The rise and fall of a fast-talking dame: World premiere of commissioned screwball comedy, ‘Nobody’s Girl,’ to christen stage at renovated Academy of Music

October 10th, 2014

YOSHITAKA HAMADA<br/>Susan Daniels, left, and Sam Rush, right, rehearse "Nobody's Girl" at the Academy of Music in the downtown Northampton, Wednesday evening, Oct. 1, 2014.  Harley Erdman, theater professor at the University of Massachusetts, has written the play, which is about a little-know part of the Academy's history.  It will be performed Oct. 17 and 18 to celebrate Academy's reopening.

YOSHITAKA HAMADA
Susan Daniels, left, and Sam Rush, right, rehearse “Nobody’s Girl” at the Academy of Music in the downtown Northampton, Wednesday evening, Oct. 1, 2014. Harley Erdman, theater professor at the University of Massachusetts, has written the play, which is about a little-know part of the Academy’s history. It will be performed Oct. 17 and 18 to celebrate Academy’s reopening.

By STEVE PFARRER Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 8, 2014
(Published in print: Thursday, October 9, 2014)

The term “glass ceiling” wasn’t coined until sometime in the late 1970s. But what that ceiling represented — a barrier to women reaching management positions in business, government and other fields — was well in place before then.

Consider the case at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where the first woman to become manager of the theater, in the early 1940s, faced almost instant opposition from a group of men who didn’t think a female could handle the job.

Now the story of Mildred E. Walker, whose relatively brief tenure as the Academy’s manager led to a court battle, has been brought to the stage — the Academy of Music’s stage, that is. “Nobody’s Girl,” the first work ever commissioned by the Northampton theater, recounts the story of the strong-willed Walker, who battled forces of sexism that were much more ingrained in their day.

But the play, which debuts Oct. 17 and 18 in the newly refurbished Academy, is not just a grim tale of injustice. “Nobody’s Girl,” by Northampton playwright and librettist Harley Erdman, harkens back to the screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s, the kind with “lots of fast-talking dames and guys,” as Erdman puts it, and which offer a twist on the traditional roles played by men and women.

“I’m not trying to write a bunch of laughs,” said Erdman, a professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s not a Neal Simon play. But it has elements of screwball comedy, it borrows from that style, with a lot of mixed-up scenes and quick back-and-forth dialogue.

“The play is definitely about sexism and about the way women are treated,” Erdman added. “But I wasn’t interested in just making [Walker] a victim. I like morally complex characters, and she’s definitely that.”

The play’s title also “seemed to fit the style of screwball comedy,” Erdman noted, with its backhand reference to titles like “His Gal Friday,” a 1940 film with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

For Debra J’Anthony, the Academy of Music’s executive director, the play has particular resonance: She’s just the third woman to head the Academy in its 123-year history, and the only one to serve for an extended period (she became director in early 2008).

“Nobody’s Girl” is also her brainchild. A few years ago, she and a former employee discovered a box of old memos and documents at the theatre from Walker’s time as a manager, including information on the ensuing court case, and J’Anthony became convinced the material could serve as the basis for a humorous play.

After considering a number of area playwrights, she approached Erdman two years ago, showed him the documents, and asked him if he’d consider the project. “I knew he had an interest in screwball comedy and in local history, and I thought he might be intrigued — fortunately he was.”

Erdman, who in recent years wrote the librettos to two operas on area history, “The Garden of Martyrs” and “The Captivation of Eunice Williams,” was very much intrigued. The local history angle was compelling, as was the chance to flesh out the story with additional research and his own artistic interpretation.

“One thing that excited me … was that the documents don’t tell the whole story,” he said. “They’re little islands in the sea, and you’re wondering what’s underneath them. You have to connect the dots yourself. What piqued my curiosity was to research and find out more about [Walker].”

Restoring theater’s glory

On the first evening in October, Susan Daniels was on the Academy stage, rehearsing her role as Mildred Walker. Chairwoman of the theater arts department at Mount Holyoke College, Daniels’ long career includes many stints as an actor and director with the college’s Summer Theatre Program before she became its first-ever female artistic director, from 2001 to 2005.

“That’s one of the things I feel I have in common with Mildred,” she said before the rehearsal. “She was the first woman to manage the Academy … she values being excellent in her job, and so do I.”

