Twelfth Night, Sixty Years Ago

With the holidays upon us and the observance of annual traditions in high gear it seems fitting to look back at one of Cranbrook’s most storied and festive occasions. Starting in 1950, every year at the beginning of December preparations would begin for the annual Twelfth Night Gala at Cranbrook House. Held on January 6th, the event was originally conceived as a small costume party in the 1920s by Cranbrook Founders’ son, Henry Scripps Booth. It eventually became an official Cranbrook gathering, with Henry at the helm.

The aim of Twelfth Night, as Henry stated, was “to recognize the contribution each employee and board member makes to Cranbrook by bringing them all together as participants in an enjoyable, annual, and ‘classless’ social event.” It was, in essence, a staff holiday party, but its magnificence was a far cry from the typical.

Joseph R. Scott Jr. practicing “piper’s piping” in Cranbrook House basement for the 1966 performance. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Not sure exactly what Twelfth Night signifies?  Perhaps you know the classic carol Twelve Days of Christmas: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ….” A medieval English observance, Twelfth Night, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, denotes “the twelfth and last day of Christmas festivities”—twelve days after Christmas, or January 6th. The Shakespeare play of the same name is thought to have been created as entertainment for a Twelfth Night celebration.

Inspired by his English heritage and impressed with a performance of the play at the Detroit Opera House when he was twelve years old, Henry Booth created a sixty-year tradition for Cranbrook staff, faculty, and supporters that revived the holiday’s twin themes of celebratory food and pageantry.

In Cranbrook Archives, the Twelfth Night Records meticulously document the planning and execution of the gala as it took place at Cranbrook House, through programs, scripts, invitations, guest lists, receipts, budgets, meeting minutes, photographs and more. These items bring the party alive–and what a party it was!  

Eggnog in the Oak Room, 1967: (left to right) Helen Hays, Warren Hays, Chet Hard, Anita Hard, and Don Hays. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Choosing the decade of the 1960s to epitomize the revelry of the long-standing event, I give you the opening lines from the 1960 program, spoken by Cranbrook School Headmaster Harry Hoey:

We’ve all found a welcome in this mellow house
Including, we trust, some young shivering mouse
The wassail is heady
The fellowship’s steady
The mummers are ready
So gay may this gala be in Cranbrook House
On with the tom foolery!

Of course, certain elements remained year-to-year, such as the customary food and drink, Christmas greenery, the reading of the Christmas story by Henry Booth, and the singing of carols by attendees. According to 1960s programs, often the gala opened with the singing of Here We Come A-wassailing, a traditional English Christmas carol and New Year song, and ended with a poem, loosely based on a 17th century Tudor poem, Twelfe Night, that summed up the night’s festivities.

Floyd Bunt Jr. as St. George and Harold Smart as the dragon performing in 1962. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Usually, a mummers play (amateur performance of community members dressed in costume), written by Henry Booth, that espoused the triumph of right over wrong, was performed. Variances each year incorporated current events and the willingness of performers (Cranbrook faculty, staff, their families, and others). Always, though, the script included plenty of humor and tongue-in-cheek soliloquies. Stand-outs in the 1960s included “Leap Year” with actors personifying twelve months and twelve wishes (1960) and “New Year with Gift of Peace” featuring seven skits by seven Cranbrook Institutions (1968). In 1963, the play was instead replaced entirely with a showing of the movie On the Twelfth Day (1963).

Advertisement for the 1955 film short On the Twelfth Day. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Despite the carefree manner of the evening event and the improvisational nature of the performances, it couldn’t have been an easy feat to pull off. According to 1960s invoices, just shy of a total of 500 gallons of eggnog and 500 pounds of plum puddings were ordered! There were also the invitations, which numbered anywhere between 600 to 800 each year (printed at Cranbrook Press), sent to faculty and staff of the Schools, Academy of Art, Foundation, Institute of Science, and the Institute of Pastoral Studies; clergy, staff, choir, and committee heads of Christ Church Cranbrook;  present and former board members of Cranbrook Institutions; Cranbrook’s associated guild members; as well as retired employees and Booth family members. Committees were formed for most of the years to help plan the event, with representatives from each of the six Cranbrook Institutions.

Notes from Cranbrook House manager, Frances Burton (1966-1974), provide illuminating details, such as which chairs from whose offices were requisitioned for the library, when and where the tree and decorations were put up in December, and how many people attended the event.

Thank-you letter from Henry Scripps Booth to Frances Burton, 1967. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Henry wrote personal thank-you letters to those involved in the mummery and behind-the-scenes. An example from 1968 demonstrates the good-natured spirit in which the gathering was held. The letter opens, “Making a fool of oneself is sort of a Twelfth Night tradition.” A 1965 letter states, “It is obvious that all those who squeezed into the library of Cranbrook House enjoyed it—probably as much as if we had rehearsed.” It is also clear the gala was a valued time-honored convention as well, given this statement in a 1964 letter: “It is the one time all of us have an opportunity to get together socially and of breaking down the artificial walls dividing our institutions.”

Guests sing carols, 1963. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The last Twelfth Night at Cranbrook was held in 1989 in honor of its creator, Henry Scripps Booth, who had passed the year before.

Although there may not be the opportunity for gathering in person this year, you can see Cranbrook House in its holiday finery by joining the Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook House & Gardens Auxiliary for the virtual program Home for the Holidays, Sunday, December 13th. Perhaps, with a cup of eggnog in hand?

Deborah Rice,  Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

4 thoughts on “Twelfth Night, Sixty Years Ago

  1. Look closely into the eggnog bowl in the 1967 photo and you’ll see a floating block of wood with a spike sticking out. That was a polite and humorous warning to guests that the eggnog was “spiked” with alcohol (probably rum or brandy).

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  2. Though I never attended, I have memories of my grandparents, Carl and Annetta Wonnberger, making preparations with great anticipation. The spiked wood block became a family tradition back when entertained…..

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  3. I was fortunate to have been involved in Twelfth Night during the ’70s and ’80s. Working with my Grandfather Henry, the Wonnberger’s and Hal Smart to recruit “talent”, get folks costumed and some years playing a part. The play itself summed up the years events both at Cranbrook and throughout the world. Might be a tradition worth bring back when the world is in good health again!

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