Seventy-five years ago, Alley Theatre was founded.
In celebration of the institution’s semisesquicentennial (try saying that five times fast), we dug through history books, archives and documents to unearth some wonderful details about the theater company through the years.
Without further ado, 75 facts about the Alley Theatre, from the momentous to the mundane and everything in between. Happy reading friends!
1. Alley Theatre is one of the oldest operating professional theater companies in the state.
2. In 1946, San Jacinto High School drama teacher Nina Vance took a leave of absence to direct plays for the Jewish Community Center.
3. With encouragement from her friends, Vance soon began assembling a local theater group. Using $2.14 she found in her purse, Vance purchased 214 penny postcards. On them she wrote “It’s beginning!” Do you want a new theater for Houston?”
4. And on Oct. 7, 1947, more than 100 postcard recipients met Vance to discuss a new theater company. The group assembled in a small dance studio at the end of a long alleyway. “It was all very democratic. You paid a dime and became a voting member,” Vance recalled.
5. When Rita Cobler, a founding member, saw the narrow alleyway to the studio, she suggested the troupe name itself “The Alley.” The name stuck. “In the excitement, I didn’t mind it much that night,” Vance recalled. “But I was shocked to see it written in the next day’s papers. I think I had subconsciously imagined some rather grand name.”
6. A dance studio by day, the facility, located at 3617 Main Street, would serve as the Alley’s first home. It offered seating for only 87 people.
7. A sycamore tree grew through the studio and pierced the roof. When it rained, water spilled into the theater and onto those seated near it.
8. On Nov. 18, 1947, the new company presented its first production, a war play titled “A Sound of Hunting.”
9. About 80 people paid the $1.50 ticket fee to attend. The quarters were so cramped that some people sat on radiators and at the piano.
10. Through 1948, the amateur group presented five more plays -- Jeffrey Dell’s “Payment Deferred,” Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest,” Somerset Maugham’s “Caroline,” Clifford Odetes’s “Clash By Night,” and Norman Krasna’s “John Love Mary.”
11. Less than two years later, the dance studio was condemned by the fire marshal and the Alley’s lease was canceled.
12. During the troupe’s’ first two years only the janitor and the full-time office manager were paid.
13. At the end of the first year, when $750 remained, Vance took that as her year’s salary.
14. The Alley Theatre’s second home was a converted fan factory on Berry Avenue, with an arena stage that seated 230.
15. As a tribute to the company’s name and first home, a small alleyway was created at the side of the property and served as the accessway between the lobby and the arena.
16. A set of old elevator doors were repurposed as gates which opened onto the alleyway. Those gates now reside on the third floor of the Alley’s current building at 615 Texas Avenue. They’re located near the elevators.
17. The arena stage at the renovated fan factory would serve as the model for the Alley’s Neuhaus Theatre in Downtown Houston.
18. On Feb. 8, 1949, the Alley presented its first production in its new space, Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.”
19. As the Alley tells it, that performance “crystallized [Vance’s] realization that Houston theater audiences wanted and appreciated mature, thought-provoking theater experiences. When the show ended and the cast came out to bow, the applause was overwhelming. After the applause finally ended, Nina stepped forward on stage and said, ‘This is your theater.’”
20. The space in the fan factory was so tight that a man sitting in the front row once reached out and lit an actor’s cigarette in the middle of a scene when a prop lighter broke.
21. By the 1950s, the Alley was struggling with its identity. The question of whether the troupe should remain amateur or go professional divided members.
22. At a heated board meeting in 1952, Vance won full artistic and managing control of the theater and made clear she sought to establish the Alley as a professional company.
21. Some longtime members quit and several board members reigned. One actress said it was natural that some members resented the decision. “It left a gap in their lives,” she said. “I think rather than self-aggrandizement Nina simply thought of the Alley as a theater that needed to keep moving ahead. I think there were thresholds in her life when she realized that one goal had been achieved and another was waiting.”
22. The Alley’s first paid actor was Clarence Cavenaugh.
23. In 1953, Tennessee Williams came to see the Alley’s production of his play “The Rose Tattoo.”
24. In 1954, Vance convinced star actor Albert Dekker to guest-star in “Death of a Salesman,” which forced the the Alley to “go Equity,” and so become a fully professional company. The Actors Equity Association, “Equity” is the U.S. labor union that represents actors and stage managers. Equity theaters are those that are recognized as fully professional by the organization.
25. In the ensuing years, other stars like Signe Hasso, Chester Morris and Virginia “Ma Perkins” worked with company.
26. In 1958, Alley Theatre was invited by the United States Department to represent American Regional Theatre at the Brussels World’s Fair.
27. In 1956, the Alley Theatre received its first playwright in residence, Paul Zindel.
28. Zindel’s “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds” had its world premiere at the Alley Theatre on May 12, 1965. It would go on to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1971.
