Once upon a time, in 1888, a small group of Penn undergraduates, led by Clayton Fotterall McMichael, were interested in the stage and were feeling restless. Here were talented and ambitious young men of prominent Philadelphia families with no proper outlet for their artistic pursuits. Those interested in the Classics went to that department for productions of Euripides; Shakespeareans went to the English department. However, McMichael and his cohorts wanted something different: a troupe that would produce humorous theatrical pieces. What was a college man to do? Get up in frocks and spoof everyone and everything, naturally.
Because colleges at the time were open only to young gentlemen, any production was limited to an all–male cast. These organizations naturally saw burlesque, which was quite popular in that era, as the perfect genre. The overblown characterizations, loose plotting, musical interludes, and parody of high art made the style perfect for a group of young, well–educated, amateur men, especially since the drag tradition came “built–in.”
Founder McMichael combed the local bookstores for a story to produce and found it in Henry Byron’s The Nymphs of the Lurleyburg. With a little pirating and a bit of imagination, Lurline, the Club’s first production, hit the boards at the Chestnut Street Opera House on June 4, 1889, for one night only. The show was a spectacular success financially, socially, and historically. From that night onward, the Club, supported by a strong network of alumni now known as the Graduate Club, produced an annual show. The runs were extended and the Club established a fine tradition among Philadelphia’s theater–going society.
In 1894 the Club purchased a property at 310 South Quince Street to serve as a gathering place and rehearsal hall. Prominent Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre was commissioned to convert the building, which had previously served as a church, a dissecting room, and a stable. He hired the young Maxfield Parrish, who would later become one of the greatest illustrators of the twentieth century, to decorate the interior. The Grille Room was decorated with caricatures of members; a tradition that continues today, with the second century of members’ caricatures continued upstairs at the entrance to the auditorium.
The Club prospered throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1908, the Club, awash in philanthropic good will, not to mention cash, donated funds to build a dormitory in the University Quadrangle, which still bears the name of Mask and Wig. The middle of this century was a heady time for the Club. Appearing in the big Center City theaters and traveling across the country in its own Pennsylvania Railroad car, the Club survived through two world wars. Mask and Wig songs were the rage of the big band orchestras, radio shows, and solo acts of the day. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Les Brown all covered Mask and Wig tunes.
But by the time the fifties rolled around and television became a staple of the American entertainment diet, the Club, as well as its more sophisticated cousins on Broadway, found leaner days and thinner audiences. The 1961 production, Wry on the Rocks, introduced a satirical revue format in a cabaret atmosphere. Seventeen years ago, with Myth America, Mask and Wig returned the student–written book musical to its stage, a practice which continues each year. One of the factors in the success of the shows has been their topicality - a treatment with both wit and music of subjects of the day with which students and alumni identify. Also important in the show’s success are the traditional high standards in the calibre of performers and excellence of the material performed.
The Club’s primary purpose has always been and continues to be, “Justice to the stage and credit to the University.” Today, Mask and Wig maintains its position as one of the premier extracurricular activities on the Penn campus. Its yearly alumni tour over spring break brings the show to alumni clubs across the nation. So sit back and enjoy a tradition over a century in the making, and still going strong. “There’s Only Room for One!”