Playwright and Professor Linked in Spirit in Mary Rippon Theater

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, June 17, 2007)

Shakespeare’s plays have long been performed on the University of Colorado campus. A century ago, Mary Rippon taught German, and she also supported culture and the arts. She, very likely, was in attendance at the annual senior class plays.

Today’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival continues the University’s long tradition of quality classical theater. Now in its 50th year, the festival holds annual performances in the outdoor amphitheater that was completed in 1937 and named in Rippon’s honor. The late CU professor and the Elizabethan poet/playwright are linked in spirit in the Mary Rippon Theater.

When CU students first put on their productions, saplings planted in the late 1870s had begun to mature and to soften the previously barren bluff south of downtown Boulder. Commencement week activities in 1907 included the class plays, held in a cottonwood grove near Old Main, CU’s first building.

After a production of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” a yearbook writer stated, “Crickets chirped beneath the chairs, and the grand old trees roofed so well the green lawn stage.”

Plays on the campus continued year after year. Rippon retired in 1909 and lived quietly in Boulder. When the 85-year-old matriarch died in 1935, plans were already in place for a 1200-seat outdoor theater. President George Norlin then requested that it become Rippon’s memorial. The regents and the federal Works Progress Administration contributed funds, and Rippon’s friends and former students mailed in checks of their own.

“Alumni Day” was held on June 13, 1936. The “Mary Rippon Theater” was not yet completed, but men in suits and women in summery dresses eulogized their teacher and dedicated her memorial. One student requested that Rippon’s beloved lilies of the valley be moved from the backyard of her home to the vicinity of the theater.

Meanwhile, English Literature chair Dr. George F. Reynolds directed CU’s theater productions, first in the Old Main Chapel, then in a no-longer-standing gymnasium building, and finally in the Little Theater. Beginning in 1944, Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the Mary Rippon Theater.

Summer Shakespeare productions evolved into the annual Shakespeare Festival which began in 1958. That year, director J. H. Crouch produced “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” and The “Taming of a Shrew.”

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has continued every summer, and it is the second oldest (surpassed only by one in Alabama) Shakespeare festival in the country. As the years went by, however, people forgot (or never knew in the first place) Rippon’s significant role on campus.

On June 13, 2003, CU rededicated the theater and placed a plaque identifying the loved and respected professor as the chair of the German Department and “a friend and mentor to many.”

The comments of an earlier generation wouldn’t have fit. At the original dedication, former student Edna Davis Romig rose before the audience. Like an actress in a play of her own, she read a lengthy “Poem for Miss Rippon.”

Romig said, in part, “We build in stone but trust to honor more the spirit of her building. In the shadow of hills she loved, erect these stones, restore her old devotion now to Colorado and give her timeless, to a future time.”

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 50th anniversary season opens this weekend. Call the box office at 303-492-0554 for more information.

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