One of the highlights of May 2020 was to have been the Williston Theater’s much-anticipated presentation of Les Misérables. The COVID-19 crisis having closed the campus, it was not to be. It would have been an opportunity to publicly celebrate the centennial of The Williston Theater, which made its debut (as the Dramatic Club) in 1919-1920.
To be clear, student theatricals were regular occurrences at Williston Seminary (as it was then called) prior to 1919. Teenagers have always been dramatic, and the “hey kids, let’s put on a show” instinct, often coupled with an urge to clown, is rarely far from the surface. Most of the student-produced shows of the time took on a rough-and-ready quality. Today we might call it skit comedy, and would probably be baffled by inside jokes and perhaps disappointed by the overall taste.
For a nominal fee, Williston students had the use of the auditorium and stage in the Town Hall, directly across Main Street from the campus. Although the building belonged to the town, it had been donated by Samuel Williston, and students made certain assumptions.
In some instances, we might be more than disappointed at the tone of some of these efforts. “Appalling” is perhaps not too strong a word to describe student minstrel shows that featuring stereotypical characters and ethnic humor. Reflecting the times, the targets were most frequently African Americans and the Irish. Ironically, Williston was an integrated school by the 1870s. One can only speculate on how students of color might have responded.
Happily, some aspired to loftier dramatic pursuits. George Wardman, class of 1889, was one of a cadre of theater-mad students invited to participate in a faculty reading of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1888. Participants read multiple roles, and the female parts were undertaken by faculty spouses — Lady Macbeth by the Headmaster’s wife. The organizers were sufficiently pleased with themselves to attempt Hamlet a few weeks later. (Wardman preserved his invitation and cast list in a scrapbook full of other theatrical memorabilia; see An 1880s Williston Scrapbook.)
The Birth of the Drama Club
Student productions up prior to 1919 had enjoyed neither school sponsorship nor faculty supervision. All that changed with the 1917 arrival of Professor Laurence J. Smith, an English teacher and graduate of what was then known as Emerson College of Oratory. Smith set about convincing colleagues and students of the importance of “the promotion of the art of the theatre and the development of self-confidence and imagination through dramatic expression.” In October 1919, under Smith’s direction, a student cast took to the Town Hall stage with an evening of one-act plays. (The program is at the very top of this article.)
It is sung, with varying degrees of solemnity and competence, at solemn events like graduations and hockey games. If “Hail to Williston Northampton” is our recently adopted Alma Mater, then surely the much more venerable “Sammy” qualifies as our Alma Aviam. (That’s “Beloved Grandmother.” Don’t you regret not having taken Latin? But I digress.) At least one former Head of School thought the song and its associated traditions puerile and tried, without success, to suppress it. “Sammy” remains the Song that Would Not Go Away.
Venerable Williston Lore tells us that “Sammy,” our “stand-up song,” was written by Paul “Pitt” Johnson, class of 1905. This appears to be accurate, although it seems that the memory briefly slipped Johnson’s mind after he graduated. But in 1939, Alumni Secretary Howard Boardman asked for Johnson’s recollection. Pitt wrote back,
“Although there might have been in my mind a slight doubt of the authorship, nevertheless, it was instantly removed after singing the first two measures. I instantly recognized it as my work, which was one of the many songs I wrote during my years at the old school.” [The full letter is reproduced at right; please click on the image to enlarge it.]
Johnson continued, “It so clearly comes to mind now how Dr. Sawyer [Headmaster Joseph H. Sawyer], upon hearing the song on the campus, called me to his office and suggested that theretofore the name Samuel had never lost its dignity and couldn’t I rewrite the song using Samuel instead of Sammy. I remember how three or four of us tried it out but it sounded a bit brummy and didn’t cut the mustard so the song continued to refer to the founder of Williston as Sammy and I cannot recall a single instance of where Samuel Williston haunted me from the tomb because of it.”
It is perhaps ironic that Johnson knew “Sammy” as his own when he heard the first two measures, since that is the one portion of the tune that he most certainly did not write. Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas will recognize the phrase as having been lifted, note for note, from the Bridesmaids’ Chorus in Trial by Jury, at the words “Wear the flowers ’til they fade.” The show was wildly popular at the time Johnson “borrowed” the tune – and the cribbing was probably unconscious. As for the lyrics that so bothered Joseph Sawyer, it is likely that having written “Sammy, my Sammy, my heart yearns for thee,” Johnson needed a rhyme, and settled on “and your old elm tree.” Nothing we know of Samuel Williston suggests that he ever took an interest in trees, elm or otherwise. Yet, as has been detailed elsewhere, from this bit of doggerel entire school traditions have risen. (See “The Brand,” particularly toward the end of the article.) Continue reading →
Dong Kingman (1911-2000) was a respected Chinese-American watercolorist, one of the leading figures in the “California Style” school of painting, and the father of Dong Kingman Jr., Williston Academy class of 1955. In 1953 he and his wife Janice visited the campus. While here, Kingman painted this picture of the east end of the Recreation Center, today’s Reed Campus Center, and presented it to Sarah and Headmaster Phillips Stevens. It was hung in the Homestead (at that time, the Headmaster’s residence) and, according to Phillips Stevens Jr., went with them to every home.
