The venerable and venerated Philadelphia theatre club named after American actress Charlotte Cushman (1817-1876) is selling its property, and auctioning much of its collected inventory in a bid to refocus its mission and provide more meaningful support to area theatres.
Located in Philadelphia, the Cushman Club was established in 1907 by local women as a haven for traveling actresses who were scorned and discriminated against when traveling alone. In subsequent years, the Cushman Club thrived as a ladies theatre club, hospitality center and clubhouse for men and women. [Cushman Clubs existed for a time in Chicago and in the actresses' native Boston.]
A Mayflower descendent who was forced to work early in life, Charlotte Cushman distinguished herself in various ways -- first as a singer (before damaging her voice), then as an actress and, from 1842-1844, as the stage manager at the Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest theatre in the United States.
Today, the Cushman Club seeks to distinguish itself by redefining its mission. Improved standards for actors -- thanks to advances made by Actors' Equity and the womens' movement -- have prompted Cushman's new plans, and the prohibitive costs involved with bringing the club's old building up to code as a residence have also inspired a rethinking of the club's mission by the Cushman board.
"We're not leaving the scene," explained Cushman club president Annette Linck. "But we're going to be much more meaningful to theatres. Today, our area theatres do not need a residence, but they do need something that's directly applicable to their theatre programs." Cushman has initiated a major auction that will help the 93-year-old organization endow grants to area theatres, to fund university scholarships for theatre majors, to subsidize theatre programming and to develop new plays. The group's plans are modest, and are directed at enhancing creative values and providing scholarship opportunities. "We will have a much more significant impact on theatres by changing our mission," Linck told Playbill On-Line, "and making direct contributions to their programs and enlarging our scholarship awards." For 20 years, the Cushman Club has sponsored a judged competition that awards theatre scholarships.
"We are not interested in plumbing," Linck added. "The things we would fund would have to be creative and not normally part of a given theatre's budget. If a theatre with a budget wanted to revive a classic play, or needed new costumes for an original work -- something creative -- then we could come in. "
Linck said Cushman hopes to make a unique impact with local area productions. By making special funding available, routine budgets would not be strained and otherwise impossible creative values -- like having a dramaturg in residence for a half year-- would be within reach.
Meanwhile, Cushman is cutting costs and is planning to raise funds with three public auctions in the next several weeks.
"We're selling the clubhouse," Linck confirmed. The asking price for the Cushman property, located in Philadelphia's theatre district at 239 So. Camac Street, is $450,000. This is the fifth property run by Cushman in its 92-year history and Linck said that all five buildings have been located in the same two-block area.
The New York City auction firm R.M. Smythe commences the first of three public auctions of Cushman theatre memorabilia on Jan. 21 at the historic Strasburg Inn in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. This sale will involve artifacts, prints, photographs, broadsides and paintings. Later, on Feb. 11 and 12, an on-site estate (furnishings) and sealed bid auction (for items including Fanny Brice's baby grand piano) will take place at the Cushman Club itself. Finally, a third sale is planned next spring at R.M. Smythe's Autograph Auction. At each event, items associated with Junius Brutus Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Forrest, Fanny Kemble, Jenny Lind, P.T. Barnum and Lillian Russell will be available.
"We're keeping the core of our collection," Linck said, "and housing it at the Charlotte Cushman Conference Room at the University of the Arts on Broad Street in the center of the theatre district."
The club will retain a bust of Cushman, certain memorabilia and many vintage Playbills with historic significance to local theatre. These will be displayed in a large glass case outside the Cushman conference room on the seventh floor of the University of the Arts.
Cushman will no longer have a physical presence where people can visit, but the organization plans to continue to support the 55 Delaware Valley area theatres.
"Cushman will not disappear from Philadelphia," Linck said. "Once the building is sold we'll set up an office [service], and we'll be listed in the phone book with a mailing address. Linck said that Cushman 's phone number, (215) 735-4676 will be retained.
For those interested in the auctions, R.M. Smythe can be reached at (800) 622-1880.
-- By Murdoch McBride