Princeton Triangle Club
“Woodrow Wilson” from “A Turnpike Runs Through it”
Performed live at the 2007 performance of the Princeton Triangle Club’s original production of “A Turnpike Runs Through It”. Music and lyrics by Brandon Michael Lowden.
McCarter Theatre, minutes before curtain time.
The Princeton Triangle Club is a theater troupe at Princeton University. Founded in 1891, it is the oldest touring collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the United States, and the only co-ed collegiate troupe that takes an original student-written musical on a national tour every year. The club is known for its tradition of featuring an all-male kickline in drag.
The troupe presents several shows throughout the year. In September at the end of the University’s Freshman Week it presents a revue of popular material from previous years. In autumn it puts on an original student-written musical comedy in McCarter Theatre, then takes this show on tour over the Winter holiday season. In spring it puts on another original show in a smaller venue. During reunions after the end of the spring semester, it relaunches the previous autumn’s show at McCarter.
Among the club’s notable alumni are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Booth Tarkington, Russel Wright, Joshua Logan, Brooks Bowman, Jimmy Stewart, José Ferrer, Wayne Rogers, Clark Gesner, Jeff Moss, David E. Kelley, Nicholas Hammond, Zachary Pincus-Roth, and Brooke Shields.
The history of the Princeton Triangle Club reflects many major social, cultural, economic, political, literary and theatrical trends in the United States during the late 19th and 20th centuries. It also traces the evolution of both undergraduate life and theatrical endeavors at Princeton University. In its century-plus of productions, Triangle has commented upon Princeton-specific topics, from examinations and campus safety to the Honor Code and the eating clubs, in addition to broader movements and events, including war protests, political scandals, women’s rights, and affirmative action. Although Triangle essentially recreates itself every year with an entirely new, full-scale musical-comedy, the club remains committed to its longstanding traditions, from the annual national tour to the kickline, and perpetuates its unique spirit, blending topical humor with collegiate irreverence and outright playfulness.
Triangle’s history is documented in several ways. The Long Kickline: A History of the Princeton Triangle Club, written in 1968 by Donald Marsden ’64, provides a detailed chronology of the organization through the production of Sham on Wry in 1966-67. The senior thesis of Nancy Barnes ’91, One Hundred Years and Still Kicking: A History of the Princeton Triangle Club, updates this written record. Finally, Triangle’s extensive archives in Princeton’s Mudd Library include playbills, musical scores, scripts, reviews, photographs, business correspondence, tour itineraries, scrapbooks, recordings, and much more.
The Triangle Club archives begin in 1883 with a production of the Princeton College Dramatic Association; during the next five years the Association presented a number of plays. In keeping with the practice of British and American all-male institutions at the time, women’s roles were played by men. Entr’acte music, provided by the Instrumental or Banjo Clubs, consisted of popular dance tunes or operatic excerpts. Student theatricals were performed for the benefit of financially ailing athletic associations, and the sporadic activity of the Dramatic Association can be explained by the fluctuating fortunes of the sports teams.
In 1891 the Dramatic Association joined forces with the University Glee Club to present Po-ca-hon-tas, the first show in the Triangle tradition of musicals written and produced by students. According to a New York review, the reworked John Brougham play featured “new topical songs and local hits” and was well received, both on campus and in a Trenton performance. But the faculty vetoed a proposed New York performance, and over the years, students and administrators would often be at odds over theatrical activities. Nevertheless, the Association visited Trenton once again the following year with Katharine, a Shakespearean spoof marking the first appearance of Booth Tarkington 1893 in the Triangle records.
The 1893 production, The Honorable Julius Caesar, was again a reworking of Shakespeare. Tarkington, a senior and president of the Dramatic Association, was prominent as both co-author of the book and as actor in the role of Cassius. The show was so successful that it was repeated the following year, with several significant changes. Most importantly, the Princeton University Dramatic Association had been renamed the Triangle Club of Princeton. According to a preview in The New York Times, “several specialties will be introduced, such as tumbling, acrobatic feats, and dancing” and “James E. Wilson of Frohman’s company… will coach the club regularly four times a week.” If Wilson did indeed coach, the club had its first professional director in its very first show under the name “Triangle.”
