by Shannon Butler

As far as recent memory can serve, there has always been a bit of a separation between Vassar College and its hometown of Poughkeepsie. However, there have always been endeavors that connected the college with the community: for example, the students who created and volunteered at the Lincoln Center many years ago and, more recently, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Back in the 1920s, another organization made its way from the Vassar campus into the local community, and the relationship benefited both sides for many years. The Poughkeepsie Community Theatre brought Vassar creations to life with the help of local Poughkeepsians, and it was a beautiful sight.

Over a century ago, Gertrude Buck was an English professor at Vassar College, where she worked since 1901. She was considered to be one of the best rhetoricians of her day. By 1916, she was working with her students in a playwriting course, which led to the creation of The Vassar Dramatic Workshop. There was no drama department on campus at the time, so this workshop provided the first chance for students to write, produce, and act in their very own creations. Buck, who lived off-campus in a house on Market Street, desired to improve the connection between Vassar and the surrounding community. On January 23, 1920, she gathered with some of Poughkeepsie’s most prominent citizens (including Mr. and Mrs. Henry Morgenthau and Dr. Henry Noble MacCracken) to discuss the creation of a community theatre.

The committee formed the idea that the plays the theatre presented would be the original works of Vassar students. Local actors and set designers would work on the production together, thereby linking college with community. The organization was even given use of the Vassar Brothers Institute building, which houses a stage and seating. The community’s use of this space was perfect, in a sense, as the Vassar family members who built it had dedicated it to the arts and sciences. The endowment for the building “precluded any sale of tickets at its doors, but, by a system of yearly supporters’ tickets, obtainable by donations of unstipulated amount, the budget of the theatre was met.”

One of the first performances at the theatre was a play by Edna St. Vincent Millay (a Vassar student who would go on to become a famous poet) entitled The Princess Marries the Page. There would be dozens more in the coming years. For its first ten years of operation, the theatre hired a small salaried staff, and each year a plan was made for a season filled with plays for both children and adults. The effort took a toll on the health of founder Gertrude Buck, who died in January of 1922. The theatre moved forward with new directors, including Mr. and Mrs. Frank Stout, Antoniette Swan, and Catherine Livingston. However, by 1933, the theatre’s funding did not meet the demand to pay staff, create props, sew costumes, and build sets. The board decided that the Community Theatre would go on only as an amateur operation, with no paid staff, and tickets would be purchased instead of membership donations. Since then, several variations of community theatre groups that have come and gone. The Vassar Brothers Institute is now the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center and is still used for theatrical performances, as it was all those years ago.

Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 24, Jan 1920. 18, Dec 1931. 2, Jun 1933. 18, Jan 1933, The Poughkeepsie Community Theatre. Theatre Magazine, August, 1922 – LH Collections
Scrap books bellowing to William Dungan, dating from 1922-1933 – LH Collections
Biography of Gertrude Buck –

01 – Image of the Vassar Brothers Institute, where the theatre is located. – LH Collections
02 – Photo of the play The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, 1930, photo by Margaret DeMott Brown. – LH Collections
03 – Photo of the play The Squall by Jean Bart, 1931, photo by Margaret DeMott Brown. – LH Collections
04 – Photo of the play The White Peacock by Priscilla Flowers, 1928 – LH Collections