To celebrate 90 years of the International Thespian Society (and this magazine, originally called The High School Thespian), we at Dramatics offer this five-part series tracking highlights of our institutional memory, two decades at a time. Follow and add to the ongoing celebration at #ITS90th and #ThespianForever.

IN HIS 1960 Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech, John F. Kennedy said, “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities,” noting in particular the final frontier of space. The following year, he announced his goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, which the U.S. did in July 1969. By the end of the next decade, the country had launched the space shuttle program.

The ’60s and ’70s were also a period of unprecedented exploration and growth for Thespians. In 1960, the society had 2,128 chartered troupes and 411,236 active and alumni members. In 1979, there were 3,125 troupes (nearly a 50 percent increase) and 1,093,850 active and alumni members (more than a 165 percent increase).

In 1963, the National Thespian Society (as our organization was known then) took an important step in expanding its frontiers when it made its initial bow in Europe, with the installation of Troupe 2327 at Frankfurt American High School, the largest and one of the oldest high schools for U.S. military dependents in Europe.

When Ronald Longstreth became executive director in 1968, upon Leon Miller’s retirement, he oversaw the organization’s name change to the International Thespian Society, which reflected its growing geographical reach. Two years later, the name of the biennial play festival was similarly changed to the International Theatre Arts Conference.

Indeed, most of the offerings on the roster of that first rechristened conference had a particularly international flavor — from East Indian dance to classical Japanese theatre, from Hawaiian songs to the “folk war movie” Viet Rock.

As ITS expanded its horizons and size, the need for larger headquarters also became evident. In 1935, the society’s first offices had simply been two rooms on the second floor of a home in the College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1952, the society moved to a new 2,000 square foot location, but as former Dramatics editor Thomas Barker noted, space grew so tight that “one room held six workers whose desks were shoved so tightly together, and pushed so near file cabinets and storage shelves, that even walking could be hazardous.”

Numerous Thespians, sponsors, and staff members contributed to a capital campaign to purchase 3368 Central Parkway for $127,500 (equivalent to about $580,000 today). And on June 10, 1976, more than 150 people, including founders Paul Opp and Harry Leeper, gathered at the new headquarters building for its dedication.

Carol Channing, the Tony Award-winning star of Hello, Dolly!, presided over the unveiling, assisted by student David Finkel, who had recently been inducted as the millionth Thespian. Finkel had agreed to join his school’s Thespian troupe, Shelbyville (Ind.) Senior High’s Troupe 3334, on the condition that he never had to act. He quickly progressed through the ranks, from stage crew, to light operator, to stage manager, “with lots of intermingled jobs between,” as he modestly put it.

At the 1978 International Theatre Arts Conference, the society kicked off its 50th anniversary celebrations with a reunion of the organization’s surviving founders: Harry Leeper and Paul Opp. (Ernest Bavely had died in 1950.) As Dramatics editor S. Ezra Goldstein noted, “The three men who gathered, most likely, in a small professor’s cubicle at Fairmont State College in Fairmont, W.Va., in 1929, would scarcely recognize today the society they were then forming.”

Earl Blank, director of Thespian Troupe 1, told the assembled crowd, “Sitting at my desk during a free period in the Natrona County High School of Casper, Wyo., I am just daydreaming, when I think, ‘Why can’t drama students have a national organization?’ … I decided to ask for help, and right then and there wrote to Paul Opp.”

Opp recalled that the answer was simple: To provide “help in improving the quality of productions; aid in play selection and problems of stagecraft; and a magazine that would keep directors abreast of what other schools were doing and offer them publicity for their own outstanding work.” Leeper added, “We felt that our society could do more than just honor students for outstanding work in dramatics; we wanted it to serve as a vehicle to improve high school dramatics.”

Indeed, the International Thespian Society was formed, has grown, and will continue to grow for Thespians. Even as the organization continues to explore the unknown outer edges of its frontiers, its center will remain the student Thespian.

Compiled from reporting by R. Glenn Webb and S. Ezra Goldstein. This story appeared in the August 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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