Financial problems caused Club members to curtail expenses in 1895. Neither the February production, Who’s Who, nor the May offering, Snowball, were written by students, and both had relatively small casts. The following year the Club turned to a recent graduate, Post Wheeler ’91, in hopes that his magic touch as co-author of The Honorable Julius Caesar could be repeated, and they were pleased with the result. The Mummy (1895–96) was also notable as the first production in Triangle’s new home, the Casino, located on the lower campus near the present-day McCarter Theatre site. Yet another innovation was attempted in 1897. A Tiger Lily, the first Triangle show to be based on Princeton student life, was part of a double bill with Lend Me Five Shillings, a British farce. Since neither show was a great success, the Club returned to the tried and true in 1898 with a revival of Po-ca-hon-tas. The Privateer, presented in 1899, was originally entitled The Captain’s Kidd Sister, but the name was changed because the University of Pennsylvania’s Mask and Wig Club had already produced a show about Captain Kidd. The “Privateer March” was the first commercially published Triangle song.
In 1901, with The King of Pomeru, Triangle ventured for the first time to New York, and the next year the club ventured as far as Pittsburgh. After the 1901 New York performance, Franklin B. Morse 1895 proposed a meeting to organize Triangle alumni, whom he believed could help promote the Club, build its reputation, arrange the annual tour, collect materials and memorabilia, and generally socialize among themselves. In June of that year, thirty-seven alumni met in Princeton, and the Triangle Board of Trustees was established.
During the first decade of the 20th century, the organization of Triangle became increasingly structured. Printed copies of the script, “for the exclusive use of candidates,” first appear in the archives with The Man From Where (1903–04).
Although A Woodland Wedding (1899–1900) included a specialty skirt dance, and “The Pony Ballet” was a part of Tabasco Land(1905–06), The Mummy Monarch’s kickline in 1907 was the first of that tradition to be documented photographically in the Triangle Archives.
Budding fame and higher standards
By 1910 the tour had extended as far west as Chicago and St. Louis; printed luncheon menus and newspaper clippings provide evidence of the elaborate social functions that were becoming part of the annual trek. With Once in a Hundred Years (1912–13), Triangle moved its tour to the Christmas season, again traveling as far west as St. Louis. The following year, President and Mrs. Wilson attended The Pursuit of Priscilla’s Washington matinee performance; the First Family then hosted a reception for Triangle at the White House.
The Evil Eye (1915-16) had a distinguished pair of neophyte authors: Edmund Wilson ’16 wrote the book, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 was responsible for the lyrics. Although he was never a cast member in a Triangle production, Fitzgerald wrote three shows for the Club between 1914 and 1917.
During 1917-18, a four man Triangle troupe toured Europe to entertain the soldiers stationed there for World War I. After the year hiatus, the club became active again with a revival of The Honorable Julius Caesar. The first post-war tour occurred when The Isle of Surprise was taken on the road during Christmas break of 1919. This show marked a change in attitude toward Triangle productions. In the program, Club president Erdman Harris ’20 described the new production: “We hope that a new day has dawned, that ‘Jazz’ will be forever relegated to a back seat, that Broadway will cease to be the idol of those who create the shows, that their staging shall be done in Princeton by Princeton men, and that the authorities and graduates will approve what is being done to elevate the standard of a society whose value in student life has been seriously questioned.”
In the spring of 1922, Triangle staged George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. This production marked a milepost in the Club’s history, for its three female roles were actually played by women. Sets for this production were designed and painted by Russel Wright during his freshman year, marking one of the few times that a freshman was ever allowed to join Triangle.
During the early 1920’s, New York performances began to be booked at the Metropolitan Opera House, although initially there was some concern whether the Club would be able to fill such a large theatre and whether the men’s voices would be strong enough to be heard properly. Late in 1923, there were negotiations concerning a possible radio broadcast, and in the same year Triangle’s music publisher, J. Church Co., corresponded with the Victor Talking Machine Co. about a trial recording. But the major event during this decade was the planning and construction of McCarter Theatre for Triangle Club. The completed theatre opened on February 21, 1930, with the Triangle Club’s The Golden Dog. McCarter replaced the long-controversial Casino, which burned on January 8, 1924.
Here began the Golden Period for which the Triangle Club became famous, in terms of its eventual contribution of outstanding talent to the Broadway theatre and Hollywood. Within a few years the Club would send forth into these professional realms Erik Barnouw’29; C. Norris Houghton, Joshua Logan, and Myron McCormick, all Class of 1931; James Stewart ’32; José Ferrer ’33; and Nick Foran ’34.
The 1935 show, Stags at Bay, featured “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” written by Brooks Bowman, which would become the most popular and longest-lasting national hit ever to come out of the Triangle Club. Recorded by Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, among many others, “East of the Sun” still provides the club with royalties. Other songs from the same show, by Bowman, included “Love and Dime” and “Will Love find a Way?.”
