The early 1960s shattered more than one tradition at Santa Clara University. In 1961, Santa Clara became the first Catholic university in California to admit women. Within a few years, student enrollment more than doubled, and a building boom would add eight residence halls, the Benson Center, and Orradre Library. The year 1962 saw the passing of another era at the University: the closing of the theatre in College Hall, built in 1871 and known to generations of students as The Ship.
Lauded as being “larger and handsomer than any thespian temple in San Francisco” when it was built, the hall was originally illuminated by elaborate gaslight chandeliers. It was condemned as a fire hazard 90 years later. Forced to abandon The Ship, the theatre department moved to a converted warehouse, aptly dubbed The Lifeboat. Just off The Alameda south of the campus, the temporary structure would serve as the University’s theatre for 13 seasons, mounting nearly 200 productions.
Thomas Terry, S.J., took office as University president in 1968, and as part of his goal of developing the campus and encouraging the arts and other programs, he undertook a $10 million fund raising campaign that included plans for a new gymnasium, health center—and, naturally, theatre. Initial funding for the new theatre came from an annual fund raiser that was the brainchild of Fess Parker, the distinguished movie and television actor (best known for his starring roles as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone) and a founding member of the University’s Board of Fellows. Together with Walter Schmidt, S.J., the board took as its task to rescue dramatics from The Lifeboat by raising money through the Golden Circle Theatre Party.
Using their Hollywood connections, Parker and Schmidt succeeded in getting Academy Awards director and Santa Clara native Marty Pasetta to direct the show. They secured Lionel Newman and the 20th Century Fox Orchestra for the music, with performances by Jimmy Durante and Rosemary Clooney. And in the years that followed, Parker and others were successful in attracting some of the biggest names in entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, and Bob Newhart among them; the tradition continues today, with appearances by Dana Carvey and Jason Alexander in recent years.
By the time the theatre opened in 1975, the Golden Circle had raised half a million dollars toward its construction. Acknowledging his role in conceiving and promoting the Golden Circle party, the studio theatre was named for Fess Parker.
Another half-million-dollar gift was made by the Louis B. Mayer Foundation, thanks to Benjamin Swig, chair of Santa Clara’s Board of Trustees and president of the Mayer Foundation. As construction costs soared, the Mayer Foundation upped its donation to $750,000. Since the Mayer Foundation’s gift was the largest lead gift, it was decided to name the theater in honor of the legendary Hollywood producer and founder of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. Born in Minsk, then part of the Russian Empire, Mayer emigrated to the United States with his family and, after working in his father’s scrap-metal business, bought his first nickelodeon in 1907—and parlayed that investment into the largest theater chain in the Northeast and, ultimately, into the movie studio that defined the golden age of Hollywood.
“This is my favorite.”
Ground was broken in July 1973 for the 52,000-square-foot theatre designed by well-known San Francisco architect Mario Gaidano. Inflation would ultimately escalate construction costs to nearly $3.5 million. And although not designed in what had become the almost-mandatory Mission Revival style of campus architecture, the theatre was crowned by a massive sloping roof of 42,112 flat tiles. Intended to be a multipurpose facility, the theatre would contain faculty offices, a costume shop, green room, and even a small classroom. The main auditorium would have both proscenium and thrust-stage capability and seat about 500. The Fess Parker Studio Theatre could be flexibly configured for smaller dramatic, dance, or musical performances. The theatre also contained a scene shop and rehearsal hall separated from one another by soundproof doors. The versatility of the facility was one of its greatest assets; while faculty were holding office hours and a class was being conducted, rehearsals for a play could be under way; and, as a lecture was being delivered in the main auditorium, a dance recital could go on in the studio theater, while hammers and saws could be nosily constructing sets—all without interfering with one another.
The theatre was dedicated at a gala black-tie celebration on Nov. 8, 1975. Among those who filled the auditorium to capacity were representatives of the Mayer Foundation and family, including Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, Suzanne, and grandson, producer-director Daniel Louis B. Mayer Selznick. The program included a recollection of the performing arts tradition at Santa Clara by alumnus and actor Lloyd Nolan and a tribute to alumni including Andy Devine and Max Baer Jr., who had begun their acting careers at Santa Clara; as well as Jackie Coogan, who attended the University in the 1930s.
The high point of the evening came when President Terry presented an honorary doctorate of humanities to the “first lady of American theatre,” Helen Hayes. Hayes had been scheduled to receive the degree at the June commencement but had suffered an injury and was unable to attend. Yet the evening in the new theatre seemed an even more fitting occasion to present the degree. The diminutive Hayes was gracious in her comments about the University and lavish in her praise of the new facility: It was the most beautiful and functional theatre she had ever seen, she said, and of all the theatres she had visited, she insisted, “This is my favorite.” Thirty years on, the versatile Mayer Theatre and Santa Clara’s performing arts continue to receive acclaim for educating and entertaining both its performers and its varied audiences.
—George F. Giacomini Jr. ’56 is associate professor of history at SCU.