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Interview with: Mrs. Dudley Sharp
Interviewed by: Dorothy Houghton & Deirdre Glober
Date: March 3, 1982 and April 12, 1982
Archive Number: OH OHJL12.1
DH: 00:06 This tape was produced on March 3, 1982, by volunteers of the Junior League of Houston at the Houston Public Library. It is one of a series on the history of voluntarism in Houston. This series is a segment of the Oral History Collection in the Houston Metropolitan Archives at the library. The interviewers are Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton and Deirdre Denman Glober. The subject of our interview is Mrs. Dudley Sharp.
Mrs. Sharp, you were a native Houstonian from an old Houston family. Where did you go to school?
TS: I went to school in public schools in Houston. I first off started in the Eichler University, which was run by a German woman whose kindergarten was in the old Christ Church. Then I went to public school—Fannin, I remember South End Junior High School—until I was 14 years old. Then I went away to school at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and there I was for almost four years. And that was the end of my formal education.
DH: How did you first experience music, ballet, opera and live drama performances?
TS: The first ballet I remember was Pavlova at the old Houston City Auditorium. I knew of Molly McDowell who, as you know, was one of our early music teachers in Houston. My two older sisters took music from her. And there was always music in the house and always a great love of music and dancing. And of course Houston was limited in my early days as to the performances that came in to Houston. But I don’t believe we missed any as they came along. Then in school I was very involved with the Philadelphia Symphony. We went in every Friday afternoon, I think, and to theater of any kind as well.
DH: This was in Philadelphia?
TS: Yes. My school was outside of Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr, but we would go in by train.
DH: Did you travel extensively with your family as a child and later as a young woman?
TS: 02:49 Yes, we did. We always went away in the summertime. Houston was unbearable before air conditioning, and my mother would take her daughters—there were three of us—sometimes to Maine, sometimes to Virginia. We had several summers in the West, really seeing the West. And then after boarding school for me, my parents and I went on a cruise around the world. That was 1926 or ’27. We left New York and went down through the canal. I consider it one of the greatest parts of my education. It was a marvelous, marvelous experience.
DH: What were the community organizations in Houston in which your parents were most involved?
TS: My mother was very active in the YWCA. My mother and father were both active church people. My father was one of the original trustees of Rice University when it was still called Rice Institute. Mother was active in garden clubs; she was active in museums. Houston was very, very small, and I think that most of our parents were involved in every facet of the city and the cultural life and the educational life.
DH: What values did your family instill in you that inspired your later volunteer activities?
TS: Well, I think probably what I just said indicates that we thought part of life and part of our responsibility was to actively engage in city things in our city.
DH: So their example was what really inspired you?
TS: I would say so.
DH: Mrs. W. Bedford Sharp was one of the founders of the Junior League of Houston in 1925. Was she your sister-in-law or your mother-in-law?
TS: My sister-in-law, Mrs. W. Bedford Sharp. And of course my sister Nora was also one of the original starters of the Junior League in Houston.
DH: The Junior League of Houston joined the Association of Junior Leagues of America in 1926. What was the relationship between the Junior League of Houston and AJLA during the 1930s?
TS: We were beginning to come into focus and into prominence with the AJLA. Somewhere in those early years I went to Richmond, Virginia, for a Junior League Conference, and I believe Ruth Carter was the other representative there. We felt as though Houston was being brought in to this countrywide organization at that time. I cannot tell you what year that was.
DH: 06:23 According to our records, in 1930-31 you were a delegate to AJLA’s Region 6 Conference.
TS: And that was in Richmond.
DH: Oh, is that what it was?
TS: I think it must have been.
DH: I see. What purpose did regional conferences serve?
TS: They served to show us what the other Junior Leagues were doing. Of course we were divided into certain groups according to what we were sponsoring. Our Junior League was just beginning and of course our Tea Room was the thing that started us into good works. I think simply the purpose of knowing what the other Junior Leagues throughout the country were doing and how we were stacking up was the real important issue.
DH: I see. In 1937, while you were president of the Junior League of Houston, you attended the national AJLA Conference in San Francisco. What was the purpose of these national conferences to which the Houston League ordinarily sent its president?
TS: There again, to exchange ideas, to express our interest in voluntarism and to compare notes with the other Junior Leagues throughout the country.
DH: Do you recall how the Junior League of Houston did compare to some of the other Leagues? Do you remember any of your impressions of those meetings?
TS: Sadly enough, I don’t. I think we’ve always felt quite proud of ourselves, that we were doing a good job. I’m absolutely bogged down on that one. I really do not know of any definite contribution that we made, but I feel that the delegates came back to Houston with a greater sense of voluntarism and of the good that they could do in their community.
DH: 08:38 Was the experience of attending these conferences beneficial to your overall development as a volunteer?
TS: I hate to say I really don’t think so. (chuckles)
DH: Oh, really? Why not?
