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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

The chaotic history of the Katharine Cornell Theatre

Iconic UB theater emerged from mayhem and bureaucratic turmoil

<p>Katharine Cornell was "First Lady of the Theater." | Photos courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives, graphic created by Alex Novak.</p>

Katharine Cornell was "First Lady of the Theater." | Photos courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives, graphic created by Alex Novak.

Content warning: This article describes a suicide. 


The Woman Herself

This long-winded story begins as most stories do, with a mother and a child.

Where? Berlin. When? 1893.

A woman walked into the pension room at the exact moment the German officer she spent her evenings with turned his rifle on himself.

The very next day, that woman, Alice Gardner Plimpton, gave birth to the eventual “First Lady of the Theater,” Katharine Cornell.

This distressing prequel to Cornell’s life — laid out in a dubious 1978 biography by Tad Mosel — may just serve as a harbinger of unexpected twists to come, not only in Cornell’s own life, but the life of the UB theater which carries her name.

Like the story of her birth, Cornell’s childhood was not exactly conventional. 

Cornell was once asked, “Would you rather live through your life once again, exactly as before or die instantly?” When the questionnaire wanted a reason for her decision, Cornell gave an answer: “Unhappy childhood.”

Her mother was rumored to nurse a bottle, and her father, amateur actor and physician Peter Cornell, was described in archival information as “tyrannical” and a “stern disciplinarian.” The family had been in Berlin but later moved back to Buffalo, on Mariner Street, where Cornell would grow up.

Young Cornell had peculiar pastimes. As a young girl, the imaginative Cornell conjured up a “dream family.” in her mind. Her dream children had their own personalities and habits. Even into adulthood, she was still able to recall their ages and pets.

For one of theatre’s most prominent actresses, young Cornell wasn’t exactly a looker. Many described Cornell as an ugly baby. Her mother’s response: “At least she is not repulsive!” Even when the ugly duckling — described as “tall” and “gawky” — bloomed into a swan, one producer urged her to give up on theatre, as her appearance was a roadblock too massive to overcome. Later, when Cornell went on to play Joan of Arc, audiences insisted she was “too beautiful” for the part.

But before her New York successes, Cornell was just a regular 10-year-old girl who dreamed of being a nurse and was an avid roller skater. Getting “bowled over” by 10-year-old Cornell on your way to see the latest show wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Eventually, Cornell gave up the skates in favor of a new passion, a more predictable one given her family’s interests. 

Her life forever changed after seeing Maude Adams perform “Peter Pan.” From that point on, Cornell had a mission. Her life was to be dedicated to spotlights, curtains, stages and, most importantly, the audience.

Her playwriting caught the attention of Edward Goodman, a member of the Theatre Guild (then known as the Washington Square Players). Goodman indicated that the group would aid Cornell in her ambitions, but later dismissed her. This initial rejection didn’t deter Cornell, who befriended another member of the group and, through that connection, stood in for absent members in rehearsals. This amounted to a four-word role, but Cornell had done it.

She was a professional actress.

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Katharine Cornell | Courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives


Even though she was stuck doing less-than-desirable roles, such as making noises offstage or playing silent background characters, Cornell’s talent soon propelled her to leading lady status and iconic roles in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Candida,” “St. Joan” and other Broadway and touring productions. Her name was up in lights on the marquee, and it was shining brilliantly.

Though her colleagues recalled that “she could not read a part effectively or rehearse well,” Cornell became a new person when the curtain went up. Her talent at audience rapport and working a crowd was her true “genius.”

She was also a producer, self-managing her own works along with her director-producer husband, Guthrie McClintic, whom she married in 1921. Cornell was explosive, a revitalizing tour-de-force that took a dying Broadway by storm.

In 1931, Broadway was in shambles at the onset of The Great Depression. Only 12 shows were running. Closures and bankruptcies ran rampant. But the McClintic-directed “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” produced and starring Cornell, was a sold-out “smash hit.”

Following that, Cornell went on to galvanize touring. She brought herself — and her plays — on the road. She didn’t privilege New York audiences. Cornell would come to them if they couldn’t journey to Broadway. Her 1933-34 tour of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Candida” and “The Barretts” encapsulated a whopping 16,853 miles, 500,000 audience members, 225 shows and $650,000.

