A New Collection: The Carl and Annetta Wonnberger Papers

Cranbrook Archives is pleased to announce that the Carl and Annetta Wonnberger Papers are open for research. The collection contains biographical materials documenting their early life and education, a large series of personal correspondence between Carl and Annetta during their courtship, materials relating to Carl’s tenure as teacher and administrator at Cranbrook School, their involvement in establishing and directing the Cranbrook Theater School, as well as Carl’s involvement in outside organizations.

Performance Poster, 1950. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger were fixtures at Cranbrook for well over half a century, raising two daughters on campus (Jo Anne and Nancy, Kingswood ’48 and ’53 respectively) and making significant contributions to Cranbrook School (Carl even wrote their fight song!) and community theater arts. They both received Cranbrook’s highest honor, the Founders’ Award, and Annetta had a day (July 17) named after her by the City of Bloomfield Hills.

They arrived at Cranbrook in September 1929 when Carl took the position of English teacher at Cranbrook School. The following year, Carl became the Head of the English Department, a position which he held until 1967 when he retired from Cranbrook and became Professor of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger with Eva Le Gallienne and Joe Schildkraut. 1945. Harvey Croze, photographer.

Annetta helped Carl start Ergasterion (Cranbrook School’s drama club) in 1931. She created costumes, built and painted sets, applied make up, and played female roles in all boys’ productions. Annetta was also one of the founders, with Henry Scripps Booth and Brookside Schools Headmistress Jessie Winter, of St. Dunstan’s Theatre in 1932.

Together they founded Cranbrook Theatre School (CTS) in 1942 with the first season held in the Greek Theater. The mission of the school was to provide a full liberal education through theater training including voice and diction, phonetics and language, development and control of the body, literature, history, philosophy, design, and technical science. Carl and Annetta taught theatrical training so as to provide experience in teamwork, good sportsmanship, and dialog. They celebrated theatrical training as a wonderful developer of personality.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger Papers (1991-14). Box 19 Folder 10. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The bulk of the Wonnberger Papers relates to their involvement with Cranbrook Theatre School, comprising administrative materials as well as many scripts, announcements, and performance programs.

Alice Shaw, head director, discusses a staging problem with Carl Wonnberger. July 24, 1953. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Theater performances, themselves, are well documented by audio-visual formats including photographs, slides, and motion picture film. This collection provides a rich study of a fascinating facet of Cranbrook’s performing arts legacy, and a theater program that is still going strong today.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Clothed in Light: The Love Letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger

My darling, You are wonderful! I start with that because now again you have covered yourself with a light that sets you off from every other person I have ever known!” (Carl to Annetta, August 25, 1928).

The love letters of Carl and Annetta Wonnberger are among the most beautiful expressions of love, longing, and devotion I have ever read. With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it’s a perfect time to share with you some of their words that convey something of life’s highest mystery as it can manifest between two people.

Carl and Annetta Wonnberger. September 7, 1929. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Carl George Wonnberger (1901-1980) and Annetta Bouton Wonnberger (1909-1997) arrived at Cranbrook in 1929. Carl taught English at Cranbrook School until 1967, and they both founded the Cranbrook Theatre School in 1942. Their life is a love story of manifold paths. Their letters provide us with an intimate glimpse into the couple’s hearts in the two years preceding their marriage and the beginning of their life together at Cranbrook.

Annetta first met Carl in the Spring of 1926, when she visited the Storm King School, New York, to take the college entrance exam, which she failed. Carl, a teacher there, was the administrator. Annetta attended Drew Seminary as a post-graduate student and retook the exam in the spring of 1927, and that is when they connected. If sparks didn’t fly at their first meeting, they did at the second, as shortly after, on June 23rd, Carl asked Annetta to marry him.

Writing in July 1927, Annetta recalled that early evening in June—their walk in the woods, the perfect quiet except for the frogs and locusts around Black Rock, the ride back and the thunder shower. Annetta’s candid style of writing offers us quite a vivid sense of her character as well as a discernible process of maturation over the two years:

Carl, ever since I was a small child I have lived in a sort of fairyland of dreams and ideals. It was only natural, of course, that the people whom I met in real life differed from the creatures of star-dust and moon-mist fashioned by my fancy. And it has always been hard to realize the truth. But you, dear, there is no disillusionment about you. You are all I have ever dreamed the man I would love would be – and more. I only hope that I may be able to follow the road you’ve shown me, and reach the goal you’ve set.”

Letter from Annetta to Carl, November 30, 1927.

From 1927-1929, Annetta attended Smith College in Massachusetts, while Carl remained a teacher at Storm King in New York. They would meet up periodically, but the rest of the time was spent in yearning, which is recorded in their letters (sometimes more than one a day!).

Letter from Annetta Bouton to Carl Wonnberger, January 7, 1928. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives
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