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.)
William Rittase (1894-1968) was an American photographer based in Philadelphia. On several occasions from the mid-1930 to the early 1950s, he was hired by Williston Academy to create catalogue images. He also, on at least one occasion in the ‘forties, shot photos at Northampton School for Girls. Rittase’s artistic interests lay in industrial and railroad subjects, for which his work is prized by collectors today. Catalogue photography was undoubtedly meant to pay the bills. But in retrospect, Rittase’s catalogue photography frequently surpasses the medium for which it was intended.
Rittase’s images are sprinkled throughout this blog, but only once, in A William Rittase Sports Gallery, have we devoted a full post just to his work. Not long ago his grandson left a comment on that page. That led to the realization that we have a great many wonderful images that we haven’t shared. Thus, this article.
His style lent a distinctive look to Williston’s and Northampton’s marketing materials. Rittase’s work is typically characterized by dramatic lighting and high contrast between light and shadow. In outdoor photographs, billowing clouds are another signature. Sometimes he obtained his singular chiaroscuro through artificial means, placing floodlights at unusual angles, occasionally casting striking shadows. Retired Williston photography instructor Bob Couch ’50 has observed that Rittase’s trademark clouds sometimes repeat themselves from one image to the next. (And Rittase worked half a century before anyone had imagined digital photo editing.)
Most of Rittase’s photographs survive in the Archives as mounted gallery prints, in which the images measure approximately 13.75″ x 10.” Over the years, many of these have faded or the dyes in the prints turned sepia. But because we have the published images, and because other Rittase work is available as a reference, we have a good sense of what the originals once looked like. A number of years ago, using modern scanning and digital editing, we undertook a project to try to reproduce the photographs in something approximating their original state.
Beyond their often sheer beauty, Rittase’s pictures present aspects of student life and the campus that have long since vanished. Here are some of his best — or most interesting images. Viewers are encouraged to look for some of the Rittase attributes described above.
This fall we are celebrating the 95th anniversary of the 1924 founding of Northampton School for Girls, which merged with Williston Academy in 1971. Many Northampton alumnae consider their school a unique, special place. It is harder, with nearly half a century’s perspective, to pin down just what the essence of Northampton School was. But recently a survey of ‘Hamp alumnae came to hand. It comes close. The study was carried out in 1965 and published in their Alumnae News the following year.That report is reproduced here in its entirety, without further commentary. We’ve included a few additional photographs mostly because we like them, and they break up the page. They’re not meant to illustrate any particular narrative. (As always, please click each image to enlarge.)
Visitors to the lower level of Williston Northampton’s Sabina Cain Family Athletic Center may already be familiar with some of these photographs. William Rittase (1894-1968) was an American photographer based in Philadelphia. His work is now prized by collectors. Rittase frequently specialized in railroad and industrial subjects, but on several occasions in the 1930s and ’40s, he was hired by both Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls to produce catalog photography, thereby giving a distinctive look to the schools’ marketing materials of the time.
Rittase’s work is often characterized by dramatic lighting and high contrast between light and shadow. Billowing clouds are one of his signatures. Most of the Archives’ Rittase photographs survive as gallery prints in which the image measures 13.75″ x 10.”
But Rittase was not above a measure of artistic chicanery. Former Williston photography teacher Bob Couch ’50 has observed that the same clouds appear in multiple photographs. And consider the preceding photograph — by any standard, a brilliant action shot. But think about the vantage point. To get this angle, Rittase would have had to to have been standing on a ladder in the infield.And no, Rittase wasn’t using a telephoto lens. In fact, he favored a large-format camera, that used 4 x 5″ film or larger, had a fixed lens, and weighed many pounds. So the wonderful photo above was, in fact, staged, even choreographed. The photographer is apparently sitting on the ground just a few feet from the blockers’ knees. Continue reading →