Cutting Up In Mask And Wig

Posted: February 12, 1986

Somewhere on the scale of entertainment between "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" and the sassy, classy revue that unfolds in La Cage aux Folles, you'll find the University of Pennsylvania's Mask and Wig Club.

When the boys at Penn dress up like girls and hit the stage with satirical high jinks and chorus-line high kicks, they are sustaining a school tradition that reaches back to 1889. Although it is not as old as Harvard's Hasty Pudding club, nor as all-inclusive as Princeton's Triangle, the Mask and Wig - now reeling toward its centennial - acknowledges no peer when it comes to grinding out pun-drunk shows.

"There's some gentle needling," co-producer Douglas J. Cohen (architecture, '78) said of conversations among Ivy Leaguers from schools where such shows exist, but "in general, we're the best. What we do is more dynamic.

"Of course," he said, "we don't have Brooke Shields. . . ."

" . . . Which isn't so bad," insisted co-producer Christopher J. Kneizys (Wharton, '83).

The club is made up of two sets of members, undergraduates and alumni. The undergraduates (and the occasional graduate student) make up the cast of the spring show and also produce an original one-week show in the fall. The alumni, who are responsible for maintaining the club's historic building on South Quince Street, provide the spring show's producers and oversee the traveling production.

The Wig, as members call the club, enjoyed its glory days in the 1920s and 1930s, when its lavish, Broadway-style productions were presented before thousands at the Forrest Theater. After enduring financial busts in the 1950s, it scaled back to the solidly successful cabaret-type revues it currently stages at 310 S. Quince St.

This year's show, called Happily Ever Laughter, will continue its Thursday- through-Saturday schedule at the club until March 1. It will travel to the West Coast and back from March 7 through March 16, return for shows March 20 and 21 at the Annenberg Center on the Penn campus, and then give final performances back on Quince Street from April 3 through April 5.

Happily Ever Laughter has a talented all-male cast of 20, backed by an equally talented all-male seven-member band. But no matter how gifted with singing and dancing ability, most of them will follow the pattern of their predecessors, discarding tutus and falsies to assume the corporate invisibility of gray suits and polished briefcases.

"Most of our alumni are accountants, judges, architects, lawyers and engineers," said Cohen. But there are a few who were so influenced by the taste of show business in Mask and Wig that they've gone into entertainment full time.

Stephen Goff, managing director of the Annenberg Center and a 1962 Penn architecture graduate, heard about Mask and Wig from his mother, a Penn alumna. Goff successfully auditioned for the club's show in his freshman year and was undergraduate chairman in his senior year. After graduation he dutifully joined an architectural firm, where he worked for two years.

Then he found out about the Annenberg job, which involved managing Penn's performing-arts groups, and he couldn't resist. He told himself: " 'This sounds like an interesting and fun job . . . at least for a couple of years. Then I'll go back to architecture.' That was 21 years ago. It was a case of the avocation becoming the vocation."

That the Wig is a longstanding and honorable tradition at Penn is undeniable. And sometimes it can run afoul of an equally longstanding and honorable family tradition. Take Robert L. Young, for example. There has been a Robert L. Young practicing law in Knoxville, Tenn., for generations, but for Bob Young, Penn '74, "the bar stopped here."

"There are lawyers in my family for four generations - and in that fourth generation back, that one became a judge." To make things even worse, he added, "On my mother's side, there are doctors for three generations."

That this Robert L. Young is neither lawyer nor physician is all Mask and Wig's fault. Young and a fellow club member, Bob Myer, first parlayed their Mask and Wig experience into Bob and Bob, a comedy team that used to perform in Philadelphia on radio, TV and stage. Then the two Bobs used their local popularity as a springboard into jobs as producers on the NBC-TV show The Facts of Life.

Said Myer, "I went to Penn primarily because of the Mask and Wig. . . . I wish there was such a thing as a Mask and Wig scholarship, because it was very time-consuming, but I always enjoyed it a great deal. It makes you think on your feet. . . . Being in Mask and Wig held me in good stead for understanding the creative process."

The Wig really used to swing, said 1936 grad Reeves Wetherill, a retired vice president for John Wanamaker stores. "There were lines of people around the old Forrest Theater," he said. "You couldn't buy a ticket. There were scalpers all around the theater."

Wetherill, who played the lead in three productions, said it was nothing in those days for the Mask and Wig to book an entire train for its tour of such exotic stops as Lancaster, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and on into upstate New York.

"We'd go all sorts of places, and the alumni would organize all sorts of cocktail receptions, dinner dances and the like," Wetherill said. "We had as many as 20 sleeping cars. The end car was a private car, which the Mask and Wig owned, and it was where the club president entertained. We thought we were hot potatoes. Oh boy, we didn't think that there was anything like us."

Back then, the public agreed. The club's history reports that the 1926 production, A Sale and a Sailor, grossed $107,000 in a two-week run at the Forrest, where the top ticket price was $4.

The early commercial success of the Mask and Wig, during the heyday of big stage productions, enabled the club to build a dormitory on the Penn Quadrangle. It also has contributed to Penn athletic programs, given money to other campus performing groups and chipped in to pay for construction of a house for the university's provost.

But in the postwar years, the lavish Mask and Wig shows entered a period of declining popularity. In 1957, after five straight years of financial losses, the undergraduate Thanksgiving show was canceled. "They fell victim to expenses . . . to a decline in theater popularity," said Goff, who was in Mask and Wig when the format was changed to cabaret revue in 1961.

Now Mask and Wig runs on a modest budget of about $28,000, according to Goff. Although the alumni members hire a professional staff - including the director, choreographer and scenic designer - the Mask and Wig draws heavily on the time and talents of the undergraduates, both on stage and off.

More than 1,200 people showed up for the free show the club put on in the fall, and auditions for the spring show (and subsequent undergraduate membership) remain highly competitive.

The club still enjoys the support of an active alumni membership, Cohen said. Some alumni members donate their time and services to help maintain the clubhouse, which was built in 1834 to house St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, and later was the site of the Jefferson Medical College anatomy laboratory.

Nowadays it looks more like a tavern. The walls are covered with members' drinking mugs and with caricatures recalling Mask and Wiggers in familiar roles. "Every caricature has a story, or two stories, behind it," Cohen said, casting his eye at the few remaining spaces available for adding mugs and members. With appropriate drama he added, "Some can't be told."

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