Nobody’s tours, at the time, had such triumphs. Her commitment to her audiences and the tour was unrivaled. When weather conditions delayed her travel to Seattle on Christmas night, causing the show to begin at 1:05 a.m., the entire crowd of 1,200 was still in their seats, waiting for Cornell. The cast took their bows at 4 a.m.

“The road, ostensibly dead, came through nobly for Katharine Cornell,” Variety said in 1934.

A well-meaning, but socially-unconscious Cornell was once astonished when a Black friend of hers was unable to see one of her Washington shows due to segregation. Cornell, although surprised by this, acted accordingly. “The First Lady of the Theater” never played that venue again.

After McClintic passed away in 1961, Cornell went into retirement.

“I was nervous from the beginning and it got worse as the years went on,” Cornell once said of her life and professional partner. “He always gave me the security I needed. I felt I couldn’t do anything after that.”

The theatre, though, remained her heart’s greatest treasure. In 1970, four years before her death, Cornell attended the opening of a revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” When the audience rose to give a roaring standing ovation, for Cornell, “it was all there again.” 

“The years seemed to roll back, and the theater came alive again for me,” she said.

That same year, the University at Buffalo — which made Cornell the first woman and first artist to win the Chancellor’s Medal in 1935 — contemplated building a new on-campus theater within the under-construction Ellicott Complex.

“The theatre will be a new kind of theatre,” Allen Sapp, master of College “B,” said.  “Mostly to make it possible to come to affection for feelings and ideas again.”

The theater that would one day bear her name was coming to life, just as, for Cornell, theatre itself had resurrected. 

In her 1939 autobiography, Cornell reflected on how the world might someday remember her.

“Perhaps I shall end up an obsolete eccentric known just as a stage actress,” she wrote. 

Cornell may be a faded starlet, but her legacy, certainly, would live on. 

Information on Katharine Cornell obtained from Cornell’s Biographical Files, University Archives, University at Buffalo. 

Images of and additional information about Cornell obtained from Box 1, MS 219.4, “Deborah Cornell Cowell collection on Katharine Cornell, 1936-1975” ; and Box 2, MS 219.2, “Elizabeth Dribben Collection on Katharine Cornell, 1949-1990,” University Archives. 

Days at Cornell

In 1973, as UB built its famously Byzantine Ellicott Complex, the massive project included the construction of “a new kind of theatre.” (As someone might say.) 

The new space, located between Fargo Quadrangle and the Atrium, was unusual. It had large windows. The audience seating was on two sides with backstage curtains on the others, giving the square, ground-level stage an unconventional diagonal orientation. 

On May 11, 1976, New York Governor Hugh Carey held a ceremony in which he dedicated the million-dollar facility to a Buffalo resident and theatre big-timer. And so it was: The Katharine Cornell Theatre (KCT).

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Advertisement for a performance at the Katharine Cornell Theatre | Courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives


Even those who would end up at the theater’s helm were skeptical of this decision.

In 1974, Esther Swartz, Presidential Assistant and later Director of Cultural Affairs, expressed uncertainty at declaring the KCT a “Drama Theatre” and naming it after the stage actress. For a space “so experimental in its design,” — having an unusual “diamond-in-a-diamond” orientation — Swartz worried that the namesake would pigeonhole the facility into being inaccurately identified as a space solely for conventional theatre presentations.

This, however, was not the case. 

In fact, many legends have tread the boards of the KCT. Notable guests include political satirist Mark Russell (whose PBS comedy specials were filmed there), Hillary Clinton, Famous Amos, Jesse Jackson, Rich Hall, Charles Dennis and others.

Prior to the KCT’s 1976 dedication and official opening, one of UB’s “Colleges” had already sunk its teeth in.

The Colleges were UB’s bold attempt at alternative education models in the 70s. The systems aimed to reorganize the university by creating residential colleges that would focus on and be affiliated with a specific topic and undergraduate department. For example, College B, one of the Colleges, centered on arts education and was affiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Letters.

College B, also referred to as “Black Mountain College II,” was modeled after the original Black Mountain College, a private liberal arts school in North Carolina. It was described as providing an environment where a community of creatives can “develop and explore possibilities for artistic expression.” 

