The program’s director wrote that “no federal money was better spent” than on a children’s theatre program in Gary, Indiana
By Samuel Love
Gary, Indiana was originally a corporate project. Founded in 1906 by the U.S. Steel Corporation, it was fundamentally utilitarian: close to Chicago’s markets and shipping infrastructure and designed to facilitate steelworkers serving the mill. But as the city’s population grew–more than two hundred percent between 1910 and 1920–it began to shed its company town image. No longer did every facet of everyday life revolve around millwork. As the generation of city founders faded from the scene a public discussion about culture in the Steel City emerged alongside independent cultural institutions, especially in the city’s many ethnic and religious communities. In City of The Century: A History of Gary, Indiana, historian Jim Lane mentions “a heated debate concerning the merits of ‘Steel City’ culture… with charges of ‘hick’ and ‘snob’ hurled back and forth.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this cultural coming-of-age in Gary was its developing theatre scene. A construction wave shaped a downtown that served more than the needs of commerce and corporation, adding civic landmarks like Memorial Auditorium in 1927 and the luxurious Palace Theater in 1925. According to historian Richard Meister, “the activities of the fan and belly dancers” were still more popular than the productions of the Gary Civic Theatre or the annual production of the ‘Messiah.'” but Gary was a fast-growing city, and there was plenty of room for independent, community-minded artists to maintain a successful creative practice.
One such artist was Betty Kessler Lyman, a teacher-turned-homemaker who published a series of children’s books during the 1920s, following characters known as the Peter-Pan Twins. When her children were old enough to make neighborhood friends Lyman produced community puppet shows on a basement stage with scenery constructed by her husband, Percy. By the end of the decade, the Lyman’s left behind the sooty and increasingly crowded downtown neighborhoods for the sparsely populated and recently annexed Aetna community, situated in the woods and low dunes five miles east of downtown Gary. There they continued their community arts engagement, staging shows, workshops, and lessons first in their rented home at the corner of 12th and Oklahoma streets and later up the road in the former office and lodge of the old Aetna Powder Company.
The 1930s were a tough time to be just about anywhere in the country, especially a one-industry town. In Gary, the mill operated at just thirty percent capacity, and the disruption was felt across every sector in the city, especially arts and entertainment. The Orpheum stopped showing films and converted to a miniature golf course. The Gary Theatre supplemented shows with sports and amateur nights, eventually turning to burlesque and strip shows until closed by the Board of Health. Three thousand people attended a Sergei Rachmaninoff concert at Memorial Auditorium in 1935, but lesser-known performers had difficulties attracting audiences. Ethnic choral groups like the Serb Karageorge Choir and the Croatian Preradovic Choir achieved national recognition, but local theatre companies struggled to sell enough tickets to maintain a full production season. Betty Lyman’s operation almost failed within the first year.
By the early 1930s, live theatre was already struggling outside of a few major cities and college towns—the result of converging trends in economics, technology (film, recorded music), and changing tastes. And live theater everywhere suffered dramatically during the Depression, even in places that hadn’t been challenged before. By the spring of 1932, 213 of New York’s 253 companies had closed. Another thirty-four closed by July. Early attempts at government relief under the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Act failed to significantly reduce theatre unemployment. Only a small fraction of the unemployed actors and the allied crafts professionals found temporary work in a handful of major cities or at Civilian Conservation Corps camps.
Enter Federal Project Number One. In April 1935, Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the largest public works bill at the time. This second New Deal allocated $27 million (of a total $4.8 billion) for the reemployment of writers, historians, artists, musicians, actors, and the allied crafts through a series of programs including the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) had a budget of approximately $6.8 million, and was administered, like the others, via the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
WPA Director Harry Hopkins appointed Hallie Flanagan, a producer, director, author, and playwright, to lead the Federal Theatre Project. Flanagan, fresh off a Guggenheim Fellowship-sponsored tour of European theatre,articulated two goals for the FTP: 1) the reemployment of theatre and allied crafts professionals, and 2) “the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of this Federal Project is completed.”In the end, over the course of just four years, Flanagan and the FTP managed to establish traditional and experimental theatres in forty major cities across thirty states.
One of those cities was Gary, Indiana. The Gary arm of the FTP, managed by Betty Lyman, employed ten people, gave nearly two hundred performances, and served nearly seventy thousand children. Lyman’s work in Gary fit with Flanagan’s national vision for a federated theatre rooted in the customs and heritages of the community. The story of the Federal Theater Project in Gary is the story of two visionary and energetic women, working at very different levels and on distinctly different life trajectories, but sharing a belief in the creative power of children and the relevance of the theatre to community life.
The seeds of the Gary Children’s Federal Theatre Project were planted by Betty Lyman before the Depression. Her home-based operation, formally known as the Mickey Mouse Players (she received permission from Walt Disney to use the name), had the children of Gary, including its immigrant and migrant population, performing the traditional stories and dances of their respective cultures among the refurbished ruins of an empty industrial space. It engaged hundreds of children every year and had broad community support, making it an ideal partner for a national campaign.