29. In 1959, the Ford Foundation gave the Alley Theatre a $156,000 one-to-one matching grant to assemble a resident ensemble of well-known actors with the promise of $200-a-week salaries over 40 or more weeks each season -- a major increase from the Alley’s standard minimum salary of $57.50 per week.
30. In 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk appointed Vance to the Advisory Committee on the Arts, part of the the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Education and Cultural Affairs.
31. In 1962, Vance acquired a gift of land from the Houston Endowment and a $2.1 million grant from the Ford Foundation to build a new theater. To secure the grant, however, the Alley had to raise an additional $900,000 locally from at least 15,000 Texans.
32. The Alley’s campaign ultimately raised $903,000 from more than 25,000 individual donors.
33. The Houston Chronicle’s celebratory, seven column headline read: “Alley Drive Smashed Over Top,” and the news was flashed on the Times Square marquee in New York City.
34. A committee was formed to select an architect for the theater. An unexpected contender, German architect Ulrich Franzen, was ultimately given the commission, though he had never designed a theater before.
35. In the ensuing years Franzen and Vance worked closely to design and construct “a building that sings viewed from any point.”
36. The new theater at 615 Texas Avenue was dedicated on October 13, 1968, after two years of construction.
37. The building was constructed in the New Brutalist style and had exposed cast-in-place concrete in both external and internal spaces, protruding windowless walls nine octagonal turrets, and overlapping convex and concave balconies which gave it a dramatic appearance.
38. Inside was not one but two stages, an 800-seat thrust theater and a 300-seat arena theater.
39. Per a City of Houston landmark designation report, “These performance spaces represent the types of spatial organization especially associated with the mid-twentieth century modern critique of conventional proscenium theaters, in which the audience was axially aligned with a recessed stage, backstage, and fly tower. Arraying audience seating “in-the-round” around a thrust stage or arranging seating to surround a central performance arena seemed to dissolve the distinction between audience and actors, producing an aura of intimacy and immediacy that neither motion pictures nor television yielded.”
40. The 104,000 square foot building was built for a cost of $3,150,00.
41. Special theatrical equipment cost an additional $287,000 and interior furnishings an additional $109,000.
42. To celebrate the new building, Houston Mayor Louie Welch proclaimed the entire week “Alley Theatre Week.”
43. Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, from the National Theatre in Great Britain, as well as Houston Mayor Louie Welch and NASA’s entire astronaut corps and their wives attended opening night.
44. Guests paid up to $1,000 for a ticket for the inaugural production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo.”
45. In 1972, the Alley Theatre won a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for its architectural design.
46. In 1977, Vance was one of eight American directors invited by the U.S. Department of State and the Russian Ministry of Culture to observe Russian Theatrical production in Moscow and Leningrad.
47. Nina Vance died of cancer in Houston on Feb. 18, 1980. She was 65.
48. Upon her death Alley Board President announced that the building would be renamed the Nina Vance Alley Theatre.
49. Vance produced 277 shows at the Alley and directed 125.
50. In 1980, upon the death of Vance, managing director Iris Siff took over the Alley’s management and artistic operations.
51. Siff was found slain at Alley Theatre on Jan. 15, 1982. She had been working late on a government grant application when a man entered her office and strangled her with a phone cord. A television set, a fur coat, a watch and a ring had been taken from her office. Hours later, her car was found burning in another neighborhood.
52. The following day, police took into custody Robert Taylor, 30, an employee of Security Guard Services, Inc., who was on duty at the playhouse around the time of Siff’s death. Reporters later determined that the security guard was an ex-convict. Several months earlier, Taylor had been paroled in Ohio after serving 40 months of a prison term.
53. Ultimately, Taylor was not charged in Siff’s killing. After holding him for several days, the police let him go. A tipster had given them another suspect: Clifford X. Phillips, 47, who had been dismissed as a security guard a few weeks earlier for sleeping on the job. Phillips, too, had a criminal record. He had served seven years in prison in New York State for killing his 3-year-old son in 1970 by forcing water down the child’s throat. The child’s body was found in a suitcase. He was also accused of beating his daughter into a vegetative state.
54. Phillips confessed, but claimed self-defense. He admitted that he had slipped through an unlocked door, climbed to the fourth floor suite where Siff was typing, reached inside her door, switched off the light and told her he wanted money before strangling her to death with a phone cord, but it wasn’t murder – he was merely trying to protect himself. As Phillips told it, after he made his demands, the 58-year-old woman charged at him, punching and kicking. “She was strong. She was upsetting things. I got sort of scared. So I began to choke her, thinking I could refrain her from kicking me like she was doing (in the groin),” Phillips said.
