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Fridays with Fred: The Beloit Pageant of 1922, a “brilliant,”“beautiful” spectacle

A look into the 1922 Beloit pageant and the various plays associated.

The oldster swings his cane jauntily as he crosses Church Street. Up ahead, he spies the verdant green glow of fresh spring grass carpeting the Indian mounds. Why not cut across campus on his way downtown? As he tramps over the well-trimmed lawn, his alert eyes spot some unusual activity near Middle College—young men and women with walnut-stained faces and long, matted hair wearing rough-cut furs. He blinks twice. Has he somehow travelled back in time to caveman days? Is it a flashback to some moving picture concocted by one of those nincompoop studios out in Hollywood? Only—this is in living color. He trots by as fast as his spindly legs will carry him. He sure has the cat’s-pajamas of a tale for his cronies down at the barbershop.

The cavemen and cavewomen, representing “Uncivilized Man,” look amused while trying to look fierce. They are awaiting direction from venerable Professor Theodore Lyman Wright.

Months had gone into planning the Beloit College Pageant of 1922. The Lighted Door commemorated the 75th anniversary of the founding of Beloit College. Wright, who had been instrumental in creating the famous city pageant of 1916, acted as general chairman, also writing and directing some of its episodes. Athletic Director Tommy Mills (1905), served as overall director, with numerous other faculty and staff in charge of writing, directing, dancing, music, lighting, costuming and more. The massive production called for participation from the entire student body and college faculty.

The published booklet described what the authors hoped to achieve with The Lighted Door:

“The theme of the pageant is the unfolding of the human mind through the process of the centuries, the obedience of man to an unfailing instinct that urges him on toward some far-off goal. The ‘lighted door’ represents the portal through which man passes, as age succeeds age, into wider realms of wisdom, truth, and beauty…”

The pageant consisted of seven episodes, beginning with “The Awakening of Primitive Man” and continuing through “Greek Education,” “The Light of the World,” “The Dark Ages Enlightened,” “The Renaissance,” “The Democratization of Education,” and finally, bringing it all back home, “The Spirit of Beloit.”

Preparation began in April with competitive tryouts yielding actors for the leading roles. As stated by the Round Table: “James McCarthy’22 will play the part of the teacher and Jack Frost 25 will impersonate the youthful learner throughout the production.” Gladys Burke’22 won the role of the “Spirit of Beloit.” As rehearsals began in earnest, the various directors cast hundreds of students in lesser roles and as part of crowd scenes. Women’s Athletic Director Mabel Lee directed the dancing and found it difficult persuading male students to take part. Further hard work went into staging, lighting, and such convincing costuming and acting that the Round Table proclaimed, “The bogus cave men will be so well portrayed by college students that the originals would look like cake eaters in comparison.”

Professor Wright decided to stage the pageant in front of the college’s first building, Middle College, which at that time still featured its Victorian-era gingerbread architectural decorations and double porch. By extending the porch 10 feet, there was room for a more impressive tableau and the possibility of elaborate, dramatic lighting, including artfully placed multicolored spotlights and projection lanterns.

The college publicity machine was in full force, with wired news articles appearing in countless papers. Workers set up a temporary grandstand east of Middle College, anticipating a large crowd for the one-time-only June 17 performance. Students lived and breathed pageant until some were mightily sick of it, at least according to a song penned by one Round Table wag:

“The Pageant Blues”

(Tune of “Wabash Blues”)

O those pageant blues

Now we cannot snooze

Ev’ry night and day,

We must toil away.

Prexy won’t allow

No more dances now;

O boy, we’d like to lose

Those darned old pageant blues.

After a mass meeting in the chapel, students craftily put together a unanimous petition to the faculty, asking for abolition of final exams. Faculty met them halfway, announcing that only seniors would be “exempted if they have grades of C plus or better,” but conceding that final exams would “if possible be restricted to matter covered in the last half of the quarter.”

After numerous practices and a final dress rehearsal on June 15, the college family felt as ready as it ever would be. At 9 p.m. on June 17, 4,000 people packed the bleachers and covered the nearby mounds, watching the brilliantly lit stage and balcony. Up above, a man and woman worked with tools, preparing for the hunt, while another man created “picture-writings” on a cliff and a woman shaped pottery. Down below on the main stage, “the brush [was] restless with the movement of animal and human life.”

Viewers sat enthralled for three hours, according to an ecstatic front page review by the Beloit Daily News:

“The pageant was brilliant as a spectacle. Had it depended entirely upon pantomime and an appeal to the eye it would have been successful. Unlike most pageants, however, if went a step further and included dialogue and recitation most remarkably and most effectively. Every episode was finely conceived, finely executed and finely staged…The costuming was brilliant and beautiful and the lighting effects were remarkable…”

At midnight, the crowd hushed as the final scene unfolded. The Learner sat still and silent as principal figures from scenes past filed onto the stage and surrounded him. A stentorian voice reached out to the audience and gathered them in:

In ages now grown dim and strange and old,

We lived and loved and found abiding joy.

We sought the truth, found some and groped for more.

Man still shall seek through aeons long to come.

Our wisdom is now yours; hold high the torch,

Then pass the fire to learners yet unborn.

The Beloit Daily News noted the power of the final episode, in which Beloit College “pioneers…wrought a center of culture out of a wilderness,” while the Milwaukee Telegram described it:

“The Learner in his dream sees 60 members of the faculty and alumni pass before him. The Statue of Liberty appears in the third gallery with a lighted torch in her uplifted hand…As the young Learner awakes from his reverie, the figures in all the episodes come upon the stage in the grand ensemble. A blaze of light (72,000 candlepower) is thrown upon the spectacle as he passes through ‘The Lighted Door.’”

Fred Burwell ’86
December 01, 2011

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