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Theatre and Performance Studies
La Salle College, "Gypsy" (1982). La Salle College Summer Music Theatre. 9.
A Short History of La Salle Music Theatre
Dan Rodden, a long-time professor of English at La Salle who died in 1978, was widely-known and respected in theatrical circles as an actor, director, and producer. He founded La Salle's Music Theatre in 1962 after personally supervising every facet of design and construction of the 382 seat theatre, located on the college's 20th st. and Olney ave. campus, which is being renamed in his honor.
La Salle's Music Theatre remains today the nation's only college-sponsored professional summer music theatre. Auditions are held every spring and all members of the company, including technical personnel, are salaried. A number of prominent professionals in the entertainment industry have launched their careers at Music Theatre.
After his initial production of "Carousel" in 1962, Rodden produced some 27 shows over the next 12 summers including the American premier of "Ambassador" in 1972 which later enjoyed a short run on Broadway.
Thriving on youthful exuberance, colorful sets and costumes, and highly-professional choreography and technical competence rather than on "name" performers, La Salle's Music Theatre quickly became known for its favorable critical acclaim under Rodden's guiding spirit. As Ernest Schieronce said in the Philadelphia Bulletin, "La Salle's Music Theatre has earned a reputation for crisp professionalism that may well be envied by the larger better-known summer theatres."
Other critics were equally as enthusiastic. Samuel Singer, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, raved about Music Theatre's "exuberance, youth and good taste." Bob Nelson, of Philadelphia's KYW Radio, praised "some incredibly beautiful music," and Wayne Robinson, of The Bulletin, talked about "a jewel box of a theatre.
Although the rave reviews, capacity audiences, and professional success enjoyed by Music Theatre performers were a source of tremendous satisfaction to Rodden, the one thing he always treasured most was the educational opportunity afforded by this unique summer venture.
"I don't know of any other place where kids can get training in musical comedy," Rodden explained when he founded the Music Theatre. Later, reflecting on the success of Music Theatre in developing promising talent, he said, "From the start I always wanted to do good shows and do them well. I had the feeling that you could take a bunch of kids and achieve a style. I didn't want them to be 'professional' I just wanted them to be good. With their youth and vitality and with plenty of rehearsals, I knew that they'd succeed." And succeed they did! A number of former Music Theatre performers have reached great heights in the entertainment industry. For example:
Judith Jamieson, an internationally-acclaimed dancer, has been featured with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and is presently starring on Broadway in "Sophistcated Ladies".
Dennis Cunningham, a favorite in many of the early Music Theatre productions, is drama critic for WCBS-TV in New York.
Mary Lou (Cookie) Metzger is a featured soloist on "The Lawrence Welk Show."
Pat Cronin is one of the all-time Music Theatre favorites who last appeared in leading roles in the 1974 productions of Two By Two and Out of This World. He has appeared on such TV shows as Alice, All in the Family, and Two Close for Comfort.
Marcus Brown, one of the most popular dancers ever to appear at La Salle, was dance captain for the Broadway hit Bubbling Brown Sugar, and is currently captain, company manager, and lead dancer for The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show, in Las Vegas.
Almost 495,000 people have attended performances of 42 different theatrical attractions at Music Theatre. The all-time attendance record for one summer was set in 1970 when 23,600 patrons - I00.7% of capacity-enjoyed a revival of Bitter Sweet and a sparkling production of Man of La Mancha. The beloved Peggy Wood, who created the role of "Sari Linden" in the London premier of Bitter Sweet in 1929, received the first "Theatre La Salle Award" prior to the opening night curtain that year for distinguished service to the American Theatre outside of New York City.
Brother Gene Graham, F.S.C., who directed John Travolta in his first professional appearance as "Hugo" in Bye Bye Birdie at the Club Bene, Morgan, NJ, has been producer of La Salle's Music Theatre since 1978. He will direct both of this year's productions, Gypsy (from July 6-August 1) and Can't Help Singing: An Evening of Jerome Kern (August 4-29).