The University drama group had its start in 1934 as a dramatic club composed of 35 University of Delaware faculty members and staff. The stated purpose of the group was to present live entertainment to the student body, faculty, staff, and to the greater Newark community.
Mitchell Hall had been completed in 1930, enabling the group to produce plays under very favorable conditions. UDG presented its first play in the spring of 1935, a full-length comedy, “Mrs. Bumstead Leigh.”
In order to be able to produce the best possible please, townspeople were added to the group in 1936. Although unique for its time, many other dramatic organizations followed in towns having connections with the college. UDG was not separated entirely from the E – 52 University players and actors were often exchanged. In 1948, UDG presented the first of several annual $50 awards to the graduating player who contributed most to Campus Theater during the year. UDG was one of the first theaters in the area to experiment with dedicated children’s theater. During World War II, UDG produced a variety “soldier show” for the sailors at the nearby Navy base in Bainbridge, Maryland.
By 1965, UDG membership exceeded 150, and the group was searching for new horizons – so the annual June fundraisers began. Howard Kuscher, a guiding force at this time, developed plans to produce theater -in-the -round in a barn made available by UDG members Sally and Sigurd Anderson at the end of old paper Mill Road. Later, the success of the fundraiser, the desire for additional seating, and the uncertainty of the location led to negotiations with the state of Delaware for the use of Maxwell’s barn at the Walter S. Carpenter State Park on Route 896. Shows were performed there from 1973 until 1977 when the group was upstaged by horses. Kuscher did present one arena style fundraiser at UD’s Bacchus room at about this time. These shows were always a lot of fun and provided a fitting climax to the regular subscription season. They also provided a nest egg toward obtaining a home for CSP. In 1970, a performance of a June show was held at the current Chapel Street location. The fundraiser shows have continued to the present with Renee O’Leary appearing in every one of them.
As University enrollment increased, the traffic in Mitchell Hall increased and it became apparent the UDG needed a permanent home of its own. Howard Kuscher located a church for sale at an attractive price ($32,000), confirmed its acoustical suitability, and prepared a scaled model showing that it could be modified to seat 175 as a theater. Howard Turner, then president, developed a budget and fund raising plan which demonstrated the feasibility of purchasing the church building for the UDG. At a special membership meeting in November of 1967, authorization was given to pay $50 for an eight month option on the property to allow time to raise funds and obtain city approvals.
The challenges of obtaining the new property were met and overcome, one by one: approval of the use of the property by the city of Newark was obtained, IRS nonprofit status was certified, and several local businesses granted evening parking permissions on a limited basis. Meanwhile fundraising, spearheaded by Howard Turner included soliciting members, private citizens, merchants, industry, and other groups. Brandywiners, LTD., Was especially helpful with suggestions and financial aid.
The option period was nearing an end and only about one half of the funds needed to purchase the property had been raised or pledged. An agreement with the seller was negotiated to make a 10% down payment toward purchase within another seven months. When this period drew near to closing, UDG was still about $14,000 short of the amount needed for purchase and building modifications. With some difficulty, a mortgage was obtained for the balance, and UDG at last took possession in February of 1969.
The Chapel Street Playhouse had austere beginnings, at first renting out the facilities to two churches on Sundays with show rehearsals and productions on weekdays. Once it became apparent that the mortgage could be handled and money made from both the CSP shows and the barn shows, improvements to the facilities began. The pews were sold for enough money to buy folding chairs, which could also be used at the barn shows. The choir loft yielded to a light and sound booth. The stage was extended – twice! – And the platforms were installed to improve the site lines. An extensive work program was undertaken to modify the building to meet city codes. Howard Kuscher, John Devenney, Howard Turner and many others contributed. The first show in the group’s new home was presented in November 1970 and the group adopted the operating name of “The Chapel Street Players” – but remains Incorporated with the state of Delaware under its original name, “University Drama Group.” The debt was paid off in six years and a mortgage burning was celebrated at a champagne color preview of “Beginners Luck” on October 16, 1975.
The theater continued its transformation by replacing the small garage behind the theater with a shop and flat storage building constructed of fireproof materials. The Main building was extended toward the street, adding a small foyer for the box office, audience socializing, and getting guests out of inclement weather. The cosmetic aspect of the theater – carpeting, painting, decorating, etc. – has been constantly worked on since the day the group took possession of the building. Electrical service, lighting and sound facilities, a sprinkler system, and other functions have been improved over the years.
Plans for improvement for the benefit of all are always being considered so that an attractive, pleasant experience can be created for all who enjoy the benefit of this community theater: the audience, casts and crews. The most recent major renovation was undertaken in 1998. The riser decking was reinforced to accommodate new theater seating. Renee O’Leary helped to acquire much-needed seats from the Playhouse. Peter Clark, president at the time, obtained the necessary approvals and then supervised the installation of the seats. New carpeting and vinyl flooring were installed, and the house, lobby and stairwell were painted. Downstairs, Rosemary and Forrest Hickman refurbished our serving area and the restroom facilities. Nancy Storch took on the green room with paint, carpeting and repairs. Accessibility structures – including a restroom and ramp for differently – abled guests – were also added.
CSP’s current playbill provides for plays in the subscription series, plus the annual June fundraiser, a beloved tradition that continues today. This season also offers “And Evening of One- Acts;” and an occasional special performance which is not part of the regular subscription series, providing local and guest musicians, actors and directors an intimate and unique venue.
CSP has always been a significant competitor in that One Act Festivals. We have received many prizes and honors in Delaware and regional competitions for performances and original scripts. One need only look at the wall of honor in the theater to see how many achievements CSP has earned. In 1971, a technical services award plaque to honor Marion Kuscher was contributed to annually recognize those who have served behind the scenes.
Over the years, audience and critical acclaim have been at least as good as any theater in Delaware – a real compliment to the casts, directors, and technical support of the Chapel Street Playhouse. In UDG’s 50th anniversary book, Ron Knox, then president, stated: “it is a continuing source of wonder to see how a production grows from words on paper to opening night. The dedication of the company as it comes together for the first time and grows into a show is something that must be experienced to appreciate. We are called “community,” but the only difference between our theater and so-called “professional” theater is that we can’t get paid in dollars. I believe we have as much dedication and professional commitment as any Broadway troupe. And that’s what makes it work – our willingness to commit time, talent and energy for the sheer pleasure of it! Best of all, anyone can be a part of this world. It takes only interest, and a willingness to work hard. The doors of Community Theater are always open…”