Mask and Wig Club — Legacy of Laughs
At 310 Quince Street, in Philadelphia’s Center City, stands the clubhouse for the oldest all-male collegiate musical comedy troupe. Known as the Mask and Wig Club of the University of Pennsylvania, it has existed as an official university organization since 1889.
The club formed as an alternative to the Greek Classics and Shakespearean productions performed through the University’s departments. Instead the founders of the club, led by Clayton McMichael and 14 other students pursued their interest in comedy through the popular burlesque format. The burlesque of the time differed from the type most commonly thought of in 2016. The genre was primarily a musical parody of current or historical events. The troupe has stayed true to this style, parodying history, local Philadelphia happenings, and general campus life throughout the years.
Leading up to the formation of the club, some of the young men who would become the club’s founders held performances to satisfy their desire for the stage. They put on comedic plays and other shows for their friends’ and their own amusement. In the spring of 1888, Clayton McMichael and a fellow classmate and performer began talks of expanding these meager dramatic efforts into a university dramatic organization. Later that year, they put out their first call for members.
By January 29th 1889, a group of young men led by McMichael met to discuss the name of their future organization. They proposed names such as “The Harlequin” or the “The Footlights,” but member Charles Camac’s suggestion inspired the final choice. They officially became The Mask and Wig Club of the University of Pennsylvania.
They spent the next five months rehearsing and raising money for their first performance. In June of that year, they performed “Lurline” at the Chestnut Street Opera House. The theater was sold out for performance, making the club’s first production a tremendous hit.
Due to their newly found success and hopes of making the club a lasting tradition, the members began the renovation of the building at 310 Quince Street in Center City. They enlisted architect Wilson Eyre to renovate it for use as a meeting space, rehearsal hall, and performance space. The Mask and Wig Clubhouse eventually even made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. This designation was given in part due to Eyre’s hand in the architecture, early work done on the interior by Maxfield Parrish, a famous illustrator, and perhaps also the club’s connection to musical history.
The year the club put on its 1925 production “Joan of Arkansas” coincided with big changes in the bustling recording industry in Philadelphia. That year the Victor Company acquired a technology that allowed for recording of music electrically as opposed to previous mechanical, acoustic methods. The performance of Mask and Wig’s “Joan of Arkansas” became the first fully electrically recorded album, shortly followed by one of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The club also made a stamp on the musical scene of the day through its original, student music. Member Bobby Troup’s song “Route 66,” originally composed for a Mask and Wig show, was later launched to popularity by Frank Sinatra. This was not a singular event. Big names including Rosemary Clooney, Benny Goodman, and Ella Fitzgerald covered several other Mask and Wig songs. Written for the 1937 season, the student-written song “The Gypsy in My Soul” became a classic in the jazz repertoire, and many artists have rendered their own versions over the years.
Mask and Wig also expanded outside of its Clubhouse and native city. In 1892, the club added performances in Washington D.C. and New York City to its regular season of Philadelphia. The club continued the touring tradition and, by 1940, had given performances in over 31 cities across the East Coast and Midwest. It currently continues this annual tradition, with the 2016 tour including stops in Baltimore, Jacksonville and New York City.
To further these efforts of connecting Mask and Wig to a larger audience, the club established the more recent tradition known as ComFest in 1999. This intercollegiate comedy festival brings other university comedy troupes to Philadelphia and also honors a comedian as the special guest. Guests over the years have included Bob Saget, Tim Meadows, and Stephen Colbert. The event intends to celebrate different branches and expressions of comedy and serves as a way to honor new and established comedic talent.
The Mask and Wig Club at the University of Pennsylvania continues to write, produce, direct, and perform original shows at their Clubhouse on Quince Street for the enjoyment of university students, Philadelphians, and audiences around the country alike. Through all its local shows, tours, and other endeavors, the club continues to uphold its motto: “justice to the stage; credit to the University.”
- Mask and Wig website. http://www.maskandwig.com
- Weidersheim, William. Some Fifty Odd Years of the Mask and Wig Club, 1889-1941. Philadelphia, 1941. Print.