Ninety years of Arts: Origins and Impact of the Leverett House Arts Society
Brian Farrell, Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America
A vibrant music, theater and visual arts tradition at Leverett House stretches back nine decades to that very first fall of the Harvard Houses, in 1931. Leverett House began that inaugural year by bringing famous authors to speak and dine with students. In the months that followed a Glee Club was assembled, along with a Leverett House Orchestra. Soon the House was also putting on swing dances, musicals and plays in the Dining Hall. Midcentury saw the rise of the Leverett Opera Society which produced opera and musicals in the Library Theater and Dining Hall, and eventually gave rise to the Leverett House Arts Society and the annual Leverett House Arts Festival. The arts festival featured student art exhibitions, poetry readings, folk music, jazz and classical recitals, film festivals as well as theater theater, and for the first three years was partly housed under a geodesic dome designed by House guest R. Buckminster Fuller. Other Houses followed suit. The final decades of the 20th century and beginning of the next occasioned the spread of these activities out of the Houses and into the College as ArtsFirst was born in 1992. With the onset of the 21st century, the Leverett House Arts Society recognized the crucial role the arts can play in promoting social justice through enabling voices in theater, music and dance from across society and cultures. The Arts Society championed poetry from a broad array of cultural sources and mounted installations of verse on the banks of the Charles.
Today we have a new opportunity to place arts again in the forefront of the House with a deliberate intent to bring an even greater diversity of art and artists, representative of who we are as a diverse community. These pages in the Leverett House website will serve as a place to find information on our arts programs, a synopsis of what has been accomplished in the past, and House plans for the next years.
Born in 1926 as one of three freshman dorms on the banks of the Charles, McKinlock Hall would in five years become the heart of Leverett House, one of the original seven Harvard Houses bringing sophomores, juniors and seniors to live together with tutors and a faculty head then known as a Master. The tradition of a vibrant music, theater and visual arts presence at Leverett House stretches back to that very first fall, of 1931, and would span the next nine decades. The Leverett House of 1931 began with invitations to famous authors, H. G. Wells, W. B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot to share meals and conversations with students in the Junior Common Room. Soon, a Leverett Glee Club arose and traveled to Wellesley to sing with the Wellesley Choir. The Leverett Orchestra also appeared and learned the swing hits of the day, while Boston area orchestras were hired for dances each semester. Famous authors such as Robert Frost were invited as Visiting Artists and the House provided room and board and opportunities for readings and conversations in the Junior Common Room. Frost himself visited Leverett House three times over the next decade.
As the House culture developed quickly and the 1930s’ and 1940’s saw a series of Swing Dances in the Leverett Dining Hall, connected either to the Spring Formal or those particularly eminent fall football games such as Dartmouth, Army or Brown. Some were broadcast live by NBC. A particularly notable dance in March 1938 featured the Art Shaw Orchestra, with Billie Holiday in front. A Leverett Radio Station, WLHR, broadcast popular music from a 5000-record strong collection, a collection of ancient 78s that is still in the House. More details of the music history are in a companion essay.
The Leverett Glee Club would continue on into the late 1950’s, but it was eventually supplanted by the Leverett Music Society, the Leverett Dramatic Society and the Leverett Opera Society which flowered and flourished under Master Richard Gill. The Dramatic Society, first known as a Most Unusual Company of Comedians, staged Farquar’s The Recruiting Officer in December 1950, as a sort of Yuletide celebration. While the Leverett Music Society featured classical recitals in 1954 in the Junior Common Room, the ambitious Leverett House Dramatic Society put on double bills in consecutive years. First the odd couple of Chekhov’s The Anniversary and Sartre’s No Exit in 1956, and then Miss Julie and the Questioning of Nick in the Library Theater in the 25th anniversary year of 1957, in conjunction with the founding of the Leverett House Festival of the Arts (though it would not be so named until years later). According to the Crimson (Dec 6. 1957): “The fact remains that The Questioning of Nick is excellent, and that the evening as a whole emerges as far and away the best theater Leverett House has produced yet.” Miss Julie was reprised in the Library Theater in 1992, with two ladders, a table and the theater steps as the only props.