TS: Of course a great deal of it was social. I was already committed, and I don’t believe that it gave me any additional inspiration. It maybe gave me a more solid base to work on.
DH: With your background with your family’s involvement, that must have perhaps overshadowed the—
TS: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I never felt really that I was influenced too strongly by the family background. It was just something that evolved.
DH: What can you tell me about the Regional Arts and Interests Exhibit that was held here in 1935? Do you remember that?
TS: I remember it was mainly needlepoint. There was a beautiful woman whose name was Alexander, I think, Mrs. Something Alexander, who came with her samples or wares, and she gave instructions in needlepoint and also had these things to show and sell.
DH: It was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, was it not?
TS: I thought it was held right in the Junior League building.
DH: Maybe it was. Perhaps that’s a mistake.
TS: I think it was.
DH: At the time of that exhibit, the regional director of Arts and Interests made a field trip to Houston, and there was a field trip visit in 1937-38 by a National Ways and Means director. What was the purpose of such field visits?
TS: You’ve absolutely stumped me. It seems like the Dark Ages. (laughs) I’m sure simply to inform us and to find out what the various Junior Leagues throughout the country were doing.
DH: 10:49 Were these people volunteers or salaried staff?
TS: They were volunteers.
DH: Were they giving you suggestions about how to—
TS: Yes. They gave us good information. I do remember that. I think it was like an educational program.
DH: At the time of the Ways and Means director’s visit that I just mentioned, she advised Houston to adopt a placement system. What did that mean? Did that mean we didn’t have a placement system already?
TS: I’m sure we weren’t well organized at all and had not sent out questionnaires and such as we do now and have done for many years. It was to help the early beginning Junior Leagues to really find their way in what was becoming a larger and larger volunteer situation throughout the country.
DH: According to our research, the standing requirements at that time were that each volunteer had to work 102 hours. Ninety of those hours had to be either in the Luncheon Club or the clinic and then 12 hours were worked in an agency approved by the hours committee. In the 1930s, almost all of the Houston League members were responsible for staffing the Luncheon Club, it seems from our research. Today only one out of ten members works in the Tea Room each year. Was the discussion of placement that began about that time in 1938 the seed of the League’s current ideas on how members should spend their volunteer time?
TS: Yes, I would say so. I would think so very strongly. Of course you must remember how small the League was in those days. Every active Junior League member worked hard in the Tea Room and the clinic.
DH: In 1930-31, the Junior League of Houston was commended by the regional conference to which you were a delegate for having the first welfare placement in the region. Were they referring to the Junior League clinic or to other Junior League activities?
TS: 13:07 I think they were referring, in the first place, to the Junior League clinic but also to the broad spread that we were entering into.
DH: Our research indicates that among the opportunities available for people to work their 12 hours was the Child Guidance Clinic, the DePelchin Faith Home, the Girl Scouts, the Red Cross and the Little Theater. Do you recall that?
TS: Yes, I do. I remember that very well. I would have put Crittenton Home on that list. It was not mentioned?
DH: It could have been.
TS: Yes, uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: What types of jobs did they do for those organizations?
TS: By and large we were on boards. Of course in some instances we went in there and worked as volunteers with children or wherever—
DH: But mostly you served as representatives on the board.
DH: What kinds and amounts of work were expected of Junior League members in the 1930s? Have we just covered that?
TS: I think we pretty well covered that. I do.
DH: Yes, okay. Was the primary purpose of the Luncheon Club to support the clinic operations?
DH: 14:29 Our research indicated that during the 1930s many different approaches to fundraising were tried. These included sponsorship of a horse and dog show in 1931, style shows and special exhibits at the Luncheon Club, leasing the Luncheon Club for parties, special benefit parties, a rummage sale, children’s plays and selling tickets to the River Oaks tennis tournament, among others. What was the membership’s attitude toward fundraising at that time?
TS: I think we were all very enthusiastic about fundraising. One thing that you did not mention was the start of our wonderful production every year, which was the Junior League Follies. That was a fundraising thing, and we all went into it with great enthusiasm, both as participants and money-raisers.
DH: Do you recall any of the details of the annual horse and dog show that the League sponsored with the Houston Post-Dispatch in 1930?
TS: I only have a picture of it. I don’t remember how involved the Junior League was or how we went about it at all. But I do remember that it was a great success.
DH: Much time and effort was spent on developing fundraising opportunities. Was an effort being made to decide upon a single annual fundraising event in addition to the Tea Room rather than having all of these different efforts going on at one time?
TS: I don’t know if that was when we really decided to have one big fundraising effort each year. I don’t know when that came along. Do you?
DH: The minutes of the Junior League board reflect throughout this period great consternation about why they couldn’t come up with one major fundraising project instead of spreading their efforts thinly, and I just was wondering.
TS: Wondering when it did evolve into one.
DH: One means of providing funds for Junior League activities was through leasing space in the Junior League building at the corner of Louisiana and Stuart Streets, which opened in 1929. It appears that maintaining satisfactory tenants and tenant relationships was difficult. Could you tell us something about those problems.
