The Mask and Wig Club of the University of Pennsylvania was started in 1888 by a small group of Penn undergraduates, led by Clayton Fotterall McMichael, who were interested in the stage. The group saw the theatre program at Penn lacking in many ways. McMichael and his cohorts wanted something the University did not offer: a troupe that would produce original humorous theatrical pieces.
McMichael and his peers envisioned a group that involved dressing up in frocks and performing spoofs and parodies. Because colleges at the time were open only to young gentlemen any production was limited to an all–male cast. These organizations naturally saw burlesque, which was quite popular in that era, as the perfect genre. The overblown characterizations, loose plotting, musical interludes, and parody of high art made the style perfect for a group of young, well–educated, amateur men, especially since the drag tradition came "built–in."
Founder McMichael combed the local bookstores for a story to produce and found it in Henry Byron's The Nymphs of the Lurleyburg. With a little pirating and a bit of imagination, Lurline, the Club's first production, hit the boards at the Chestnut Street Opera House on June 4, 1889, for one night only. From that night onward, the Club, supported by a strong network of alumni now known as the Graduate Club, produced an annual show. The runs were extended and the Club established a fine tradition among Philadelphia's theater–going society.
In 1894 the Club purchased a property at 310 South Quince Street to serve as a gathering place and rehearsal hall. Prominent Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre was commissioned to convert the building, which had previously served as a church, a dissecting room, and a stable. He hired the young Maxfield Parrish, who would later become one of the greatest illustrators of the twentieth century, to decorate the interior. The Grille Room was decorated with caricatures of members; a tradition that continues today, with the second century of members' caricatures continued upstairs at the entrance to the auditorium.
The Club prospered throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The middle of this century was a heady time for the Club. Mask and Wig songs were the rage of the big band orchestras, radio shows, and solo acts of the day. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller,Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Rosemary Clooney, and Les Brown all covered Mask and Wig tunes. The 1961 production, Wry on the Rocks, introduced a satirical revue format in a cabaret atmosphere. Sixteen years ago, with Myth America, Mask and Wig returned the student–written book musical to its stage, a practice which continues this year with West Wing Story: You Can't Scandal The Truth. Important in the show's success are the traditional high standards in the caliber of performers and excellence of the material performed. The Club's primary purpose has always been and continues to be, "Justice to the stage and credit to the University."
Today, Mask and Wig maintains its position as one of the premier extracurricular activities on the Penn campus. Its yearly tour over spring break brings the show to alumni clubs across the nation.
The Mask and Wig Club is made up of four distinct sections: the cast, the band, the crew, and the business staff.
The cast writes and performs all of its own material during the Fall and Spring Shows. The band often functions as a pit orchestra, playing original, self-arranged pieces for the Fall show, and professionally arranged pieces for the Spring production. The band also holds the headliner spot at the University of Pennsylvania's annual Spring Fling festival. The crew builds elaborate, ornate, and completely original sets for both the Fall and Spring Shows. The business staff is responsible for advertising and selling tickets for the club's shows.
Free Show is the first Mask and Wig show of the academic year. The show is held during the first week of the academic year and is free of charge to all new freshman. The cast performs classic bits that are tried and true. Free Show serves a few purposes: it introduces the new freshman of the University of Pennsylvania to one of Penn's oldest institutions, and hopes to recruit new members by displaying what membership in the group entails.
The Fall Show is a sketch comedy show with musical interludes, performed in a theatre on the Penn campus. The second act opener traditionally consists of a medley of songs from a famous musician or group, but with parodied lyrics that follow a Penn-centered plot. The senior members handle all aspects of production from acting direction to choreography to musical production.
The Spring Show, historically known as the Annual Production, is the theatrical centerpiece of Mask and Wig. Performed at the Mask and Wig clubhouse, the production is an original show that runs from late January through March. While the format of the Spring Show has evolved over the years, the show currently runs as a full "book" musical comedy, complete with singing and tap dancing.
Unlike the Fall Show, the Annual Production is professionally composed, directed, and choreographed by some of the best talents in the industry. The script, however, is written by the Club's cast.
During spring break the troupe takes their show around the country as they road trip across the United States, usually performing in areas with a high Penn alumni concentration. The trip usually includes about four to six stops. In recent years the tour has taken Wig to cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto.
The tour is yet another one of the group's many traditions. In Mask and Wig's hey day, the group had its own train car that it would use to do a similar tour around the nation.
Immediately following the close of the 2007 Spring show, the clubhouse began to undergo a massive renovation. In addition to bringing the building up to modern code, the club also installed an elevator and central air unit. The construction, originally projected to be complete in time for a normal Spring show run, experienced a number of delays and setbacks. On the morning of March 15, 2008, a fire broke out in the attic of the clubhouse, setting back the completion date indefinitely. While nothing of historical significance was critically damaged, there was no way the 2008 Spring show, West Wing Story, could go on in the club's signature theater.
Luckily, the club had a contingency plan in case of such an emergency, and was able to put on their show after all. West Wing Story played for two weekends in April, 2008 at the Prince Music Theater in downtown Philadelphia, marking the first annual production to be performed at a venue other than the clubhouse since 1960. The generosity of Mask and Wig's Graduate Club made it financially possible to perform in a professional theater. The clubhouse is projected to be complete in the Fall of 2008, allowing the club to once again return to their own stage.
Chairman: Andrew Reich
Secretary Treasurer: Anthony Maggio
Annual Production Head Writer: Ruben Henriquez
Annual Production Assistant Head Writer: Ian Stringham
Business Manager: Anthony Maggio
Stage Manager: Nick Lopreiato
Band Leader: Andrew Reich