For nearly a century, the Michigan Union has towered over campus. Within its ivy-covered walls lies a wealth of history that all too often goes unnoticed. Take some time to wander among the oak-paneled rooms with their comfy leather armchairs and stained-glass windows — it’s easy to feel the spirit of the University in such historic surroundings.

OPERA SAMPLES

“Back in that Vaudeville Time”


“College Days”


“The Stars of the Michigan Op’ra”


As you explore, you may stumble upon a small lounge on the first floor. Adorning the walls of the room is a series of frames displaying photographs, newspaper clippings and brightly colored posters. At first glance, you may be shocked to see black-and-white images of rather homely women. But a plaque near the entrance soon clears things up — these are no women.

From 1908 to 1955, all-male groups of students produced and performed wildly popular original shows known as the Michigan Union Operas. As part of a long-standing tradition, men played all of the roles, male and female. But beyond their entertainment appeal, the operas served a greater purpose: Without the participation of hundreds of corset-wearing cross-dressers, the Michigan Union might never have been built.

The need for a Union — 1904-1918

Established in 1904, an organization called the Michigan Union was created to bring together all male students on campus. The University’s tiny population of women already had such an organization, which met in the now non-existent Barbour Gym. In his book “The Michigan Union 1904-2004: 100 Years of Student Life,” 1992 Michigan alum Jeff Rowe, who also serves as the Media and Events Coordinator at the Union, chronicles the history of the men’s Union from this early period.

According to Rowe’s book, the Michigan Union had raised enough money by 1907 to purchase a home — in the Union’s current spot on State Street — that would serve as a temporary clubhouse for it. A sizable portion of the funds for the clubhouse was raised by a small performing troupe known as the Michigan Union Minstrel Show, a group that would develop into the Michigan Union Operas a year later when the Union started raising money to build a larger permanent headquarters.

The very first Michigan Opera, “Michigenda,” premiered in February 1908 at the Whitney Theater located downtown at the corner of Main St. and Ann St. The term “opera” is a bit of a misnomer — the show was more akin to comic operetta with elements of vaudeville and minstrel shows. Earning a profit of $2,000 for the Union, “Michigenda” was a tremendous hit — The Detroit Journal wrote that audiences insisted on five encores of the show’s finale number one night.

The success of “Michigenda” ensured that the Michigan Union Operas would be an annual event — and a reliable cash cow for the Union. December 1908 saw the second opera, “Culture,” which featured a giant 10-foot slide rule that could answer any question.

A year later in December 1909, “Koanzaland” was produced at the Whitney. The show centered on Buck and Sliv, “two Michigan rah-rahs” who fly a zeppelin from Ann Arbor to “darkest Africa.” The work was racially insensitive, like many of its time, but it did produce one of the University’s most-loved college songs, “College Days.” This bittersweet tune was composed by School of Music Prof. Earl V. Moore, who would go on to serve as dean of the Music School from 1921 to 1960.

Two more Union Operas followed “Koanzaland”: 1910’s “Crimson Chest,” a pirate tale, and 1911’s “The Awakened Ramses,” a riotous mummy comedy. “Ramses” began the tradition of including football players in the operas, after they stepped in at the last minute when half of the cast was deemed ineligible to participate.

“Not only were the guys playing the women’s roles, but these big, beefy, hairy guys were playing the women’s roles,” Rowe said.

By then, the operas had become a regular fixture on campus, yet a lack of organization and continuity from year to year was a problem. So in 1912 a fixed managerial position was created, and the Opera was organized into a permanent theatrical organization known as the Mimes. In the introduction to his score of the Mimes’ first show, 1913’s “Contrarie Mary,” Prof. Moore wrote that the formation of the Mimes would allow for the “attainment of ideals hitherto impossible.”

Women in the operas — World War I

The creation of the Mimes also began the tradition of taking the Michigan Union Operas on the road. After “Contrarie Mary” successfully toured, subsequent productions made visits to cities across Michigan and the Midwest.

