Alumni Hall Memories

by Bill Monson

The best news I've had in months came on the Ides of March. That day's Zephyr said Knox College was going to renovate Alumni Hall.

The building was the site of my happiest Knox memories and deserves to regain the rightful place it once held on the campus.

When I was a Knox undergrad from 1953-57, it was headquarters for the departments of Art, Speech and Theater Arts, and Education. As I remember, William Matthews, the Knox chaplain, also had his office there.

The basement contained the Gizmo, bookstore, theater storage and makeup room, print shop and a rifle range.

The Giz was the student hangout -- a short-order restaurant with booths, tables and chairs, a small screen black and white TV, and open mailboxes where you could leave and receive messages and notices, and occasionally found free, half-pack samples of cigarettes. Day and night, bridge games raged in the booths. Coke dates could be arranged. If successful, more serious courting might follow. In the evening, Louie the campus night watchman, would drop in for coffee and survey the students there with his faux misogynist scowl. The goat of numerous student pranks and escapades (this was the era of panty raids) Louie had an oft-expressed opinion of students as ''no damn good'' -- at least until the next time a pretty coed flirted with him.

The center portion of Alumni Hall once contained the library, but by my day, the books had been moved to the Seymour Library and were replaced by a 900-seat proscenium theater. From my first quarter to my last, my Knox life revolved around that theater. I was a Theater Arts major. I played all kinds of roles in shows from Aeschylus to Shaw. I built sets, hung lights (and fell off tall ladders), and wrote and directed plays. On occasion, I slept overnight on a couch in the loft where stage furniture was stored. Siwash wrestler Pete Derks threw me into the orchestra pit during a rehearsal for ''Dark of the Moon.'' I ''sang'' the lead in the world premiere of an Otto Harbach musical -- ''Bugles in April'' -- and proved I was no bet for Broadway. I can still see musical director Creston Klingman wincing at some of my high notes. Fortunately, Otto proved to be nearly deaf when he arrived on campus for the opening.

All of us actors hated the rifle range under the theater. When the team practiced, the gunfire and clank of lead against the steel shields behind the targets made us jump and usually spoiled our rehearsals. I remember one occasion when continued use shot away the supports of a shield. It fell down, and until the damage was discovered, bullets went out through the front wooden steps across South Street into Standish Park. Bet you won't find that anecdote in the college annals!

While the theater had relatively good acoustics, the stage was cramped with little wing space or fly space. Sets were often partial, wheeled in on dollies and unfolded. The light board was so antiquated, one of its three main fuses might blow if you faded up all the stage lights at once. When I was head of the light crew on ''Die Fledermaus,'' I sat by the board with spare fuses in my lap to slam into open circuits on such emergencies. How I escaped electrocution is known only to the guardian angel of Alumni Hall.

The most unusual feature of the stage was the cyclorama wall at its back. Build into a curve of the building (which you can see from outside), this white plaster wonder gave an illusion of great depth and allowed theater designer Dean Currie to create some amazing effects. His wife Helen did similar marvels with costumes and makeup in her aerie off the theater balcony. Professor Delmar ''Uncle Del'' Solem presided over much of my life on the Knox stage, and his teaching and directing were responsible for much of what success I had there (and later!).

I could go on (and may well do so in a future column), but I'll close for now with this: will I write a check to aid Alumni Hall's renovation and return? You can count on it!

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online April 11, 2001

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