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Friday, September 11, 2015

Chapter 3- The Actor

The Actor

“He works harder than any man whom I have ever known—and gets less done.”
Bill Allen describing his college director in a letter to a friend.

(From Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.)

After graduating from Dunlap High School, William Allen chose to attend Knox College in near-by Galesburg, Illinois. Bill’s grandfather and father both attended veterinary school. Mable Allen, Bill’s aunt was a professor at Illinois State University. Bill’s cousin, Willadell Allen had attended Knox College. She may have had an influence on Bill’s choice.

It would seem Bill, as the oldest son in the family, would be going to college to train to become a third generation veterinarian. Perhaps some of Bill’s independent nature shows in his choice to go into teaching and his focus on drama. But his interest in drama did have family roots. His father, Benton, had actually participated in community plays. But it would appear the major influence on Bill was his Aunt Mable.

Mable Allen was in the early part of her career teaching drama and directing plays at Illinois State University. From the letters Bill wrote to Mable during WWII, it is obvious Bill and Mable had a special relationship. She appears to have been his counselor and confidant. He entrusted her with descriptions and with feelings he shared with no one else. There was definitely a bond and a trust in their relationship.

In the letters to Mabel, Bill shares at great length their common interest in plays, literature, and movies. From the battlefield, Bill takes the time to analyze characters and plots with Mable. As one reads the letters, it is easy to believe Aunt Mable may well have been Bill’s mentor when it came to his academic interests, and later his career plans.

While it is unknown why Bill chose to attend Knox College, he had an older cousin who had just graduated from Knox College. Willadell Allen graduated from Knox College in 1934, and Bill graduated from Dunlap HS in 1935. After graduating Willadell went on to be a school teacher. She was Dean of Girls at Maine Township High School in Park Ridge, Illinois.

Willadell graduated from Knox College in 1934, the same year as my mother, Marjorie Evans. In the 1930’s the number of women attending college was still significantly lower than men.  According to the Dept. of Education, only 13% of women high school grads in the 1930’s went on to get college degrees. So in general, it might be assumed Bill’s cousin was a woman of some level of independence. Majorie Evans described “Willie” as “independent and progressive woman for the 1930’s.”  Bill’s brother, Benny confirmed that indeed Willadell was definitely a non-conformist, “Willadell was the first woman I ever saw who wore pants, and who smoked cigarettes in public.”   Whether Willadell had any influence on Bill’s choice to attend Knox, she would have provided a model of free thinking.

Bill Allen was extremely active in Knox theatre productions. Looking through the Knox Student (school paper) and The Gale (school yearbook), theatre played a significant role on the Knox campus. There multiple plays each semester. The Knox Student had weekly columns devoted to Knox theatre which usually were placed in a prominent position in the newspaper, and the columns were usually fairly long. The role of student theatre in the 1930’s may well be attributed to it being before TV and widespread movies. Whatever the reasons, theatre appears to have been pretty big on the campus.
The Gale in 1939 recap of the Knox theatre highlights the accomplishments for four senior students, Bill being one of the four. The Gale says, “Bill and John started backstage and gradually drifted into acting for which the Theatre can well be grateful on both counts. Bill… the actor par excellence. He has played every imaginable character part and spent so much time in the makeup room putting on grease paint he could claim it almost as his own. The Theatre pessimist, he never thought a performance any good and had to be persuaded, and yet he continually tried out for the next one.”
It appears Bill was not just active in theater, he must have been very talented. The Knox Student had two separate reviews of Bill’s work. In the first they said, “As the young biology professor and aid to the plot we find bill Allen, the character man of many previous Knox productions. As Walter Beckett, Bill has the youngest part that he has ever attempted. If his work this time is at all comparable to that of the Hobo in “Winterset”, Mr. Blanquet in “Bird in Hand,” the old actor in “Trelawney,” the deceived father in “The Shrew,” it will be more than adequate. He was elected to Curtain Call last year as one deserving meritorious recognition for his theatre work.”