As “Nobody’s Girl” director Sheila Siragusa looked on from a table set back from the stage, Daniels worked through a scene with veteran Valley thespian Sam Rush, who plays Frank Shaughnessy, the Academy manager preceding Walker. In the scene, though, Shaughnessy seems a little befuddled, and it becomes clear Walker, at that time the Academy’s cashier, has a better handle on what’s happening at the theater.

“Holy Moses and a bed of roses!” he exclaimed as Walker quickly read through some revenue figures.

In front of the stage, the orchestra pit was full of paint cans, buckets of joint compound and other construction materials, which pointed to a nice bit of serendipity surrounding “Nobody’s Girl.” The play will be the first staged event at the Academy following more than two months of renovations — the installation of new seats, extensive repainting, improvements to aisle lighting — during which the building has been closed.

The timing seems fitting, J’Anthony said, given those renovations have helped restore the theatre “to all its old glory. And now we’re reopening this historic building with a play that covers some of its own history, and which looks at issues that are very relevant today.”

Trouble brewing

The two-act “Nobody’s Girl” begins around 1940, covering the time when Shaughnessy, the Academy’s manager since 1928, was called away to military service. Shaughnessy tapped Walker, who’d worked at the theater since 1924 herself as an usher and then a cashier, to replace him; Erdman says his research showed the two had worked closely for years and that Shaughnessy had confidence in Walker’s ability to take the helm.

Trouble soon arose, though, because the Academy at that time — it primarily showed movies — was leased to a Boston businessman, Herman Rifkin, who owned several other cinemas and had connections to Hollywood. The Academy had a separate board of trustees that oversaw the building in a broad sense, Erdman explains, but Rifkin was the latest in a line of lessees that since the 1920s had been hired to try to make the theater more profitable.

“Rifkin wants his own guy [Carl Jamroga, from Springfield] as manager,” Erdman said. “The trustees are satisfied with Mildred — it’s clear from the minutes [of their meetings] that they want a local person doing the job. But Rifkin and his general manager, William Powell, don’t think a woman’s capable of doing it.”

In Walker, however, Rifkin faced a tenacious opponent. Born in 1906 in Northampton, she came from a family of limited means and had left high school after 10th grade to work. She was 34 at the time she was named the Academy’s manager, and despite her lack of education, “She was able to see her value, her ability to [be manager],” said J’Anthony. “She had a lot of moxie.”

Though he says the Mildred Walker in “Nobody’s Girl” is in large part a fictional character, Erdman agrees that the portrait of her that emerges from the old documents, such as memos between Rifkin and Walker, is of someone “who’s very feisty, very assertive. She tells off Rifkin and these other guys — you can see maybe why they didn’t like her.”

The play covers some of the ensuing battles between Walker, the board of trustees and Rifkin, including charges from Rifkin that Walker is mismanaging funds; her complaints that he won’t give her the money or staff to run the theater properly; Walker’s move in 1941 to lock Rifkin and his colleagues out of the building; then a court case in Springfield in early 1942 — it was front-page news in the Gazette and the Springfield Republican — as Rifkin sued to remove Walker because of her alleged financial improprieties.

“The documents have a kind of zaniness to them that’s really quite funny,” Erdman said. “And Mildred is a complex figure.” In talking to people who remembered her, he discovered she drove a Cadillac around town, favored high heels and showy clothing, and several years later raised eyebrows when she had an affair with a married Academy projectionist, who divorced his wife, then married Walker the following week.

Erdman has worked some of those details into his script in a way that, as Daniels says, “really lets the audience see Mildred as a modern woman, who does things on her own terms.”

Regardless of laughs, “Nobody’s Girl” doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. The court case ended with a pre-trial agreement; Walker lost her job, though she also received an undisclosed financial settlement. She later convinced the Academy trustees to take over day-to-day management of the theater again, and Rifkin’s lease was not renewed. But Walker never worked there again.

Erdman says he enjoyed writing “Nobody’s Girl” not just to give voice to Walker but for the variety of issues he could address.

“Sexism is a big part of it, but it’s also about local control over the arts versus national syndicates coming in, which is very relevant today, and it’s about class as well. There are a lot of different dimensions to it, and the opportunity to cover all that has been wonderful.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com

“Nobody’s Girl” takes place at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St. in Northampton, Oct. 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25 and $20. They may be purchased online at academyofmusictheatre.tix.com; at the Academy of Music box office Tuesdays through Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m.; or by calling 584-9032, ext. 105.

