Playing our Part

As performance venues prepare to reopen in Michigan today, I thought it timely to take a look at the storied history of a group that’s nearly as old as Cranbrook itself: St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook. With ties to Cranbrook’s founding family, staff, and the physical Cranbrook campus, combined with its enduring cultural role in the surrounding community, this nearly ninety-year-old institution has a rich history. Allow me to share with you a few fascinating details from its early years.

View of St. Dunstan’s Playhouse from Lone Pine Road looking east. Balthazar Korab, photographer. Copyright Korab and Cranbrook Archives.

“The worst thing about it, it’s named for a saint. But don’t think it’s holy, ‘cause it certainly ain’t.”

Sheldon Noble, an early and active Guild member

The Theatre Guild was indeed named after St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the ninth century and patron saint of the arts. As St. Dunstan lived in Kent, England, from where Cranbrook founder George Booth’s family hailed, the Guild’s name was fittingly suggested by his son and founding member, Henry Scripps Booth. Shortly after the Guild began in 1932, members were writing and producing their own one-act plays. In an April 1933 letter announcing an informal evening  of a “Home Talent programme,” for the 100 Guild members and their guests, Jessie Winter, Guild Secretary and Brookside School Headmistress, implores them to “Be kind, be understanding, be generous . . . give the actors and authors the warm reception which such offerings warrant.” One such author was Henry Scripps Booth. Billed as Thistle, his play, Sedative Bed, was one of four being performed that April 28th evening at Brookside School for just $1. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, after all!

The first public performance of St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild took place at the Greek Theatre with The King and the Commoner. Taking supporting roles were the likes of Annetta Wonnberger (Cranbrook Summer Theater School), Pipsan Saarinen Swanson (daughter of Cranbrook architect Eliel Saarinen), and Henry Scripps Booth, among others.

A scene from The King and the Commoner. Henry Booth on right. Detroit newspaper rotogravure clipping. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The cast and crew of the 1940 production of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney again reads like a who’s who of Cranbrook, including Harry Hoey (Cranbrook School Headmaster), Templin Licklider (Cranbrook School Faculty), Dorothy Sepeshy (wife of Cranbrook Academy of Art President, Zoltan Sepeshy), Rachel Raseman (wife of Richard Raseman, Cranbrook Academy of Art Executive Secretary and Vice President), the aforementioned Annetta Wonnberger, and various members of the Booth Family. Henry Scripps Booth, part of the Guild’s Scenic Design Committee, and his wife Carolyn, the production’s stage manager, created the sets.

Drawing by Henry Scripps Booth, 1940. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

According to a 1962 history written by the Guild’s Board, “The ‘ambitious objective’ was to bring drama to the area and work for the development of a community theater which would make a real contribution to the arts.” Part intimate drama club, part community service, the Guild strove to provide good amateur theater to the Birmingham-Bloomfield community.

Indeed, many local residents have been involved with St. Dunstan’s over the years, including Sara Smith, the original co-owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House.

Sara Smith was one of the actors in this 1970 production. Publicity poster courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbook Center for Collections and Research.

For its first thirteen years the Guild continued to hold two to three annual one-act plays at Brookside School, full-length productions at Cranbrook School Auditorium, and occasional open-air performances at the Greek Theater, still a June tradition today.

A scene from the play Treasure Hunt at the Cranbrook School Auditorium, 1936. Richard Askew, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In 1946 the Guild finally found a permanent home at the Cranbrook Pavilion on Lone Pine Road, renting the space from the Cranbrook Foundation. Built by Albert Kahn in 1917 for the Booth family and modified by Eliel Saarinen in 1934 for use primarily by the Art Academy, this structure is what is now known as St. Dunstan’s Playhouse. The first production there, Blithe Spirit, was a theater-in-the-round performance because a stage had not yet been built.

The Guild re-staged their first production in the Playhouse in 1971. Publicity poster courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Over the years, theater members have improved and added to the theater facilities at the Playhouse as part of their membership requirements. To this idea of self-sufficiency, Henry Scripps Booth aptly stated in a 1953 letter to the Theatre Board, “Why not sing the appropriate stanzas of the Dunstan Carol on St. Dunstan’s Day? – they mention “playing our part.”

To find out more about the present day St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild of Cranbrook, visit their website.

—Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

3 thoughts on “Playing our Part

  1. My first contact with St. Dunstan’s was in about 1952, when (probably as a function of what is now nearby Roeper School) I had a small role in a Christmas play. I remember more about the drive to the performance than whatever I did onstage: my mother’s old Plymouth couldn’t get up the slippery hill just west of the theatre so we had to park near Brookside and trudge up the icy sidewalk. My last contact was in about 1969, when I was teaching at Kingswood and Juta Letts asked me to edit a play for the Guild. Between those years I never went inside but, as a student of Carl Wonnberger, I occasionally sat in on summer Greek Theatre rehearsals. Those (to coin a cliché) were the days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very happy to see this article on St. Dunstan’s and am pleased to see a brief nod to my grandmother, Annetta Wonnberger, as she spent many hours in the Pavilion on and off the stage. Also appreciate the recognition in the above comment of Carl Wonnberger.

    Liked by 1 person

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