Last spring, the front-of-house manager at the Academy of Music discovered an old cardboard box containing a series of letters dating back to the early 1940s. The correspondence they contain tells the story of Frank Shaughnessy, then the manager at the Academy, who was called into service during World War II. Shaughnessy suggested to the Academy’s board of directors that longtime cashier Mildred E. Walker serve as interim manager, but the national film distribution company leasing the building objected to the idea of a woman holding the position, so they sued the board.
The decision handed down by the Springfield Superior Court one year later helped establish the governance model that was proposed by Walker and is still being used by the Academy of Music today, says executive director Debra J’Anthony.
It’s also the back story for a screwball comedy—to be written by Harley Erdman and directed by Sheila Siragusa—that will celebrate the Academy’s re-opening this October, after a planned three months of renovations late this summer. Walker’s story is one of many that are contained within its walls, and that are being shared by the Academy in a series of free architectural and historical tours, the latest of which will be offered this Wednesday March 19 at 5 p.m.
“People have been most impressed with the luminaries who have come through these doors, as well as the architectural knowledge being imparted,” J’Anthony, who leads this week’s tour, tells the Advocate.
The celebrity list, which includes Harry Houdini, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Sarah Bernhardt and Elizabeth Taylor, is impressive indeed.
“Liz Taylor used to drink here while performing at Smith College,” J’Anthony continues, as we stand outside her former dressing room—dubbed the Diva Room—just off stage left.
Architect Tom Douglas, who is in charge of the building’s renovations, has also been leading the popular tours.
The fact that the theater is still open “is a testament to our community,” adds J’Anthony, “and the Academy’s important place in the Valley.”
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)