Several years ago, knowing that much of the Players’ early history was poorly documented, Kristopher Nasadowski ’97 painstakingly compiled a chronological list of all the plays produced by sifting through Players materials and old Polytechnics in the Institute Archives. He then traced the Players’ progress from the group’s original home to its present location on 15th Street. The result the official Players production list is mounted in the Playhouse lobby and posted, along with a brief history of the Players, on the Internet. (The list can be found online at www.players.rpi.edu/history/past_productions.php.)
But the real story of the RPI Players resides in the hearts and minds of the company. “I’ve been doing research and talking to people about the 75th season,” Faust says. “There are so many stories, and yet, surprisingly little has changed.”
Julia MacDonald ’72 agrees. At the 50th anniversary celebration 25 years ago “there were all these Old Timers I had never met,” she recalls, “but as I listened to them telling stories, I thought to myself, I know these people. They’re Players! They’re just like us.”
In November 1929, 14 Rensselaer students and two new members of the English faculty, Jay Reid Gould and Richard W. Schmelzer, met to establish a dramatics club. Within a week, the Institute had given them a building, known as the “Old Gym,” at the foot of the Approach to create a playhouse.
Built in 1887, the brick and stone structure was 80 feet long by 44 feet wide, with a wonderful tower climbing up one side. The second-floor auditorium had a 30-foot ceiling with an elevated track running around the perimeter. Best of all was the address: 707 Broadway.
The novice actors, all of them engineers, were practical, focused, and inventive. They installed bicycle and auto headlights for spotlights, which they concentrated with stove pipes. They made their own rheostats. They hung a blue curtain from the back curve of the running track to serve as a backdrop (other parts of the track were converted into a balcony) and covered their scenery flats with damaged fabrics from Troy’s shirt factories. In just three months they created a theater and produced their first public performance. On March 12, 1930, the group christened itself the RPI Players.
Membership grew quickly. By the 1934-35 season the group swelled to 65 members, and one 1938 production boasted a cast of 28 men and one woman.
To reach the playhouse, theater patrons would make their way down the hill from the campus to Eighth Street and from there down the steps of the Approach and onto Broadway. Dave Dobson ’52 remembers that “the slope of Broadway approaches 45 degrees at that point, making the entrance for a performance especially challenging on an icy day. [And] with the railroad station where the [Rensselaer] Inn is now and trains (the steam kind) going by, it was not exactly a dream of a location.”
In 1936, George Scranton ’37 constructed a two-bedroom apartment in the basement of the building to house four Players. Charles Gurley Estey ’41 was one of the first occupants and remembers a list of chores including keeping the huge boiler fired with coal. “I have always thought it remarkable that a bunch of engineers and two dedicated English profs were able to put on five productions per yearall well attended by the student body,” he wrote recently. “It was a great experience.”
George Kelly ’50 remembers using the furnace to increase concession sales. “Coal was cheap in those days,” he says, “so we would fire up the furnace during the first act and get the place really hot and dry so that when the audience broke for intermission, the first thing everyone would look for was a bottle of Coke.” The Players, of course, profited from the sale.
The playhouse was demolished in 1966 and was replaced by Lounge 15, or the 15th Street Lounge, a former USO hall that had been purchased by the Institute in 1946. The building posed some peculiar challenges. There was no space behind the stage, so if a character needed to change sides without crossing the stage, he would have to go outside, run around the back of the building, and re-enter on the other side.
These problems were solved in 1982, when the building was extensively renovated, adding scene and costume shops and new dressing rooms, and a fully refurbished lobby and auditorium. The renamed RPI Playhouse opened in November 1983 and has served as the home of the Players ever since.
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