TS: 16:59 I didn’t realize we had any. I know we had what was known as a corner shop, which was a gift shop there run by Junior League members. If there were difficulties, I really was not aware of them.
DH: Our research indicated that there were some vacancies about that time—four vacancies—and we were wondering how many shops there were besides the corner shop. Or was it just one shop? It was unclear from what we read.
TS: I don’t remember anything but the corner shop.
DH: Oh, really?
TS: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: In 1931, the Houston Merchants’ Association took exception to exhibits by out-of-town stores in the leased space. How did the League respond to that problem?
TS: I cannot tell you. I do not know.
DH: We started asking the Houston merchants to have style shows, which raised money for the Junior League, right about that time, and we were wondering if that was an attempt to—
TS: They might have felt it was competitive and a good thing. But I don’t remember it as a great thing.
DH: I see.
TS: Certainly our Junior League style shows have always been successful.
DH: Was it customary at that time for organizations to hold style shows for money-raising activities, or was this something new on the scene in Houston at that time?
TS: I think it was fairly new, very new, and of course we did it simply to attract people to our Luncheon Club, and we still do.
DH: Yes, we do. But everyone has style shows now. I was just wondering if that was something that was rather rare at that time.
TS: 19:00 Yes, I think it was.
DH: The primary purpose of the fundraising activities that we have discussed was to fund the children’s clinic, which the Junior League opened in 1927 in the First National Bank building. In 1932, as part of a cooperative agreement with the Hermann estate, the clinic moved to the Stewart Building. Do you remember how that agreement came about to make the move and to go under the sponsorship, to a certain extent, of the Hermann estate?
TS: There again I cannot tell you. I would feel, and it was reasonable to think, that it was splendid to have an affiliation with the hospital through the Hermann estate. And perhaps that was the way we did it. Before that, we simply had individual doctors who came and helped us out on a volunteer basis for a certain number of hours a day.
DH: Didn’t we refer the people who needed to be hospitalized to Hermann?
TS: I think we did, uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: The clinic’s relationship with the Hermann Hospital appears to have been very harmonious until about 1936. At about that time, the League first discussed with its membership the need for a children’s hospital. Could you tell us how the League perceived that need for a children’s hospital.
TS: I can’t. I feel very stupid about this, but the ins and outs of that I do not recall.
DH: Our research just indicates that the discussion started about that, but it was another ten years before the Junior League sponsored the Pin Oak Horse Show which then raised the money to start the hospital. And I was wondering how the whole subject evolved.
TS: I would think that we just weren’t having proper or sufficient care of the children in the clinic and we felt we needed this further affiliation and sponsorship, really.
DH: Do you recall much about the relationship between Hermann Hospital and the Junior League between 1936 when you were president and about 1940?
TS: 21:30 I don’t think there was any real schism, any real dissatisfaction, but that we needed further and greater facilities. That would be my definition of it.
DH: What was the League’s motivation for starting the children’s theater program and the children’s playwriting contest in 1930-31? Do you recall?
TS: We felt that there was a great need for it in Houston. There was a great lack of it, and we simply went to work with it. It was great fun, and we think we contributed a great deal to the children of Houston during that time.
DH: Was this project affiliated with the city Recreation Department from the beginning?
TS: I don’t think so, from the beginning. I think we sort of started on a shoestring in a very limited fashion in the Junior League itself and then became affiliated with the Recreation Department. I’m sure it was through the Recreation Department that we started having our plays in the old Memorial Theater, which were very successful, very well attended.
DH: It appears that the Children’s Theater had a dual purpose. One was to provide live theater for children who otherwise would not have it available; the other was to raise money by selling tickets to certain performances. Is that correct?
TS: That is correct.
DH: To this day, the Children’s Theater is one of the League’s most popular and successful projects. What has been your involvement in it?
TS: I haven’t gone on very long with it. The very early beginnings I was in on it. When did we really form a children’s theater of great importance? In the ‘50s, would you say?
DH: I don’t know. The minutes of the board meetings and the news sheets from the early period, the ‘30s, all talk about the plays, and it seemed that there were at least two plays that were put on every year from the beginning, around 1930, and it seems to have continued without stop.
TS: And growing larger all the time.
DH: I think so.
TS: 24:06 And more productions probably.
DH: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
TS: The reason I asked that question, we were away in the early ‘50s and I really lost touch with it.
DH: In 1936 when you were president, the Junior League established a Children’s Theater Bureau. What was the purpose of that?
TS: We were drawing on talent, as I recall, throughout the city and we wanted people, not necessarily Junior League people, but others to come and volunteer their services to our theater and of course bring it to the eye of the settlements and the various charity organizations in town in Houston.
DH: Was this an attempt to try to foster interest outside of the League and perhaps—
TS: Yes, to enlarge it and to bring children from many walks of life, many locations in town.
