In 1906 Charles A. Mangold, J. F. Zang, and several other prominent citizens living in Oak Cliff acquired Lake Cliff which was the site of Spann’s sanitarium. They turned it into an amusement park which was easily accessible and had wide popularity. In the lake they built a floating pool and bathhouse and around its shore they set up the latest carnival devices. Fireworks were set off over the water on occasion and frequently on Sunday afternoons, thousands of people assembled to watch “balloon ascensions” and thrill at a man or woman descending by parachute and sometimes performing feats on an aerial trapeze as they floated down. At one time, Lake Cliff had three theatres in operation. One was the regular theatre where light operas were featured, another produced stock company plays and the third was a small affair for those people who liked moving pictures — a novelty the sponsors of Lake Cliff introduced because it was creating attention, but which nearly everyone agreed was merely a fad and would soon disappear.
Bills of the famed eastern Orpheum circuit of vaudeville first played in Dallas at Lake Cliff, and Al Jolson and Tom Moore split a week there. The Baldwin-Mellvile stock company was an annual attraction and summer opera reached the height of its early popularity with a company which was headed by a charming young actress, Ada Meade. She later starred in the touring production of Madame Sherry. The latter day Starlight Operetta, which under the direction of Charles Meeker has developed to such impressive proportions at Fair Park Casino, is directly in the tradition of the Lake Cliff summer musical fare.
Other well known stars who appeared in Oak Cliff were Blanche Yurka in her first days as a leading woman, Lily Cahill, then a budding young Texas actress, Boyd Nolan and Laura Nelson Hall.
In the town itself, there were also winter stock companies after the fashion of the day, but their fare like their prices was cheap and no actor or manager was ever able conspicuously to capture the affections of the local public. The moving pictures, contrary to expectations waxed, and their popularity brought a rash of nickelodeons which gradually developed into more and more impressive cinema cathedrals, until they cut deeply into the living theatre.
The era of movie palaces left Dallas without a single playhouse which had as its major concern the spoken drama of Broadway. For many years the occasional road company or touring star who turned up less and less often was sandwiched in for a day or two between engagements of feature films and usually in a movie house so unsuited to living theatre that a performance there became something of an ordeal both for actor and audience. The obvious explanation that no one has seen fit to supply the town with a playhouse for drama, is, of course, due to Dallas’ great distance from the theatrical centers and the modern cost of touring. But whatever the reason during a whole generation, there was no opportunity for a theatre-conscious community to create the tradition of supporting the commercial theatre. Lacking this, in two memorable instances the people of the town have evolved a theatre of their own and made dramatic history.
When, shortly after the First ‘World War, little theatre groups began to dot the country, it was completely in character for Dallas to be one of the early cities seriously to experiment with the idea. The Dallas Little Theatre was organized in 1920 in an undertaking parlor. This slightly startling place of birth came about because a young lady interested in the idea was the daughter of an undertaker and offered her father’s establishment for the first meeting. Soon the players drawn from local talent were under the direction of a young English cotton man, Talbot Pearson, who had come from Liverpool and had been associated with the Liverpool Repertory Theatre. The group began a peripatetic career offering its productions in various available spots, the Unitarian church, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, schools and random halls.
Its first step in passing from a nebulous band of amateurs to an institution of the town came when Alexander Dean took over the directorship for the season of 192 1-22. A modest playhouse of its own on Olive Street was the result of this broadened patronage. Then in May, 1924, under the direction of Oliver Hinsdell, the Dallas Little Theatre took a one act play Judge Lynch by John William Rogers to New York to compete in the National Little Theatre Tournament. To the surprise and general delight of the town the players came back with the Belasco Cup — the prize of the tournament.
In view of the wide acclaim this trophy from Belasco was to receive, a few words about it are worth setting down. The initiator and promoter of the tournament, Walter Hartwig of New York, was a distant connection of the great theatrical producer Belasco who at that time was in the heyday of his reputation. Realizing the prestige of having so illustrious a figure of the theatre associated with his amateur competition, Hartwig persuaded Belasco to offer a silver cup for the best produced one act play in the tournament.
With the flood of publicity attending the announcement that Belasco was giving a cup, it was natural to visualize a trophy of somewhat impressive proportions, but while it was somewhat larger than a thimble, it would hardly have aroused comment at an interscholastic high school meet. And more than that, Belasco had evidently made it so clear that it was to be the Belasco cup, that the management of the tournament announced the winning troupers could hold it for a year, but the following year it must be passed on to the new winner. The cup, it stipulated, must be won more than once by the same players to belong permanently. This seemed a safe way to keep the cup in circulation for some time.
Labeled with the magic name of Belasco and coming from a triumph in the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, the players in Judge Lynch bore the cup home as jubilantly as if it had been massive, studded with jewels and was theirs to keep. The imagination of the whole town, too, was touched. The Belasco Cup production of Judge Lynch was presented for a series of special performances at the Olive Street Playhouse and Karl Hoblitzelle offered the company a chance to play the Interstate vaudeville circuit. When it returned to Dallas on this tour and was given at the downtown Majestic theatre, it attracted an attendance of 23,000 people in one week, something of a box office record at the time.
Delighted by the triumph of their first appearance on Broadway, the directors of the theatre decided to compete again the second year and this time sent a play by a then young and little known North Carolina playwright, Paul Green. The No Count Bay was Paul Green’s first introduction to Broadway and a national audience. Once more the Dallas players came back triumphantly bearing the diminutive cup, only this time the management of the tournament, seeing the enormous prestige of Belasco’s name bogging down in Texas, emphasized that the cup must be won three times.
For a third time in 1926, the Dallas Little Theatre Players, still under the direction of Oliver Hinsdell sallied forth to Broadway to compete in the tournament. On this occasion they offered a hitherto unseen tense one-act drama dealing with the new Mexican Penitentes El Cristo by Margaret Larkin of Santa Fe, and for a third time the Belasco cup was theirs.
The tournament management which had welcomed the entry from Dallas the first year with such delight as flattering evidence of the competition’s truly national scope grew steadily less happy about the reappearing Texans. By the third year they had so dominated the scene that other prominent little theatres markedly lost enthusiasm about entering its lists. With no Belasco cup to tempt them, the situation became serious. For some reason which was never clear to the winning players, after they had been awarded the cup for the third time, they found themselves returning home without it in their possession and they never saw it again.
Courtesy The Lusty Texans of Dallas by Kenneth Horan Rogers.
Additional Oak Cliff history can be found here.