Plays

David Dodge and Macondria


Macondria

   Although he was known as a mystery/thriller and travel writer, David Dodge began his writing career as a playwright. In 1934, David and his older sister, Kathryn, begame members of the the Macondray Lane Players, a group of amateur playwrights, producers, and actors whose goal was to create a theater purely for pleasure. The group was founded by George Henry Burkhardt (who later became Dodge’s brother-in-law when Kathryn married him in 1937) and performed exclusively at Macondria, located in the basement of Burkhardt’s house at 56 Macondray Lane on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. Dodge’s first Macondria play, “Proganda Preferred,” was performed in March 1934 as one of four one-act plays on the theme of “War” (he had acting roles in the other three).

   Another Dodge-penned play, “A Certain Man Had Two Sons,” became his first published work when it took first prize in the Northern California Drama Association’s Third Annual One Act Play Tournament. The prize-winning play was subsequently published by the Banner Play Bureau, of San Francisco, in 1936. Two other Macondria-produced plays won similar honors: George Burkhardt took first prize in 1935 with “Oriental Fragrance” and Frances Montgomery’s “The Last Buffalo” won second prize in 1937.

 

Macondria at War
 

Macondria at War

Macondria playbill for March 1934
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library.


   “The Macondray Lane playhouse, easily unique among little theatres anywhere in the world, originated adventitiously in circumstances as blithe and impromptu as can well be imagined. Burkhardt, one day in 1927, decided to build a hand-ball court in the basement of his house, and solicited the help of several neighborhood friends. Someone observed that the basement had a naturally sloping floor (being on a hillside) and that with very little trouble it could be converted into a theatre. The initial project was therefor [sic] abandoned. On the moment’s impulse they constructed a playhouse in miniature, of course, but furnished with necessary theatrical equipment; a stage whose backdrop afforded a view of San Francisco Bay as seen through a window. Patrons of this house, unconventional even to the home-made benches used in lieu of chairs, gained admittance through a door so low they had to pass through it stooped.” (Harrison, p. 282-283)

   Macondria was home to 120 world premieres of original plays in its ten years of existence (a fire razed the Burkhardt house in 1938, “thus terminating its existence in the spectacular fashion which illuminates the history of San Francisco’s theatres on the Gold Coast during the 1850’s” (Harrison, p. 284)). Except for two early offerings, all of the plays performed in Macondray Lane were written by members of the cast and their friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Performances were free, although you had to know someone involved with the theater (or know someone who knew someone ... ) in order to gain admittance. The theater sat fifty, give or take a few who had to watch the show from the stairs, and performances were nearly always “sold out,” even if there was no box office.

   In addition to Burkhardt and Dodge, other regular company members included Morris Shaw, Kathryn Dodge Burkhardt, Frances Montgomery, Steve Broder, Harvey and Edith Muldoon, Whitney Henry, Enola Barker, Lettie Connell (Kathryn Dodge Burkhardt’s daughter), and Elva Keith (Dodge’s wife—they married in 1936).

 

Juliana Chooses cast photo

“Juliana Chooses,” September 1935
Cast (left to right): Morris Shaw, Kathryn Dodge, Alma Eldridge, David Dodge, Frances Burge, Frances Montgomery, Blanche Tolmie.

 

Prodigal's Return cast photo

“The Prodigal’s Return,” 1935
Cast (left to right): Whitney Henry, Harvey Muldoon, Edith Muldoon, Kathryn Dodge, David Dodge, Elva Keith, Morris Shaw, Steve Broder (seated)

   Lettie Connell Schubert, David Dodge’s niece, remembered ...

   “The story goes that my stepfather, George H. Burkhardt, moved into the house in the 1930s and hoped to build a handball court in the basement but the floor sloped, so he and his friends built a theater instead. It seated 49 people and there was no off stage space to the right as you faced the stage. Anyone exiting to that side had to squeeze up against the wall until the front curtain closed. The theater and auditorium took up two thirds of the basement, and the other third held chairs, props, two grand pianos and tons of junk. The door to the outside back stairs was in that third. The entrance to the theater was through the ‘coal hole’ on the right side of the building as you faced it. Obviously at one time coal was delivered through the hole. You had to bend over to get through the doorway. The building at that time was a cottage, one story over the basement. One bedroom, the bath and kitchen and back porch on one side, a front room opposite the bedroom and a living room off of it with a hall running down the middle. Tiny place. My uncle David Dodge ... was one of the writer-actors. My mother, Kathryn Dodge Connell, was part of the group that put on the plays and she married ‘Burk’ in the late 30s and we (she and I) moved into 56 Macondray Lane with him. The plays were given twice a year, for several nights, and one could only attend by invitation. Sometimes the performances were a series of one act plays, rarely a full play, often review numbers and skits written by people who were often out of work since this was the depression. This is what I remember as a 7 and 8 year old. I was pressed into action as a ventriloquist dummy in one play, and as a child who finds and swallows a coin in ‘The Buffalo Nickel.’ One Easter time probably on the morning of Good Friday in ... 1938 a milkman making deliveries in the lane saw smoke pouring out of the basement and roused the household and someone called the fire department. It must have been some feat to run hoses from the street. I was taken and put to bed in a neighbor’s house, and my stepfather rescued my rabbit who lived in a hutch on the back stairs. The fire evidently started on top of one of the pianos where there was a small manual printing press, volatile inks, and piles of papers. Everyone smoked in those days and the source of the fire could well have been an abandoned cigarette. We stayed with relatives for a few days, then returned to stay in the house after the water pipes and electrical wires were replaced. The theater was never rebuilt.”

A Certain Man Had Two Sons (1936)   Another Dodge play, Christmas Eve at the Mermaid, co-written by Loyall McLaren (his boss at McLaren Goode & Co.), was performed as the Bohemian Club’s Christmas play of 1940, and again in 1959. In 1961 the Grabhorn Press published the play in a volume entitled Shakespeare in Bohemia.

Sources:

Bruce, John. “Macondray Lane.” San Francisco Call-Bulletin 136, no. 60 (Sept. 28, 1934): [16].

Harrison, Alan. Little Theatres. San Francisco: Works Progress Administration, 1940 (San Francisco Theatre Research ; vol. 12).

Herron, Don. The Literary World of San Francisco & its Environs. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1985.

Schubert, Lettie Connell. Letter to Kendal Dodge Butler, 1998.

Schubert, Lettie Connell. Personal communication, 2003.

Related materials:

Collection of Macondray Lane Players programs, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Macondria theater ephemera, The Bancroft Library, University of Caifornia, Berkeley

Maconday Lane on Wikipedia

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