DH: Did you hope to perhaps—
TS: I think we hoped to go into the schools and really broaden the whole base of it. Of course in that respect it was completely volunteer. No fee was charged, no ticket price.
DH: Sure. Mrs. Sharp, live drama has been a lifelong interest of yours. How did this come about?
TS: I was just simply stagestruck from the time I can remember, from kindergarten on up and was always dramatic love at school. And then when I returned home after school and after this trip around the world with my parents, I immediately became interested in Houston theater.
DH: That was about 1928 when you became involved with the Little Theater?
DH: 26:23 At one time you were president of the Little Theater. Can you please give me a brief history of that organization to the best of your memory.
TS: The Little Theater was started by a group of interested theater people, and we obtained a director, Frederick Leon Webster, then we went into business. We had a drive for membership, of course. It was very, very small to begin with. We performed down on Anita Street—it must have been in a small school auditorium—and did marvelous things like The Rivals and so forth. And then we moved to Chelsea Boulevard, the Houston Little Theater, and built a theater there. And for, I would say, ten years we were around. And it was simply to foster the theater movement and amateur theatrical, and we had really quite a nice success with it. At the end, as happens in so many things of a volunteer nature, there were rivalries and jealousies perhaps, and we lost the director we had and another group came in. I don’t really know when the complete demise of the Houston Little Theater came along.
DH: Do I understand then that 1928 was about when the Little Theater was started?
DH: Could it be said that the Alley Theatre evolved from the Little Theater?
TS: No, not at all. It had nothing to do with it. The Alley evolved right straight out of Nina Vance’s brain.
DH: Was Nina Vance part of the Little Theater?
DH: She wasn’t.
TS: She wasn’t.
DH: I see. What was your involvement with the Alley Theatre prior to the campaign to build the present building?
TS: 28:40 I had not been very close to the Alley. I had gone to plays, of course. Then I was away with my husband in Washington in—what were those years?—’50 to ’57, something of that sort. When I came back, the Alley was beginning to flourish, and I immediately went to work for the company simply as a volunteer. I never acted in the Alley but was on various fund drives and always a participant as far as seeing plays and doing whatever I could. And when time went along and the Alley was being more and more successful and more and more popular, and due to Nina Vance’s relationship with Neil Lowery, who was one of the vice presidents of the Ford Foundation, we were able to get this tremendous gift and matching grant from the Ford Foundation. And my husband and I headed the money-raising drive here in Houston for a million dollars, which seemed like an awful lot of money in those days.
DH: How did Nina Vance know McNeil Lowery?
TS: She had been for several years on one of the art councils in Washington. It was through that that she knew him.
DH: I see. Was there any formal board of directors or any means for raising money other than ticket sales? I’m talking about the Alley before the million dollar campaign. You just said something about you had worked on some fund drives for it. What kind of fundraising did they do?
TS: It was the same thing, getting subscriptions mainly.
DH: When the campaign to build the new theater was launched, was the board restructured and enlarged?
TS: Not enlarged. No. It really wasn’t restructured. It remained very much the same and has done ever since. The board is larger, but the executive committee too is larger. And actually, the board decisions come through the executive committee with a recommendation to the board. But I don’t think it’s been really restructured. We’ve always had an artistic director and a managing director and that continues. Of course the whole organization has grown so tremendously that our fundraising efforts have had to grow. We’ve gone along to really be— (record malfunction – no audio) 32:08 to 32:22
DH: Mrs. Sharp, when did you first go on to the board of the Alley Theatre?
TS: 32:27 I went in 1967 or perhaps ’66 but just about the time when the thought of a fundraising drive was coming up.
DH: Do you mean ’67 or ’57? I believe the Ford campaign was in ’63, wasn’t it?
TS: Then I must mean ’57. Yes, it was. I think right at the end of our time in Washington when I came back I went on the board of the Alley Theatre.
DH: How did you and Mr. Sharp structure the overall campaign for one million dollars? It was to match the Ford grant, was it not?
TS: Yes. It was most fascinating. It was a summertime drive, for one thing, and we were all frightened to death of that. But we had to go forward with this in order to live up to the details of the grant. Mac and Winnie Wallace were very much involved. John Jones was very much involved. I can remember in talks with Nina Vance and with McNeil Lowery saying that we must go out and we must make this a really citywide drive. Of course we had to go after some really big money but get as many thousands of people involved as we possibly could. And we went to the schoolchildren. Of course they were out of school in the summertime. But we went to the school age children, early teenagers. We went to all the civic clubs we could think of. We had weekly meetings in the old Alley Theatre on Berry Street. Children were literally coming there with all the dimes and nickels they could muster and milk bottles and things of that sort. It was a very enthusiastic, wonderful thing and we got our money. We raised what we were after. We had of course a great deal going on through the papers and meetings and things of that sort, but it was just a spontaneous, I think you might even say it was a small town situation we found ourselves in. And we found ourselves doing very well with it.
