Curtis “follies:” the origins of the Holiday Party

“There is one occasion when the Curtis Institute as a body lays aside its earnest demeanour, forgets its dignity and frolics like a spring lamb,” according to Elsie Hutt, secretary to Mary Louise Curtis Bok and editor of the Curtis newsletter Overtones. She was writing about Curtis’s seventh annual holiday party in 1932, a tradition that has featured music and skits since 1930. Today, we revisit the holiday party during the first decades of its existence, helped by archival materials including Overtones—ending with an appeal to alumni, faculty, and staff: we need more materials!

Student and staff participate in skits, 1938

Student and staff participate in skits, 1938

In this skit, an unidentified students plays a baby violin for Ethel Nice, secretary to Dorothy Bowman, the assistant director and student counselor. [Photographer: Fritz Henle]

Student and staff participate in skits, 1938
Schubert songs with Samuel Barber and Mary Bok, 1938

Schubert songs with Samuel Barber and Mary Bok, 1938

The 1938 holiday party entertainment ended with Samuel Barber '34 (a bariton) singing Schubert songs. To everybody's surprise, he was accompanied by Curtis's founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who rarely performed in public. [Photographer: Fritz Henle]

Schubert songs with Samuel Barber and Mary Bok, 1938
Martha Massena sits at the piano, 1950

Martha Massena sits at the piano, 1950

In this skit, faculty member Martha Halbwachs Massena '34 (supplementary piano) plays the piano in an unusual position.

Martha Massena sits at the piano, 1950
Holiday party in costumes and masks, 1951

Holiday party in costumes and masks, 1951

[PHotographer: Joseph Rezits '48]

Holiday party in costumes and masks, 1951
Christmas caroling in dress-up, 1951

Christmas caroling in dress-up, 1951

On the balcony in the middle Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist. [Photographer: Joseph Rezits '48]

Christmas caroling in dress-up, 1951
Merry Christmas from Helen Hoopes, 1951

Merry Christmas from Helen Hoopes, 1951

Helen Hoopes was secretary of admissions from 1939 to 1959. [Photographer: Joseph Rezits '48]

Merry Christmas from Helen Hoopes, 1951
Menotti, Schoenbach, and McCurdy sing, 1953

Menotti, Schoenbach, and McCurdy sing, 1953

Faculty members Gian Carlo Menotti '34 (composition), Sol Schoenbach (Bassoon) and Alexander McCurdy (Organ) are thought to perform Menotti's "Terzetto."

Menotti, Schoenbach, and McCurdy sing, 1953
Dancing with the Founder, 1953

Dancing with the Founder, 1953

Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist, dancing here with Louis Zaninelli '58, used to take around the room with all students. [Photo: Pamela Gearhart '55]

Dancing with the Founder, 1953

 

The first documentation of the Curtis holiday party is found in a 1926–27 scrapbook of Curtis press releases. Initially the party included only food and dancing. The 1930 holiday party, however, introduced something new: “an uproarious programme of ‘Curtis Follies’ which betrayed hitherto unappreciated talents in the happy role of parody.” The new tradition of “follies” continued through the 1930s, with the exception of the 1933 holiday party. After the onset of the Great Depression, this seems to have been a sober occasion with only caroling and dancing. Money was so tight that Overtones appeared only in three typewritten copies, and in 1934–35 it was not produced at all. A report from the student counselor at the time, however, indicates that in 1934 the holiday was celebrated as a costume party.

Overtones reappeared in 1935 for another five years, after which it was discontinued. The remaining volumes include descriptions of the 19351936 and 1938 holiday parties, as well as an article in 1936 by Mary Louise Curtis Bok , who reminiscences about Marcella Sembrich’s annual chocolate supplies and a skit by director Josef Hofmann. The first holiday party photographs were made in 1938, when photographer Fritz Henle, who had visited Curtis to gather photos for LIFE magazine earlier that year, was invited to attend.

The history of the holiday party is well documented for the first three decades of the school’s existence. Sadly, we have very few archival resources about the holiday party between the 1950s and the 1990s. Do you have photographs, programs, scripts, and personal recollections to share? We would love to hear from you!

 

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