55. Phillips was convicted of Siff’s murder. His lawyers had argued that Phillips, who was Black, was a victim of racial discrimination. The jury was all-white. Phillips died by lethal injection on Dec. 15, 1993. He gave a final statement that lasted nearly five minutes. In it he gave thanks to Allah and expressed love for his wife: “I want to express my feelings regarding the mishap of the deceased Mrs. Iris Siff. That was a very unfortunate incident and only God knows why it was an unintentional situation that took place. I want to express my remorse to the family and the discomfort and pain I caused in their lives. Only God will determine if I am truly guilty or innocent of being the type of person I have been drawn up to be by the press and media. I have given my wife the power and energy to be a disciple of Islam. I rescued her from a wretched life in Ireland. I thank Allah for sending her to me. Certainly murder cannot be an instrument of Allah. My wife is very devoted.”
56. Siff’s family filed a wrongful death suit against theater’s security company and two of its employees. It was settled out of court in 1984.
57. “Jekyll & Hyde” has its world premiere at the Alley Theatre on May 24, 1990. The production went on to appear on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre on April 28, 1997. It became the longest-running show in the history of the Plymouth Theatre and finally closed on Jan. 7, 2001 after 1,543 performances.
58. In 1996, the Alley Theatre won the Regional Theatre Tony Award.
59. In 1998, the world premiere production of Tennessee Williams’ early play “Not About Nightingales” made its American debut at the Alley Theatre. “Not About Nightingales” had its world premiere March 5, 1998, at the Royal National’s Cottelsoe Theatre in London and later transferred to Broadway after appearing at the Alley Theatre. The Broadway production opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on February 25, 1999 and was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play.
60. On June 9, 2001, the theatre’s two basement level floors were inundated by Tropical Storm Allison. Water entered the Alley through downtown Houston’s tunnel system, causing extensive damage to the Alley’s Neuhaus Arena Stage, rehearsal hall and costume, scene and props departments.
61. Despite the hardship, “the Alley persevered. ‘The Carpetbagger’s Children,’ a world premiere by Horton Foote commissioned by the Alley, was scheduled to play at Neuhaus. It went on to continue its run at an alternative venue and later to Lincoln Center in New York and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.”
62. After seven months of construction, the Neuhaus Stage reopened on Jan. 18, 2002 for performances of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.’
63. In 2008, the Houston Press ranked Alley Theatre one of ten of the least photogenic buildings in Downtown Houston.
64. On March 1, 2011, The Alley Theatre was awarded a Texas Medal of Arts Award by the Texas Cultural Trust, bestowed upon Texas leaders and luminaries in the arts and entertainment industry for creative excellence and exemplary talent.
65. On Nov. 7, 2014, Texas Society of Architects awarded Alley Theatre with its 25-Year Award for 2014. The award recognizes architectural projects of enduring significance that have withstood the test of time by retaining their character, form and overall architectural integrity.
66. The Alley Theatre underwent a major $46.5 million renovation in 2014 and 2015, the first major improvements since the building opened in 1968. This included major improvements to the Hubbard Theatre, backstage area and public spaces.
67. The Alley has also brought its productions to 40 American cities, and to Berlin, Paris, St. Petersburg and New York’s Lincoln Center, as well as to major European festivals and Broadway.
68. The Alley Theatre offers several education programs.
69. The Alley is the only major Houston performing arts company that owns its building.
70. The building features two stages, which were originally referred to simply as the “Large Stage,” which seats 824, and the “Arena Stage,” which seats 310 and which can be configured either as a thrust stage or an arena.
71. In 1987, the Arena Stage was renamed the Neuhaus Stage in honor of Hugo V. Neuhaus, Jr. (1915-1987), president of the board of trustees of the Alley Theatre, chairman of the Texas Commission on the Arts, and chairman of the building committee that selected Ulrich Franzen to design its playhouse.
72. In 2003, the Large Stage received a formal name, the Patricia Peckinpaugh Hubbard Stage, in honor of long-time Alley supporter, life trustee, and board president Patricia Hubbard.
73. In 2017, during Hurricane Harvey the theatre sustained significant damage. Neuhaus Theatre, adjacent Mitchell Lobby, props storage, dressing rooms, electrical equipment room, and other spaces were completely flooded, forcing the closure of the entire theatre complex for several months. The theatre reopened in time for its annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
74. Discounted tickets are available for any student with a valid student ID, as well as for educators with valid school ID.
75. The Alley produces as many as 16 plays each year.
Whoa, there! Congrats! 🎉 You made it to the end of our admittedly exhaustive list. Here is the round of applause you undoubtedly deserve. 👏
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Information for this article is from Alley Theatre, the Texas State Historical Association, “Theater director in Houston is slain in apparent burglary” by The Associated Press, “Texas Executes Killer of Director” by The Associated Press, “Alley Theater slaying suspect describes victim’s struggle” by United Press International, “What was she thinking? Nina Vance’s role in the creation of the Alley Theatre on Texas Avenue” by Catherine Essinger, Alley Theatre’s Protected Landmark Designation Report, and “Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage” by Joseph Wesley Zeigler and “Scarecrow Cops” by Dick Reavis.
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