College B offered a residential learning experience that challenged traditional student-faculty interactions, instead fostering a “dynamic experience of discovery and shared understanding” that made arts education into a “more personalized and human endeavor.” Faculty were meant to engage with students in class, but also informally throughout their residential spaces, sparking discussions in lounges or over a meal.

Their courses included a wide range of subjects like choir, American myth, color drawing, dance therapy, keyboarding, classical guitar, songwriting, arts management and more. 

Because of its focus on the arts, College B in particular felt as though they had a rightful claim to the KCT. A January 1975 memo by Carlo Pinto, acting master of College B, indicated such. Pinto argued that the KCT “belongs to all of the University, but it belongs a little more to the Colleges.” Should the theatre fall under their jurisdiction, Pinto was confident that College B would put UB on “the national musical map.” 

As a few months went by, Pinto grew impatient. A March 1975 memo expresses a “growing sense of dismay and confusion,” citing “abuses” that College B has suffered as a result of the apparent false promise that it had “long been our expectation that the theatre… would eventually come under management of the arts college.” 

In 1976, prior to the dedication ceremony, tensions continued to mount when, in February, administration of the KCT was to report through the Office of Cultural Affairs with Swartz being the proposed candidate to represent “student interest” and chair the Katharine Cornell Theatre Advisory Committee. 

In regards to Swartz’s appointment, colleagues cited her as the logical chair to defend against groups who were, at the time, vying “to wrest away control of the theatre for exclusive use.” 

A month after Swartz’s selection, on Mar. 15, a Buffalo Evening News reporter fumed about a fine concert that was bedeviled by an unlocked door — the audience couldn’t get in. The waiting infuriated the reporter who chastised the “academic bureaucrats high up there in your appointment-only enclaves,” telling them to “get with it.” Shouting up at them in their ivory towers, this article was an early sign of what would become a major problem: keys. 

If Pinto wanted anything, it was the keys to the castle. And the castle was, of course, a newly constructed, “highly perishable” theater with a lighting system that cost a quarter of a million dollars. When Pinto had been given a key, they proliferated. The theater was left a mess and College B students were blamed. 

Later on, when the doors were not open prior to a recital (and eventually lock-picked open by a piano tuner), Pinto reached a boiling point and declared: “This will get into the newspapers.” How right he was, five decades early. 

The frustration with keys translated into a less-than-warm reception of Swartz’s leadership. Facing skepticism, her efforts to resolve management disputes were treated as though it was her sole “desire” to “provoke screams of pain.” She shared in correspondence that these management conflicts were “disagreeable” and “tiresome,” demonstrating a true need for established operating policies in the space. 

“If that will emerge out of the chaos that is the Cornell Theatre, I will feel that my probable 1976-77 crucifixion will not have been entirely in vain,” Swartz wrote.

Swartz was aware of the opposition she faced from College B. 

“College B certainly wants to run the theatre,” Swartz wrote. In a later memo, she added that any challenge to College B’s “de facto proprietorship” was “bound to create a storm.” 

On top of that, College B wasn’t paying its dues. College B owed money for their use of the theater, but since Swartz saw that “there is no intention on the part of College B to pay any money,” she decided there would be “no additional bookings.” Their latest reservation requests would not be honored. 

On the flip side, College B argued that they shouldn’t have to pay those exorbitant user fees. They were being taxed unfairly. According to Swartz, Carole Petro, the assistant to Dean Irving Spitzberg, had “great surprise” at the notion that College B would “pay anything towards the fees.” Petro even warned Swartz that if she didn’t back down on the user fees, “it would unfortunately end up in the press.” 

1976 concluded on a sour note with a meeting of the KCT Advisory Committee, which at this point, Swartz felt had become “merely an arena for College B’s complaints.” 

“Pinto deeply antagonized almost everyone at the meeting,” Swartz wrote of those intense two hours. “I decided to let him pursue his proposal (attached and predictable), which resulted in an unintentionally eloquent statement of what he was after: total control.” 

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Advertisement for a performance at the Katharine Cornell Theatre | Courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives


Into the new year, it wasn’t exactly a clean slate. “Memomania,” and other problems between KCT Administration and College B, persisted. 

The year kicked off with a bang: a College B rock show straight out of Swartz’s nightmares.