DH: Did you come up with a list of names of people that you wanted to solicit and then did you divide your people up into teams and that sort of thing to go out and solicit them?
TS: Of course we did that. Yes, in the usual manner.
DH: One of the gimmicks that I remember is asking teenage children to try to raise $50 per seat or something like that and you could have your name put on the seat?
TS: We did sell the seats, but I think for a great deal more than that, as I recall. I believe those seats were a thousand dollars apiece and then you do have your name on the back of the seat.
DH: 35:45 Did you sell all of the seats that way?
TS: No, we did not. (laughs)
DH: What role did foundations play in the campaign, aside from the Ford Foundation?
TS: The Jones Foundation, as you know, were big givers. What other ones? I don’t remember. I hope you’ll be able to get that on the record.
DH: Do you remember what kind of stipulations were put on the Alley Theatre by the foundations that they had to meet in order to get certain amounts of money and that sort of thing?
TS: No. There were none. I don’t think we had any directions at all except from the Ford Foundation. And the Ford Foundation through McNeil Lowery had such complete confidence in Nina Vance as far as her artistic and business ability was concerned that we really had carte blanche, I would say, as far as it’s possible in a downright business.
DH: Why was it thought that the Ford Foundation would be interested? Was it simply because of the faith in Nina Vance?
TS: Well, their faith in Nina Vance and their faith also in McNeil Lowery, their vice president, who was in touch with the arts and theater in particular, and all Houston as a booming town and a place really ready for a first-rate theater.
DH: The Alley was considered to be a large enough operation so that it would warrant this.
TS: Yes, indeed it was in the resident theater world.
DH: Wasn’t it the first? Wasn’t the Alley Theatre one of the first or maybe the—
TS: It was very early. Margo Jones had her theater in Dallas I believe a little before Nina Vance had hers here. But they were very much at the same time.
DH: 38:03 What role did corporations play in this campaign that we’re talking about?
TS: Quite a sizeable amount came from them. You said corporate?
TS: Corporations, yes. I can’t name you any of them, but of course that’s a matter of record, I’m sure.
DH: I just think that the trend toward corporate giving was not very great at that time, and I was wondering—
TS: No. It has grown immensely since then.
DH: Were you involved in approaching the Ford Foundation for the second grant that they made in more recent years?
TS: I was on the board when that came to pass. And there again our great friend Mac Lowery took the great burden on his shoulders to promote the Alley again.
DH: Can you explain the purpose of this second grant.
TS: We needed it for an operating fund. We were not making money. The Alley has really never been a moneymaking proposition. We kept ticket prices as low as we were able up until very recently, and even now we don’t compare with many of the resident theaters in other parts of the country. It’s a big operation, and you just don’t make all the money from your ticket sales. Of course we are supporting a children’s theater, which is the really main reason for the Alley’s ability to be a tax-free organization. Merry-Go-Round is the name of the children’s theater, and it’s very, very splendid.
DH: The children’s theater you say is one of the main reasons that they are able to be tax-free?
TS: Uh-hunh (affirmative). You see, we have a theater school for children and then they put on these plays.
DH: I see. This grant that I was asking you about, I was under the impression that it was a specific type of grant aimed at trying to build a repertory theater. We had been told by someone else that in more recent years actors have found that they could make more money if they did not stay at one theater but rather took on a play in one theater for a certain period of time and then would to go to another theater somewhere else to be in another play for another period of time rather than staying in a repertory company. And we understood that the criteria for this grant was that an actor had to come and stay for a certain period of time. Is that correct?
TS: 41:20 Not completely. We have a permanent—I can’t call it permanent but a yearly apprentice program where the actors stay through a whole season and then they will be re-contracted to stay or not, as the case may be. We have visiting actors. We of course cannot get really big names if we don’t have visiting actors. We want terrifically to build up such a company that we wouldn’t be dependent on a visiting actor to make a show go. And as you know, we have some top-notch people there. There’s something about the Alley that attracts people with talent and real dedication to the theater so that if they’re not making the top salary they still hang around. It’s very interesting. I’ve never known a more dedicated group, I don’t think.
DH: So this grant was really used but it was used to pay the salaries of the actors.
TS: I think so, Dorothy.
DH: Mrs. Iris Siff, the Alley Theatre’s late managing director, told me that you and Mr. Sharp virtually made the Alley Theatre possible. What was your specific involvement between the period of the building campaign that we’ve just been talking about and the time when you were elected president?
TS: Of course I’ve been on the board all along simply as a board member. I would think that our involvement and the reason Iris could make such a statement is that we simply have been dedicated to the Alley and very strong advocates of it and worked wherever we could.
DH: Following the death of Nina Vance in 1980, you were chairman of the search committee which chose Pat Brown to be the new artistic director. How did your committee set the criteria for this position?
