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Behind the Scarlet Mask: Ohio State Theater Group Entertained Audiences for Over a Century

The Strollers production of "Brother Rat" in 1939

The Strollers production of Brother Rat in 1939

 

In 1892, four Ohio State University students—Lorrin Sears, E.K. Coulter, C.S. Powell and C.L. Mellvain—banded together to create a student theater organization called The Dramatic Club. Little did they know that their group would remain active for over a century, entertaining audiences with the help of then up-and-comer James Thurber, cartoonist Milton Caniff, 1930s OSU football star William Nosker and actors including Georgia Backus, Charles Brokaw, Brandon Evans and Paul Austin.

Learn more about early entertainment in Columbus on this week’s episode of Columbus Neighborhoods, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 on WOSU TV.

A 1901 Strollers program

A 1901 Strollers program

 

The Dramatic Club’s first production was Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” performed at the Grand Opera House in downtown Columbus, followed by annual plays. In 1896, the group presented two productions, starting the tradition of a fall and a spring show.

Though the organization—whose names over the years have included The Dramatic Club, Strollers Dramatic Society, the Scarlet Mask Club, the Scarlet Mask Society and Strollers Theatrics—performed several published plays in its lifetime, many of the early productions were original works.

“Our production throughout is truly an Ohio State one,” wrote James Miller, then-president of the Scarlet Mask Society, in a 1921 play program. “The book and music were written, the play staged, the scenery and costumes designed and the mechanical effects executed entirely by men of Ohio State University.”

The program cover for "The Cat and the Riddle" by James Thurber

The program cover for The Cat and the Riddle by James Thurber

 

Columbus native and author James Thurber wrote several plays for the organization in the 1920s. After studying at Ohio State, Thurber worked for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He returned to Columbus in 1920, when he started as a reporter at The Columbus Dispatch and spent his evenings writing plays for the Scarlet Mask Society.

Major Scarlet Mask productions written by Thurber include Oh My! Omar, Many Moons (which Thurber later adapted into a children’s book by the same name), Psychomania, A Twin Fix, The Cat and the Riddle, Tell Me Not and Amorocco.

James Thurber's bio in a 1922 program for his "A Twin Fix"

James Thurber’s bio in a 1922 program for his A Twin Fix

 

Luckily for Thurber, the formerly all-male group admitted women for the first time in 1901. It’s there he met Althea Adams, “a strong-minded young woman,” according to a 2003 New Yorker article. Thurber married Adams in 1922, and they had a daughter named Rosemary in 1931. But their marriage wasn’t without its troubles, and they divorced in 1935. A month later, Thurber married a magazine editor named Helen Wismer.

From its humble beginnings, Scarlet Mask grew to 500 members in the 1950s. The group continued to stage published and original plays about twice a year until 2012, the last time Scarlet Mask was an active student organization at OSU.

“The group fizzled out, I think, in part because there are other organizations on campus that support student-led creation,” says Jennifer Schlueter, who served as the faculty advisor for Scarlet Mask in 2011. “It’s sad, in a way, because it was a long-standing organization. … But its mission and aims are better served by some of the newer student groups and programs. I’m delighted that students are taking the lead in ways that make sense in the 21st century, and I find it difficult to mourn Scarlet Mask in light of that.”

A program from the Strollers' 50th season

A program from the Strollers’ 50th season

 

Eric Colleary, who was a member of the group for three years and served as the artistic director in 2005, says he wasn’t aware of Scarlet Mask’s history until he started digging through boxes of old programs, photos, set sketches and more.

Colleary took the historic materials to the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute on campus, and the Scarlet Mask and Strollers archives have since resided in the Thompson Library Special Collections, along with the James Thurber Collection.

“It was a rich history, and it wasn’t being used much,” says Colleary, who’s now the Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to move it over to the Theater Research Institute, to make it accessible to more people.”

A group photo of the Scarlet Mask Club from a 1921 program. James Thurber is pictured on the bottom row.

A group photo of the Scarlet Mask Club from a 1921 program. James Thurber is pictured in the bottom row.

 

Colleary says his involvement in the group afforded him opportunities to direct shows for the first time, starting with Agnes of God in 2003.

Agnes of God was a really important production for me because it was my first production in college,” he says. “It was a small cast. I’m still in touch with a few of them.”

The Strollers production of Post Road in 1936

The Strollers production of Post Road in 1936

 

He also recalls directing an all-male production of George Orwell’s 1984 in 2004, the same year Ohio banned same-sex marriage.

Says Colleary, “I felt there was a responsibility to do smart and interesting work that really promoted the students’ interests at the time.”

Emily Thompson

Photo credits: Thompson Library Special Collections, Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute

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Early Entertainment in Columbus Preview

On the next episode of Columbus Neighborhoods, we’ll take a look at some of the early forms of entertainment in Columbus. Learn about the history of the Sells Brothers Circus, take a tour of the Circus House and find out about an amusement park that used to call Clintonville home. Watch at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 on WOSU TV.