Monday, December 19, 2016

The Rise of Campus Dramatics (Part I): The State County Fair

Dramatics was an important part of early campus life at the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Plays and skits were not only a creative outlet for the students, but also an ideal way for classmates from across the state to get to know each other better. In addition to obvious social benefits, the earliest campus productions drew attention to the new school during a time when the North Carolina Legislature was making important appropriation decisions for the state’s colleges. The first State County Fair was held on November 30, 1894, as part of a Legislature’s Education Committee visit to assess State Normal’s buildings, grounds, and administrative management.

The "Bevy of Sailor Girls" from New Hanover County, 1894

The College’s president, Charles Duncan McIver, appointed four students to plan the auspicious event. The program included State Normal students entertaining the Committee and the general public with a rendering of the state song and a competition to present the most creative skit featuring significant local products and notable historic figures from the girls’ home counties. The event took place in the auditorium, or “chapel,” of the Main Building (now the Foust Building), and included elaborate costumes and props, as well as cleverly titled banners. The skits varied greatly in size, depending on how many students were from a certain county. A particularly large group from Yadkin County incorporated corn shucks and a large bottle with a banner reading, “Yadkin furnishes corn in all its forms.” Particularly singled out were the “bevy of sailor girls” from New Hanover County who who sang a rollicking version of “A Sailor’s Wife a Sailor’s Star Should Be.” Only one “plucky” girl represented Greene County, but she did so with great flair, wearing a garland of corn and holding a squealing piglet on her back. It’s hard to imagine that the piglet, as well as her banner which read, “hog and hominy,” did not push her into the winner’s circle. Yet, the victorious county was Rockingham, which represented a cradle holding a sugar-cured ham and students carrying shields representing four governors from that area of the state. Their banner declared, “Nursery of Our Governors.” For winning the day, the Rockingham girls were awarded the Grand Prize of a framed picture of Pilot Mountain. The event was a notable success and hailed as “one of the most unique entertainments ever given in the state.” Afterwards, the girls were feted with oysters and hot chocolate.

"Nursery of Our Governors," the Rockingham County Entry, 1894

When the Education Committee returned to the campus in February of 1897, McIver chose to feature the State County Fair event again. This time he requested that the Elocution Department plan the activities for the important occasion. The program began with a costumed student chorus representing the three departments of the school - Business, Domestic Science, and Pedagogy. Subsequently, there was a presentation of the counties. The Mecklenburg County offering, which represented students dressed as hornets, was very well received. But, the high point of the pageant was a mock legislative session presented by thirty-five State Normal students, during which the College’s appropriation budget was increased by $100,000. The 1897 State County Fair also stands out for being the year that students from Durham allegedly sewed cigarettes into their costumes, which they promptly smoked after the event and consequently were severely reprimanded by the faculty. Whether this is a true story or only a rumor, it remains part of the unofficial college lore.

The Mecklenburg Hornets, 1897
By the time the Committee visited again in February 1899, the student productions had taken on a more political theme, most likely due to the Spanish-American War. The “tableaux vivants” included representations of “E Pluribus Unum – American Types,” “Way Down Yonder in Dixie,” and “Justice.” Also featured was a scene symbolizing the “School of Education,” in which Uncle Sam played by E. J. Forney, the College’s treasurer and professor of business, gave the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba instruction in self-government. This was a common theme after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, and reflected political cartoons of the day, which showed Uncle Sam attempting to teach a new class of unruly American territories. The production was met with “deafening applause,” and considered a rousing success. The presentation ended with a “tableau vivant” of the Great Seal of North Carolina surrounded by representatives of all of the counties singing “The Old North State.” Although these early State County Fairs were very obvious attempts by President McIver to sway the State Legislature, dramatic activities on campus continued to grow in popularity and increasingly came under the direction of the school’s Literary Societies.

The next installment of “Campus Dramatics” will feature early Literary Society productions, the establishment of the school’s Dramatic Club, and pageants staged as part of the campus mobilization efforts for World War I.






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