TS: 43:34 We had three fine advisors, McNeil Lowery, Alan Schneider and Peter Culman, all who have been involved in the resident theater world, and they all met with us several times. Then we were open to letters from candidates. And we researched them as thoroughly as we could before inviting them to come to us for an interview. There were five of us on the search committee. I must say we researched it and talked with these people and tried to find out their philosophy and of course their expertise and found no one who we thought was any finer than Pat Brown.
DH: Did you have a specific list of criteria that you were looking for?
TS: We wanted someone who had a great knowledge of theater, both classical plays and modern plays, a broad scope of foreign plays. We wanted someone who would have the courage to try new plays and to very definitely work with new playwrights. Quite naturally, we wanted someone with great experience and background and a person who could orient, shall we say, to Houston’s environment and expertise and really great theater background. The ability to work with people comes along with any director, I think. And we think we found the right person.
DH: Good. What changes did you seek to make in the type of leadership exerted, and what leadership characteristics did you seek to retain?
TS: Nina Vance, as you know, had been a perfectly extraordinary director and leader of our theatrical community. She had been ill the last few years of her life and more and more during that time the management and the running of the theater backstage as well as in the managerial section was taken over by Iris Siff. I’ve lost my train of thought.
DH: We were talking about the type—
TS: Of person we wanted.
DH: Yes and whether you sought to make any changes in the type of leadership that was being exerted and what leadership characteristics you wanted to retain in Pat Brown, in other words.
TS: Yes. I should say we wanted a person who would run the artistic end of the theater as Nina had in her heyday and who was sympathetic with the Houston community, as I’ve said, and Pat Brown of course started her career in Houston and has since had her own theater in California and has been very influential in the resident theater world in the country. She was the first president of LORT, which is the League of Resident Theatres, and very, very active in all the intervening years. And she was without a question of a doubt our first choice, so we were very fortunate.
DH: 47:55 What do you believe is the proper relationship between a board of directors, the business management and the artistic staff of an arts organization?
TS: I can only speak, I think, for the theater. It’s a very definite requirement, not of the board but of the artistic director because the way the thing is set up is the artistic director has complete sway over the backstage and the stage operation. She or he is the person who selects the plays, naturally, with a committee, who selects her actors. Scheduling is done through the managing director and the artistic director. The board criticizes if an artistic director should fall short or put on plays that were distasteful to the majority of the membership. Then the board would see that things were changed or there was a change made. It’s a very interesting thing. With Nina Vance there for so many years, the complete founder and complete operator for many years of the business end as well as the artistic end, we had a situation that I don’t think exists everywhere. But that one fact that the artistic director is the person who controls the artistic endeavor is very definite.
DH: But Ms. Vance went beyond that, didn’t she? I was wondering about her relationship also with the board since she started the whole thing.
TS: Nina simply would make a report to the board twice a year. I don’t believe anyone ever criticized her. I really don’t. And that’s what you mean.
DH: I’m just wondering where the authority stops.
TS: Her authority is the last word. It comes from her unless, as I say, for any reason in the present situation or in the ongoing situation if we should find we weren’t producing plays that we thought were popular or tasteful or proper, literary enough, that the whole thing wasn’t correct, then the board would have to find out why. And, if necessary, we’d have to make a change. We’ve been in an awfully unusual situation for many years.
DH: Yes. Mrs. Sharp, several weeks ago, our city was shocked by the tragic murder of the Alley’s managing director, Iris Siff, in her office at the theater. Could you comment on the role of the president at this point in such a crisis in an organization.
TS: 51:24 The first thing I had to do was to name a managing director because the theater could not go on without it. I named Pat Brown. Pat Brown has worked as her own managing director and artistic director in this theater she had in California. It was the logical thing to do. There was no one in the theater who we felt could take over Iris’s job except Pat. Of course Iris Siff, since Nina’s death and even before—during her last illness—had been the whole show. She had appointed immediately after Nina’s death a committee of four to work out the next season as far as the selection of plays and the whole running of the theater backstage and in the managerial end. She was a perfectly remarkable, strong woman. But my role, I would say, was to name Pat Brown and then, wherever I could, be of assistance to the artistic director, now also managing director, and the whole staff. The staff are wonderfully well trained, and I never saw a more dedicated group in my entire life. They’re really quite incredible. And even with the shock we were all suffering, they managed to pull themselves together and go forward with the tribute and the opening of this very important play which we are just into and with the very important arrival of the English company from Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England.
DH: Did you sense any need on the part of the staff and so forth at the Alley for leadership? Did they feel—
TS: Oh, indeed. Yes.
DH: Did you feel that you were needed a great deal at this time?
TS: Yes, I did. I practically lived down there. They were most—I don’t want to use the word appreciative—but they were cooperative, as I was with them. Everyone simply put their shoulders to the grindstone and went ahead. And now, almost two months later—it’s hard to believe; it was the 13th day of January—they are all settling down most marvelously.
DH: What plans are currently under way for the expansion of the Alley Theatre?
