Playing our Part

As performance venues prepare to reopen in Michigan today, I thought it timely to take a look at the storied history of a group that’s nearly as old as Cranbrook itself: St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook. With ties to Cranbrook’s founding family, staff, and the physical Cranbrook campus, combined with its enduring cultural role in the surrounding community, this nearly ninety-year-old institution has a rich history. Allow me to share with you a few fascinating details from its early years.

View of St. Dunstan’s Playhouse from Lone Pine Road looking east. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Korab and Cranbrook Archives.

“The worst thing about it, it’s named for a saint. But don’t think it’s holy, ‘cause it certainly ain’t.”

Sheldon Noble, an early and active Guild member

The Theatre Guild was indeed named after St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the ninth century and patron saint of the arts. As St. Dunstan lived in Kent, England, from where Cranbrook founder George Booth’s family hailed, the Guild’s name was fittingly suggested by his son and founding member, Henry Scripps Booth. Shortly after the Guild began in 1932, members were writing and producing their own one-act plays. In an April 1933 letter announcing an informal evening  of a “Home Talent programme,” for the 100 Guild members and their guests, Jessie Winter, Guild Secretary and Brookside School Headmistress, implores them to “Be kind, be understanding, be generous . . . give the actors and authors the warm reception which such offerings warrant.” One such author was Henry Scripps Booth. Billed as Thistle, his play, Sedative Bed, was one of four being performed that April 28th evening at Brookside School for just $1. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, after all!

The first public performance of St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild took place at the Greek Theatre with The King and the Commoner. Taking supporting roles were the likes of Annetta Wonnberger (Cranbrook Summer Theater School), Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (daughter of Cranbrook architect Eliel Saarinen), and Henry Scripps Booth, among others.

A scene from The King and the Commoner. Henry Booth on right. Detroit newspaper rotogravure clipping. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The cast and crew of the 1940 production of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney again reads like a who’s who of Cranbrook, including Harry Hoey (Cranbrook School Headmaster), Templin Licklider (Cranbrook School Faculty), Dorothy Sepeshy (wife of Cranbrook Academy of Art President, Zoltan Sepeshy), Rachel Raseman (wife of Richard Raseman, Cranbrook Academy of Art Executive Secretary and Vice President), the aforementioned Annetta Wonnberger, and various members of the Booth Family. Henry Scripps Booth, part of the Guild’s Scenic Design Committee, and his wife Carolyn, the production’s stage manager, created the sets.

Continue reading

Harry and Nerissa Hoey’s Weekend Retreat

While cataloging some of the Ralph Rapson architectural drawings in our collection, archivist Gina Tecos and I discovered designs for “Longshadows,” a weekend retreat for Cranbrook School English teacher (and later Headmaster) Harry Hoey and his wife, Nerissa. Hoey came to Cranbrook in 1928, where he taught English until 1944 when he became Assistant Headmaster (1944-1950) and then Headmaster (1950-1964) of Cranbrook School. While the Hoeys lived on campus, first on Faculty Way, and later in the Headmaster’s House, they commissioned Rapson, along with fellow Cranbrook student Walter Hickey, to design a weekend vacation home in Metamora, Lapeer County.

Elevation by Ralph Rapson, 1939. The Ralph Rapson Collection, 1935-1954, Cranbrook Archives.

Coincidentally, I have been corresponding with the Hoeys’s granddaughter, Susan, regarding the disposition of her grandfather’s papers to Cranbrook Archives. In the course of this correspondence, I asked Susan about the home. While Rapson called the home “Longshadows,” the family called it “Hoyden.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “hoyden” means “a girl or woman of saucy, boisterous, or carefree behavior” and the word is sometimes used to mean just “carefree.” As Susan stated, “Somehow, though I have no way to prove it, I am guessing this word was in my grandmother’s [Nerissa] vocabulary. Anyway, it seems to fit the bill for a weekend/summer place.”

Susan’s mother has fond memories of the weekend house – as a five-year old girl when she walked up the hill to the house behind her mother, the forty acre property looked endless. She remembers falling in the wild strawberry patch and staining her dress, and playing with the girl across the street whose father tended the property for the Hoeys.

“Hoyden,” 1940. The Ralph Rapson Collection, 1935-1954, Cranbrook Archives.

The summer the house was completed (1940), the Hoeys began hosting numerous Cranbrook guests who wanted to see the midcentury modern design. Guests included Dorothy and Zoltan Sepeshy of the Academy of Art, Henry and Carolyn Booth, and of course numerous Cranbrook faculty.

Page from the Hoyden Guest Book, 1940. Courtesy Harry and Nerissa Hoey Family.

In a letter to fellow Cranbrook student Ben Baldwin, Rapson described the house as clad in red wood, left natural, with a flat roof. The house had three bedrooms, two fireplaces, and even a basement for storage and a play room. The house still stands today, though it has had some minor additions and has been painted. It is one of Rapson’s only Michigan designs. Hopefully, we will soon have additional photographs of the house, and perhaps even more stories about the relationship between Hoey and Rapson.

NOTE: Harry and Nerissa Hoey were well-loved at Cranbrook. He also served on the vestry of Christ Church Cranbrook. Not only was Harry an effective administrator, but he was one who led the school with kindness and compassion. On the birthday of each boy in the school, Hoey would greet them with them a “happy birthday,” and shake their hand into which he pressed a shiny penny! On his 85th birthday, Hoey’s former students surprised him by mailing birthday cards – each one with pennies – he received over 500.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: