The Educational Theatre Association’s annual play survey has tracked trends in high school theatre since 1938, the first year that a compilation of the most frequently produced plays was published in Dramatics’ precursor, The High School Thespian. At the top of the list that year was Charles Quimby Burdette’s New Fires. More than 80 years later, it’s likely most Thespians don’t know Burdette’s comedy, so here’s a look at what made the show so popular.

“THOSE WHO ENJOYED Shirt Sleeves will welcome this new play by the same author,” wrote High School Thespian editor Harry Leeper in his January 1936 roundup, “What’s New Among Books and Plays.” According to Leeper, “New Fires is a domestic comedy admirably adapted to high school use in subject matter, difficulty of roles, and set requirements. Although the roles are not difficult, they offer sufficient challenge to make them well worthwhile, with characters that are real people. The plot is wholesome and true to life. … New Fires is a play that carries a message of idealism without preaching and should become very popular with amateur groups.”

Leeper’s prediction proved highly accurate. Seventeen high school Thespian troupes staged New Fires during the 1937-38 school year, making the show the most popular play among the 226 schools that submitted season details. A comedy in three acts featuring a cast of 15, New Fires was licensed by Illinois-based Row, Peterson, and Company following 66 test performances by high schools across the country.

The script for Charles Quimby Burdette's New Fires.

The script for Charles Quimby Burdette’s New Fires.

Published in 1935 as part of the company’s Gateway Series of Tested Plays, the story centers on writer Stephen Santry, who inherits a small farm in Missouri, where he travels to get away from the noise of his Chicago home and focus on his work. He summons his city-dwelling family to join him, including his wife and their four children, ranging in age from 15 to 22. Rounding out the party is eldest son Dick’s new bride.

Each of them views the trip as little more than a pleasant diversion, but Stephen’s invitation comes with an ulterior motive. He’s long been frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of purpose within his clan, the cause being too much leisure and not enough responsibility. Once assembled, Stephen gives his family an ultimatum: They need to show initiative and work for their room and board or face being cut off from his financial support.

Not surprisingly, Stephen’s demands are met with a near uprising, but plans for a quick escape back to the city are thwarted when a visiting neighbor falls ill with scarlet fever. The Santrys find themselves quarantined for an entire month. With little choice, each begrudgingly begins to appreciate the benefits of a simpler life, and family harmony is achieved once more.

In the published edition of the script, O.E. Sams Jr., director of dramatics for the Knoxville, Tenn., high school that piloted the show, wrote, “New Fires can truthfully be called the perfect high school play. It has everything: complication, dramatic climax, humor, pathos, and good, common sense. The characters are well drawn and human; the climaxes at the end of each scene are gripping and dramatic; its humorous lines and situations are well conceived and well written, making it a sure-fire hit with any audience.”

Wisconsin’s Appleton High School senior class also staged one of New Fires early performances. “I am writing you my unreserved and wholehearted recommendation of this new release for high school production,” Ruth McKennan, the school’s director of dramatics, wrote in her testimonial. “The theme of the play is a timely one, portraying a typical story of modern life, which strikes a familiar note in the hearts of the audience. It very subtly teaches a lesson of better living, which has a definite educational value.”

A 1958 ad in Dramatics featured New Fires.

Burdette was the pseudonym for playwright and editor Lee Owen Snook, whose other works include It’s All in Your HeadDouble ExposureWings of the Morning, and Once in a Lifetime, as well as several short play compilations. Snook was also the drama editor for Row, Peterson, and Company. In that role, he penned a 1931 article for The High School Thespian, summarizing his philosophy on what makes a good high school play. In addition to shows with simple sets and costumes that feature important roles for young women, Snook called for plays that “develop character, instruct the young actor, and open to him a new vista of experience, which is well within his power to interpret.”

He wrote, “The high school play is no longer the stepchild of Broadway. It has come into its own. The time is past when the only recommendation which a play needs to intrigue the high school director is the statement that it has had a successful run on Broadway. School officials, teachers, parents — all have come to know that the high school player needs a product which is as highly differentiated as his textbook. With this understanding comes the consciousness that what the play does to the actor is just as important as what it does to the audience.”

The High School Thespian staff judged the 1937-38 high school theatre season a successful one, with the quality and merit of productions improving overall. “While entertainment is a very important factor in the choice of plays, it is also evident that both teachers and students want plays that do not sacrifice, for the sake of entertainment, all the other values high school plays should have,” they wrote in September 1938. “There is strong evidence to show that high school audiences are gradually learning to appreciate and demand plays that are worthwhile.”

New Fires remained an “established favorite” in Row, Peterson’s advertisements well into the 1950s. Though today the play is largely forgotten, its title will always possess a special place in Thespian history.

International Thespian Society 90th birthday logo
  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    In the Beginning, 1929-1939

    In the Beginning, 1929-1939

    Celebrating 90 years of Thespians

    Apr 01, 2019

    2018 Annual Play Survey

    2018 Annual Play Survey

    The results are in!

    Aug 01, 2018

    2017 Annual Play Survey

    2017 Annual Play Survey

    Survey reveals impact of school theatre

    Dec 01, 2017