TS: Of course you know that the Hines Interests Building, the garage on the present Alley parking lot and the old building that was there on the back corner, we are not in a position to make any further announcement right now.
DH: Okay. We were wondering if you expected competition with the Lyric Theatre for capital development to be a problem if you go ahead with a capital fund drive.
TS: 55:16 It’s awfully hard to say, as you can imagine. I think we are all trying very hard not to let our enthusiasm overcome that very situation that might arise there. And we know the Lyric is having a hard time raising their full amount. The competition would not be so grave at any other time as now. I think that there’s just a horrific wave of interest and sympathy and empathy for the Alley. Whether we go ahead with it or not remains to be seen.
DH: So you think that that might be in your favor.
TS: Yes, I do. Uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: I see. Mrs. Sharp, among your many other volunteer activities, you were chairman of the women’s committee of the Houston and Harris County War Bond Drive. How did this come about?
TS: It came about during the war. (laughs) When I was here by myself—well, not by myself because my children were here, but my husband was at sea most of the war years—we all needed very much to have some very active thing to do. I remember it was Virgil Scott who asked me if I would take this on. I did and it was a wonderful way to just get actively involved in some very helpful drive for the war effort.
DH: What did your job entail?
TS: It entailed sitting in an office all day long. (laughs) I was very fortunate in finding a young woman who was down here with her husband at Ellington Field who was willing to come on as my secretary, as a volunteer, though. She was just great. We went all around the county, we talked to people here and there, we had meetings and we sold bonds. It was interesting.
DH: Why did your husband move to Washington, DC?
TS: He went up there to be Assistant Secretary of the Air Force after the war. He had gone on an assignment at Wright-Patterson Field in the Materiel Department of the Air Force, and he was simply an advisor. He would go up every week for that. And through that connection with the generals who were in and out of that particular organization, they recommended him as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. He went up as Assistant Secretary and then he became Under Secretary and eventually Secretary.
DH: 58:31 You were active in the YWCA both in Houston and in Washington.
TS: That’s correct.
DH: How did you become involved in that organization?
TS: Here? In Houston I rather imagine it was because my mother had been active on the YWCA board. And always, always it seemed to me it was money-raising that would come into it. But I was interested in the YWCA and I am, and there were always drives for one thing or another that the board members were called upon to help with. And there I was.
DH: In Washington you were also active?
TS: Yes. When I went up to Washington, I think Thelma Mills, who was the head of YWCA here at the time, told friends up there that they might be interested in taking me on the board. And I was very happy to do that because so much of my voluntarism all through the Air Force days was with the Air Force officers’ wives and the Air Force noncoms’ wives, which was terrifically interesting, but it was good to have a little something else.
DH: In 1948, you were chairman of the women’s division of the Houston Symphony Society’s fund drive. This was before you went to Washington.
TS: Yes, uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: How did this come about?
TS: Well, it came about directly from Ms. Ima. She wanted me to do it. And it was very hard, as you know, to resist Ms. Ima. And of course symphony had always been such a part of growing up with the symphony. We were very interested in it.
DH: How did you go about organizing the campaign?
TS: 1:00:26 Oh, teams and the usual things.
DH: The same as with the Alley and so forth?
TS: Yeah, uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: Was this a difficult period in which to raise money right after the war?
TS: No. I don’t think we had a hard time with it. I think Houston is most amazing and maybe it was even better when it was smaller. People will support the worthwhile things in this city, and I think it’s simply great.
DH: When you are responsible for nominating persons to serve on a board of trustees, what criteria do you set? In other words, I’m thinking about the same sort of list that I was asking about earlier.
TS: Yes. First, I think of their absolute interest and enthusiasm for the organization that they are coming into. Certainly I highly respect their position in the community, and I don’t mean only financial; I mean really in an influencing way. And I want them to work. I don’t like dead wood on boards.
DH: Mrs. Sharp, some boards have made board membership contingent on a person’s ability to give or to raise a specified minimum amount of money. How do you feel about this type of policy?
TS: I don’t think you should demand a certain amount. I think that one should expect a board member to contribute something financially. I think there are exceptions to that too. I think there are some people you know full well when you take them on a board that they are financially unable to give to the organization but whose endeavor and work would be such a compensation that you’d never consider it. But just recently, I have had to write a letter to board members who have not contributed to the present campaign, which is a yearly thing and which we call the As You Like It campaign this year. And I didn’t really appreciate doing it, but I felt I must. We do feel that some little stipend should come from the majority of the board members.
DH: Can a policy of this sort cause an organization to lose the interest of persons who might otherwise make valuable, nonmonetary contributions?
TS: 1:03:25 Well now, I think I’ve almost answered that, don’t you—
DH: Yes, I guess so.
TS: —in saying that if one feels, the president feels or whoever, that the contribution of their interest and themselves is enough. But on the other hand there, I say I have to sign this letter that’s going out. It’s not a strong demand, but it’s just saying, “We have not heard from you yet.”