Still, it almost didn’t happen.
In November 1935, Director Flanagan appointed Dr. Lee Norvelle, professor of speech at Indiana University Bloomington, to direct the Indiana Federal Theatre Project. Norvelle had intended to focus his state’s effort solely on creating a theater project in Indianapolis. But then he learned about Lyman’s work through a former student. Sufficiently impressed, Norvelle petitioned Flanagan to include the Mickey Mouse Players. Flanagan, who had already been facing reactionary criticism that the Federal Theatre Project was a haven for communists, expressed her interest with characteristic humor. “The Gary Children’s Theatre sounds interesting, though I hope you will use your influence to have the name changed. A Mickey Mouse Theatre sounds dangerously radical to me!”
In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Lyman explained the basic approach of her social practice: “we offer theatre experience to every child that wants it. For a few years the child’s mood is very close to that of the great poet and artist. Play acting as a form of art is as instinctive as the desire for food and clothing. We wish to crystallize this mood!” In her project proposal she emphasized that professional theatre development was only one potential benefit of the project. “[The] experience will afford children freedom of expression, afford them an emotional outlet and seek to develop their creative abilities so that some will choose some phase of theatre work as a career, while others will be guided into the selection of hobbies and the wise use of leisure.”
The FTP had not planned to include child actors. The program’s basic instructions spelled out some directives for children’s theatre, with an assumption that the performers would be out-of-work adult actors. But Flanagan wanted this new national theatre to build on and respect locality and heritage, which matched Betty Lyman’s larger vision for her Mickey Mouse Players. And so, with the support of the United States federal government in the sum of $3,282, Betty Kessler Lyman set out, in the spring of 1936, to organize a comprehensive, city-wide children’s theatre project open to any interested child between the ages of four and eighteen in Gary, Indiana.
First, she needed to recruit young talent and form them into troupes. Working through the school districts and hosting open tryouts at the local YMCA by the end of the summer she organized six hundred children into twelve dramatic units, three musical units, two talent groups, and two puppet troupes. She turned away no interested child; the tryouts were a way for Lyman to determine a child’s passion and find an appropriate role. The playbill for the Advent and Nativity of Christ, lists an “Unseen Choir” of fifteen children along with a chorus of ten, a testament to her creative inclusivity!
The second immediate step was to develop a repertory. The National Play Policy Board would not even form until the following January and with little material available at the time Betty Lyman was largely left on her own regarding the selection and development of material. (Perhaps the FTP’s best-known children’s play, Revolt of the Beavers—described by one critic as “Marxism a la Mother Goose”—did not debut until spring 1937.) Instead, Lyman immediately set to work developing shows with both religious and secular themes, holiday pageants, dramatizations of Mark Twain’s works and other literary classics, along with adaptations of ethnic folklore relevant to the many children of immigrants living in Gary. To lengthen the shows she included song and dance routines, puppet and marionette sketches, and encouraged children to practice the art of improvisation. Lyman staged nineteen different productions over two years, fifteen written and developed herself.
Lyman’s work adapting traditional and popular ethnic tales is perhaps the aspect of the Gary project that best aligns with Flanagan’s call for a children’s theatre focused “on history and folk lore of the past, legends and stories of the locality.” Croatian youngsters performed the tale of Reygoč, the strong and friendly giant. Children of Greek descent performed an outdoor masked spectacle of Greek song and dance. Polish and Czech children performed the Bohemian Girl to an overflow crowd of seven hundred. As Gary’s immigrant population faced continued pressures to “Americanize”—even under the aegis of the WPA, which also hosted evening citizenship classes for immigrant adults at City Methodist Church downtown—the children of immigrants had an opportunity to learn about and preserve their heritage through performance.
But, since the Gary project was organized through the Gary schools, it also reinforced the de facto segregation that kept the vast majority of Gary’s Black residents in the Central District. Lyman stated in her proposal, in the parlance of the times, that Black children would have the opportunity to perform “distinctly colored” literature. Dorothy Ross’s research suggests a single troupe for Black children in Gary, with at times more than one hundred young performers. Lyman showcased this group when the Midwest Region director visited Gary. But when compared to the accomplishments of the FTP’s Negro Theatre Units, established in seventeen communities (twenty-two by the time of the project’s conclusion), Betty Lyman’s efforts in developing material for Black children failed to meet even the national project’s standards.
The puppet shows, already an important part of Betty Lyman’s practice before the Depression, became a staple of the Gary Children’s Federal Theatre Project, with regular Saturday afternoons matinees for children and a Sunday evening series for adults. By the end of the first year the Gary Children’s Federal Theatre Project staged a total of 115 performances before thirty-one organizations, drawing a total audience of more than thirty thousand. Success continued into the second year; in December 1937 she received a commendation from the Deputy Direction of the Federal Theatre Project and her salary was raised from $120 to $150 a month.