A plastic bag of beer cans and bottles were picked up throughout. Cigarette butts littered the space. Chairs were shuffled around and improperly stacked. People were still there when staff came in at 1:30 a.m. Certainly, the arts-specific education of College B hadn’t taught the students how to read the “no smoking” or “no drinking” signs.

This and other instances of the theater being abused during or after performances only exacerbated the contentious sparring for control between Cultural Affairs and College B. For Swartz, the KCT management was a complete “pain in the neck,” having been “under discussion for — literally — years.” 

Fortunately, 1977 brought about a resolution of sorts. A charter was produced. It cited College B as a “major user” of the space and articulated rules and plans to ensure that both the KCT and College B could function “in a way that their planners had originally envisioned.” Because of “College B’s special relationship” to the KCT, they were made to safeguard fairness in its administration. In September, operation officially changed hands from Cultural Affairs to Arts and Letters faculty, who continued to work unofficially with Swartz.

Through the 80s, though, the Colleges crumbled. A New York Times 1982-83 Guide highlighted how the Colleges were “not at the top of UB’s list of priorities,” having failed to establish themselves, only offering cross-listed courses for credit and bearing no degrees. 

A 1983 report made it official: the Colleges had two years to dissolve. (Swartz left UB that same year.) The report cited “unnecessary and prohibitive overhead costs,” as well as competing, “feudalizing” units as justification. Sound familiar?

An Oct. 9, 1983 UB Reporter article indicated that The Colleges would merely be changing names in this dissolution. “The Colleges are very much alive and there will be no attempts to change that in the future,” Peter Gold, director of Rachel Carson College, said. 

With the disbandment of the Colleges, each unit found a logical affiliation elsewhere. College B was absorbed into the Faculty of Arts and Letters. In the fall of 1987, the new undergraduate college began operation. College B officially ceased to exist with no course offerings in spring 1988. 

A chapter had closed on College B and the associated “memomania” of the KCT’s early years. A premonition in a memo to Swartz from 12 years prior, during the peak of the theater’s bureaucratic strife, had finally come to pass:

“These calls of today prove to be happy harbingers of our ‘days at Cornell’ which are just around the corner.” 

Information on KCT management obtained from Box 2, 33/5/550, “Office of Cultural Affairs, Records, 1970-1978,” University Archives.

Information on The Colleges and College “B” obtained from “The Colleges” Vertical Files, University Archives ; and Box 1, 34/11/755, “Black Mountain College Records, 1970-1978,” University Archives. 

Just Around the Corner

With the messy politics of the theater left in the past, the bizarre “diamond-in-a-diamond” continues to be a beloved and well-utilized space on campus, primarily by students and faculty of the Department of Theatre and Dance.

There are still issues for sure. A drunk student once pulled a toilet off the wall in the bathrooms across the hall, causing a flood that necessitated replacing all of the floors. But the tumultuous struggle for dominion over the space lies dormant.

Now, it is a classroom space for courses such as Basic Acting, Voice and Movement, Mime and more. In “Aerial Circus Arts,” initiated by Kathleen Golde under Department Chair Tom Ralabate, students even secure colorful silks from the catwalks, learning how to perform impressive stunts such as Russian climbs, arabesques, reverse splits, barrel rolls and more.

Aside from classes, the space frequently hosts dance showcases such as Emerging Choreographers, and student-directed productions like PUFFS or Gruesome Playground Injuries

It is an innovative, artistic laboratory space.

Most people don’t even know it’s there. The KCT serves as a creative outpost, an incubator for new ideas squirreled away within the winding hallways of Ellicott. If one gets lost somewhere in the disorienting corridors, they may just find themselves at the doors of UB’s most storied, yet often overlooked theater.

The theater, like its namesake, is a hidden gem.

katharine-cornell-theatre-2023

Katharine Cornell Theatre on UB's North Campus.


A brief history on the KCT was provided courtesy of Gerard Kegler. Additional anecdotal information provided by Kegler, Vincent Harzewski, Melinda Lamoreux, Kathleen Golde, Michael Formato, and Thomas Burke.

Alex Novak is the senior arts editor and can be reached at alex.novak@ubspectrum.com  

Special thanks to the University Archives and Jessica Hollister. For more information on the archives and what was presented in this article, contact lib-archives@buffalo.edu


ALEX NOVAK

Alex Novak is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum

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