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Texas | Columns | "Hindsights"

Looking back at
When Broadway Came to Waco

by Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Waco, Texas is a long way from Tinsel Town and a far piece from Broadway, but Shakespeare, Picasso, an innovative director, and an Academy Award-winning actor came together to bring Hollywood to Waco, and put Baylor University on the theatrical map.

The director, Paul Baker from Hereford, Texas, was only 23 when Baylor President Pat Neff hired him as a drama professor. Baker became chair of the department in 1940. Even as a young director he was daring and innovative, but it was in Paris in 1952 that Baker hit upon the idea that would shake up the theatrical world. While visiting the Museum of Modern Art, Baker became fascinated with Picasso, Georges Braque, and the Cubist movement and decided to find a way to translate the distinctive techniques of Cubism to the theater - particularly the element of Cubism that showed objects from multiple points of view.

When Baker returned to Waco, he began work on a unique production of Shakespeare's Othello. In Baker's version of the drama, three different actors played the tragic hero, each actor conveying a different aspect of Othello's character. Baylor drama students performed the play at Studio One, the campus theater, but the show attracted little attention at first. Then one night the great British actor Charles Laughton walked in.

Laughton, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, came to town on December 8, 1953 to perform his one man show, "An Evening with Charles Laughton," at Waco Hall. He had already won an Oscar in 1933 for the starring role in The Private Life of Henry VIII, but success had not gone to his head. He reportedly used the statue for a doorstop. It was said that Laughton, with his hypnotic voice and commanding stage presence, could entertain audiences just by reading to them, and that's what he did that night; reading from the Bible and other works of literature. While in Waco, Laughton caught the performance of Paul Baker's Othello and declared it "the most exciting piece of theater in America." Laughton even met with Baker backstage and offered to help the director organize a similar production of Hamlet.

With Laughton's encouragement, Baker went right to work on the project, completing his Cubist-inspired Hamlet in the spring of 1956. The new play featured three masked gray-clad "shadow" Hamlets echoing lines depicting different features of Hamlet's personality. Charles Laughton read the play, offered criticism, and even persuaded his friend, actor Burgess Meredith, to go to Baylor and play the lead role. Laughton and Meredith spent two months in Waco rehearsing Baker's Hamlet and drilling Baylor drama students in Shakespearean verse. One of the students was a young Clu Gulager who later acted in TV westerns and played the role of "Abilene" in the movie The Last Picture Show.

Othello opened in Waco on May 5, 1956. People came from all over the country to see it. The entire run of 16 shows sold out three weeks in advance.

When the Baylor run was over, Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith returned to New York to begin work on the Broadway version of George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara. Laughton was also the director. But Laughton never forgot his friends in Waco, and on Monday, April 29, 1957, he cancelled the Broadway performance of Major Barbara so he could attend a luncheon in Waco and a performance of Othello at Studio One. Laughton also persuaded the producers of Major Barbara, Robert Joseph and Robert Whitehead, and the other stars in the show, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Anne Jackson, to fly to Waco with him. Waco rolled out the red carpet for the stars of Broadway.

Two weeks later Charlton Heston, star of the movie The Ten Commandments, quietly slipped into Waco to visit with Baker and see an abbreviated version of Hamlet put on by Baylor students. Heston had heard about the Baylor Theater through the show business grapevine.

Paul Baker stayed on the cutting edge of theater throughout his tenure at Baylor. Then in March 1963, Baker and 12 members of his staff resigned after Baylor President Abner McCall cancelled Baker's production of Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey into Night in the middle of its run. Judge McCall cited Baylor's policy against plays with vulgar, profane, or blasphemous language.

That's show biz.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
October 5 , 2015 Column

Sources:
Waco Tribune Herald, October 27, 2011, "Waco Strange But True: Baylor's Paul Baker brought Hollywood to Waco."
Waco Tribune Herald, April 4, 1956, "Charles Laughton Aids 'Hamlet' Work," p. 1
New York Times, May 8, 1956, "Novel 'Hamlet' in Texas" p. 28
New York Times, April 23, 1957 "Change for 'Major Barbara'" p.35
New York Times, March 9, 1963, "Baylor University's Drama Staff Quits in Feud over O'Neill Play," p. 5.



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