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!

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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.

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