Religion and the 
Performing Arts in 
Indianapolis in the 
20th Century 
Prologue Occasional Paper Series 
vol. 1, no. 2
Religion and the Performing Arts 
In June 1908, members of the Indianapolis Ministers’ Association met to consider the res...
Religion and the Performing Arts 
would appear in public worship for the first time in the church’s history, a move that i...
Religion and the Performing Arts 
home to the largest permanent choir in the world, the most popular religious program of ...
Religion and the Performing Arts 
Indiana native Ned Rorem’s mass Te Deum were all featured components of the year-long 
c...
Religion and the Performing Arts 
such as the North Church Concerts (North United Methodist Church), performances by the 
...
Religion and the Performing Arts 
Indianapolis organizations, including arts and civic groups, universities, and congregat...
Religion and the Performing Arts 
1 Indianapolis Star, 2 June 1908. 
2 David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, The Ency...
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Religion and the Performing Arts in Indianapolis in the 20th Century

  1. 1. Religion and the Performing Arts in Indianapolis in the 20th Century Prologue Occasional Paper Series vol. 1, no. 2
  2. 2. Religion and the Performing Arts In June 1908, members of the Indianapolis Ministers’ Association met to consider the results of their investigation of dancing in the city’s public schools. Following a heated debate the association voted 22-21 to reject a resolution calling “modern dance a subtle foe to the highest and best development of the moral life of our young people.” The group, however, did “caution and urge those in charge of this work to see to it that they do not either by direct teaching or by simple suggestions create in the mind of the child a desire that afterwards can find satisfaction only in the ballroom.”1 The investigation of dancing in the public schools was a relatively minor incident in the long and complicated relationship between religion and the performing arts in Indianapolis. But its decision to launch an investigation into the inclusion of dance into the city’s schools, as well as the narrow margin by which a resolution condemning such activities was defeated, the ministerial association’s actions in the summer of 1908 perfectly epitomized what had been an uncertain, often antagonistic relationship. In later decades, many Indianapolis religious institutions actively sought to bridge this conflict between the performing arts and religion either by developing their own artistic programs or by providing support to other artistic endeavors. By century’s end, the increasingly rich cultural life of Indianapolis owed as much to the city’s religious institutions as it did to any other force in the city. That this turned out to be the case is just one of the many ironies that follow. THE EARLY YEARS: OPPOSITION Music is generally conceded to be the “oldest, largest, and most visible of the performing arts in Indianapolis, with its roots extending into the early years of the 19th century.”2 The first musical performances in the city took place in churches, namely by the choirs at First Baptist Church, Second Presbyterian, and Meridian Methodist Church. In 1824, the Society for the Cultivation of Church Music became the first voluntary organization to promote the arts in Indianapolis. During the pastorate of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1839-1847), Second Presbyterian Church established the city’s first music school and sponsored its first orchestra – a string and flute ensemble comprised of fifteen members – both under the direction of Beecher’s younger brother Charles.3 At the same time the Beecher brothers were promoting the music program at Second Presbyterian Church, however, Henry Ward Beecher was also busily denouncing theater and dance in a series of essays eventually published in 1844 as Lectures to Young Men. In the 1850s, like-minded individuals argued in the pages of the Indiana Journal that the theater was “the most fruitful source of crime, profligacy, and misery to be found in our great city” and that “there is no greater exhibition of human depravity than for children to be educated in dancing.” In addition, members of many city congregations viewed the use of music in church services as “pagan” and made a point of not attending worship until the music concluded. When there was something of a local boom in support for the performing arts even after the Civil War, the city’s religious institutions continued to question the morality of such activities both inside and outside the church. At Roberts Park Methodist Church, for instance, music remained banned until 1876 when the quarterly conference decided that an organ and choir The Polis Center at IUPUI 1