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‘Nobody’s Girl’: Campus Panel Explores a 1940s Labor Dispute that Still Resonates Today

October 2nd, 2014

'Nobody's Girl': Campus Panel Explores a 1940s Labor Dispute that Still Resonates Today

One day back in 2012, a house manager at the Academy of Music in Northampton discovered a dusty cardboard box stuffed full of old letters and other documents hidden beneath a desk.

The Academy’s executive director, Debra J’Anthony, took the box home. After many hours poring over its contents, J’Anthony came to a realization: “Oh my gosh, we have a play!” she said.

The documents told the story of a long-forgotten local labor dispute that erupted in the 1940s when longtime cashier Mildred E. Walker was appointed head of the Academy of Music after then manager Frank Shaughnessy was called up for military service in World War II.

The episode—which resulted in a headline-making court case after the company leasing the theater ousted Walker because they didn’t want a woman in charge—is now an original play with several links to Smith.

“Nobody’s Girl,” a screwball comedy by local playwright Harley Erdman will play Friday and Saturday, Oct. 17 and 18, at 8 p.m. at the Academy. Sam Rush, production and publicity manager for Smith’s theatre department, plays Shaughnessy. (His daughter, Molly Damon-Rush, 12, plays a Girl Scout in the show).

In a special pre-production event, Smith’s women and gender studies department is hosting a panel discussion on “1940s Women in Labor: Then and Now” at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, in the Neilson Library Browsing Room.

Scholars, including Smith emeritus professor Daniel Horowitz, have been invited to shed light on the larger issues raised by the play—including the persistence of what J’Anthony called a “glass ceiling for women” in theater and other fields.

“The panel is an opportunity for us to create dialogue around these issues,” J’Anthony said. “It will be interesting for us to examine how far we’ve come since women went in full force to replace men at war—and how far we still have to go.”

Horowitz, who taught history and American studies at Smith from 1989 until his retirement in 2012, will draw connections between Walker and feminist author and icon Betty Friedan ’42.

Friedan (then Goldstein) “became radicalized at Smith over women’s issues, anti-fascism and labor issues,” Horowitz said. She wrote about organizing attempts by college maids and buildings and grounds workers, arguing that their fight was central to the “expansion of democracy in America,” he added.

Horowitz noted that both Walker and Friedan experienced a time when war and labor organizing were reshaping the lives of American women. “I hope people come away from the discussion understanding how dramatically the position of women was changing,” he said.

Jacqueline Castledine, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and co-director of the Valley Women’s History Collaborative, will moderate the panel. In addition to Horowitz, other speakers are Dale Melcher of the Labor Extension Program at UMass and Ivette Hernandez, a board member of the Boston-based Institute for Women’s Leadership Development.

The dramatic story told in “Nobody’s Girl” has other connections to Smith: College president William A. Neilson was on the board of the Academy at the time members appointed Walker theater manager.

The college also briefly had a woman at the helm in 1940—though not because of the war. When Neilson retired in 1939, Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, an alumnae trustee and member of the Class of 1897, served as acting college president for one year.  (Smith appointed its first female president, Jill Ker Conway, in 1975.)

The heroine of “Nobody’s Girl” is a complex character, J’Anthony noted. Walker, a well known member of Northampton’s arts community in the 1940s, was “looked on askance by more conservative elements in town,” J’Anthony said—not only because of her insistence on earning a salary equal to Shaughnessy’s, but also because the two were reportedly having an affair. (Shaughnessy was married.)

Although Walker’s case became a local “cause célèbre,” Walker was not successful in court and was never allowed to work at the Academy again, J’Anthony said. Walker died in the 1970s.

Despite its serious subject, “Nobody’s Girl” is written as a comedy in the rapid-fire style that was popular in the 1940s, says playwright Erdman, who is graduate program director and professor of dramaturgy at UMass.

In addition to enjoying the “zaniness,” Erdman says he hopes audiences will learn something new about local history.

“The play is a chance to learn about a forgotten person who did something important,” Erdman said. “I think people will see in Mildred’s story the glass ceiling and the sex bias that still resonates today—but also the heroism of everyday people.”

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