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Behind the curtain

From left, Allison Targoff ’10, Hilary Kissinger ’09, DeSales student Tom Connors, Katherine Perry ’10, Alex Thompson ’10, and Sam Green ’10 perform improv at the Mustard and Cheese reunion.

From left in the front row, Katherine Perry ’10, Allison Targoff ’10, and Allie Linn ’11 perform “The Duck Song” during this year’s induction ceremony.

Katherine Perry ’10 is a super trouper. At Lehigh she acted, designed costumes, sold T-shirts, fed opening-night partygoers, and dismantled sets at 3 a.m. She did all this, and much more, as a member of the Mustard and Cheese Drama Society, which for 125 years has been the theater program’s service-and-support sandwich—the condiments, the meat, the bread, the whole hoagie.

Perry crowned her Mustard and Cheese career by coordinating, hosting, and performing in the society’s first major reunion, an April gala held largely in the Zoellner Arts Center, which has two spaces endowed by M&C alumni. More than 20 former members from as far back as the Class of 1955 came from as far as California to watch improvisations, scan scrapbooks, and swap stories about staging plays before and after coeducation. They celebrated the camaraderie of running one of the oldest theater clubs on an American campus, the only one named after an old-fashioned snack.

M&C’s colorful, crooked evolution can be traced through three troupers who attended the reunion. Perry, Lori Gigliotti Murphy ’90, and Bob Silverton ’55 represent three generations who performed in three dramatically different venues. Silverton acted in what was then known as Broughal Junior High School. Murphy played Wilbur Drama Workshop, a former power station with radiators that clanked during shows. Not surprisingly, they were impressed by Perry’s main space, the Diamond Theater, a customized house funded by Ted Diamond ’37, another M&C alumnus.

“Boy oh boy,” says Silverton, “when I was here, it was like the Stone Age.”

Perry and Murphy belong to a species that didn’t exist in Silverton’s day: female actors enrolled at Lehigh. When he was on campus, women’s roles were played by off-campus women. One of his favorite co-stars was Bethlehem native Merle Louise Letowt, who as Merle Louise later appeared in the original Broadway productions of Gypsy and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Silverton has fond memories of Letowt and other attractive guests. They enlivened boring auditions, shortened long rehearsals, and generally made theater, well, more theatrical.

In fact, the reunion doubled as a lively, living history of theatrical sexuality. Perhaps the most curious artifact in an M&C exhibit was a photograph of a 1902 production of The Fem Seminary with men dressed as women—and quite fetchingly, too. Scrapbooks contained clippings about the roles of Celeste Varricchio ’73, one of the first 12 women to receive a Lehigh degree. Varricchio, who runs an international dance-theater company based in Manhattan, insists that she wasn’t a university revolutionary; that is, she didn’t receive any special treatment while performing.

After all, she notes, males in the theater tend to be more tolerant than men in the classroom. Witness the condescending professor who asked Varricchio and her fellow Lehigh pioneers: “And may we have the ladies’ opinion?”

As with any school reunion, there were many stories about mentors. Silverton’s main man was H. Barrett Davis, head of the theater program from 1946 to 1972. Charismatic and commanding, Davis invited famous folks to campus (actor Judith Anderson, playwright Marc Connelly), raised money by screening foreign films, and mixed mean boilermakers during cast parties. Impressed by Silverton’s evolution from wrestler to actor, he persuaded the student to join a summer-stock company. Silverton has memorable memories of sharing the New Hampshire stage with celebrities like Joan Blondell (“She was great”) and Gloria Vanderbilt (“She was awful”). He decided a life in theater was too hand-to-mouth and chose a safer, riskier profession: piloting planes for U.S. Airways.

Murphy’s mentor was Pamela Pepper, who began teaching at Lehigh in 1987 after directing at a professional regional theater company. Murphy credits Pepper for making her less shy and more confident onstage. A tough-love coach, Pepper convinced Murphy to audition against an older, far more experienced woman for a role in Arthur Miller’s drama A View from the Bridge.

“Pam helped make Lehigh a very safe environment to put yourself out there, to take those risks,” Murphy says. “It was a great way to send you out in the world with your dreams, but also your feet on the ground.”

Guided by Pepper, Murphy switched her major from premed/chemical engineering to theater. At Lehigh she appeared in a video about date rape directed by Pepper and written by Adriana Trigiani, now a successful novelist. Today, Murphy and her husband run a New Hampshire film company that trains local non-actors to act original scripts. One script is written by Ernest Thompson, the Murphys’ production partner and author of the hit play On Golden Pond.

As with any theater reunion, there were many tales of typecasting. Murphy says she always seemed to play old women, most notably an interrogating mother superior in Agnes of God. Bill Wood ’63 says he always seemed to play old men, whether he was in Romeo and Juliet or Our Town.

“So here I am—an old man at last,” quips the retired Episcopal priest, who, like Murphy, lives in New England. “I finally lived into my typecasting.”