In 1958, The Leverett Dramatic Society put on Gogol’s little-known, one-actor plays, The Marriage and Gamblers, in D-Entry of all places, to much apparent acclaim. D-Entry served again as the site of two more plays drawn from Gogol’s oevre, The Nose and From a Madman’s Diary, in 1988 and so became nearly forever known as the Gogol Space. A 25th year anniversary celebration, the first Leverett House Festival of the Arts was held in March of 1957, featuring the Harvard Brass and Leverett Glee Club, and the Cambridge Festival Orchestra playing original pieces by Leverett composers, as well as two theater productions. By this 25th anniversary year of the House, art had become an indelible part of the Leverett fabric.
In 1959, famed architect Felix Candela of Mexico spent two months at Leverett House while giving the Norton Lectures shared with the legendary R. Buckminster Fuller. A few years later, in 1962, the Leverett arts identity literally became part of Leverett House as the newly built award-winning, modernist Leverett Library, designed by renowned architect Jean Carlhian, was inaugurated with a floor to ceiling cement abstractionist mural by sculptor and VES co-founder Mirko Balsadella on the outdoor patio wall.
Through the 1960s, Leverett House Arts Society spring productions were embedded in the ever-larger annual extravaganza, the Leverett House Arts Festival, begun under John Conway, and which included recitations, a film series, jazz and classical music, singing, poetry, student art competitions and much more. From 1960-1962, the art show was housed under a giant geodesic structure, a “space frame pavilion” following the design of Buckminster Fuller. The structure was touted as the most ambitious project ever attempted by Harvard students, its construction supported by the College and a Ford Foundation grant. When erected for the May 1960 Arts Festival by some 25 Leverett residents, the pavilion covered 1500 square feet of the McKinlock Courtyard. Buckminster Fuller himself spoke in the Dining Hall on May 11 of that year to open the arts festival. The space frame pavilion, a geodesic dome 30 feet high, was next erected in the Tower courtyards in 1961-62 to house the art and sculpture shows until finally being dismantled when May winds threatened to carry it away. Fortunately, an aluminum model belonging to R. Buckminster Fuller was being stored in the Leverett basement and could be called into service. Throughout the 1960’s, Leverett House was known to have the largest, most inclusive Arts Festival at Harvard, with prizes in the art competition awarded to students from across the Houses. Several other nearby Houses soon began their own arts festivals-- Dunster, Adams, Quincy, and even the Yard joined in 1966. Some of the festival concerts were taped by WHRB for later broadcast and are still in the WHRB archives. However, an original and prominent element of the Leverett Arts Festival was always theater.
The productions of the Leverett Opera Society flourished under Richard Gill, House Master from 1963 to 1971, and were assisted by Music Tutor Archie Epps. Most productions were staged in the Dining Hall. A shift from classical to contemporary came when Gill left Harvard to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In 1972, the Leverett House Opera Society joined forces with the Harvard Advocate to launch the first all-Harvard Arts Festival, filling the first two weeks of May with events in nearly every House, spilling out onto Harvard Square as well.
Some twenty years later, in 1992, John Lithgow ’67, who was very involved with directing several Leverett Opera Society productions (listed below), was inspired as a new Harvard Overseer to found ArtsFirst. This renaissance of the all-Harvard Arts Festival that John Lithgow continues to host is nearing its thirtieth year. Here below are some of the earlier Leverett House productions leading up to the first all-Harvard Arts Festival and successors.
Leverett Opera Society productions:
1964. Cosi Fan Tutti
1965. Le Renard and The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore, John Lithgow director.
1966. Bach and the Beatles
1967. The Marriage of Figaro, John Lithgow director.
1968. The Fantasticks
1969-70. Richard Gill away on sabbatical
1970. Play of Daniel
1971. The Marriage of Figaro
1972. Don Giovanni
The Leverett Opera Society ceased in name sometime after the departure of Richard Gill, but interest in participating in House-based theater remained strong and was soon absorbed into an inclusive new Leverett House Arts Society, founded in spring 1971.
