THE story of the Michigan Union Opera is so closely interwoven with the Michigan Union that it has become a part of the history of that organization. The Opera was a natural development of the county fairs and minstrel shows staged so often during the years when the students were engaged in securing funds for the creation and operation of a Union building.
The first Opera, "Michigenda," was staged at the Athens (Whitney) Theater in the spring of 1908. The Michigan Union, first housed in the old Judge Cooley home on State Street, opened its doors in the fall of 1907. From that time until 1929, with the exception of the war year, 1918, the Opera was presented yearly with an all-male cast. In that year, however, because of the drop in men's enrollment, the production, "Let's Go," written by Al Weeks, with music by Earl V. Moore, included women in the cast.
The Michigan Union is indebted to the Opera for its very existence, as it was the profits from this activity which kept the Union out of financial difficulties in its first trying and formative years. The first two Operas netted enough money to purchase the ground on which the Union now stands, and subsequent shows helped to pay off the bonds on the building itself. During the first twenty-three Page 1862years of its history, the Opera played before capacity audiences totaling approximately 400,000 persons, and a gross income of $812,258 resulted in a net profit of $147,760.
In the 1920's five hundred students tried out each year for cast, chorus, committees, and orchestra. Such support could not help but benefit the Michigan Union. It was the Union which staged the Opera, so that working for the Opera was working for the Union.
By 1920 the scope of the Opera had broadened to include seven Ann Arbor and fifteen out-of-town performances. The Opera was usually scheduled so that the cast could make out-of-town tours in Christmas or spring vacation. In addition to the box-office receipts, success made itself felt in other ways. The public loved the gay tunes, with their witty lyrics, the farcical plots, and comic dialogue. Above all, the bizarre sight of husky males tripping lightsome dance steps in garish female attire and make-up brought howls from the audience. It was burlesque comedy, often "corny," sometimes crude, but always funny. Performances were given for alumni groups in other Michigan cities. From there it was just a step to Broadway — and a success that failed.
Each new production was bigger, more lavish, and more expensive than the last. Each year saw larger and larger amounts of money invested. A full-time director was hired and experts retained at considerable fees to coach specialty features.
Until the year 1912, the Opera was presented by the Michigan Union. Then Mimes, a subsidiary dramatic association of the Union, was organized, and thereafter the production was under its auspices. Earl Moore, Phil Fletcher, Matt Blish, and Homer Heath organized Mimes not solely for honorary purposes, but to give continuity to the Opera productions. Membership was elective, and only those students who had shown ability in some branch of Opera activity were considered. Dramatics and the writing of plays and music were encouraged during the college year for the benefit of the Opera. In 1922 the old building in the rear of the Union was remodeled into the Mimes Theater, and here, until 1931, Mimes also presented plays for the benefit of students, faculty, and townspeople.
The first five Opera productions, "Michigenda," in February, 1908, "Culture," in December, 1908, "Koanzaland," in 1909, "Crimson Chest," in 1910, and "Awakened Rameses," in 1911, played only to Ann Arbor audiences. The sixth, "Contrarie Mary," in 1913, was invited by the alumni to play in Chicago and was so well received that "Model Daughter" was demanded in 1914. This was the beginning of the annual Opera trip. "All that Glitters," in 1915, "Tres Rouge," in 1916, and "Fool's Paradise," in 1917, also played in Michigan cities during the spring vacation. "Let's Go," in 1918, visited Camp Custer at Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Detroit. "Come on Dad," 1919, "George Did It," 1920, and "Top O'Th' Mornin'," 1921, also played only to Michigan audiences. "Make It for Two," the sixteenth annual production, was also given in 1921, and "In and Out" appeared during Christmas vacation of 1922 before audiences in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
The Opera reached its zenith in 1923, the first banner year. "Cotton Stockings" played in Ann Arbor, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Flint, Bay City, and Detroit. The production, presented before audiences totaling 40,000 persons, grossed $91,791, with a resultant profit of $30,318. The Michigan Union Opera Page 1863holds the record for an amateur production given at the Metropolitan Opera House of $6,000 for one performance. "Tickled to Death," 1924, played only in the Middle West, but in 1925 "Tambourine" again made the trip to the East. "Front Page Stuff," 1926, "Same to You," 1927, "Rainbow's End," 1928, and "Merrie-Go-Round," 1929, all went on extensive tours.
By 1930 the Opera was a "dead pigeon," killed by an almost fantastic combination of bad luck and success. On New Year's Eve, 1929, the most costly Opera of all met with a howling blizzard in New York City. The show played to an almost empty theater, and the troupe left New York with empty pockets. The depression halted further performances until 1934-35, when an attempt was made to revive the Opera, but the production, which did not merit the support of the student body, resulted in a loss of approximately $850. No more operas were given until 1940, when All-American Tommy Harmon starred as Jimmy Roosevelt in "Four Out of Five," presented at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. The Union Finance Committee provided a budget, and the four evening performances and one matinee were well attended. Once again the company came to a halt after playing "Take a Number" four days after Pearl Harbor. Seven years elapsed before the Opera gave another production, "Froggy Bottom," in 1949. The show was good enough to draw sell-out crowds for all four performances, a success well earned by two and onehalf years of hard work on the part of students determined to put the Opera back on its feet.
"Go West, Madam," presented in April, 1951, at the Detroit Music Hall and sponsored by the University of Michigan Club of Detroit, was the thirty-first production of the Opera. "Flim Flam," directed by Fred Evans, was presented in 1955, in Detroit and Flint, as well as in Ann Arbor.
Few students of the present generation know that many popular Michigan songs were written by students for the Michigan Union operas. "College Days" is from "Koanzaland"; "When Night Falls Dear" from "Michigenda"; "The Friar's Song" from "Contrarie Mary"; and "Men of the Maize and Blue" from "Tres Rouge." In this respect it is interesting to note that Earl V. Moore ('12), composer of four Operas, is now Dean of the School of Music. Abraham J. Gorney ('17, '19l), another composer, writes popular music, and Roy D. Welch in 1935 became chairman of the Department of Music at Princeton University. Former Opera composers are not the only Opera men who have achieved prominence in music. Chase B. Sikes ('17), now Chase Baromeo, leading man of "Tres Rouge," became a famous basso of the Metropolitan Opera Company, and Barre Hill ('25), leading man of "Tickled to Death," became a member of the Chicago Opera Company. During its first twenty-three years the Opera had only six directors. Hal Stephens staged the first three, Bert St. John the next five, Eugene Sanger the ninth, Charles P. Morgan the tenth and eleventh. Collaborating with Roy Hoyer, for many years leading juvenile with Fred Stone, in the arrangement of the dancing, E. Mortimer Shuter was responsible for twelve.