National budget cuts forced the closing of the Indianapolis Federal Theatre Project in the summer of 1937. Norvelle recommended continuing the Gary project and transferred some workers, a few of whom, according to Ross,”had reputations as malcontents and troublemakers, had little background in children’s theatre and even less sympathy with Lyman’s administration.” Conflict between the Lymans and the transfers resulted in a formal investigation, led by the WPA’s Midwest Region director, Herbert Ashton, Jr., in spring 1938. Ashton recommended the project continue under Lyman’s administration, but made harsh judgments about her leadership and offered a series of recommendations contrary to her vision for the project.
One of these recommendations was catastrophic for Lyman: Ashton recommended temporarily suspending the Gary project until it could be retooled to follow the standard model of children’s theatre, stocked with adult performers rather than children. By 1937, federal theatres in most major cities now had such units. He also recommended halting the Gary project until Betty Lyman gave birth. Her fourth and final child, Michael Anthony, was born June 9, 1938. When Congress cut funding for the Federal Theatre Project on June 30, 1939, the register noted that the Gary project had already ceased operation.
Assessing the impact of the Gary Children’s Federal Theatre Project for Youth Theatre Journal in 1995, Dorothy Ross found no evidence to suggest the project “contributed measurably to the growth of children’s theatre in Indiana.” She continued: “Certainly no stars developed and no outstanding scripts were created.” Professor Ross took care to situate the Gary project in the context of the Great Depression and was duly impressed by Lyman’s dedication and energy. “[U]tilizing what she understood about children and theatre [Betty Kessler Lyman] poured all of her ability into making a difference in the lives of children and their families in Gary, Indiana,” Ross wrote.
Lyman’s contributions to the general creative culture of Gary, and specifically to the culture of local theatre, are best understood when placed in context with Gary’s broader history. No evidence suggests that any of the young participants in the Gary Children’s Federal Theatre Project turned professional. And while it cannot be said that the federal project led directly to the creation of new theatres in Gary, Lyman’s work shares much in common with subsequent local theatrical efforts, particularly in her inclusive and community-oriented approach.
To this day, there exists here a continuity of talent and creative expression in poetry, music, multi-racial politics, and local theatre, stretching back to the early years of the city. The Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest is home to the Gary Music and Arts Club collection. Active from 1910 to 1987 and initially focused only on music (originally named the Afternoon Music club) the club expanded its focus to drama in the early 1920s and became one of the first cultural community organizations in Northwest Indiana. The Gary Civic Theatre formed in 1912 and helped launch the career of one Mladen Sekulovich, better known by his stage name, Karl Malden, who went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire.
The years before the pandemic presented serious challenges and opportunities for Gary’s theatre community. And since live performances were shut down in early 2020, those challenges have only become more pronounced; contemporary programs, like the West Side Theatre Guild and the Morning Bishop Playhouse Theatre have had to get creative.
The impact of the pandemic on the arts has raised calls for federal-level support. Federal Number One and its cultural projects have been discussed as a model by office holders, arts advocates, and artists. But for the Gary artists I’ve spoken with, the most immediate need is the rich, collaborative sense of community live performance can bring.
McKenya Dilworth, director of Morning Bishop theatre, currently Gary’s oldest community theatre, appreciates the idea of advocacy and financial support but ultimately sees “more collaboration with other theatre groups… as a way to show a strong, united force for the arts in our community.” In Gary, theatre remains, as Hallie Flanagan put it in 1935, “so vital to community life.”
Betty Kessler Lyman’s public life becomes difficult to trace after the Gary Federal Children’s Theater Project. It seems the family moved to Michigan City, Indiana some time after World War II. Percy passed away in 1953, and their youngest son died seven years later, at age twenty-one. Betty Kessler Lyman lived ninety-one years and now rests, with her husband and youngest son, at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Hobart, Indiana, just beyond the southeastern border of Gary, the city in whose children she saw an inner life and talent worthy of development, of a public audience, and of public support from the highest level of state.
Reflecting on the value of federal theatre in her autobiography Arena, Flanagan had plenty of accomplishments of which to be proud: the project sparked the careers of Orson Wells, John Hauseman, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller; it sought Black leadership from its inception and directly challenged racism and segregation in myriad ways; it brought free or low-cost professional theatre to thirty million people before Congress pulled funding in 1939, upon the advisement of the reactionary Dies Committee, later the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Yet, in Flanagan’s eyes, the purpose and meaning of the entire national project were best represented by this children’s theatre in Gary, Indiana. Ultimately, she wrote, “It is probable that in terms of human value no money on Federal Theatre was better spent.” ■
Sam Love is the pen name of Samuel Barnett, an Indiana Arts Commission On-Ramp fellow and editor of The Gary Anthology for Belt Publishing. He lives in Gary, Indiana.
Cover image: Library of Congress. Federal Theater Project Collection Box 1231.
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