“Michigan alumni were — and are — everywhere,” said Marilyn McNitt, an associate archivist at the Bentley Historical Library who organized a 2008 exhibit celebrating the Mimes’ 100th anniversary. “So they would go to places where there were large groups of alumni. And then other people would hear about it, too. It was new and fresh — there weren’t a lot of college troupes going on the road to perform their original plays. And all guys!”

With the aid of funds raised from the Mimes’ local productions and road shows, the Union was able to complete just the exterior of its new clubhouse, which can still be seen today. But when war broke out between the U.S. and Germany in 1917, finishing the interior became a dire necessity. A government loan allowed the Union to be completed enough to serve as a barracks and mess hall for the Student Army Training Corps.

In 1918, with much of the University’s male population enlisted or conscripted, the Mimes faced a major dilemma: whether to allow women students to participate in the Michigan Union Opera.

“The Union was a male basket,” McNitt said. “It was really hard for them to let women in. … There was a big controversy about that.”

Many protested the inclusion of women, claiming this would ruin a decade-old tradition. Yet the faculty, including Prof. Moore, objected to “the impropriety of sending out to its alumni an entertainment representing the university with a score of men frolicking in petticoats when the nation is at war,” according to an article published in an unidentifiable newspaper in January 1918.

Feminism won out, and in March 1918 “Let’s Go,” the only Michigan Union Opera in history to feature women in the cast, was produced. With a score by Prof. Moore, this propagandistic wartime comedy helped to raise funds for the war effort.

The heyday of the Michigan Union Opera — The 1920s

With the end of the war in November 1918, the doughboys returned to Ann Arbor and the University’s women were forced out of the spotlight. The Mimes resumed their all-male tradition for the March 1919 production of “Come on Dad.”

The Michigan Union also opened in 1919. The building — which would become the heart of the University community in the coming decade — housed common areas, dining rooms, ballrooms, libraries, a hotel, a soda bar, a barber shop, an indoor swimming pool (where Barnes and Noble is located today) and a bowling alley. Yet women, who had helped save the Michigan Union Opera the year before, were only allowed to enter through a back door and had to be accompanied by a male escort while in the building.

“We were such a dominant men’s university,” said Carl Smith, a retired CPA who serves as faculty advisor for the Men’s Glee Club. “Women had their League; men had the Michigan Union. That was just the way it was. It took a long while for that to change.”

With the arrival of the 1920s the following year, there was an explosion in the popularity and sheer size of the Michigan Union Operas, reflecting the extravagance and excitement of the Roaring Twenties.

With elaborate sets and costumes that required custom-designed shoes, the Union Operas of the ’20s were on par with professional theater companies. Production costs soared as high as $80,000 (comparable to $1 million today). The quality of female impersonation also reached new levels with the December 1923 production “Cotton Stockings,” which starred leading “lady” Lionel Ames.

“He was so good that there were men who saw him in his performance and didn’t realize that he was a female impersonator,” McNitt said. “So they would wait for him backstage with flowers and candy, and he would walk by them.

“He had very delicate, feminine features. He was a very attractive, um, ‘woman.’ ”

Ames, who would eventually become a professional female impersonator, led “Cotton Stockings” on a 15-city tour that included performances in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

“(His legs) were insured because the routines in ‘Cotton Stockings’ were so acrobatic,” McNitt said. “They were afraid that he’d fall and hurt himself. … They wanted to make sure that if their star hurt himself, they didn’t lose everything.”

In crisis — The Depression and World War II

Yet, the dazzling and carefree era of the ’20s, the Michigan Union Operas would grind to a halt when financial difficulties set in. Beginning in 1927 the operas failed to turn a profit, and by 1929 the Mimes had lost a total of $15,000 from three productions. The stock market crash of that same year was also a major contributor to the Opera’s demise.

In 1934 the Union Operas made a brief revival with two productions, but this revival was short-lived. The University didn’t see another Mimes production until 1940’s “Four Out of Five,” which starred the Wolverines’ halfback, eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon.

