A Century of Performance
Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography Courtesy of The Phoenix Theatre Company
The year was 1920. Arizona had become a state just eight years prior, and Phoenix was beginning what would become one of the biggest growth spurts in the West.
Cotton, which had been in high demand during the war, had attracted pioneers eager to plant their lives in the Salt River Valley. When World War I ended in November 1918, the market for cotton would see a tremendous decline. Many were forced to move to the city, where construction jobs and other opportunities were ripe.
For the first time, the U.S. Census showed more people living in Arizona cities and towns than on farms. Growth in Phoenix meant diversity. People from all different backgrounds were moving into the Valley. It was a fertile ground of opportunity, and it didn’t matter if people were rich or poor. Everyone wanted their piece of the dream.
These early residents were beginning to build a foundation for the state’s retail, insurance, wholesale, distribution and banking sectors, and as they came, so did bars, brothels and gambling dens. It was, after all, still the Wild West in ways.
But less reputable forms of entertainment weren’t the only ones available. It was the beginning of the Age of Jazz and of the proliferation of cinema, and the city’s wealthier and more educated upper crust in particular wanted more sophisticated forms of art.
A Dramatic Aside
Within the theater scene was an undercurrent of discontent. In 1895, theater owners across the nation had held a secret meeting, forming a syndicate that would, in effect, monopolize competition, artistic content and pricing.
Playwrights, directors, producers and actors would all feel a stifling effect on their creativity. Many in the theater community wanted to express political ideas and address social issues that many felt were important.
Chicago was the first to launch what is now called the Little Theatre Movement. These free-standing theaters gave the industry’s “small players” a venue in which to experiment. They didn’t care about the commercial value of what they were producing so much as they were interested in creating a message, and like many passion-fueled, grassroots efforts, these smaller theaters began to spread like wildfire.
Two Phoenix figures were carefully watching this movement: Harry Behn and Maie Bartlett Heard. They would become the founders of a now-century-old legacy that continues to play a part of our Valley towns.
Take It from the Top
Harry Behn was born in the now-abandoned ghost town of McCabe, located in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains. His parents were immigrants, his father from Germany and his mother from Denmark.
Harry was a smart and thoughtful young man and a prolific writer, even from a young age. At 18, he was accepted into Stanford University. That summer, as he was preparing to go off to school, he took work as an assistant to photographer Henry Berger. The two took off on assignment to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
As the story goes, Berger was called away for a family emergency, leaving young Harry to guard his expensive Kodak camera equipment. While he waited, Henry befriended some Blackfoot Indians from a nearby reservation. He is said to have been invited to join the tribe, and he received the name “Big Wolf Medicine.”
Harry went on to earn his first degree from Stanford, and a second from Harvard. He married Alice Lawrence and had two sons, Prescott and Peter, and a daughter, Pamela, and would go on to write screenplays for cinematic hits, including “The Big Parade” in 1925, and “Hell’s Angels” in 1930. He also wrote dozens of children’s books and was a professor of English at University of Arizona in Tucson, where he was put in charge of educational radio programs.
It is likely that the series of events that formed the foundation of his young adult years, combined with his intellectual and social affinities led to his eventual friendship with someone else who shared his appreciation for Native tribes, Maie Bartlett Heard.
Maie Bartlett Heard was born in Chicago to a wealthy family. Her father was Adolphus C. Bartlett, president of the Hibbard Spencer Bartlett & Company, which would later become True Value Hardware.
It was not her father’s work that interested Maie so much as his apprentice did. Dwight Heard was handsome and rugged looking, with dark hair and a strong brow. He was ambitious, too. Before long, the two were smitten.
Dwight and Maie married in 1893, but all was not perfect. Dwight suffered from health issues, and like many people at the time, he was convinced that the dry desert air would be good for him. In 1895, the couple made the long trek to Phoenix.
It would be a good move for them. Dwight became one of the largest land owners in the Salt River Valley, and was president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association. He started Bartlett-Heard Land and Cattle Company, an extremely lucrative venture that sold beef, alfalfa, citrus and cotton to a growing Phoenix market.