DH: This seems to be a growing trend in Houston among large boards of trustees of arts organizations, and that’s the reason why I asked.
DH: If you were solely responsible for forming a board of trustees for a major arts organization, how would you structure it? In other words, would you limit the number of members? How long would each term last? Would the members have to rotate off, or could they succeed themselves? What would be the conditions of board membership?
TS: Shall I start with the last?
DH: All right.
TS: The condition of board membership would be certainly a vital interest in the organization they are to serve with, prior knowledge of the organization, at least an acquaintanceship with it. Certainly I don’t think anyone should go on something like the Alley board who is not a subscriber to the Alley. The same thing would apply to the symphony or almost any of them, the museum, almost anything I can think of. The first thing I would want to know would be their complete interest. I would want to be sure of that and whether they would participate. I don’t think it does a bit of good to go on a board and sit back and do nothing. And I mean by participating to be on a committee, to be a member of the guild of the Alley or to actively participate in the activities of the theater. Certainly it is important that they can aid you financially, and I think in many cases they should be important people in their particular section of society.
DH: Would you limit the number of members of the board? How large a board would you suggest?
TS: 1:06:13 I think that depends largely on the size of the organization, of course. But certainly I would say no more than 50 people on the board of directors and then to have a smaller committee as part of the executive committee or what you will who are more responsible for the actual negotiations and workings of the theater and supervision of the theater to that smaller group to report biannually or four times a year to the big board.
DH: But that group would be taken from the 50?
TS: Yes, uh-hunh (affirmative).
DH: Would the members have to rotate off, or could they succeed themselves? How would you do that?
TS: I think you can succeed yourself for a certain number of years but not forever. I think the thing the Alley does that is good, we can keep a person on the board longer than the three years which is designated by putting them on the executive committee. So there is an example. And it works very well, and we can keep really valuable and vitally interested people on longer.
DH: In conclusion, we would like to ask how your experience as a Junior League volunteer has carried over into the rest of your life, especially in the areas that we have been talking about today. You have been president of a number of organizations, and you have served on the boards of a number of other organizations and have participated very widely in volunteer activities. But your Junior League involvement came at sort of the beginning of your volunteer career, didn’t it?
TS: Uh-hunh (affirmative), yes, definitely.
DH: How has that affected your—
TS: I think it’s given me a great deal more respect for voluntarism and a feeling that it’s just something that we should all take part in. And of course that comes from background as well as the Junior League, but I think the Junior League has been a great influence on me in that respect.
DH: Did you learn leadership techniques and that sort of thing from being president of the Junior League which carried over?
TS: 1:08:51 Yes, I’m sure I did. It seems I’ve always done things of that sort, even in boarding school with head of student council and things of that sort. It just sort of evolved as I came along. And I think in my generation’s beginnings, it was so early in the— (recorder turns off) 1:09:22
I believe that voluntarism in my growing up days, we felt it was a social obligation. And out of the more organized voluntarism that came with the Junior League and many of the other organizations, we had training that we hadn’t had and that our mothers had not had. And I hope and believe that it’s made much more effective volunteer people of us.
DH: The purpose of the Junior League is to train volunteers to go out into the community.
DH: That’s an interesting thought that it was the first time that volunteers were trained.
TS: Really and truly I think it was. I think we all gained a great deal from it.
DH: You were going to tell me something about your experience in Washington.
TS: Yes. During the time my husband was in Washington, of course I was there with him. It was during the Eisenhower administration and during a time when wives were allowed to accompany their husbands on these marvelous, marvelous trips around the world in 13 days, that type of thing, and visiting 13 countries. And it was before jet travel also. We really were a hardworking group. It was usually three or four of his aides and sometimes one of the deputies and his wife. And I almost always went along. And it was my duty and my great pleasure to talk with Air Force officers’ wives’ clubs, noncoms’ clubs in many out-of-the-way places on Guam, for instance, and of course in Japan and, well, all around the world.
DH: So you gave talks to them?
TS: I met with them and talked informally with them, and they always had a pet charitable organization that they were working with. Sometimes it was the YWCA. I remember very well in Taiwan we had wonderful meetings with the YWCA people. And, as I say, that to me was one of the greatest experiences of my life, really. It was a wonderful, wonderful thing.
DH: You must have learned a lot about how other societies functioned. Is voluntarism something that was peculiar to the Americans in these other countries?
TS: No, indeed. With the YWCA, for instance, the Air Force high commanders’ wives were head of the YWCA in Taipei. And of course Thelma Mills, who had been here, had had experience there. Now, that may have been why, but she had gotten those women very, very interested and involved. Oh, and another interesting thing that happened when were in Berlin on one occasion, I took, with the head of the CARE organization, the first care packages into Eastern Germany. That was pretty exciting. So I think that’s it.
DH: Thank you so much. This was a wonderful interview.
[end of OHJL12_01_D1] 1:13:13