Controversy was another popular topic. Art Roth ’56 appeared in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in Packer Chapel, Lehigh’s cathedral, and played Iago in a radio production of Othello. Then he traded acting for reviewing actors for The Brown and White. He got himself into trouble by writing that an off-campus female was cast in Detective Story only because she was somebody’s girlfriend. “My former friends in theater were none too happy,” says Roth, who learned to be more diplomatic as Bethlehem Steel’s director of public relations.

The hot-stove league sizzled with yarns about experiments. Varricchio spoke of appearing in a Comedy of Errors inside a geodesic balloon. Dennis Sprick ’78 spoke of playing a witch during a Macbeth with three Lady Macbeths. Both productions were directed by the late John Pearson, a visionary teacher who in 1973 launched a street-theater company that evolved into Touchstone Theatre, the professional experimental ensemble in Bethlehem.

During the reunion Sprick and Varricchio watched Perry and other members of M&C’s Hobo Army perform What’s My Line?-like improvisations. Tim Syciarz ’09 played a deadpan Abe Lincoln during a daffy press conference concerning the 16th president shaving his beard. Augustine Ripa, founding chair of the theater department and M&C’s adviser, did his first public acting in three decades as a puzzled bachelor in a surreal Dating Game (Sample question: “If you were a member of the animal kingdom, would you have a backbone?”).

As with any reunion, there was plenty of buzz about famous graduates who couldn’t make it back. Several stories circulated about Paul Guilfoyle ’72, probably M&C’s most famous living alum. Guilfoyle, who plays Captain Jim Brass on the hit TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, was unable to attend, but he did send a congratulatory message that was one part commencement speech, one part manifesto.

Guilfoyle recalled himself as an undergraduate theater proletarian with “the arrogance of the high priest, the outsider, the steppenwolf.” He praised M&C as “a collective force as pure and simple as a slice of cheese on a wheat thin with mustard to brace it.” He signed off by proposing a new name for his old club: Buffalo Chicken Wings Dramatic Society. Apparently, he didn’t know that M&C members serve buffalo wings on opening nights of long runs.

M&C has always fed the theater program with food. The tradition began during the club’s first meeting in 1884 in the back parlor of a South Bethlehem saloon, where founders chased beers with mustard-and-cheese sandwiches. The group’s biggest hot dog was Richard Harding Davis, who wrote the group’s first play, Mary, the Child of Misfortune, a burlesque melodrama.

Two centuries later, M&C remains a full-service society. Members sell tickets and T-shirts; stock opening-night receptions with cheese cubes, small cheesecakes, and other symbolic snacks; and strike sets while fueled by trail mix and Gatorade. They run staged readings, peer workshops, and a Facebook page for alumni. They work in an office endowed by Myron Pomerantz ’47, who is immortalized in a framed newspaper story about his M&C production of Twelfth Night.

M&C’s influence on the lives of its members doesn’t end with graduation. It serves as a postgraduate lifeline for theater professionals. Last year Caitlin Monahan ’08, who works for a talent agency in Manhattan, comforted Nicole Hunter ’09 during the latter’s uncomfortable introduction to the city.

“It’s very tough to go from the nurturing Lehigh world into a world that can chew you up and spit you out,” says Hunter, an assistant to Lynn Meadow, the fabled founding artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club. “Caitlin calmed me down by reminding me it’s tough, but it’s worth it.”

M&C alumni also fill the ranks of amateur theater companies across the country. Scott Shearer ’71, a lawyer, recently joined the board of a community company in Harrisburg. The assignment reminds him of his days of lighting plays and concerts in Grace Hall. From 1986 to 1997, Sprick reviewed Broadway shows for a daily newspaper in Middletown, N.Y. The assignment reminded him of his days of critiquing productions for The Brown and White. The copy editor recently began taking voice lessons to help him perform in an opera company.

For Perry, the reunion strengthened a special bond. “Theater is a large family,” says the theater/psychology graduate, who plans to act and learn sign language. “You have to care for each other, love each other. Especially when it’s early in the morning, and you’re striking a set, and you’ve spent so much time in Zoellner you feel like it’s your home.”

Nine days after the gala, Perry capped her year as M&C president by emceeing the society’s annual induction ceremony. As usual, inductees improvised 90-second satires of mainstage shows. A Moon for the Misbegotten, Eugene O’Neill’s Oedipal drama, featured the wacky ad lib: “I want to have sex with you, but I can’t. Can you just hold me for awhile?”

During an increasingly zany oath, 22 new members promised to do “things we could have done—but there was a gala to plan.” They joined Perry and other M&C executives in “The Duck Song,” a wiggling, waggling ditty. After receiving certificates and T-shirts, they watched their elders receive paper-plate awards for everything from best striptease to best “creepy” facial hair. Perry received a paper plate for being the hardest-working woman in show biz, a proper honor for a super-duper trouper.

Story by By Geoff Gehman ’89 M.A.

Posted on Tuesday, December 28, 2010

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