In 1912, the same year Arizona achieved statehood, he purchased the Arizona Republican newspaper, which would later become the Arizona Republic.
In the meantime, Maie kept herself busy as a leading lady of the new state of Arizona. She involved herself with civic organizations and was passionate about the plight of others. She became an avid collector of art—particularly Native American artifacts.
She and Dwight built their 6,000-square-foot home, Casa Blanca, in what is now northern Phoenix. They entertained often, inviting not only the local who’s-who, but national figures as well, including Marshall Field, Harvey S. Firestone, and even Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.
Politics were a frequent discussion, as was the Native American art the couple had become enamored by. In fact, in 1926, the Heards would purchase a Hohokam ruin. Its artifacts would join their collection in becoming some of the foundational pieces in their Heard Museum.
It was no surprise, then, that with so much in common, Maie found a friend in Behn.
The Birth of a Theater
In 1920, Heard and Behm formed a collaboration and joined the Little Theatre Movement. They started the Phoenix Players with a goal of bringing creativity and expression to the Valley through live performance.
Four years later, with the troupe growing, the Heards donated their carriage house at Central and McDowell Roads. Just four years later, when the group applied for its articles of incorporation, there were 424 registered members. Phoenix Little Theatre was born.
Phoenix was in an adolescent period of growth, still defining its political, economic and social personality. Theater played an important part of that growth, and in particular, smaller theaters like Phoenix Little Theatre were making strides. Through performance, writers, directors and actors could express ideas and touch audiences in ways that cinema, radio and newspapers could not.
By 1940, nearly 1,000 members had registered with the theater, which was still putting on shows in the Heards’ converted carriage house. Even the onset of World War II, when families were separated by oceans and bullets, Phoenix Little Theatre continued to open its curtains and entertain the crowds.
In 1951, the theater needed a new home. Board president Stephen Shadegg joined the Heard family and Barry Goldwater to secure funding for a municipal cultural complex. The new theater would be alongside two of Maie Bartlett Heard’s other seminal endeavors, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Phoenix Public Library.
It kept growing, incorporating a children’s theater in 1954, and solidifying its role among the core of the community.
In 1985, the word “Little” was dropped from the theater’s title, and it would remain “The Phoenix Theatre” until it would eventually be renamed “The Phoenix Theatre Company.”
Those who have not yet had the opportunity to experience The Phoenix Theatre Company’s newly renovated space will be more than pleasantly surprised.
Beginning in 2013, The Phoenix Theatre Company launched one of the most ambitious expansions of a performing arts center in the Southwest, including a soaring glass atrium lobby, new rehearsal and entertainment spaces, and the addition of the chic and contemporary Hormel Theatre.
The Phoenix Theatre Company has continued to realize the vision of its founders, and has likely gone far beyond what they dreamed. Their star-worthy performances challenge and delight audiences of all ages, and their programs are aimed at helping to develop new faces and voices in the performance arts.
As the century mark approaches this year, it’s more than a look back at the past.
“Our 100th season is a true celebration of everything we’ve been through as a company, everything we’ve been working toward and everything we believe we can be,” said producing artistic director Michael Barnard.
“We can’t wait to share this historic, celebratory season with our community!”
The Phoenix Theatre Company 2019/20
June 12–Aug. 11
Spamilton: An American Parody
Aug. 28–Oct. 13
Oct. 9–Nov. 10
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Nov. 13–Dec. 29
The Sound of Music
Dec. 18–Feb. 16
Million Dollar Quartet
Jan. 29–Feb. 23
Americano! World Premiere
Feb. 26–Apr. 12
Sondheim on Sondheim
Feb. 28–March 15
Festival of New American Theatre
March 18–Apr. 19
Apr. 15–June 7
The Rocky Horror Show
May 20–June 28
The Phoenix Theatre Company
1825 N Central Ave, Phoenix
Celebration of the Century
It’s dinner under the stars followed by an unforgettable stage show featuring celebrity guests!
Applause! Gala | Saturday, October 19 | 5:30 p.m. | The Phoenix Theatre Company | 1825 N. Central Ave., Phoenix | See website for pricing
602-889-5291 | phoenixtheatre.com