Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 2, Page 4
Winter 1994
When i'm 64 - Mitchell Hall's New Lease on Life

     It was the height of spring. Firmin Swinnen played the organ. Prof.
Ellsworth P. Conkle directed his own one-act play. And the Women's College
sent its Glee Club for vocal support. Mitchell Hall was making a grand
     That first night was May 24, 1930. It was the start of something good.
For example, poets Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay spoke there that first
year, and countless evenings of theatre, music, dance and review have been
held since in the hall, named after Samuel Chiles Mitchell, University
president from 1914-1920, and built between 1929 and 1930 with a gift from
University benefactor H. Rodney Sharp. Cost: about $300,000 in jazz-age
     Over the years, Mitchell Hall has received numerous, minor
alterations, sundry facelifts and one major addition, which was erected in
1965. But, it had declined, especially inside. Philadelphia architect
Charles Belson, of Ewing, Cole, Cherry, termed the building "dreary." That,
of course, was before Belson and his team completed a $1.5 million dollar
renovation. Now, Mitchell Hall is back, better than ever, and embarked this
year on a full season.
     A gala benefit performance, "Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Experiment,"
was held Nov. 1 to rededicate the building, with proceeds benefiting
scholarships for the performing arts. Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park
With George also was performed and actors from the London Stage performed
Hamlet in October.
     In Mitchell Hall's first incarnation, the prize possession of the
building was Pierre S. du Pont's pipe organ. Du Pont, an organ enthusiast,
would offer regular recitals in his private home, and when he upgraded his
own instrument, he donated the old one to Rodney Sharp, who gave it to the
University. Fitting the gargantuan thing into the still embryonic Mitchell
Hall proved a tight squeeze. The roof space over the stage was jammed with
tubes and a reinforced concrete ceiling was erected to support the weight.
     Other constraints cramped the stage. Original architect Charles Z.
Klauder consulted Philip Barbour of the Yale School of Drama (itself only
three years old) about theatrical matters. And Barbour, fresh from a trip
to Germany, recommended the Kuppel Horizant, a bulky name for a bulky piece
of equipment. Shaped like half a hemisphere, the steel and plaster
cyclorama-long-gone now-was designed to suggest skyline, but made for
tricky maneuvering.
     "It was a challenge, designing scenery for a stage like that,"
reflects Tom Watson, who taught in the theatre department from 1955 to
1960, returning as chairperson from 1966 to 1985. Like the time when the
entire Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was crammed into the venue and the
second violin was so far off stage he was sitting in the wings next to the
water cooler.
     Or, the time when the department, lacking cash for authentic
machinery, bought two used, revolving car-display stages from a local auto
dealer. Unfortunately, installing the showroom devices meant raising the
floor six inches, which made stage access even more difficult. Perhaps
predictably, the machines were a flop.
     Judith Kase, who graduated in 1955 and now teaches drama at the
University of South Florida, also remembers the tight stage. One production
was so cluttered that, for scene changes, they simply threw stuff out the
window. Playing Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream in a costume with a
6-foot train wasn't easy either. The forest scenery crept so close, she
found herself snagging bits of it and dragging bushes around on her dress.
     Judith Kase is the daughter of Robert Kase, the near legendary figure
who arrived on campus the same year as Mitchell Hall and taught English
E52, seedbed of the E-52 Players. Kase, director of the then Department of
Dramatic Arts and Speech when it was launched in 1946, longed for an
expanded theatre through some five decades of Delaware drama. "It was his
dream," says Judith Kase. And come it has.
     Work on the auditorium began in the summer and fall of 1992. Phase
two, summer 1993, focused on the stage and lighting. Alumnus Steven W.
Casey, Delaware '79, provided 10 electricians to install 25 miles of wire
required for the new stage lighting system with its state-of-the-art
electronic controls, rivaling those of the best New York City theatres.
And, Charles Belson's revamped interior gives the University a truly
multi-dimensional facility.
     An entirely new floor and proscenium-featuring an eight foot,
removable stage extension-serve to liberate the performers. Likewise,
stage-level dressing rooms improve circulation, facilitate stage management
and make the stage accessible to the handicapped.
     Acoustic modifications include coffers, or ceiling panels, to give
"deep relief" on the dome's inner surface. Previously, Belson says, the
dome's shape and smooth face would "focus the sound in a few areas, rather
than distribute sound evenly." He's particularly proud of a canopy that
reflects sound into the hall space. Inspired by the Theatre of Aspendus in
Asia Minor, it enhances performance while complementing the essentially
classical, Neo-Palladian spirit of Klauder's building.
     The dome's oculus, or skylight, has been redesigned so that lamps
behind each frame hover in a "necklace of light" above the arena. And,
buttons sewn into the fabric of special drapes glow gold in the darkened
auditorium when illuminated by the curtains' "warmer" lights.
     Further improvements are numerous, including new, comfortable seating,
a fresh blue and white color scheme and new carpeting.
     Summer's lease hath all too short a date, as one Mitchell Hall
favorite put it. Apparently, the summer lease on fine buildings has an
extension clause. Staring its 64th birthday in the face, Mitchell Hall
finds itself back in the prime of life.
                                        -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '94 Ph.D.