Two more Union Operas were produced in December 1941, but these would be the last productions for several years. Four days before “Take a Number” opened, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Just as in World War I, the Mimes’ activities were interrupted when much of the University’s male population marched off to the Pacific or Europe. With the women on campus mobilized to assist the war effort, this made even a co-ed Union Opera impossible.

The Michigan Union Opera Renaissance — The 1950s

With the end of the war in 1945 and the introduction of the G.I. Bill, men soon returned to campus en masse. With the University’s male population now restored, it seemed sensible to bring back the all-male Union Operas. 1949’s “Froggy Bottom,” the first production in seven years, centered on the lives of tenants in Willow Run Village apartments, a housing facility the University created for returning veterans who had married. The show was also the first Michigan Union Opera run entirely by students.

“This was a novel experience for everybody in it,” said Phelps Connell, a 1950 ‘U’ alum who played in “Froggy Bottom.”

“Whoever was running it imported a professional director from Broadway to come in and direct the show,” Connell added. “I can’t imagine how he did it, but he had to teach people who had never danced before how to dance and had to teach the acting. It had to take incredible patience.”

Though the Union Operas were successfully integrated into post-war campus culture, the 1950s saw much debate surrounding the now-antiquated tradition of men playing women’s roles. In 1954, a committee was formed to address this and other problems that plagued the Mimes. According the committee’s report, the cross-dressing element was now “in poor taste” and modern audiences were tiring of this archaism.

While the committee ultimately voted against a co-ed Opera, the “apparent feminization of the choruses” was discontinued. Instead, the sex of the men in drag had to be apparent to audience members at all time. The sort of gender bending that Lionel Ames had perfected more than 30 years before was replaced with what the report called “hairy legs and male masquerade.”

And yet the co-ed debate raged on. Both sides of the issue were manifested in the shows during the 1950s, which contain increasingly nostalgic subject matter and feminist themes. 1954’s “Hail to Victor” took place in turn-of-the-century Ann Arbor, when the all-male Michigan Union Operas were just beginning, but focuses on the women’s suffrage movement with an opening number titled “It’s Equality We Demand.”

Despite this attempt at open-mindedness, the Mimes’ days were numbered. 1955 saw the final Michigan Union Opera, “Film Flam.” In 1956 — the same year women were first allowed through the front door of the Union — the Mimes changed their name to MUSKET (Michigan Union Shows, Ko-Eds Too) and began performing mainstream Broadway shows. The all-male cast hung up their garters and corsets for good as real-live women took the stage.

Why not today?

While MUSKET has been a source of quality entertainment on campus for the last 55 years, its shows bear little in common with the cross-dressing, satirical spectacles of the Michigan Union Operas. The change to MUSKET and the switch to well-known musicals ensured that any vestiges of the drag tradition would be eliminated; yet this also did away with the original, student-created material.

Would student-run shows in the tradition of the Union Operas have an appeal on campus today? A revival of “Michigenda” or “Koanzaland” would most likely come across as outdated and even offensive in the case of the latter. Yet original productions focusing on modern student life and lampooning campus celebrities like University President Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke or quarterback Denard Robinson could generate considerable interest.

The Union Operas’ niche may already be filled by such University organizations like Basement Arts and the Educational Theatre Company (ETC), which perform their own shows. Team StarKid of “A Very Potter Musical” fame has even toured across the country, bringing to mind the Mimes’ road shows. So while MUSKET may be the direct descendant of the Michigan Union Operas, campus theater troupes like these can be seen as their spiritual successors.

As for the Michigan Union Operas themselves, all that is left are a few cardboard boxes of scores, programs and photographs at the Bentley Library. While there are some reminders around campus, like the Opera Lounge in the Union and the School of Music’s Earl V. Moore Building, the Mimes and their 36 productions are quickly fading into obscurity.

As a 1930 Detroit News article stated: “Thus, with a final glitter of its costumes, and a last gesture of its he-she chorus, into the discard tumbles an institution which cometed from unpretentious beginnings into a series of musical revues of a technical perfection and beauty.”

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