Leverett House Arts Society productions:
1971. The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd
1972. Threepenny Opera
1973. A Thousand Clowns, Guys and Dolls
1975. The Apple Tree
1976. Doctor Faustus
1977. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, A Thousand Clowns
1978. Guys and Dolls
As noted in the The Crimson (Nov. 08.1971): “Leverett House--The Leverett House Arts Society was created last spring. Its inaugural production. The Roar of the Greasepaint--The Smell of the Crowd, has just closed after playing to consistently sold out houses. Leverett House is the only one at Harvard which has its own stage: it was constructed in the Old Library as a project of the Leverett House Spring Arts Festival of 1971.”
“There is enough support from the House as a whole to have little trouble in staging plays, and the newly revamped facilities should encourage the already vigorous state of the performing arts at Leverett House. Another musical is projected for the spring.” That projected spring musical was moved to the fall of 1972 in a seven-day run of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera.
In 1973, the first time the Leverett Arts Society put on Guys and Dolls in the Library Theater, it was for an eight-day run. The Society reprised the successful production in 1978, staging it in the Dining Hall this time, and then in 1983 put the classic show on once again in the Library Theater. The stage designer for the 1978 production, Derek McClane ’80, said the challenges and experience sparked his idea for a career in theater. McClane went on to become an award-winning (3 Tonys and two OBIEs) set designer on and off Broadway. In 2010, Derek McClane returned to share his experiences with students in two workshops in the Arts@29Garden program.
The Harvard Theater database has records of the plays and casts from five more plays from 2001-2003 that were held in the Library Theater.
Leverett House occasionally paired with the new Office For the Arts (OFA) in hosting some of the first Learning from Performers events where musicians would come to the Library Theater for workshops with students, followed by a concert at Sanders Theater. In 1975 Leverett House provided room and board for a Visiting Artist, the famed jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Within the year, The Harvard Jazz Program was born and the Jazz Spectrum programming began on WHRB, now in it’s 46th year.
In 1976, for the 200th anniversary of independence of the USA, Leverett House Senior Common Room member Herb Fuller filmed an outdoor concert with Paul Winter and featuring the avant-garde patriotic music of Charles Ives. The 16mm film Stretching Soft Ears was produced with support of the Connecticut Film Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. A digital version is now available at Leverett House.
In the late 1970s, the Leverett Arts Society published an Arts newsletter, with poetry and sketches. In 1976, Leverett House staged Once Upon a Mattress in the Library Theater with an all-male chorus. In 1980, Leverett House hosted the stellar Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, starring an all-Black cast.
In the early 1990s, student interest in drawing was supported by a NRT and the results displayed in and around the Dining Hall, but not without problems. In 1991, a charcoal drawing done by a GSD student and loaned for display outside the Dining Hall, was apparently stolen. Student drawings mounted in the dining hall the year before had apparently been discarded after they fell to the floor. In 1992 there was another exhibit of six charcoal drawings of nudes in the Dining Hall which provoked protest from 25 students, as reported by the Crimson (March 6. 1992).
Inspired by the example from the Leverett Arts Festival and those of other Houses, in 1992 the new Harvard Overseer John Lithgow (the first Overseer from the arts since Robert Frost) founded ArtsFirst:, an Office For the Arts-produced celebration timed for the end of classes and the beginning of reading period. In 1998, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College founded the annual Black Arts Festival, a celebration of Black creativity featuring speakers, music and performance that has frequently used the Library Theater for practice and performances.
Art interest continued at Leverett and in 2003, the bronze and granite monumental sculpture Sungate by Murray Dewart was installed in the center of the McKinlock courtyard. The idea for the sculpture installation was originated by Yonatan Grad, a Leverett Arts Society member and pre-med tutor.
On April 6, 2003, with permission from the City of Cambridge, the Leverett Arts Society held a celebration of Poetry on the Charles. More than 50 poems were submitted by House residents, from sonnets to haikus, by poets such as Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Sappho and Rumi, “…the diversity of poems reflects the “diversity of the community.” The Society repeated the event in spring 2004, with a proliferation of poems mounted on posts along the bank of the Charles in front of their great House. The year 2004 also saw an exhibition of student photographs in the Dining Hall, and the Leverett Arts Society slowed in activities as key members moved on.
