Category Archives: Student Life

The Williston Theater Turns 100

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

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.

The very first Williston Dramatic Club production, December 1919. (Please click any image to enlarge it.)
Prehistory

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.

Skit comedy, 1881.

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.

The mysterious rubber chest, a mere prop in the preceding poster, gets a script of its own.

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.

Poster for a minstrel show, 1878.
The program for the preceding minstrel show. (Please click any image to enlarge it.)

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.)

Professor Charles Buffum’s invitation to George Wardman.
The Macbeth cast list.
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.)

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A William Rittase Gallery (II)

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
A William Rittase classroom image from the 1940s, with teacher Earl N. Johnston. The dramatic lighting, from floods placed outside the margins of the image, is characteristic. (Please click images to enlarge.)

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.

South Hall, on the Old Campus, with the Easthampton Congregational Church in the background. The cloud effect is another Rittase signature

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.)

Chemistry at Northampton School for Girls, around 1945. Rittase has darkened the room, except for a flood placed low behind the glassware.

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.

A Rittase print in its present state.
The preceding photograph, digitally restored. The tower of the old gymnasium appears in the background.

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.

Faculty and Students
Classics master Lincoln Grannis, 1944. In this case we can date the photo from the calendar on the wall.
English teacher Chuck Rouse in conference.
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Faculty Meetings — a Century Ago

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

Sidney N. Morse on the steps of Middle Hall. (Please click any image to enlarge it.)

Sidney Nelson Morse taught English, and occasionally Latin and Greek, at Williston Seminary from 1890 until 1927.  A product of Williston, class of 1886, and Yale, 1890, he also served as Alumni Secretary, remaining in that role for several years beyond his “official” retirement.  From 1918 to 1927 he was Secretary to the Faculty.  His principal responsibility was to take the minutes of weekly faculty meetings.  These documents survive, in 48 exam bluebooks, scrawled in Morse’s sometimes challenging handwriting and often written in the distinctive blue pencil which, for reasons unknown, he favored.

While admittedly there is much repetition in the texts, gems emerge.  The minutes are, in fact, a detailed chronicle of Williston life from the perhaps necessarily narrow window of her teachers.  Here we present some excerpts from approximately a century ago, 1918-1921, which might resonate today.  (Editor’s annotations are in italics.)

November 22, 1918: “Suggested that a teacher be detailed to be in Northampton Sat. night and to come back in the last car to see that Williston boys are O.K., each teacher in turn.”  (In those days light rail service ran between Easthampton and Northampton.)

(The First World War had finally ended in November, 1918.  With the Armistice came a demand for more “normal” campus activities.)

March 14, 1919: “The matter of petition from the students to take 2 hrs. military drill a week in place of 4 was not acted upon except so far as to leave unchanged the present schedule in general until May 1, & any slight changes to be left at the discretion of Sergt. Graham.”  (Sergeant Alfred Linton Graham had served with the Canadian Army from 1914 until his discharge in January 1918.  Williston employed him as a military instructor during the 1918-19 school year.)

Alfred Graham, from the 1919 yearbook, The Log.  Dr. Galbraith dispensed with his services the following year.

This writer’s sense is that there is far too much of the following.  It should be noted, though, that such discussions of individual disciplinary matters among the full faculty continued until fairly recently.  Even after a century, it seems appropriate to abbreviate students’ names.

May 16, 1919: “Moved, that R___ M___ be kept on strict probation and denied all out-of-bounds privileges for the rest of the term; and if he be allowed to return next year, his return to, and continuance in, Williston shall be strictly conditioned (Unexcused absences beyond 20 for the year 1918-19).  Carried.”

“Moved, that J___ A___, for presenting forged excuses for absence from school exercises be put on strict probation as to conduct and attitude toward his work; and further, in case he returns to school next year, he shall pay in advance full tuition for each term.  Carried.” Continue reading

A Different Time

By Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

The Williston Junior School, 1944

The cover of the April,1944 Williston Bulletin, featuring what was then called Williston Cottage, later Conant House. (Please click images to enlarge them.)

The Williston Junior School was a semi-autonomous branch of Williston Seminary and Williston Academy, offering a boarding program for students in grades 5-8.  Founded in 1918, it shared facilities with the Upper School, but had its own Headmaster and faculty.  Originally operating out of Payson Hall on the Old Campus, it eventually relocated to four buildings on Main Street.  Present-day alumni will recognize the “Main St. Quadrangle,” or Clare House, Swan Cottage, Conant House (a.k.a. Williston Cottage), and Sawyer House.

The title page. showing the Junior Schoolhouse, now Swan Cottage.

Edward Clare was Junior School Headmaster from 1936-1947. Clare House is named for him.

We’ve reproduced a Junior School viewbook from 1944 – largely without comment, because the often charming images speak for themselves.  It was a different time.  (Copies of the viewbook are from donations by Ellis Baker ’51 and Peter Stevens ’60)  Please click on any image to enlarge it. Continue reading