It all started with a minstrel show at the beginning of the last century. To raise money for the Women’s Club of Swarthmore, a group of local men put on an evening of skits and songs on April 28th & 29th, 1911. The benefit was so successful that a committee was formed to consider the feasibility of turning the troupe into a permanent organization. On November 2nd, 1911, 24 men resolved to organize themselves as “the Players Club of Swarthmore,” and on November 20th they adopted a constitution and by-laws, created a board of governors, and elected officers.
The Women’s Club, on Park Avenue across from where the library is today, was the site of the first regular production of the new group, on January 3rd, 1912 — and was to be the home of the Players Club for the next 20 years. By the 3rd season, in addition to vaudevilles and concerts, we were putting on full-length plays — although one-act plays, some of them written by our own members, remained the norm for the next several years.
Dr. Andrew Francis Jackson, affectionately known as “Doc”, was one of
the most active early members — directing plays and tableaux, some of which he also wrote. Between 1914 and 1953 he directed or co-directed 46 productions, served as a governor from 1922 to 1963; was vice-president from 1932 to 1935, and president from 1935 to 1937. Jackson was regarded as the club’s elder statesman, and in 1959 he was named an honorary life member. Describing “Players Clubbers,” he once stated, “we’re all a little bit crazy.” It is a quote that you can hear around the Club to this day.
Another of our earliest directors was Joseph J. Gould, who probably set some kind of record by directing or co-directing 5 productions in each of his first two seasons. Gould’s 1916 production of “She Stoops to Conquer” was one of the club’s first serious artistic efforts, and inspired others to maintain a new standard of excellence. To quote from the 50th anniversary book: “For many years practically every aspiring player sought an opportunity to be coached by this able artist.” Gould was chairman of the production committee for 5 years. As an actor, director, designer, producer, and mentor, he was active from 1915 to the Second World War.
The other artistic giant of the early years was John Dolman, Jr., Who debuted as an actor and director in our 5th season. Jack Dolman, who came from a theatrical family, was a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked tirelessly to raise the artistic standards of our productions. He was the author of the book “The Art of Play Production,” published in 1928, which is full of practical advice on directing and design. Between 1915 and 1952, Dolman directed nearly 30 productions — including our first Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He served continuously as a governor, was several times vice-president, and was president from 1940 to 1942. An article in the Players Club news — a magazine that he founded by the way– called him “a master builder to the Players Club.”
For our first decade, most of the Players Club productions received only one private performance on the small stage of the women’s club. During World War I, the regular schedule was greatly curtailed, and several productions — some directed by women — were given public performances, with proceeds going toward the war effort. After the war, the production committee returned to being a men’s club. The membership of the club grew to 375 — then 500 — during the 1920’s. By the end of the decade, each production was averaging 4 performances.
Thomas W. Andrew was one of the original charter members, and his actions behind the scenes were to have a profound effect upon the club. An Englishman and a banker, “Tommy” was elected treasurer in November 1911, and served in that office until 1937, when he retired and became financial advisor. To support the war effort and to create a permanent reserve of capital, he took $400 of the club’s money during World War I, and invested it in “Liberty Bonds.” Fourteen years later, that investment had grown to nearly $9000, and provided the nest egg with which this building was constructed. Andrew was named an honorary life member in 1937, and served as a governor until his death in 1948.
The Club looked for a site within the borough of Swarthmore to build its new theater, but local zoning laws prohibited building there. Victor D. Shirer — our great benefactor — came to the rescue by donating the land on which this building stands, which is actually in Springfield Township. “Vic” Shirer’s generosity and enormous service to the club was honored at a special reception in 1935. We celebrated him again on his 90th birthday in 1958. Additional land purchases in the 1930’s and 40’s enabled us to create the parking lot.
Charles D. Mitchell was a charter member of the Players Club, but had mostly acted in productions during our first decade (some considered him our best actor). In the 1920’s he began directing and joined the board of governors. As chairman of the building committee, Mitchell oversaw the design and construction of our theater building — working closely with the architect, and handling the great mass of detail involved in such an undertaking. In gratitude, Mitchell was given the honor of directing the inaugural production in the new theater, and he “wowed ’em” by having an automobile driven onto the stage. He served as president from 1932 to 1935.
Our theater was designed by Victor Eberhard, an architect who was also one of our members. Construction began in the summer of 1931, and was completed in time for a New Year’s Day reception. The Players Club was granted letters of incorporation on September 11, 1931. The Liberty Bond income only covered part of the $39,000 cost of erecting this building. Individual members invested in the Players Club through participation certificates (our own bonds), and a $15,000 mortgage was taken out. Even in the middle of the depression, half of the mortgage had been paid off by 1937. With the improved facilities and a growing reputation, the Players Club membership expanded to almost 800, with 5 performances of each production — Mondays through Fridays. A program of junior productions performed by children and directed by women was instituted in 1934 — a forerunner to the “young people’s theatre workshop.”
D. Malcolm Hodge, who had acted in productions since 1924, became a governor about this time and served continuously on the board for the remainder of his life. He began directing in 1932, and by 1937 was producing director of the club — responsible for selecting the plays and directors, and upholding the artistic standards of our productions. Described as a “colorful and forceful personality,” Hodge played at least one major role each year (usually the lead in the play he himself was directing). Under Hodge, the Players Club became more “cutting edge,” producing new plays such as “Death of a Salesman” soon after their Broadway premieres. (Believe it or not, Hodge both directed and played Willie Loman!) He served as producing director for 16 years, was vice-president from 1937 to 1941; and president during world war ii, from 1942 to 1947.
