By Dr. Hoyt McCachren, Catawba College Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts
The Blue Masque will be 83 years old September 30. Catawba College had just reopened in Salisbury in 1925 after closing the Newton campus two years earlier. Florence Busby, Teacher of Dramatic Art, called a meeting of "all students interested in forming a dramatics club." That club was formed and named "The Blue Masque" based on Catawba colors of blue and white.
The Blue Masque opened with a bang on December 7, 1925, with presentation of The New Poor to critical acclaim. The Salisbury Evening Post wrote, "There was nothing amateurish about the performance of Cosmo Hamilton's three-act farce, The New Poor, as presented last evening by the dramatic association of Catawba College, The Blue Masque, under the direction of Mrs. John C. Busby," and added, "each person had been carefully coached by a skilled student of the stage."
Mrs. John Busby, the former Florence Fransioli, studied at Emerson College of Oratory in Boston, acted on Broadway as "Jane Kavanaugh," married John Busby of Salisbury and moved to this small southern town in 1919. Her most significant role on Broadway was Joan of Arc in Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. She was performing in Welcome Stranger in 1919 when an actor's strike closed Broadway theatres and she took the occasion to be married.
During her first five years in Salisbury she established her theatrical credentials with readings and discussions of theatre with local book clubs and her participation in the Salisbury Dramatic Association for which she served as president in 1924.
Dr. Raymond Jenkins chaired of the English Department at the newly opened Catawba campus. He and President Elmer Hoke approached Florence Busby and engaged her as Director of Dramatics, a position she held until 1948 when she retired and married Lotan Corriher of Landis, North Carolina. John Busby had died unexpectedly of influenza in 1933.
Florence Busby stressed detail of production as a director and emphasized playwriting and staging techniques as a teacher. She presented the College a large loving cup on which the name of the winning student playwright was engraved each year. She and the club were active in the Carolina Dramatic Association where Blue Masque productions and Catawba students often won top honors at annual competitions in Playmakers Theatre at the University of North Carolina.
Upon her retirement a Salisbury Post article stated: "As founder and director of the Blue Masque ... she has contributed in substantial and memorable manner to the cultural and artistic betterment of the community and to the high standing of the college in forensic and dramatic accomplishments."
Joe Cohron became director of the Blue Masque upon the retirement of Florence Busby. He maintained the high quality of production established by her during his two years at Catawba.
Burnet Hobgood joined the Catawba faculty in 1950, bringing a small ivory turtle mounted on an ebony wood base. "Myrtle" became a Blue Masque icon.
Hobgood built on the solid foundation established by Florence Busby, developed the Department of Drama and Speech and created a full major in Drama.
Hobgood's eleven years at the helm saw many innovative programs, academic accomplishments and experiments in production styles that ranged from the intimacy of The Glass Menagerie in arena staging to epic productions of Showboat and his adaptation of The Iliad. The theatre program reached a zenith in 1957 when the Blue Masque was chosen to represent the United States at the first International Festival of Amateur Theatre in Monte Carlo, Monaco. The production presented was The Other Side of the Fence, by student Franklin Leonard. The production proved to be the hit of the festival.
A major factor in the selection of the Blue Masque for this honor was "The Contemporary Series," a program of new play production initiated by Hobgood in 1955. Promising playwrights were brought to campus each year for final rehearsals of a never-produced play. The program was highly regarded in educational theatre circles and inspired other academic theatre programs in the country.
The Contemporary Series was one of several innovative programs initiated by Hobgood. "The Living Anthology," was a listing of the "thirty finest plays of all times" as selected by a jury of well-known drama critics and theatre professionals throughout the country. The idea was that all of the selected plays would be produced eventually by the Blue Masque. (All but five have been.)
"The Broadway Project" was a trip to New York each spring for students to experience the professional theatre.
"The Laboratory Stage" included staged readings, including student written plays, before an audience.
"The Review/Preview Banquet" began in 1954 and has continued to the present time. It offers opportunity to review the accomplishments of the season and to project the program into the following year. Various recognitions and awards are a part of the evening.
Growth led to the addition of a faculty member in 1954 when Arnold Colbath joined Hobgood. He directed The Other Side of the Fence and toured to Monte Carlo with the Blue Masque in 1957. It was that fall that Hoyt McCachren joined Hobgood and Colbath as the third member of the drama faculty.
The quality of dramatic activity at Catawba firmly established by Florence Busby and expanded by Burnet Hobgood provided a solid foundation for Catawba's theatre program. The Carolina Dramatic Association recognized Florence Busby Corriher with their Alumni Award in 1962. The citation stated: "The program which you inaugurated at Catawba College in the 1920's was so sound, and the producing organization which you founded there – the Blue Masque – has continued to operate in so vigorous a fashion, that the reputation of both has spread beyond the bounds of the state and nation to become familiar upon the European scene."
Until the Department of Drama was established in the early 1950s, The Blue Masque and Catawba College Theatre were one and the same. During the Hobgood years a separation was recognized between the academic department and The Blue Masque student organization. Each maintained activities and responsibilities within the total theatre program.
Colbath resigned to pursue the doctorate in 1960 and Hobgood in 1961. Early planning was underway for the erection of a new theatre facility when Hobgood left.
Professor Fred Vacha headed the program during the two years he was on the Catawba faculty and Hoyt McCachren was interim director until Dr. Gerald Honaker took the reins in 1964. During the three years between Hobgood and Honaker plans were completed, funds raised and a modern facility, the College Community Center, was constructed housing an intimate 250 seat theatre and a larger auditorium seating 1500. From that point to the present the Catawba theatre program has continued to grow in student majors and academic programs, as well as in the number and variety of stage productions.
Honaker was given administrative responsibilities by the college in 1975. From that time to the present the theatre program has continued forward progress under the direction of Hoyt McCachren, James Parker, James Epperson and Woodrow Hood. Success of the program, both academically and in theatre activities, led to the program being recognized nationally and in 2007-2008 was ranked fourth among college and university theatre by the Princeton Review. Degrees offered by the department include the BA, BFA and BS, with majors in Theatre Arts, Musical Theatre and Theatre Arts Administration, with minors in Dance, Musical Theatre, Studio Art and Theatre Arts. The program includes eight full-time faculty as well as several adjunct teachers.
The Blue Masque was born in 1925 and has matured into a theatre program with more than 100 students that presents six or seven major production as well as experimental student works and dance programs each year. Florence Busby gave it birth.