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 debut. 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 dollars. 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.