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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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