Enter Stage Right

With the curtain falling on its old playhouse,Dallas Theater Center gets its act together with a new leader

Scene 4: The prince pays tribute to a ghost

A story passed along by actors and techies who worked at Dallas Theater Center in the 1960s says that Frank Lloyd Wright's original plans made no provision for moving large scenery pieces from the basement scene shop up to Kalita's revolving stage. Steep, narrow ramps limited set designs, so without Wright's knowledge, a freight elevator was installed. Wright visited the site during its construction only a few times. The much-repeated tale maintains that on one visit by Wright shortly before his death in 1959, sheets of plywood were placed over the elevator door to shield it from view. But he found out about the elevator and cursed it for ruining his elegant design. Since then, it's said, on late nights down in that scene shop, the spectral image of Wright's bald head can be seen floating in the elevator car.

In many ways this old theater hums with the spirits of five decades of energy exuded by extraordinary artists. Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith starred in DTC's world premiere of Paddy Chayefsky's The Latent Heterosexual in 1968. Actor-turned-playwright Preston Jones, who died in 1979 at the age of 43, wrote his now-famous Texas Trilogy between shuffling tickets and answering phones in the DTC box office. The Bryant Hall rehearsal space is named for Ken Bryant, the much-loved artistic director who preceded Hamburger. Bryant was appointed in 1990 and died suddenly the following year at 35 in a tragic mix-up of medicines after a traffic accident. Kalita Humphreys, for whom the theater is named, was an actress who died in a plane crash in 1954.

There is one other entity, however, whose spirit still flows so powerfully within the halls of DTC that even the mention of his name is enough to summon storms.

"When I first got here, I had, of course, done lots of research about this place and its beginnings," says Moriarty during an interview in his book-lined DTC office. "I asked one of the staff members about Paul Baker, and she said, 'Oh, we don't say that name around here.'"

That could be institutional guilt about how Baker was treated toward the end of his DTC career or ignorance of the circumstances of his departure from the theater he founded. No one currently working at DTC knew "Mr. Baker," as he is still known to his former students and company members. (In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was a student of Baker's at Trinity University in the 1970s.)

When the Dallas Theater Center opened in 1959 with an epic adaption of Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, it was under the direction of Baker, a leonine West Texas native who was then chairman of the drama department at Baylor University. A maverick teacher and director whose college productions drew national press, Baker had a vision that advanced the "little theater" movement popularized by director Margo Jones in her theater-in-the-round at Fair Park in the 1940s. The movement was grounded in respect for art that arose from and spoke directly to its surrounding community. And it emphasized the education and training of young artists in professional settings.

Baker's imprint is still all over DTC. Kalita's open, curved Shakespearean thrust stage was designed to fulfill Baker's concept of bringing the action of live theater into and around the audience.

A dispute with Baylor over a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (Dirty words! Drinking!) led to DTC aligning its in-house MFA program with San Antonio's Trinity University in the 1960s. The 1970s brought Baker's glory days. He kept Kalita busy almost year-round with an 11-show season (almost double what DTC does now) and had a second season running concurrently in the 60-seat Down Center Stage in the basement. Shows from DTC toured to San Antonio and then around the country. The theater employed a full-time resident company of 30 artists who worked in all areas, acting in a play, then directing, building sets, sewing costumes, even ushering. Preston Jones' plays arguably were the most successful Baker ever staged, but many other scripts debuting at DTC in those years were the direct result of Baker's support of art emerging from within the DTC family.

A palace coup took place in 1983 when board members touting the need for a "world-class theater" ousted Baker and brought in director Adrian Hall from Trinity Rep. Gone were the longtime DTC company members. They posed for one last group photo with a sign saying "Not-Ready-for-World-Class Players." Gone too was the graduate academic program that had drawn students from around the globe. It was suggested that Hall approach SMU's Meadows School of the Arts for affiliation. His requirement for grad students, he said, was that they shave their heads and shift scenery in the nude. SMU declined to participate.

Hall's extravagant productions drove DTC more than $1 million into debt. "He'd spend $50,000 on a chandelier for a set," a former DTC company member recalls. By 1989, Hall had returned to the East Coast for good. Then came Bryant, gone too soon. Then 15 years of Hamburger. And now Moriarty, who arrives full of energy and ideas at a pivotal moment in DTC history.

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