Last year, on behalf of the Stevens family, Phillips Stevens Jr. presented Kingman’s painting to the school. It has been conserved, re-framed, and added to Williston Northampton’s permanent art collection, and is displayed in the west end of the Reed Campus Center, which it depicts.
At right, another member of the Stevens family, Peter Stevens ’60, admires the Kingman painting in the Reed Campus Center, March 30, 2019. Peter was visiting with his wife, painter Linn Bower, for the opening reception of her exhibit, The Passionate Hands of the Sun, in the Grubbs Gallery, just down the hall.
More information about the life and work of Dong Kingman may be found in a variety of online sources, and several books, including Dong Kingman: an American Master, by Monte James (Twenty-Second Century Film Corporation of America, 2000), and Kingman’s own Portraits of Cities (Twenty-Second Century, 1997) and Dong Kingman’s Watercolors (Watson-Guptil, 1980).
Anyone familiar with Easthampton in the ’40s through the ’60s is likely to recall a taciturn gentleman with an easel and paintbox, often engaged in capturing a town landmark or rural scene. Albert Kiesling (1885-1968) was born in Clinton, Mass., and moved to Easthampton to work in the textile mills. He was a protégé and friend of the American expressionist painter Oscar F. Adler (1868-1932), another Clinton native. In fact, Kiesling and Adler often painted the same scenes together.
In the summer of 2016, Easthampton CityArts+, in association with Albert Kiesling’s family, mounted an exhibition and sale of a large group of his paintings, at the Mill Arts Project (MAP) Gallery at Eastworks in Easthampton. The following video, from Easthampton Media, is an excellent introduction to Kiesling’s work. (Alumni from certain eras may recognize some of the people interviewed.)
There are five known Kiesling paintings of Williston scenes. One had been on campus since 1945. Following the CityArts+ exhibit, Williston Northampton was able to obtain the other four, through a combination of alumni generosity and purchases. They are:
The Old Gymnasium
The Old Williston Seminary Gym, with its distinctive tower, was built in 1864, the first free-standing athletic building in any American secondary school. It stood on High Street, at the rear of the original Williston campus. Rendered largely obsolete by the construction of the Recreation Center (now the Reed Campus Center) in 1930, it was razed following the school’s consolidation onto the present campus in 1951. Kiesling painted the scene in 1952. Williston Northampton was able to acquire the painting through the generosity of Patricia Zavorski Coon ’61. This painting currently hangs in the office of the Director of Athletics.
The Button Mill
The painting of the original Williston Button Mill, Easthampton’s first factory building, was commissioned in 1945 by Charles Johnson, class of 1875, Treasurer of Easthampton Savings Bank, and presented to the school by the Class of 1905, one of whose members, Guy Richard Carpenter, was instrumental in tracking down and preserving many of the documents and memorabilia that now comprise the Williston Northampton Archives. The rendering of the building, erected 1846-47, is accurate, but Kiesling has placed it on the site of the so-called “Button Building” on Union Street. That structure, which still stands, was erected in 1861-62, while the original button factory remains as part of the mill complex on Cottage Street. One of the workers’ tenement houses beyond the mill also survives, now home to the Easthampton Diner. Kiesling added a couple of historical touches to the background: the spire of the Payson (now Easthampton Congregational) Church and, in front of it, Williston’s original (1841) White Seminary building. This painting hangs in the front parlor of the Head of School’s Residence.
The Old Campus
This undated painting now hangs in the Advancement Conference Room in the Williston Homestead. Purchased in 2016 via the Archives Fund, it shows the pre-1951 campus from the intersection of Main and Union Streets, from the vantage point of the Congregational Church’s front lawn. The buildings, from right, are South, Middle, and North Halls. All these structures were torn down after the move to the New Campus in 1951, but a portion of the distinctive iron fence remains in place. Also visible are the Maher Fountain, which remains today, and the First Congregational Church, which succumbed to fire in 1929.
In the mid-19th century, Hill’s Mansion House was Easthampton’s grand hotel. Even then, it housed Williston students able to pay the premium rates. The huge wooden building stood at the top of the hill on the corner of Main and Northampton Streets. In the early 20th century, when the hotel business had fallen off, the school bought the building and renamed it Payson Hall. It was used as a dormitory, dining commons, and for many years, the home of the Williston Junior School. From the early 1950s on the structure, in increasingly fragile condition, hosted inexpensive apartments. It burned in the early 1970s. Kiesling’s 1963 painting, part of the 2016 purchase, is now in the office of the Director of Alumni Engagement.
The Williston Birthplace
Here the subject is the Payson Williston parsonage, also known as “The Birthplace,” on Park Street, opposite the Homestead. Dated 1968, thus one of Kiesling’s last paintings, this seems less successful than the others – something in the perspective is not quite right. The artist has set the building well back from the road and included a nonexistent mountain. Also part of the 2016 purchase, this painting presently hangs in the Williston Birthplace, now a faculty residence.
Finally, if you watched thevideo, you’ll recall that Kiesling was also an enthusiastic creator of snow sculpture, often of epic proportions. On Saturday, February 10, as part of the 5th Annual Easthampton Winterfest, the Nashawannuck Pond Steering Committee will host the First Annual Albert Kiesling Snow Art Competition. Please click the link for details!