When Football Players danced the Can-Can
Author: Grace Shackman
The Michigan Union Opera’s Cross-Gender Fun
In 1949 U-M junior Jimmie Lobaugh landed a starring role in the Michigan Union Opera. He dressed up as a pregnant woman and belted out a showstopper entitled “I Want a Pickle.”
The show was Froggy Bottom, a parody of the efforts of World War II veterans and their families to cope with the red tape of the GI Bill. “It was dreadful, horrible,” Lobaugh laughs, “but we had a heck of a lot of fun.”
A U-M tradition from 1908 to 1955, the Michigan Union Opera was created to raise funds for the Michigan Union building. Since the Michigan Student Union was then an all-male club, men made up the entire cast, playing both male and female roles.
The cross-dressing was always a source of much hilarity, especially among the friends of the “actresses.” But some spectators were taken in. “After the shows, guys would wait outside to get dates with the ‘girls,’” recalls Jim Graf, who as a child saw many of the pre–World War II shows, because his dad built the scenery. “It was that good, their costumes and makeup.”
There couldn’t have been any question, however, about the gender of the burly football players who were recruited to form chorus lines in female costumes relevant to the plot. Depending on the year, they might appear as geishas, Egyptian temple dancers, or can-can girls.
The MUO’s first show, 1908’s Michigenda, set the tone for ensuing productions. The plot concerned efforts to keep a rich donor, Mr. Moneyfeller, from finding out that his nephew wasn’t actually on the U-M faculty. The “real” professors—students impersonating well-known faculty members of the time—were hidden away in a tunnel, which eventually exploded from all the hot air. Meanwhile, the student characters were transported to the magic land of the title, a place where there were no professors and where Granger’s, a then-popular dance hall on Huron Street, was open six nights a week.
Michigenda opened at the Whitney Theater downtown, a location chosen to encourage attendance by local residents as well as academics. On opening night the enthusiastic audience stood in the aisles and refused to leave until the cast had taken five curtain calls. All five performances were sold out, with special trains of U-M alumni coming in from Detroit.
The next year’s show, Culture, was just as big a hit. The plot revolved around a ten-foot slide rule that could solve any problem. After the show, the slide rule was acquired by the engineering department, where for years afterward it was a fixture of the annual Engineers’ Ball.
The Michigan Union, the first such organization in the country, was formed in 1904. In 1907 the group purchased the State Street home of law pro¬fessor Thomas Cooley. The rest of the site of the present Union was purchased with the proceeds of the first two Michigan Union Operas.
The custom of using football players in the chorus originated with the fourth production, The Awakened Ramses. Two weeks before the show opened, the dean of students announced new eligibility rules that prevented half the cast from taking part. The production could have been doomed but for the timely intervention of football coach Fielding Yost, who convinced his players to fill in.
The players had recently concluded their season and showed up with “bruised shoulders, bandaged knees, and clumsy feet,” recalled Earl Moore, the show’s student conductor (later the U-M music school dean). But “there was no question of the dedication and zeal that these new ‘actors and dancers’ put forth in Whitney Theater to match the same qualities in their performances on Ferry Field.” The athletes caused such a sensation that from then on, no MUO performance was considered complete unless it included a chorus of football players dressed as women.
Planning for the MUO productions started with a campus wide competition for scripts. The director usually reshaped the material, and often cast members had ideas to make it funnier, so it would turn out to be a group effort.
The MUO became so popular that many more students tried out than there were roles available. The men who were cast came from all over the university. “You crossed paths with people you wouldn’t otherwise know—premed, athletes,” recalls Jack Felton, who appeared in several 1950s productions and wrote some of the music for one. “I wanted to do it for an extracurricular activity, to do something besides grind away at books,” recalls Jerry Gray, who danced in the chorus for 1953’s Up ’n’ Atom wearing a woman’s dancing outfit complete with a stuffed brassiere. Although Gray claims he wasn’t much of a social dancer, he had no trouble learning the steps, which he often practiced going home through the Law Quad.
The MUO went on the road for the first time in 1914, when both the Detroit and Chicago alumni associations offered to sponsor shows. That year’s opera, A Model Daughter, took place in Paris and so seemed well suited for export. There had been talk of touring before; questions about whether out-of-town audiences would catch the U-M humor, and if so whether it would paint an unflattering picture of the campus, had made the producers hesitate. But the first road trip was such a success that it became a yearly tradition.
Construction on the present Union building started in 1916, and subsequent operas helped pay off the bonds that financed it. But the tradition nearly faltered when the United States entered World War I the following year. By 1918 so many men were off fighting that Union manager Homer Heath asked, “Which shall it be: an opera with Michigan girls or no opera?” That was the only year in which women appeared in the MUO.
