Sunday, November 29, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — The Academy of Music is a storied place, having hosted show-biz greats like Mae West and Harry Houdini. But one of its biggest dramas was internal.
When a former cashier named Mildred Walker took over its management during World War II, in its heyday as a 20th century movie palace, a film distribution company sued.
The question of whether a woman should run the place went to court.
This fall, Walker’s story will be staged in what the Academy’s executive director calls a “screwball comedy,” but one with serious overtones.
“There is still a glass ceiling for women in this industry … around being the decision-makers,” said Debra J’Anthony. “It’s a play within a play within a play … it’s kind of surreal.”
J’Anthony commissioned Harley Erdman, a playwright, translator, theater historian and University of Massachusetts professor, to tell Walker’s story. His eight-character play, titled “Nobody’s Girl,” was tested in staged readings last summer and this winter and moves now toward Oct. 17 and 18 performances that will mark the Academy’s reopening after months of renovations.
Aside from ordering up the drama of Walker’s legal fight to lead the Academy, J’Anthony is herself telling the institution’s story in a series of 32 blog posts that she launched in February.
Every Wednesday morning, she is posting a new installment in what she means to be a history of the Academy of Music, which was given to the city of Northampton in 1892 by philanthropist Edward H.R. Lyman. The posts appear at www.academyofmusictheatre.com.
In her five posts so far, J’Anthony has written of the building’s origins from its opening May 23, 1891, Lyman’s decision to deed it to the city, Thomas Edison’s role in the 800-seat building’s original lighting systems, fears of fire in a building that used gas lamps and the creation, in 1912, of an in-house theater troupe that was said to be the first “municipal stock company” in the U.S. It quickly ran into financial problems.
“I feel it’s important for this community to recognize the Academy’s place,” she said. “There’s a lot of rich history here.”
Though styled as a 1940s-era “screwball comedy,” Walker’s courtroom drama didn’t end happily. After years as a cashier and assistant manager, she took over the theater’s management on an interim basis when its manager, Frank Shaughnessy, went off to military service.
The film distribution company, as lessee, claimed the Academy board had no right to name a manager, and took issue with Walker’s gender, according to newspaper stories reviewed by J’Anthony.
“It was that they chose a woman, I think. This is actually documented in the Gazette,” she said.
Walker lost her job, but the film company also failed to get a new lease on the theater. J’Anthony said Walker advised the board to manage the theater itself -- and trustees agreed. That’s been the model ever since, down through managers like Clifford Boyd and Duane Robinson, and now J’Anthony.
By narrating the Academy’s history in her blog posts, J’Anthony hopes to inspire support for the capital campaign now underway to replace seats in use since the 1940s, repair and repaint plaster, replace the stage roof, refinish floors and improve aisle lighting.
The 274 Main St. theater has been working to fill a roughly $100,000 gap in funding for the $600,000 project. Baystate Health is a lead sponsor of the capital campaign and is contributing $25,000.
The reconstruction is scheduled to begin in mid-August. The Academy will be closed during the work and reopen in October.
Along with help from the community, the work is backed by $275,000 in Community Preservation Act funding, $134,000 from a Massachusetts Cultural Council facilities account, $50,000 from Northampton’s capital fund and a $60,000 state energy grant landed by Chris Mason, Northampton’s energy specialist.
The energy grant was applied to work insulating the stage roof, which was completed last fall.