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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently write a column every other Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

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Scandalous play rocks DeKalb Drama Club

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist...................Aug 11, 2015

Note to readers: Barry Schrader’s “DeKalb County Life” column will appear every other Tuesday.

If I were a muckraking journalist a century ago, writing for the National Enquirer or whatever the scandal sheet of the day was then, I would have relished using the above headline, even though it's somewhat unfair to a group of DeKalb women who had organized only two years earlier.

According to club records from 1916, the DeKalb Drama Club, consisting of 12 ladies of some prominence in the community, needed a fundraiser to boost their benevolent work on behalf of families in need and children. They had organized in 1914 under the leadership of Mrs. James (Harriette) Ellwood Lewis and Mrs. William F. Martin “with the intention of studying modern drama and of doing some constructive work to benefit the welfare of children in the community.” They met in members’ homes to make layettes (baby clothes) while one member read aloud a play each week. Thus, they combined philanthropy with an appreciation of the arts.

Members of the DeKalb Drama Club pose for a group photo while on a recent tour of the Sycamore History Museum at the Engh farm. The club reached a milestone in 2014-2015: It is marking its centennial year. (Photo provided)

Then, in 1916, the club decided to bring in a professional theatrical group to raise more money for its charitable causes and booked the Washington Square Players of New York City to perform here. Apparently, no one locally had read the script and, during the performance, one actress undressed down to her slip, exposing bare shoulders and legs in front of the audience.

The shocking display of a lady in her underwear horrified some in the audience. But when it was learned the club had collected $134.64 profit from ticket sales, the ladies soon recovered. Just recently, Cheryl Johnson, who is compiling a history of the drama club covering its 100 years, from 1914 to 2015, shared this scintillating tidbit from research she has been doing for the book.

Cheryl and Diane Schmitt, the club'’s president during its centennial year, related the highlights of the club’s activities for me. Diane herself holds some kind of record, being a 39-year member. They said the late E. Nelson James, a well-known Northern Illinois University faculty member, even produced the humorous play, “"Almost a Fiasco," about the brouhaha in 1916 for the club'’s 75th anniversary in 1989, which was presented again in 2013.

I should mention some of the community work drama club members have accomplished over the years. Now with a set membership of 30, they continue their meetings in members’ homes and donate to many causes. Early on, members paid to bring two teachers from Chicago to start a kindergarten in DeKalb schools, paying each teacher $50 a month for three months, plus $10 more for a janitor.

Members placed considerable emphasis on the welfare of children, so, in 1918, they brought a visiting nurse to town to educate the public on the need for better health care. Later, they helped pay for a DeKalb County nurse and contributed to the county TB sanitarium. They also donated to the construction of a swimming pool at Hopkins Park, decorated a room at the DeKalb Public Hospital in 1933, and purchased $50 in stock when the Stagecoach Players organized in 1947.

Skipping ahead a half century, their latest donation to the new DeKalb library expansion project will help pay for the restoration of the original librarian’s desk, which dates to 1893.

So even though it's small in numbers, the club has had quite an impact over the 100 years of its existence.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115