The Austin Little Theater (and the "Austin Community Players")
is believed to been formed in 1932 and was part of the "Little theater movement across the State of Texas and the country. Peter Mansbendel was the first artistic director for the Austin Little Theater and he built and painted most of the sets used in their productions. He was also known to sing and perform in their productions. The "Austin Little Theater" was the forerunner to Austin's "Zach Scott theater", now known simply as the "Zach Theater".
From the Austin Statesman Feb 21, 1934
AS MISS CORNELL WAS GREETED with flowers and smiles, Katherine Cornell and her leading man, Basil Rathbone, were welcomed to AUSTIN Wednesday afternoon by Little theater officers and members of the cast "Camille" forthcoming production. Here is the group just after Ray E. Lee had presented Miss Cornell with a bouquet on the grounds of the Little Theater: From left to right: R.H. Haddaway: Roy Pierce: Basil Rathbone, Miss Cornell's leading man: Miss Bess Jo Chewning, Dr. Frank Miller Chapman, Miss Elizabeth West, Mrs. Ray E. Lee,, The "Camille" of the Austin Little Theater's production of the play: Miss Dorothy Shelby, Mr. William F. Frees, president of the Austin Little Theater: Mr. William Arms, Miss Katherine Cornell, Lawerence James Wathan Jr, guest director for "Camille": Zach Scott, leading man for "Camille"; Miss Jean Merriam, Miss Josephine Theis, Peter Mansbendel, art director of the Austin Little Theater; Robert Dupree.
Katharine Cornell (February 16, 1893 – June 9, 1974) was an American stage actress, writer, theater owner and producer. Cornell is regarded as one of the greatest American stage actress of the 20th century. She was nicknamed "First Lady of the Theatre," a title also bestowed upon her friend Helen Hayes, though each deferred to the other. Cornell is noted for her major Broadway roles in serious dramas, often directed by her husband, Guthrie McClintic. Together, they formed a production company, which gave them complete artistic freedom in choosing and producing plays. Their production company gave first or prominent Broadway roles to some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, including many of the great British Shakespearean actors. In addition, the strength of her acting and the quality of the productions brought popular success to such authors as George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, who until then were not often performed, thereby paving the way for their eventual popularity throughout the country for the rest of the century and beyond.
The little theater movement in Texas was an outgrowth of an interest in dramatics that stemmed from the days of the Republic of Texas and that at times found expression in dramatic clubs in more than 100 Texas towns. (Little theateris a small theater designed for low-cost theatrical productions produced for a small or limited audience.) Before the beginning of the little theater movement in Texas in 1919, sporadic, unrelated attempts had been made to form theatrical groups, notably the Curtain Club of the University of Texas under Stark Youngin 1909 and the Red Lantern Players of Houston. The first actual little theater, known as the Green Mask Players, was founded in Houston in November 1919. It was followed by the Dallas Little Theatre in early 1920. Gradually the movement spread, until by 1930 there were sixty-eight little theaters in Texas. The most successful of these was the one in Dallas. In international competition in New York it won the Belasco Cup for three successive years (in 1924, 1925, and 1926). By 1927 it had built its own theater at a cost of $120,000. From 1926 through 1930 an annual competition was held among the Texas little theaters. Winners were Sherman, 1926; Denison, 1927; Nacogdoches, 1928; Dallas, 1929; and Waco, 1930. During the Great Depressionmany of the little theaters disbanded, though the organizations in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Tyler, and other larger Texas cities continued to flourish. Personnel difficulties during World War IIbrought all Texas little theater activity to a virtual standstill, the chief remaining function being to entertain at military encampments.
With the end of the war and with renewed interest in theater to supplement and substitute for the decrease in the touring professional theater, the community theater flourished in Texas on a broadened scale from Amarillo and Midland to Beaumont and Port Arthur. Every major city had at least one local theater; some, such as Houston and Dallas, had more than one within the city limits and one in almost every suburb. In many cities of 25,000 or less it was the major cultural activity. Much of the impetus for this growth came with the industrial expansion of Texas, which brought into the state many residents who had known the theater elsewhere and wanted it in their new communities; also the spectacular growth of educational theater sharply honed the urge for theater activity among its trained graduates and excited the interest of those from other disciplines.