A turning point came with the arrival of Broadway director E. Mortimer Shuter in 1919. Unable to get into the army during World War I, Shuter was doing his bit for the war effort by directing USO shows when MUO general chairman F. C. Bell met him in Philadelphia and convinced him to come to Ann Arbor for a year.
The 1919 show, Come On, Dad, featured elaborate scenery, fancy costumes, and new dance styles. (Shuter’s good friend Roy Hoyer, a Broadway singer and dancer, helped coach the students.) Earl Moore praised Shuter’s “ability to create almost professional results with average amateur materials.” The show was such a triumph both in town and on the road that Shuter was persuaded to stay instead of returning to Broadway.
In 1921 Shuter produced Top o’ th’ Mornin’, with pre-law major Thomas Dewey play¬ing the male lead. As Patrick O’Dare, an evil pretender to the Irish throne, the future New York governor and Republican presidential candidate stopped the show with a number called “A Paradise of Micks.” Reviewers raved about the “velvety texture” of Dewey’s baritone voice, and he toured eight cities when the show went on the road. But according to Dewey’s biographer, Richard Norton Smith, “usually on these train trips, he could be found alone, often in the last car, uncomfortable with the camaraderie and alcohol” shared by the rest of the cast.
Shuter reached his peak with 1923’s Cotton Stockings (Never Made a Man Look Twice). Lionel Ames, described by a reviewer as “a clever actor and mimic,” played the female lead so successfully that he later went on to a vaudeville career as a female impersonator. That year the MUO invaded Ivy League territory, playing in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, and receiving rave reviews wherever it went. Several female characters “looked astonishingly real as pretty fixtures of feminine grace,” reported the Washington Times. “Others, chorines notably, were such virile masculines that all fashion’s fripperies and layers of cosmetics couldn’t disguise razored chins or stalwart underpinning.” The cast met President Coolidge in Washington and went on to New York, where they set the record at the Metropolitan Opera for the highest box office of an amateur production.
By then there were complaints that the MUO was straying too far from its roots, so Shuter chose Tickled to Death for the next production, with a plot that revolved around U-M archaeologists in China. The set contained a temple reputed to be a replica of an actual Chinese one, but the characterizations were evidently less authentic—a Chinese graduate student wrote a letter to the Michigan Daily complaining that the production was “a gross misrepresentation of Chinese.”
Although the shows originally made a lot of money, the productions were always financially risky because of the high costs of sets, rented costumes, and travel. On New Year’s Eve 1929, shortly after the stock market crash, the MUO suffered a major loss, playing to an empty theater in New York during a blizzard. The next year the opera suspended production.
In the mid-1930s the MUO was revived in a lower-budget form, with students doing more of the work. The plot of the 1934 show, With Banners Flying, had athletic director Fielding Yost taking over as university president, and featured scenes in the Michigan Daily, the Arb, student boardinghouses, and the Union. It was followed by Give Us Rhythm in 1935. But neither show was a big financial success, so the operas were suspended again.
The next revival, in 1939, went in the opposite direction, returning to the days of full-scale productions. Plans even called for Shuter to direct, but he died that November. His death delayed the premiere of Four out of Five (based on the gibe that four out of five girls were pretty, and the fifth went to the U-M) until February 1940. Football players, including Forest Evashevski and Bob Westfall, again formed a chorus, while Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon played a lead: as Jimmie Roosevelt, the president’s son, he helped a freshman become a Big Man on Campus by fixing him up with movie star Hedy La Tour. The MUO returned to its usual December dates later that year with Take a Number. It featured a date lottery, modeled on the draft lottery, which set up boy-girl meetings in the Arb. The last show in this series, Full House, opened four days after Pearl Harbor and was hardly noticed.
The MUO resumed in 1949 with Froggy Bottom (a takeoff on Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C.), which dealt with the problems of veterans and their families on campus. “Congress didn’t understand academic requirements, universities couldn’t understand the red tape to make them work, and the GIs were caught in the confusion,” Jack Felton recalls.
Some of the lyrics for Froggy Bottom were actually written by a woman student, Ann Husselman (now Rusanoff). Edward Chudacoff, an MUO composer, had come up with a tune but had no words for it; Husselman suggested some, and he asked her to write more, which she did. Although she never came near the all-male set, one of the songs she wrote, “Till the Dawn,” was picked up by Fred Waring and played on his radio show.