  3. 3. Religion and the Performing Arts would appear in public worship for the first time in the church’s history, a move that infuriated some members who remained adamantly opposed to its use in the service for years to come. The tension between religion and the arts extended beyond the congregation as well. In 1877, the Indianapolis City Council, at the urging of local religious leaders, adopted an ordinance banning all theatrical performances on Sundays. This ban remained effective, and mostly unchallenged, until the early 20th century when owners of local movie theaters joined baseball fans and barbers (among others) in their fight against the various Sunday closing laws. The relationship between religion and the performing arts in Indianapolis remained ambiguous as the 19th century ended. While most of the city’s churches were incorporating music into their worship services, religious opposition to the performing arts in general remained strong. Even as theater, dance, and secular music grew in popularity, local religious leaders and institutions remained ever vigilant in their oversight of public morals (as witnessed by the 1908 investigation of dance in the public schools by the Indianapolis Ministerial Association) and kept close tabs on all aspects of the performing arts in Indianapolis. THE MIDDLE YEARS: ACCEPTANCE During the first half of the 20th century the city’s churches gradually grew less monolithic in their opposition to the performing arts. While organizations such as the Indianapolis Ministerial Association, the Church Federation, and the Christian Endeavor Union continued to equate performing arts with vice and worked to suppress them accordingly, a growing number of churches and individuals of faith championed the growth of the performing arts in the name of civic pride. As in the 19th century, it was in the field of music that the most significant breakthroughs occurred. The best example of support of the performing arts by religious-minded individuals was the formation of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) in 1930. All prior attempts to establish a professional symphony orchestra in Indianapolis failed within a season or two. Under the guidance of conductor Ferdinand Schaefer, however, in 1930 the Kirschbaum Community Center’s orchestra expanded from about thirty chairs to sixty and formed the ISO. With the support of civic-minded individuals such as Leonard A. Strauss, president of the Jewish Community Center, and Jack and Sarah Wolf Goodman, members of Beth-El Zedeck Congregation, the ISO by 1953 was recognized by critics as one of the nation’s top ten symphony orchestras.4 A rather different sort of cultural-religious development occurred in the city with the opening of the Cadle Tabernacle in 1921. Built at a cost of $305,000, the building had a seating capacity of 10,000, with an additional 1,500 places reserved in the choir loft. Although the Cadle Tabernacle’s principal purpose was to serve as the headquarters of evangelist E. Howard Cadle’s ministry, it quickly emerged as one of the city’s most important sites for civic, cultural, and educational events. During the 1920s, for instance, the Tabernacle hosted both performances of Handel’s Messiah by the People’s Chorus of Indianapolis. Cadle lost ownership of the Tabernacle at the end of the decade, and the building served as the location of Klan rallies, dance marathons, and prize fights instead of religious events. After he regained control of the facility in 1931 the Cadle Tabernacle was returned to its original religious purposes, eventually becoming The Polis Center at IUPUI 2
  4. 4. Religion and the Performing Arts home to the largest permanent choir in the world, the most popular religious program of its day on the radio (the Nation’s Family Prayer Period), and even a popular religious program for television. During these same years individuals like the Montani brothers and Elmer A. Steffen successfully carved out careers in both secular and religious music. From 1890 into the early 1920s, brothers Guy, Domenico, Pasquale, Antonio, and Nicolo Montani performed as the Montani Brothers Orchestra throughout the Midwest. After retiring from performing as a group, the brothers continued to teach and perform individually in the city. In 1926, Nicolo Montani (1880-1948) was knighted by Pope Pius XI in recognition of his work as a leading composer of Catholic liturgical music. A life-long resident of Indianapolis, Elmer A. Steffen (1890-1963) cofounded the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir in 1938 while serving as both music director of the Roman Catholic archdiocese and master director of the Schola Cantorum Choir at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral. In 1939, Steffen also received a papal knighthood in recognition of his service in sacred music. Throughout the early 20th century the cultural-spiritual conflict that had plagued the white community also existed in the city’s African-Americans community. While Indianapolis developed a nationwide reputation as a jazz center of note, developing a unique sound known as “Indianapolis Blues,” church members all too often viewed pursuit of a career in either jazz or the blues as choosing the world over religion. One area where religion and the performing arts did merge, however, was in Gospel music, through groups such as the Jordan-Aires.5 RECENT YEARS: PARTICIPATION Today Indianapolis boasts a world class symphony orchestra, a variety of chamber ensembles, professional dance companies, and a successful opera company. Indianapolis also plays host to thriving professional and community theaters and supports a number of major music competitions (such as the quadrennial International Violin Competition) and music festivals (such as the Indiana Avenue Jazz Festival). In addition, the city claims a variety of nationally and internationally recognized