Local History: Playwright Maurice Birdsall, Jr

Maurice Fred Birdsall, Jr

Clarion’s Playwright, Maurice Fred Birdsall, Jr started writing plays at the age of four. He was the son of lawyer Maurice Fred Birdsall and Nell Birdsall.  His paternal grandfather, Judge B.P. Birdsall, published the “Wright County History” and was elected to the U.S. Congress. During the 1920’s  Maurice Fred’s father and Leslie Archerd  formed a partnership in a law practice in Clarion.  On January 1, 1957, Leslie Archerd, Ben Birdsall and Newt Draheim formed a law firm that included Maurice Fred’s father and Cory Nagle, both former partners.

From 1928 to 1931, Maurice Fred, manager, director and writer, formed a group of classmates and friends to act his plays. At first, his company of players went under the name of “The Little Theatre Company.” Since many of performances he directed were in neighborhood yards, the name of the troupe became the “Neighbor Players.” The young thespians fascinated by acting were Irene and Catherine Shannon, Janie Storer, Amy Austin, Melvene Draheim (my sister), Arthur Nagle, Ed Lundy, Kay Nagle, Jean Hansen, Roslyn Rohrback, Alre Watts, Ralph Austin, Jeanie Strom, Jack and Dick Ashpole, Connie Bent, Irene Walsh, Frances Ross and Agnes Norris. Over 20 young people took an active part in the organization.  

Responding to the theatrical outpouring, productions were moved to the garage of Dr. Frederick Thornley, dentist, located at 416 2nd Ave NE. Years earlier Dr. Thornley had constructed a turntable in his garage. The invention avoided backing his car out of the garage.

Using the turntable as a stage permitted the stage crew to change sets without delay or confusion. The first revolving stage in the western world was built in 1896 in Munich, Germany.  It was later referred to as a Shakespearean stage. At a young age, Maurice Fred was ahead of times by using the Thornley turntable.  It was a point of interest for theatre “goers!” The price of admission was 10 cents.

Within a short time, the Thornley Theatre could not accommodate the large number of drama enthusiast.  Prior to showing of movies at the Colonial Theatre at 114 South Main, the Neighborhood Players would present one act plays on the screen stage.  After the movie theatre run, the Players would perform three act plays in the library basement, Congregation and Methodist Churches. Finally, plays were moved to the high school gym.

On July 31, 1929, three one-act plays were presented written by Maurice Fred.  They are “Meet the Duke” and a mystery play, “M.” The last play, “Home Again, Soldier” required three different stage sets. There were three different vaudeville numbers between the plays. The Players were sponsored by the drama committee of the Clarion Woman’s Club, which received half the proceeds of the small admission charge. Over 150 persons greeted the Neighborhood Players as the curtain went up.  It was said, a great deal of humor was derived from certain high points in the various acts. Always, the spectators were impressed by the seriousness exhibited by the Players.  Maurice Fred was noted for his clever characterization, catchy dialogue and appropriate costuming. The ticket receipts amounted to $29.55. Another time sales totaled $40.00. The plays were so successful the cast thought of “going on the road.” From the first yard play to the last performance, the Neighborhood Players, Stage Crew and Maurice Fred repeatedly received tremendous standing ovations!

In the 1932 Legion Day Parade, Dick Ashpole drove a1924 Model T touring car overloaded with the Neighborhood Players showing “Hollywood Bound” signs.

The careers of several Players were extraordinary, e.g. “Whiz Kid” and Vice President of Ford Motor Company; Author and Professor of graduate college at Florida State University; Concert Pianist in Washington, DC; Operator of a Title company in Denver;  WWII Army Nurse; School Teachers; Catholic Nun; Corporate Chemist; Lawyer; RR Conductor; and Court Reporter, my first Court Administrator.     

Maurice graduated from Clarion High School in the Class of l930. He received a B.A. degree from Grinnell College in Grinnell and his M.A.degee from Drake University in Des Moines.

During the summer of 1937, Maurice Fred spent six weeks attending a summer course at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. He had the unusual experience of writing, directing and acting in a play which centered on the current revolution in Spain. His play was “Drums Over Spain.” He played the part of a Priest.  In writing the play, three persons were called to lecture to the playwright. One a sympatric Fascist, one a “neutral” to the cause and the last was a writer leaving to join the Loyalist fighters in Spain. Also, Maurice Fred visited with many Hollywood stars.

In 1938, Maurice taught five years at Pella High School.  During WW II, he served almost four years in the U.S. Army.

In 1947, Maurice became Professor of Speech and Drama at Central College at Pella, Iowa. He taught for 31 years and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1977. He directed over 150 plays and musicals that included a number of U.S. and Midwest premieres. His students contend it was Birdsall’s untiring commitment to education and theatre to know how to live one’s life, deal with mistakes and always think through problems. He was founder of the theatre’s “Keep Your Head Screwed On” tradition, which still exits! 

At his presentation of “Mr. Roberts” at the Central College Chapel, Maurice Fred gave my wife and me front row seats.  His clever substitutions for the alcohol and the profanities used in the original script nevertheless presented an entertaining dramatic production. We witnessed the “striking of the set.”

Maurice made several trips to the Netherlands and became a collector of antique Delftware. The collections are now on display in the Birdsall Room at the Historical Village in Pella. In 1975, he received Pella’s Community Service Award. Maurice Fred Birdsall’s final curtain call occurred on October 2, 1994. He was 82 years of age.

From Shakespeare, thespians often quote …”Lord, what fools these mortals be!” 

Read more in the May 1 issue of the Monitor!