By April 2005, despite a production of What the Butler Saw that ran for week in the Library Theater, ostensibly by the Leverett House Drama Society (and directed by a Winthrop Non-Resident Tutor), there were almost no Harvard students involved (NEC students were recruited instead) and the Crimson lamented that there is no longer an Arts Society at Leverett. The Library Theater continued use by student groups across campus, and the one Leverett-originated cultural event in 2005 year was a spring coffeehouse featuring the individual talents of the Leverett community. A smattering of Leverett-originated arts events appeared in the years that followed. The interests of students across the Houses have evolved with the times and the proliferation of media for connecting to each other.
Those students interested in cultural expressions of theater and music participate in cross-House organizations such as the American Repertory Theater, founded in 1980; The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, Harvard Pops, Harvard Jazz Bands, Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Radcliffe Choral Society, Harvard Glee Club; Harvard College Opera; Mariachi Veritas, Kuumba Singers, The Bach Society, the Harvard South Asian Dance Company, and much, much more. The culinary arts also have room at Leverett, as the Dining Hall hosted in 2008, a 15-course meal, lion dance and martial art demonstrations in celebration of Chinese New Year, organized by the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association. In 2010, the Dining Hall was filled with dance by the South Asian Dance Association, and in 2011 the Towers courtyard swelled with a battle of the bands. These are only a few examples of the myriad cultural offerings hosted, if not originated, by Leverett House.
In 2018-2019, the Leverett tradition of hosting Visiting Artists and OFA collaboration on Learning from Performers was renewed with workshops in the Library Theater featuring Berklee saxophonist Bill Pierce and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez. Leverett also began new partnerships with ALARI (Afro-Latin American Research Institute) and the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, through hosting the Afro-Cuban fusion group Sintesis, of exhibits of original artwork by Black artists and by facilitating many other events. The Library Theater also hosts week-long residences of student dance, music and theater groups from across the College.
The Leverett House partnership with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) allowed installation of a long term exhibit of Latin American Art, and hosting of a variety of events. In 2019, Leverett hosted Brazilian Visiting Artist Oscar Araripe for workshops, an exhibit and conversations with students. In 2019, Leverett House initiated with the OFA the ongoing Jazz Combo Initiative coached by Leverett alumnus Don Braden ’85, by providing space and equipment, and hosting their recitals held in the Library Theater. The year 2019 also saw the inauguration of the Archie Epps Series of Lectures and Conversations held in the Library Theater and Junior Common Room, with Orlando Patterson and Cornel West. That spring also featured a Black filmmakers screening in the Library Theater, provided by Kuumba’s Black Arts Festival.
The venerable Leverett House Library Theater is now more fully-booked with performance than ever, with student productions from organizations across the College. The new concentration of Theater, Dance and Media, while the OFA and Departments in the Humanities continue to collaborate on initiatives to bring people together. There is less of a student need now for Houses to originate and contain their own theater and music productions, even as they maintain the possibilities for doing so.
Our mission today
A half-century after the founding of the Leverett House Arts Society in 1971, Leverett House is again poised to proclaim the primacy of arts in our hearts. Today at Leverett House, we build on the history and foundation of theater and art that began in classical McKinlock Hall. The House was transformed in the modern era of co-educational living in mid-century, accommodated by the modernist Towers and Library, and has now entered the future of Leverett House as a multigenerational space for students, tutors and staff, of different backgrounds and roles, and of all colors, countries and creeds. The classical and modern buildings are only the backdrop for the warmth of our human rainbow. What is needed now is to add the corresponding textures and touch of visual art and creative activity on the walls and in our everyday spaces.
As Leverett House enters this 90th anniversary year, and the 50th anniversary of the Leverett House Arts Society, there comes a chance to again show leadership in the arts, in celebrating the diversity of the members of this House. A new Leverett Visual Arts Committee is newly formed of students, tutors and staff, and tackles the challenge of increasing the diversity and representativeness of visual art in the House through student art, loaned art, art acquisition and visiting artists. This visual arts initiative therefore represents a third stage in the evolution of the arts at Leverett House.
From classical beginnings to a vibrant contemporary mode begun at midcentury, Leverett House today seeks as broad a representation of art and artists as possible, mirroring who we have become, with contributions that will provide an inclusive atmosphere for revival of a new Leverett House Arts Society that visibly welcomes the entire community that comprises our House.
Sketches of McKinlock Hall and G Tower by Carol Ostrow ’78.