choral groups, most notably the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys. Mirroring the changing relationship between religion and the performing arts that slowly developed over the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of today’s religious institutions choose to take a prominent role in promoting the performing arts in Indianapolis. This new attitude toward the arts was first expressed by the city’s religious institutions in the area of music. Beginning with its renowned men and boys choir, Christ Church Cathedral in particular took an early lead to foster what has since developed into a flourishing classical music scene. Founded in 1883, the Christ Church Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys first gained national (and then international) acclaim in the 1950s. Since that time the group has undertaken several successful tours of Great Britain and Europe and made a number of highly regarded recordings. The only fully professional church choir in the city, it routinely performs with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and presents an annual concert series. During the church’s sesquicentennial in 1987 performances of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of the medieval miracle play Noyes Fludd, and the premiere of Richmond The Polis Center at IUPUI 3
  5. 5. Religion and the Performing Arts Indiana native Ned Rorem’s mass Te Deum were all featured components of the year-long celebration. Equally more important to the overall history of religion and the performing arts in Indianapolis, however, was Christ Church Cathedral’s participation in the formation in 1969 of the Cathedral Arts. Initially conceived as a support organization for the men and boys choir, Cathedral Arts now sponsors the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, a Juried Exhibition of Student Art (involving over 75,000 elementary through high school students statewide) and the Midsummer Festival on Monument Circle, which features contemporary music. Cathedral Arts also sponsors additional ongoing cultural programs—for example, Suzuki and Friends and the Ronen Chamber Ensemble—and has produced special events like the Pan Am Music Festival of Champions in 1987 and the Cole Porter Centennial celebration in 1991. Christ Church Cathedral’s support of the performing arts in Indianapolis is impressive but far from unique. Since the 1970s a growing number of religious institutions has enriched the city’s cultural life through support and participation in music, drama, and dance. This new era of engagement was launched in 1971 by two events, the incorporation of the Repertory Theatre (known as the Edyvean Repertory Theatre since 1991) at Christian Theological Seminary and the premiere of A Song ofMankind. An original work by seven Hoosier composers, A Song of Mankind, united over 2000 singers and 200 musicians in a performance before an audience of 75,000 in front of the Indiana War Memorial. Sponsored by Faith for a City, with funding from the Lilly Endowment, the Indiana State Arts Commission and the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis, the cantata was based on the work of Hoosier poet Jamie Lee Cooper.6 The roots of the Edyvean Repertory Theatre stretch back to the 1960s when a professor of communications, the Reverend Alfred Edyvean, established the Seminary Players at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS). Growing out of Edyvean’s belief that “the most important thing in training for the ministry [was] to learn to communicate” and that “acting [was] the best way to learn to communicate effectively,” the repertory theater recruited from the seminary as well as the community. With a self-declared interest in “classical drama,” Edyvean believed Indianapolis lacked “thought-provoking theater” and that works by authors such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Shaw were necessary to the life of the community because they had something to “teach” audiences about God and life. Through support from organizations such as the Lilly Endowment and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the group developed into a community theater with a professional staff and supported such outreach efforts as the Jumping Mouse Players (now known as the Level Playing Field) for individuals with disabilities, the Epworth Forest Summer Theatre (for Methodist youth in northern Indiana), and Matrix pre- and post-show discussions. In 1998, the group left CTS and took up residence at the University of Indianapolis where it continues to pursue its founder’s ideal of “theater with a purpose.”7 Further examples of the growing cooperation between the city’s religious institutions and the performing arts include Bethlehem Lutheran Church’s Arts of Religion competition, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s sponsorship of both the Indianapolis Arts Chorale and the Festival Music Society, the Festival of Jewish Cultural Arts at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, and Trinity Episcopal Church’s support of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in its early years (ca. 1984- 1989). Over the past decade several city churches also began sponsoring special concert series, The Polis Center at IUPUI 4