Jimmie Lobaugh, the lead in Froggy Bottom, helped publicize the show by co-hosting a reception at the Women’s League with the “male” star of the Junior Girls’ Play. He recalls getting into wig, makeup, black dress, black hat, and black high heels, and riding from the Union to the League in a horse-drawn carriage. His counterpart was a short woman dressed as a farmer, wearing a hat with a big brim. The two stayed in character through the reception. When it was over Lobaugh went back downstairs, but to his dismay the horse and carriage were gone. His costume didn’t include a purse, so he had no money to call a cab. He describes the walk back in high heels as “no treat.”
Lobaugh went on to play leading-woman parts for the next four years, alternating with roles in productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of which he was a founder. He played a Mae West character in the 1951 Go West, Madam and a former vaudeville star the next year in Never Too Late. “Gosh, I was beautiful,” he laughs.
Four years before male students began the Michigan Union Opera, female students were putting on the Junior Girls’ Play, with women cross-dressing to play men’s roles. For the first show, in 1904, dean of women Myra Jordan lent her husband’s clothes to the “male” characters.
Like the MUO, the JGP was written, composed, and directed by students. The story lines also were similar—takeoffs on campus events, satires of classic books, or fun in exotic locales. After the men produced their first show, Michigenda, the women responded with a parody called Michiguse. One of the male leads in the 1914 production (above) was played by future dean of women Alice Lloyd—better remembered today for giving her name to a postwar dormitory.
Originally most of the performances were open to women only. But in the 1920s the JGP took a page from the men’s book and opened the play to the general public as fund-raisers for the Michigan League building. After the building was completed in 1930, the JGP moved into its new Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.
The JGP not only predated the MUO, it outlived it as well—the last JGP show was in 1962.
Lobaugh’s parents would come by train from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to attend the opening nights, sitting in the orchestra next to such dignitaries as then-governor G. Mennen Williams. Lobaugh once posed for a photo sitting on the governor’s lap. After graduation Lobaugh was asked to come to Broadway as a female impersonator, but he didn’t want to spend his life playing women, opting instead for a career as a high school music and drama teacher. Even there, though, he found his MUO experience valuable: “I could direct both males and females,” he says. “I could help the girls walk, talk, act, and behave in style.”
The postwar MUO stuck to the original formula but with up-to-date subjects such as the atomic bomb (Up ’n’ Atom), labor unions (Lace It Up, set in a lingerie factory), and radio giveaway shows (Never Too Late). Football players continued to form chorus lines in costumes appropriate for each play—in Go West, Madam they were can-can girls.
The postwar plays also toured, traveling by bus around Michigan and to nearby states. If not quite as glamorous as playing Manhattan, the experience was still memorable. “We had so much fun, it’s a wonder we had any voice left,” recalls Felton. Arriving and playing at important theaters was always awe inspiring. Lobaugh remembers performing in a theater in Buffalo where Mae West had appeared the week before.
At the parties after the out-of-town performances, alumni were often more interested in meeting the football players than the stars in the cast. Robert Segar, who played a male cheerleader in 1954’s Hail to Victor, recalls football players “taking an empty wine bottle to show the plays. The center would put it between his legs and toss it a few feet to the quarterback. The alumni loved it.”
In the 1950s the cross-dressing was still considered risqué by some. From the first there had been accusations of vulgarity, partly due to suggestive ad-libbing by cast members. “The humor was slightly naughty,” admits Jack Felton. And of course, the gay implications were also there. Lobaugh recalls that one of his leading men would bring a girlfriend to rehearsals. “He told me, ‘I don’t want anyone to get the idea you and I are a pair.’ I was so naive I hadn’t thought of it.”
In 1956, the year the Union finally opened to women (before that they could come in only through a side door and, with a few exceptions, had to be accompanied by a male), MUO was absorbed into MUSKET—“Michigan Union Show and Ko-eds Too”—ending almost half a century of same-sex casting.
But even though it ended almost half a century ago, the MUO is not forgotten. Besides raising money for the Union building, the shows created a treasury of U-M songs, the tours were great publicity for the university, and the productions provided a start for many show business careers. Among the long list of notables coming out of the MUO are Billy Mills, who was the bandleader for the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show; Jay Gorney (Gornetzky), who wrote the music of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”; and Valentine Davies, who wrote the story for the movie Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street.
At the Michigan Union centennial in January 2004, the Union acknowledged its debt by making the Michigan Union Opera the centerpiece of the celebration. The Union invited MUO alumni back, had present music students sing MUO songs, and rechristened a room the Union Opera Lounge. Located on the first floor across from the Anderson Room, the lounge is a treasury of MUO pictures and memorabilia.