At the dawn of the 20th century, the performing arts played a negligible part in the life of the average Hamilton student. The Dramatic Club performed a scant number of plays each year, never more than three, and often drew from a limited pool of members to fill the necessary roles. With only 183 men enrolled in 1905, fraternities dominated campus social life, and the few non-fraternity clubs saw poor attendance, according to Robert “Bobo” Rudd ’09. In his 1958 lecture on the history of the Charlatans, Rudd recalled a conversation with classmate Alexander Woollcott in which they discussed creating “a dramatic club, because they had all done plays at school.” With their founding in 1907, the Charlatans served as the primary theatre outlet at Hamilton until the introduction of a theatre major, after the opening of Kirkland College in 1968.
From their inception, the Charlatans prided themselves on accepting any Hamilton student wanting to join their ranks, and at a time when fraternities dominated campus culture, this admission policy caused quite a stir. According to Editor Emeritus and former College Archivist Frank Lorenz, “student organizations were pretty much monopolized by the fraternities” in the early 20th century. By instituting an open admission policy, the Charlatans created an extracurricular space for fraternity members and independents to interact. As stated in the Charlatans’ constitution, the only conditions for joining the club were to be a Hamilton student and to perform 15 hours of service for the Charlatans’ benefit. Although the constitution was not codified until 1919, all indications are that this policy was instituted at the club’s founding. The group even outsourced the audition process to third parties to ensure that the most talented performers, rather than club stalwarts, received the choice roles.
Although the Charlatans successfully petitioned to join the Association for Undergraduate Activities in 1912, Rudd believed that the group did not fully realize its potential as a campus activity until several years later. Until 1918, the Charlatans regularly performed alongside the Glee and Instrumental clubs, and College publications, including Hamilton Life, wrote about the performance groups as a sort of unit. During that time, many of their performances took place in the Hamilton gymnasium or at small theatres near campus. However, the Charlatans increasingly distinguished themselves and eventually outlasted the other groups.
In 1919, the Charlatans reorganized and formalized their structure. Members wrote a new club constitution, which would remain unchanged until 1950, and persuaded Professor of English Paul Fancher to act as their faculty coach. The new constitution changed the leadership positions in the club to resemble those of a traditional theatre troupe, with the presidential role replaced by a director, although some generations of Charlatans would adhere more closely to that section of the constitution than others. The Charlatans also changed their focus. Whereas the earlier Charlatans put on comedies, the members of the 1920s chose to work primarily on one-act dramas, often written by the students themselves.
While student-written material was not new to the Charlatans — as early as 1907, the group had performed material written by members, beginning with The Glass House by R.H. Truax ’09 — the newly formalized structure led to better performances, more acclaim and increased opportunities to perform both on and off the Hill. By 1920, the Charlatans were rewarded for their accomplishments with their own section of the annual Hamiltonian. Under Fancher’s direction, the group staged six off-campus performances in 1922. The 1923 Hamiltonian lauded the Charlatans as “an actual working, producing dramatic organization.”
By 1925, the members’ creativity had exceeded the capabilities of the group’s traditional format. Upperclassmen began to produce and direct their own plays without involving the group at large, although they retained an affiliation with the Charlatans to increase publicity. Still, the Charlatans as a whole required Fancher’s continued guidance to keep them focused. In the memory of Richard A. Atkins ’29, in a letter from nearly five decades later archived at the College, Fancher was “a civilizing influence on the Hill,” and to the Charlatans, “he contributed a lot of style and much plausibility in the society.” When Fancher left the Charlatans for a season in order to direct the newly established College Choir, the club keenly felt his absence. The 1930 Hamiltonian lamented, “The organization’s great need this season caused [Fancher] to take upon himself the extra task of coaching the Charlatans. How much is due to his remarkable ability for the success of the season was clearly shown in this year’s productions.”
In 1929, the Charlatans first experimented with casting women in their performances. Richard T. Barns ’29, the club’s president during the previous season, wrote a letter in 1978 to Ethel Cameron, the wife of G. Harvey Cameron, professor of physics, detailing the Charlatans’ first coed performance. He remembered that the men of Hamilton College and the women of Wells College “were quite interested in each other,” and the Wells College students would often visit the Hill for houseparties or other events. While he could not remember who proposed the idea, someone suggested that the Charlatans perform with the Wells dramatic group at both institutions. When the news of the joint performance reached Woollcott, the founder arranged for the groups to perform Journey’s End, a play that was not yet available to amateur groups because it was still a smash on Broadway. The sole condition: The hit play could only be performed once. To get around this stipulation, the Charlatans performed an extra-special “dress rehearsal” in the Hamilton Chapel. The joint performance was a huge success on both campuses, and by 1933 the Charlatans cast women as often as they could.
