James, Burton W. (1888-1951) and Florence Bean James (1892-1988)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 2/19/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 598

Burton W. James and Florence Bean James, founders of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, played a central role in the city’s theatrical life for nearly 30 years. They arrived in 1923, coaxed west from New York to teach drama and produce plays at the Cornish School. They established the Repertory Playhouse (not to be confused with the Seattle Repertory Theatre) five years later. Their reputation was tarnished and their theater forced out of business after they became targets of the Washington State Legislative Committee on Un-American Activities, headed by Rep. Albert Canwell, in 1948.

Progressive Ideals

Florence Bean, daughter of the co-founder and first mayor of Pocatello, Idaho, met her future husband in New York City in 1911. They were married in 1917, a few weeks after the United States entered World War I. They shared progressive ideals and a mutual interest in theater. These impulses led them to the Lenox Hill Settlement House in Manhattan, where they staged and directed plays for immigrants. They were working there when Nellie Cornish (1876-1956), founder of the Cornish School, hired them to head her school’s drama department.

The Jameses encountered their first significant brush with local disapproval in January 1928, when the Cornish Board of Trustees ordered them to shut down a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, then in rehearsal. Although it turned out that none of the board members had actually read the play, they had heard it contained a scene set in a brothel. Among those who defended the couple was Glenn Hughes (1894-1964), soon to become head of the drama department at the University of Washington -- initially a friend, later a rival. “Nothing they have done has been unworthy of intelligent support,” Hughes wrote, adding that the Jameses “have recently shown signs of giving Seattle the only decent repertory theatre in its history” (quoted in Bennett, 30). The board, unmoved, banned the production on grounds of immorality.

When their contract expired that spring, the Jameses resigned from Cornish and set about creating their own theater. They were joined by Albert Ottenheimer, a recent graduate of the University of Washington who was to assume many duties at the Repertory Playhouse, including press agent, playwright, director, and actor. After two seasons in various rented venues, the Repertory moved into a brick storehouse at 41st Avenue NE and University Way. Arthur Loveless, a leading Seattle architect, transformed the building into a 324-seat theater with a raised, proscenium-style stage. The Jameses’ Cornish colleague Mark Tobey designed the acting mask mosaic that greeted theatergoers in the entryway.

The timing -- coming on the heels of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 -- was not auspicious. “Doleful but well-intentioned friends predicted that here was ‘a child they’d never raise,’ “ Florence James recalled later. “Seattle was too new, too unappreciative. And when the world and the Theatre plunged, the following year, into the direst economic straits ever known, it seems that the sad prophecy might be fulfilled” (James pamphlet).

A Seattle Times drama critic once described the Jameses as having little more than youth, optimism, and determination when they launched their theater. They also had a strong partnership: “she a consummate director and inspirational figure, he a brilliant actor, stage craftsman and idea man” (The Seattle Times, 1977). The Playhouse opened on February 2, 1930, with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. The first season also included Henrik Ibsen’s poetic fantasy, Peer Gynt, presented in concert with the Norwegian National Theater. In 1931, a production of Goethe’s Faust attracted more than 10,000 people to the Playhouse and reached a larger audience on tours to Tacoma and Vancouver. Another hit was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, starring both African American and white actors in appropriate roles. Building on that success, the Jameses produced Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prize winning play In Abraham’s Bosom in 1933. It featured local African American actors and received rave reviews.

The Jameses sought to turn the Playhouse into a genuine community theater, involving various ethnic groups, intellectuals, artists, workers, and young people. They presented a wide range of material, from the de rigueur drawing room comedies that were popular at the time to internationally acclaimed dramas and classic plays to new works that gave exposure to local playwrights (including Glenn Hughes). They also took steps to widen the audience for live theater. Among other innovations, they staged the first summer drama festival on the West Coast; established the Washington State Theatre Project to bring classic plays to high school students; began a resident theater school; and founded a repertory company for black actors.

The Washington State Theatre, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation in cooperation with the State Department of Education, was the first state theater project in the country. For three years (1936-1939), its touring drama troupe played to standing-room-only audiences in high schools, performing before more than 70,000 students in the first season alone. In rural areas, school districts transported busloads of young people from miles around. The company’s truck carried costumes and stage sets from place to place, with actors following in a caravan of cars. After each performance, the actors -- still in their costumes -- answered questions from the audience.