J. William Simmons was the person most responsible for bringing musicals to the Players Club stage. “Jay” Simmons began directing plays during our first season in this building, and a decade later directed our first full musical production, the Oscar Straus operetta “A Waltz Dream.” He was also director for the Rose Valley Chorus’s Gilbert & Sullivan productions, and from 1943 to 1948 their shows were presented in this theater as a part of the Players Club season. In addition to the musicals, Simmons directed or co-directed 36 straight shows — mostly comedies. He succeeded Hodge as president from 1947 to 1949, was producing director from 1957 to 1959, maintenance director for more than a decade, and a governor for more than 2 decades. In 1967, on the occasion of his retiring from directing, Simmons was named an honorary life member.
In October 1941, “the Players Club News,” was instituted under president John Dolman, as a source of news about the Club, and to give our members more information about the plays. Rather than handing out programs, a 20-page booklet was mailed to the membership in advance of each production. This innovation strengthened the members’ ties to the Club, and continued until 1981. World War II had a profound effect upon the Players Club. We were encouraged to continue our productions to help sustain morale on the home front. Not only did many of our members enlist in the armed services — causing a shortage of volunteers — but fuel rationing made traveling difficult, and forced the closing of the building during the winter months. The junior productions were discontinued, and several of its women directors directed Main Stage shows. Blackout curtains were hung at all doors and windows, and air raid instructions were printed in the “Players Club News” — as were obituaries. A number of our members were among the war dead.
Walker Penfield served the club in many capacities, including as a governor for 25 years, beginning in 1947. He was vice-president from 1953 to 1955, and president from 1955 to 1957. Walker chaired the 50th Anniversary Committee, which, among other things, gathered and preserved many of the facts which have been presented this evening. He was at various times the assistant technical director, business director, and maintenance director for the club.
In 1947, David Bingham became an active member of the club, and remained so for 30 years. During those years he served as a governor from 1950 to 1977, was technical director for 10 years, treasurer for 6 years, vice-president from 1964 to 1966, and president from 1966 to 1970. Following his presidency, he served the Club as business manager and membership chairman. Dave was a quiet man who mainly liked to work behind the scenes, although audiences could occasionally catch a glimpse of him in a walk-on role – he did what was needed. Dave also wrote a regular column called “The Green Room” for the Players Club news. He was also a member of the Players Club family in another way. He was married to the former Mildred Simpers, daughter of Thomas W. Simpers, a charter member. The Binghams lived across the street from the Players Club, and in a eulogy at Dave’s funeral, it was said that “he watched over the Players Club.” And he did.
The post-war years were among our most productive. The size of the membership expanded to between 1200 and 1300, and a schedule was attempted with each production having 8 performances over 9 days — Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays through Saturdays. It lasted one season. The schedule was cut back to 6 performances in one week — Mondays through Saturdays. In 1964, this was changed to 6 performances over 2 weeks — Thursdays through Saturdays. These were prosperous years, and additions were made to the building — the third floor rehearsal space (used primarily for costume storage today) was built atop the backstage area in 1950, and the shop was added in 1955. Before this, the sets were built in what is now the green room. But we were still an exclusive Club, and the ranks of volunteers began to wear thin. In the mid-1950’s, a deliberate effort was made to find new blood, and energetic newcomers with names like Pollock, Webster, Regester and Kerr joined and helped rejuvenate the club. Musicals became a regular part of the seasons in the 1960’s through a renewed partnership with the Rose Valley chorus, and soon we were regularly producing our own.
In May of 1968, Otto Otteson first appeared on our stage, as “Victor Velasco” in “Barefoot in the Park.” Prophetically, he was also Maurry Webster’s assistant director for that production. Otto was to become a major force in PCS, directing 14 shows that widened our horizons, including such memorable productions as “Wait Until Dark,” “Butterflies are Free,” “Showboat” (with Bob Kerr), “Sleuth,” and “The Corn is Green” (which starred his wife, Dolores). Otto served as a Governor from 1969 until his death. He was Vice-president in 1971-72, and president from 1972 to 1975. From 1975 to 1978 he was Producing Director for the Club. Otto encouraged the artistic growth of the club both through his own endeavors and through his constant guidance and encouragement of others.
It was recognized that we needed to expand from a private club to a Community Theater open to the public. The club became much more of a meritocracy, and a new confidence led to more ambitious productions. Once the door was opened, it stayed opened. Women didn’t have to wait for a war, to direct. A talented new corps of actors, directors, and designers made the Players Club their home — and the quality of our work attracted more talented people. Additional performances were scheduled — including Sunday matinees and programs like the young people’s theater workshop and the script-in-hand theater were begun. Attendance, membership and income increased through the 1980’s, as lines for hit productions — especially musicals — snaked into the parking lot. In 1989, the new lobby and second stage were built mostly through the efforts and generosity of our memberships. In the last few years, a computerized lighting board has been installed, the parking lot has been repaved, and the roofs of this building have been replaced. A new hearing-assistance system and new sound equipment were installed in 1998, both to improve the quality of our productions, and to enhance the enjoyment of them.