Difficulties in the Depression years
With The Tiger Smiles (1930–31), Triangle writers returned to a Princeton town and gown setting for the first time since When Congress Came to Princeton (1908–09). The production was well received, but the Club was already beginning to feel the effects of the Great Depression. In October 1930, the Program Manager reported, “Due to the financial depression, the business of getting ads is a rather difficult one just now.” By the following year economic conditions had begun to affect the tour. South Orange reported poor ticket sales, and the local alumni chairman was concerned with keeping down the cost of stagehands; in Pittsburgh, a poor house and lack of entertainment were attributed to the weak stock market. When It’s the Valet (1932–33) was ready to tour, local alumni groups were either unwilling to sponsor a show or unable to guarantee an adequate sum to cover expenses, let alone show a profit. The Club’s Graduate Board sought aid from alumni in underwriting the show, but individual contributions were equally difficult to come by.
Throughout the mid-thirties, Triangle continued to tour in spite of the Depression, but there were rumblings of discontent from both the Graduate Board of the Club and the University administration. In a 1934 meeting with President Dodds, the Board indicated concern about the financial condition of McCarter Theatre; Triangle profits were insufficient to keep McCarter operating in the black, a situation that would become increasingly serious as the decade wore on. President Dodds had also heard alumni criticism about poor acting and an apparent lack of coaching in connection with the latest show. Yet he remained confident that Triangle could play an important role on campus. Later that year, Club Manager Stryker Warren ’35 received a stern letter from Dean of the College Christian Gauss. Gauss had considered canceling the Christmas tour, first because of financial considerations, and then because of alumni criticism, which “in nearly every case… came as the result of the excessive drinking on the part of a few of your men.” Nevertheless, the Dean concluded by wishing “you and all the officers and members of the Club a highly successful trip, a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.”
At a 1937 Board meeting there was discussion about the lack of good voices in Triangle. Alumni as well as Board members had noted this situation, and it was suggested that “there must be someone in the Glee Club who could at least be drafted to sing, so that a song could be heard beyond the footlights.” Another complaint came from a Louisville alumnus early in 1938, who wrote, “I am not crazy about the Triangle Club bringing in certain dirty lines about ‘buying a drink’ and ‘the Knights of the Garter,’ etc.…. Personally I would prefer to see the young men get properly soused and have to be poured on the train than to use [these] lines.”
Another change in tradition came during the 1941-42 academic year, when Triangle produced Ask Me Another, its first show in revue format. Then, at a Board meeting in September 1943, Graduate Treasurer B. Franklin Bunn ’07 announced that there would be no Triangle Club activities for the duration of the war. The University assumed control of McCarter Theatre during this period, and the building was leased by the military for trainees’ use on campus.
In November 1945, the University Committee on Undergraduate Activities issued a report describing Triangle as “perhaps the most controversial of all undergraduate extracurricular activities. Despite obvious shortcomings, the Club affords many valuable opportunities to the undergraduate body and plays a very real part in alumni relations. According, it should be reestablished at the first possible moment.” The first post-war show, Clear the Track, opened in December 1946 and even managed a seven-city tour. But Triangle was beset with problems the following year for All Rights Reserved (1947–48). The Daily Princetonian reported, “All Rights pretty nearly weren’t reserved. A play by the same name had fizzled on Broadway for a bare month, in 1934, and the petulant playwright threatened to sue. Hasty consultation with a Broadway lawyer revealed that the author could not possibly win the suit and that matter was closed.” The club resolved tricky labor questions by employing union stagehands and music-hirelings, putting the later to work first in Philadelphia, where they were made to earn their fee by playing with the regular orchestra, and then in Washington, where they provided the intermission music.
Despite ongoing debate in the 1950s about the club’s obligations to theatrical professionalism, as well as its questionable impact on the University’s reputation, Triangle continued to reach a wider audience through greater media exposure. In 1948, All in Favor was broadcast on WNBC-TV, becoming the first college show to appear on the new medium of television. The entire score of Too Hot for Toddy (1950–51) was recorded, and members of the cast appeared on The Kate Smith Show and Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town. Club productions appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1950 to 1957; its host wrote to Triangle President Charles Robinson, “The Princeton Triangle Club has an annual appointment on our stage, so long as I’m on TV.”
Finally, in 1953, a memorandum of agreement was drawn up between Princeton University and the Trustees of the Triangle Club abrogating the McCarter agreement of the 1920s. The Club had simply been unable to cover the operating expenses and pay the taxes of the Theatre. A full-time general manager was hired for McCarter, and the University, which had been underwriting Triangle’s losses, agreed to cancel the Club’s debts.