The tours were “arduous,” recalled actor Howard Duff, who later won fame for his work in movies and television. “We traveled in all kinds of weather .... Most of the audience had never seen a live stage production before and some felt moved to shoot paper clips, spitballs and other missiles at the actors to see if we were indeed real” (The Seattle Times, 1977).

The Jameses organized the Negro Repertory Company as an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project in 1936. During the two years of its existence, the Company recruited, trained, and employed more than 50 black actors in Seattle. Sara Oliver Jackson, a leading actor in some of the Company’s productions, considered it the best time she could have had as a young person.

As the Depression ebbed, the Negro Repertory and the Washington State Theatre lost their funding, but both left a lasting impact on the region’s cultural heritage.

Rift with Glenn Hughes

Meanwhile, the once amicable relationship between the Jameses and Glenn Hughes had deteriorated into bitterness and mutual hostility. Hughes, who had been involved with the drama program at the University of Washington since 1919, had met the Jameses shortly after they joined the staff at Cornish. He strongly supported their decision to leave Cornish and establish the Repertory Playhouse. He became vice president of the Repertory’s board of directors. When he was appointed head of the newly created Drama Division in 1930, he hired Burton James as technical director of the department and Florence James as director of acting. He also arranged for the university to rent the Playhouse for student performances, providing a modest but needed source of revenue for the Jameses during the early years of the Depression.

The amity ended in 1932. Hughes later attributed the break to “the dishonesty of [the Repertory’s] management” (quoted in Bennett, 50). Florence James was more specific. The “showdown,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography, came when Hughes asked to rent the Playhouse for a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts with a retired professional actor in the leading role. “We realized that an Ibsen production with a non-student cast would be real competition and cause no end of confusion, so we refused the rental,” she said (James, 2).

As Marilyn Dale Bennett pointed out in her 1982 biography of Hughes, the Jameses had reason for concern about Hughes’ proposal. They had received much of their initial acclaim and financial momentum from a production of an Ibsen classic, Peer Gynt. A subsequent Ibsen production, presented by the University of Washington at the Repertory Playhouse with a box-office draw in the leading role, “might have proven misleading to some newly acquired Repertory patrons while providing healthy revenue to the University of Washington” (Bennett, 51).

The conflict came at a time of increasing financial pressure for the Jameses. They had fallen behind on payments on a bank loan to buy the building that housed their theater. Hughes, who was still vice president of the Repertory’s board, was fully aware of the financial crisis. According to Florence James, he told the board that he would pay off the loan if he could gain control of the theater. When the board refused, Hughes resigned. He then fired Burton (in 1932) and later Florence (in 1938) as instructors in the drama department.

The financial rift was exacerbated by artistic and political differences. Hughes, who had a practical bent, was careful not to offend his audiences with radical or risqué material. The Jameses were more willing to take risks. Their playbills included such socially conscious dramas as Stevedore, a play about unionism on the docks of New Orleans; Clifford Odet’s pro-labor Waiting for Lefty; and Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist It Can’t Happen Here. “It is fatal to compromise your insights in order to acquiesce to the demands made on you,” Florence James wrote. “Otherwise you will be producing plays written about nothing for nobody” (James, box 1, folder 22, p. 17).

The Canwell Committee

The Jameses’ uncompromising attitudes put them in a vulnerable position in July 1948, when the Washington State Legislative Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities convened in Seattle to investigate the influence of communism at the University of Washington. The committee, headed by Albert Canwell of Spokane, subpoenaed 40 UW professors (only 11 were actually called before the committee). The committee also targeted the Jameses and Ottenheimer, although none of them had had any connection with the university for years. The three founders of the Repertory Playhouse were the only non-university people subpoenaed in what was ostensibly an investigation only of the university.

George Hewitt, the committee’s sole witness against the Jameses, swore that he had met Florence James in Moscow in 1932 at what he called “the Repertory Theatre of Moscow.” He also testified that communist leaders in Moscow considered her to be “of prime importance from the point of view of cultural infiltration” (Hewitt Testimony). Florence James had toured Russian theaters, but the year was 1934, and she had never met Hewitt. When she leapt to her feet during his testimony and called Hewitt a “liar” and a “perjurer,” she was escorted from the hearing by armed guards.