  6. 6. Religion and the Performing Arts such as the North Church Concerts (North United Methodist Church), performances by the Ensemble Ouabache (Trinity Episcopal Church), and the Indianapolis Pro Musica (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church). Since the 1970s, however, the most remarkable development in this emerging partnership has been the increasing endorsement of both drama and dance by the city’s religious institutions. Starting with the formation of both Catholic and Episcopal theater guilds, the city’s theatrical calendar expanded to include the formation of a number of church-based drama companies in the 1990s. Among those congregations forming such troupes were All Soul’s Unitarian Church (the Channing Street Players), Wesley United Methodist Church (the Wesley Theatre Company), and Central Avenue United Methodist Church which sponsored the Central Players (recipient of the Encores’ “Rookie of the Year” award for 1991). Children’s theater, such as the Broadway Camp at the Jewish Community Center and the Young Actors Theatre, founded in 1976 as part of the Free University and currently hosted by Central Avenue United Methodist Church, provides yet another avenue for religious organizations to support the performing arts in the city. Even dance now finds support among some Indianapolis religious institutions. In 1994, Indiana Night of the Episcopalian’s national convention included shows of dance and music at Christ Church Cathedral and the Circle Theatre. The Hosanna Sacred Arts dance company moved its artistic headquarters to the city in 1997 and in 1999 the Eastern Star Baptist Church Choir joined forces with the Nubian Community Theatre to present a music and dance-filled adaptation of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity at the Madame Walker Theatre Center. CONCLUSION In Indianapolis, the relationship between the performing arts and religion is long and complex. Early in the city’s history many religious individuals and institutions favored a strict regulation of public morals (through the passage of Sunday observance law for instance) and expressed open hostility toward dance and drama. In some cases, even music came in for attack, as many individuals disapproved of its use in worship services. Following the Civil War, religious opposition to all the performing arts gradually began to wane. Incidents such as the 1908 investigation of the Indianapolis Ministerial Association into dancing in the public schools, underscored both the increasing acceptance of the arts in the life of the city and the continued concern such activities aroused in its religious institutions. During these same years support from religious-minded individuals proved vital to the foundation of some of the city’s most significant cultural institutions. Since the 1950s the relationship between the performing arts and religion in Indianapolis has steadily grown closer. In the last few years, several remarkable examples of this new partnership between the arts and religion are worth noting. In 1995, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church began holding its contemporary Sunday morning worship service at the Beef & Boards dinner theater, a reversal of the Phoenix Theatre’s 1988 move into an abandoned church. The flurry of church-based theater companies that began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s entered a new stage in 2000 with Southport Presbyterian Church’s decision to incorporate its theater company (the Southport Prologue Players) into a larger arts ministry christened Center Stage. And in 1995, the Polis Center at IUPUI organized Spirit & Place, the first of what has become an annual civic festival of the arts, humanities, and religion. This collaborative event now involves close to 75 The Polis Center at IUPUI 5
  7. 7. Religion and the Performing Arts Indianapolis organizations, including arts and civic groups, universities, and congregations. As the city enters the 21st century, Spirit & Place stands as a rather remarkable example of the evolving relationship between religion and the performing arts in Indianapolis over the past century. Questions for Discussion 1. How has the relationship between religion and the performing arts changed over the past century? How have these changes affected you personally? 2. How has your congregation’s attitude toward the performing arts changed since it was founded? 3. How has the attitude of the city’s religious institutions affected the performing arts in Indianapolis? How has this affected the cultural life of the city? How do changes in this attitude affect the city today? The Polis Center at IUPUI 6
  8. 8. Religion and the Performing Arts 1 Indianapolis Star, 2 June 1908. 2 David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 142. 3 George W. Geib, Lives Touched by Faith: Second Presbyterian Church 150 Years (Indianapolis: The Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, 1987), 27-28. 4 The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 146, 632-633; Judith E. Endelman,The Jewish Community of Indianapolis: 1849 to the Present(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 133, 145. 5 Indianapolis News, 17 October 1963. 6 Indianapolis Star, 27 September 1971. 7 Indianapolis Star, 22 January 1994; Indianapolis Star, 18 October 1996. Author: Jeffery Duvall The Polis Center at IUPUI 7

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