A “Near Utopian Community:” Student life in the 1940s

Students in front of the Russian Tearoom, 1946

However well a school keeps records of historical value, student life—the subject of our latest exhibit—is by definition not adequately represented in archival collections. To document this vital part of a school’s history, archivists depend on alumni for snapshots and memorabilia, as well as their personal recollections. Although there are serious gaps in our archival collections, the 1940s are well documented thanks to alumni who donated materials and wrote about their Curtis years. This selection of photographs and 8mm film footage illustrates the years during and after the Second World War.

The war years deeply affected student life at Curtis. According to the annual reports of registrar Jane Hill—which list every student who left Curtis and why—there were 35 students who were drafted, or who left Curtis expecting to join the war effort. Many of them ended up in Army or other military bands and never left the country. Of the few who served overseas, one student was killed in action just before the war ended. Seymour Lipkin (Piano ’47) joined the war effort at seventeen as Jascha Heifetz’s accompanist during a USO tour in the European war zone in the spring of 1945. Jane Hill kept in touch with all the students who served, as did Helen Hoopes, secretary of admissions.

Photos and film footage of student life in the 1940s, however, testify to happier times. The largest photo collections are donated by Jane Phelan Vogel (Voice ’47), Diana Steiner Dickstein (Violin ’49, ’57), and Joseph Rezits (Piano ’48). Diana Dickstein contributed greatly to our knowledge of Curtis in the 1940s and 1950s through her book Mother Started It and her participation in our oral history project about student life, along with her sister Frances Steiner (Cello ’56). Below is a selection of photos from these three major photo collections.  (To read the accompanying captions, click the arrows on top and view the photos in full screen mode.)

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Joseph Rezits’s book Beloved Tyranna about his teacher Isabelle Vengerova (on the Curtis faculty from 1924 to 1956), includes multiple anecdotes about student life in the 1940s, particularly in a chapter written by fellow Vengerova student Harry Neal (Piano ’48). Neal recounts, among other things, the use of a Curtis “whistle” (the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). Rezits published additional recollections about his student days in an article titled “Cherished Traditions” in American Music Teacher (December 2002/January 2003).

I, at least in retrospect, consider the Curtis social unit akin to a near-Utopian community. Curtis was the nearest to a one-world, non-pre-judicial, peer-supportive society I could imagine. There were no lines drawn for race, color, religion, age, ethnic origin, financial status, geographic origin or language. (read the full article, courtesy of American Music Teacher).

The Curtis community that he wrote about can now be seen on film. In addition to his photographs, Rezits recently donated the silent 8mm films that he shot at Curtis in 1942-43—prior to being drafted—and 1946-48, when he returned as a veteran. The footage (with identifications provided by Rezits and Diana Dickstein) includes scenes inside and in front of the main building, on Rittenhouse Square, and during student picnics. The early footage also shows Curtis administrators, including Jane Hill and Helen Hoopes. Much of the footage is filmed in the basement at Curtis, where students passed the time when not in practice rooms or attending lessons or classes. At the time, the basement housed the library, several practice rooms, a notice board, and a pay phone for students to use. Male students at Curtis gravitated to the custodians’ room, known to Joe Rezits and his friends as the “Den of Iniquity.” Excerpts of the footage, which includes shots of the custodians, can be seen below.



The 1940s are well documented thanks to alumni recollections and donations of archival materials. For the period from the mid-1950s through the early eighties, however, Curtis’s archival collections are severely lacking. Find out how you can help and see FAQs about access and copyright for materials donated to the archives.

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