The next day, the Jameses issued a lengthy statement attacking “the acid test of Canwellian orthodoxy,” and concluding “no justice can be secured in an atmosphere where slander and fabrications are permitted to go unanswered, where counsel have no legal status or recourse to the usual safeguards against malicious and baseless personal attacks” (Seattle Post Intelligencer, July 27, 1948).

Ultimately six people, including the Jameses and Ottenheimer, were cited for contempt of the Legislature for refusing to tell the committee whether or not they were or ever had been members of the Communist Party. Florence James was fined $125 and given a 30 day jail sentence, which was suspended; the other five were fined $250 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Burton James appealed his jail sentence; it was finally suspended, on medical grounds, three years later.

The convictions of three of its directors fatally damaged the reputation of the Repertory. Gross income dropped nearly two-thirds over the next two seasons. In what one writer called “a last desperate effort at survival,” the Playhouse “was reduced to staging, for the most part, the noncontroversial, lightweight fare it condemned at the college playhouses. There were few challenging productions to match the Playhouse’s early years" (The Seattle Times, 1977). Audiences continued to dwindle. By 1950, the Playhouse was bankrupt.

Despite the rivalry between Hughes and the Jameses, no evidence has been found to support speculation that he had any role in the Canwell investigation. He did, however, engineer the University’s subsequent purchase of the Playhouse -- the theater he had first tried to acquire for his drama department in 1932. A year after the hearing ended, agents for the University contacted the owner of the property. Using the threat of condemnation, they convinced him to sell.

Final Curtain

The final curtain for the Seattle Repertory Playhouse fell on December 30, 1950, on a performance of Shaw’s Pgymalion. It was the last of 196 productions, played before a combined audience of more than 500,000. On January 1, 1951, in what Burton James called "an act of cultural vandalism," the University took possession of the property (The Seattle Times, 1977).

The theater reopened as the University Playhouse on November 29, 1951, with a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot. Burton James died two days later, at age 63. His wife said he died of a broken heart. (In an ironic move, the theater was renamed the Glenn Hughes Playhouse after remodeling in 1967. It became simply the Playhouse in 1991; it remains in use as a university theater.)

In a terse obituary for Burton James, The Seattle Times reported that his jail sentence had finally been suspended, on grounds of ill health, just six weeks earlier. The only reference to his career in theater was one short sentence, noting that he and Florence had founded the Repertory Playhouse in 1928.

After Burton’s death, Florence James accepted a position as a drama instructor at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts. In 1953, she joined the Saskatchewan Arts Board as drama consultant, holding that position until 1968. She was instrumental in the founding of the acclaimed Globe Theatre in Regina, Saskatchewan. She was much honored for her work in Canada, receiving, among other awards, the Legion of Honor Medal, the Queen’s Silver Medal, and the Diplome d’Honneur from the Canadian Conference of the Arts. She died in Regina on January 18, 1988, at age 95.


Florence James, “…But the Child Grew Up,” pamphlet, ca. 1934, box 9, Uncataloged Northwest Material, Seattle Public Library; Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman’s Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 121-131; Richard Berner, Seattle, 1921-1940, from Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992); Nellie C. Cornish, Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish, ed. by Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964); Florence Bean James, "Fists Upon a Star," unpublished autobiography, Florence James Papers, University of Washington, Department of Special Collections; Esther Hall Mumford, Seven Stars and Orion (Seattle: Ananse Press, 1986) 66-76; The Seattle Times, September 20, 1921; November 14, 1951; Chet Skreen, “Today’s Seattle theater owes a lot to the ‘Old Rep,’” The Seattle Times, January 30, 1977, magazine section; Marilyn Dale Bennett, The Glenn Hughes Years, 1927-1961 University of Washington School of Drama, Ph.D. diss, University of Washington, 1982; Testimony of George Hewitt, Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, available online at http://www.washington.edu/uwired/ outreach/cspn/curcan/canwell015.html; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 27, 1948.

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