The 1930s were the beginning of a long string of Charlatans’ successes. The club was well established, extremely popular and supported by a strong alumni base, including Woollcott, by then at the height of his fame as a drama critic, essayist and personality. Rudd ’09, the other founder of the Charlatans, had returned to the Hill to teach in 1917 and rejoined the group as faculty coach in 1938. Although most other student organizations were halted during World War II, the Charlatans held occasional performances, making do with severely restricted resources and funds. After the war, the troupe quickly returned to form. By 1947 the Charlatans were able to present a full performance of Saint Joan, with Margo Starr, a Bennington College student on leave for the semester, playing the title role. The presence of women in the Charlatans grew after World War II as the GI Bill created an influx of married students and their wives, whom the Charlatans welcomed.
During their existence, the Charlatans produced a few alumni who would go on to theatrical careers. William Roehrick ’34, a veteran theatre actor who also played Henry Chamberlain on the soap opera Guiding Light, participated in the Charlatans throughout his Hamilton years. Roehrick’s young looks as a student led to many female roles — his first leading role with the Charlatans was Hamlet’s Ophelia, and during his senior year he played Lady Macbeth. He recounted the importance of the latter performance in a letter to Ethel Cameron:
“As I came off from the curtain calls there was [Alexander Woollcott] back-stage. ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘You have just given the best performance of Lady Macbeth I’ve seen since Julia Marlowe.’ I had no idea who Julia Marlowe was and thought he was being his frequent Round-Table insulting-self. Being a New Yorker & priding myself on my worldliness & sophistication (I had neither quality, really) I refused to let him score off me & said ‘Thanks,’ turned on my heel and went in to the party-dressing room.”
Fortunately, Woollcott was being sincere, and was so taken with the young Charlatan that he began to invite Roehrick to shows and events in New York City. Eventually, Woollcott wrote Roehrick an introduction to a theatre director who gave the young man his first professional acting job — as an extra in Romeo and Juliet.
Roehrick always credited the Charlatans with setting him on his career path, but although he loved acting, he never recommended it as a viable profession for other Hamilton students. He advised them instead to participate in the Charlatans and then go on to careers that offered more stability. Another notable Charlatan who went on to a stage-and-screen career was Peter Falk. Although he did not graduate from Hamilton, the actor, later famous for the TV series Columbo, held small parts in two Charlatans productions in the late 1940s before he left the College.
The men were able to adapt to changing technology and trends in theatre, and from 1945 until 1968, the Charlatans operated smoothly and autonomously. The local community held them in high regard — so much so that in 1954, a local television station invited them to film an hour-long special, although the footage has been lost. The Charlatans’ successes were a testament to the interest in theatre at Hamilton. However, those successes also led indirectly to the end of the club, though theatre on the Hill would continue to thrive.
After the founding of Kirkland College in 1968, the Charlatans welcomed Kirkland women into the group. Unlike Hamilton, Kirkland had a theatre major, and Hamilton students were allowed to take Kirkland courses for credit. The new Theatre Department quickly became the dominant theatrical institution on the joint campuses. According to Frank Lorenz, the Charlatans ultimately ended because students interested in theatre no longer needed the Charlatans to pursue that interest. The founding of the Alexander Hamilton Players also contributed to the end of the Charlatans. The new group was more ambitious in scope and desired to put on musicals, beginning with 1776, which was a Broadway hit at the time. The end of the Charlatans did not indicate a lack of interest in theatre; rather, students no longer needed the once-unique services the Charlatans provided.
During their existence, the Charlatans offered a remarkable opportunity for Hamilton men to socialize outside of their fraternities as well as to act and to learn backstage skills. By the 1970s, academic and social changes at the College — primarily the addition of the theatre major and a decreased emphasis on fraternities — had left the Charlatans less relevant to mainstream campus life. By 1975, the Charlatans had dissolved.
Adapted from “The Charlatans,” written by Stephanie Shapiro ’13 for a fall 2011 course, The History of Hamilton College, taught by Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History.