At the end of his college acting career, The Knox Student summed up his career as follows, “William G. Allen first rose to fame as the hobo in “Winterset,” when crawled out from the corner with “I gotta piece of bread.” Perhaps one of his funniest roles was that of Mr. Blanquet in “Bird in Hand.” In “The Taming of the Shrew” he more than made up for the shortage of men by acting the three parts of lord, a tailor, and Vincentio. His last two Dr. Randall in “Stage Door” and Mr. Foster in “Kind Lady,” have been very good. He worked backstage as assistant stage manager in “Julius Caesar,” “Personal Appearance,” “The Bishop Misbehaves,” “Winterset,” and “Good News.”
In December of 1938, in his senior year, Bill sums up life as a drama student as he wrote a letter to a recent Knox alum, “Speaking of rehearsal, and you know I always do that eventually, our man King still thinks that he’s in a professional theatre. Seven nights a week from seven thirty until ___ and all day Sunday. He works harder than any man whom I have ever known—and gets less done. We have two A.M. dress rehearsals, and then the second scene set is not completed until after the curtain goes up the first night of performance. After two shows, need I explain where my index (grade point average) has gone this semester.” He later in this letter tells his class load is- English Literature, Browning’s Poetry, American History, American Government, Tudor English History, Teaching of English Composition, and English Honors. Bill Allen was a busy man!

It appears Bill filled many roles in the theatre. He played a variety of different types of characters as well as being a stage manager. It is impressive he evidently sometimes not only acted a part but at the same time was the stage manager for the play. And when they were short actors, in one play he had three different parts. This “get the job done” type of attitude certainly seems evidenced in his letters during WWII.

Bill’s active roll had to have been a source of pride to his family. The Peoria paper had mentions when Bill was selected for a part in a play. Either Knox had a tremendous PR staff or the proud parents in Alta got the news in the paper. While roads were all back roads in the 1930’s, with Alta only 40 miles from Knox College, one can envision Benton and Lura Allen heading to Knox with teenage Lee and a 4-5 year old Benny. Although they may not have chosen to go into acting, there had to be a pride in their big brother.

Debate societies took on a significant role on the Knox campus in the 1930’s. The societies were somewhere between fraternities and classrooms in their role. They were part social and part debate training. Bill was a member of Gnothautii Literary Society. His senior year the group included 11 male students and 9 female students. Bill supervised the programs which included speeches, actual debates, and informal discussions.

It appears these meetings gave students an opportunity to sharpen their speaking and debating skills, examine issues of the day, and just have fun. The mixed nature of the societies is shown in The Gale write up in 1939, “Mildred Nelson and Robert Seibert debated in the Founders’ Day Debate on the subject, “Resolved: Knox College Made a Mistake in Admitting Women.” The debate proved very amusing to the large audience, but the judges failed to reach a decision, due to a fatal schism in their ranks.”

Bill’s active role in Knox theatre shows he was talented in this area, he was reliable, and he must have had a good work ethic. His role in the Gnothautii Literary Society illustrates that he was respected by his peers for his leadership ability, he was intellectually capable, and he had to have the ability to think on his feet as he led these discussions.

On the following pages, there are pictures from The Gale, which is the yearbook of Knox College. Because of how the yearbooks were published at this time, information about his junior year appears in the 1939 yearbook, and then for his senior year appears in the 1940 yearbook- all one year behind. 

Bill’s Junior Year (1939 Knox Gale),
 Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.

Bill’s Senior Year, (The Knox Gale 1940)
Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.

Bill’s Senior Year, (The Knox Gale 1940)
Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.

Bill’s Junior Year (1939 Knox Gale),
 Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.

Bill’s Senior Year, (The Knox Gale 1940)
Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois.

On the following pages are a copy of a letter from Bill Allen written to John De Novo. It is written from his Seymour Hall dorm room in December of his senior year. John graduated in 1938 and is in grad school in Minnesota at the time the letter is written. John would later return as a Knox professor. The letter provides insight into Bill’s wit and the nature of college life at Knox College in 1938. The letter is from Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois. (It should be noted that the note on the envelope referring to Bill’s death at the Battle of the Bulge had to have been written by someone in the Archives. It is not accurate that he died at the Battle of the Bulge- he died later in Germany.)

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