old New Theatre

The spectral presence of a silver-haired man named Dr. Arnold Powell hovered over a dimly-lit stage at my alma mater, Birmingham-Southern College, last weekend as the audience filed in for the College Theatre’s production of West Side Story.

And it’s no reflection on Michael Flowers, the present-day Chair of the school’s Department of Theatre and Dance and the director of the weekend’s bracing production of the aforementioned landmark musical, that the thoughts of many of us in the audience kept straying back in time, as we waited for the play to begin, to the man whom most of us called "Arnie"—at least until the show’s finger-snapping Jets and Sharks brought us back from our reveries.

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.

I myself came away with half-a-loaf in terms of putting on a production (as opposing to merely dreaming about doing so) in Arnie’s dream theatre. I was allowed to direct my Playwright’s Lab workshop production of The Sixth Story downstairs in the building’s cozy Underground Theatre. My play had originally been set to appear on the main stage, and you can bet I had plenty of ideas cooking for ways to use Arnie’s radical "split-revolve-lift" turntable to dazzling effect. But once it became clear that the upstairs space was going to remain unfinished until after I had graduated, I scaled down my play to allow for the limitations of the modest stage space downstairs. It ended up working out just fine, less sometimes being more, and the Sixth Story that audiences saw was as spooky and weird as it needed to be, even without a single turntable in view. (For a gander at some photographic artifacts from my College Theatre days, see my web page that’s called "Dressing Up and Acting Silly.")

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.

Clockwise beginning with the guy sitting in front: G John Foust; H Jackie Dicie; I Charlotte Clarkson; * John Poundstone (an honorary BSC grad by virtue of being Mary’s husband); J Mary Lucas Powell; H me; L Steve Clarkson; M Cheryl Thacker; N Dan Gainey; O Molly Friedel Pilbrow; and P Grady Clarkson.

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?

I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t been invited recently to connect up with a web site that showcases the hefty tooning community that has sprung up in the Magic City and in neighboring counties since I lived down south a few decades ago.

You can see what I mean by visiting the Salty ‘Ham Cartooneestas web site. Cartoonist/animator Chris Garrison is the engine driving the site, which aims to build a spirit of community among Birmingham-area cartoonists—or at least to make them aware of each other’s existence. Chris is even generous enough to offer honorary places at the Salty ‘Ham table to two former Birminghamians now living in Massachusetts. I refer to myself and Mark Martin— who never even met when we both lived in Birmingham but have recently become Berkshire County pals.

Cheap-Art-for-Sale Department

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.

Top left inset: A Pam Powell and B Charlotte Peed; top right inset: C John Thomas and D Bo Walker; lower inset: E Jerry Anderegg, seen chatting with the * Dr. David Pollick (who is asterisked because he’s merely the distinguished new president of our alma mater, not one of us BSC oldsters).

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.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
This entry was posted in A Tip o' the Hat, Family & Friends, Life & Art, Yesterday & Today. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Arnold Powell’s 40-year-old New Theatre

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  2. Wade says:

    BTW, it should always be known as the New Theatre, like New College at (Cambridge? Oxzford?) or “the new bridge” (1800-ish?) in Burns’ poem. I think that would be more a tribute to Arnie.

  3. Wade says:

    Bummer! I didn’t know about it. Guess that means the last time i saw you was at the book signing for “Baby.” That’s when my son first learned that I was not just the pathetic piece of meat he was accustomed to thinking of me as. Haven’t seen many of thoss people since then, but now they’re all showing up on Facebook. Great picture of Jerry Anderegg. And who the hell was Mary Lucas [Powell)? There was a woman looked kinda like this (kinda) who roamed around campus and who, bless her heart, initiated me into college theatre my freshman year. Her name, though, was MARY CHARLES. Never no Lucas, and definitely never no Powell at that time. 🙂

    I rwmember Pam and me hunkered down in the little four foot square lighting booth in the Underground, flashing lights during Women of Trachis. It’s fortunate that Pam had some actual talent. Me, I was working mornings at the hospital, classes during the day, Quad in the afternoon, and theatre at night. All I wanted to do was, well, sleep.

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  5. It’s a great pleasure for me to see this picture again. I had almost forgotten about until Pam reminded me and guided me to this site.

    “Dr Powell” and I had a fun time making that shot. He couldn’t have been more amenable. I believe he was relieved that it wasn’t going to be a standup-and-grin snapshot, and when I saw that director’s chair with Hamlet on the back, I knew we had the right venue. I think he was telling me about his idea for a new theater–and he was terrifically happy about it. I got into the spirit of it and, CLICK.

    I am honored that ithis image is used and appreciated by those who knew him.

    I live on Cape Cod now, thinking about doing a book…of portraits.

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  8. Nicky Heron says:

    Hi Howie,
    Thank you so much. I’ve been dying to know how it all went. Great photo of Arnie. Kudos again to Grady for pulling everyone in. I hope everyone got their two cents in to Dr. Pollack. It looks like Jerry Anderegg was doing his bit for the cause. Can we please make this an annual event and start to spread the wealth in a socialist kind of way about the kind of theatre we all learned about from Dr. Powell and that we all loved?

    The only other thing I have to say is that I’m sorry to see that a lot of people seem to have gotten old! What’s up with that?