In New Hampshire, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal facilitated many noteworthy undertakings, both large and small. This complex network of federal programs provided work for thousands of New Hampshire citizens during the Great Depression of the 1930s and into the early months of World War II. New Deal-supported initiatives helped to keep people off welfare rolls, and also provided tangible benefits to communities. In nearly every case, New Deal projects were made possible through the cooperation and active sponsorship of local entities.
In addition to building infrastructure — public buildings, parks, roads, bridges, etc. — the New Deal also provided cultural and educational opportunities. Under this second category, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was able to hire out-of-work writers under its Federal Writers’ Project and artists under its Federal Art Project. It also employed people in the performing arts through its Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and Federal Music Project (FMP).
The FTP presented a variety of entertaining stage productions in New Hampshire cities and towns. One of these was “Hawk Island,” a murder mystery melodrama set in a New England mansion. This 1929 Broadway play inspired a 1930 B-movie entitled “Midnight Mystery.” In the summer of 1936 the FTP put on a different play each week at Manchester’s popular amusement park, Pine Island Park. Among the plays the FTP presented there was “Your Uncle Dudley,” a light-hearted comedy set in a small town. That same summer the FTP’s Vaudeville Unit toured southern New Hampshire with an old-fashioned variety show.
The FMP organized a traveling dance orchestra and occasionally provided musicians for FTP-produced musicals and vaudeville shows. It coordinated music classes throughout the state for children and adults, offering singing lessons, music appreciation classes, clinics for school bands, and more. The FMP also organized a touring symphony orchestra and a chorus, which premiered in a joint concert in Manchester on the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, 1936.
The performance went on as scheduled despite the alarming reality that the Merrimack River, which runs through the middle of the city, was beginning to overflow its banks. The bold-face headline on the front page of the Manchester Union newspaper on March 14, 1936 read “Ice Jams Threaten Southern New Hampshire.” The Great Flood of 1936, the worst disaster the region had ever known, was beginning to hit Manchester hard.
But the show must go on. So, 1,000 people braved the elements to enjoy the concert, which featured classical music played by the 31-piece orchestra conducted by Ernest I. Heath. On Monday, March 16, the Manchester Union reported, “The WPA Symphony Orchestra and WPA Chorus scored a decided hit Sunday afternoon in their first appearance at Practical Arts Auditorium (at Central High School). Music lovers throughout the city evinced their interest in these units … and thronged to the concert. Although members of the orchestra have rehearsed together for only a short time they succeeded in playing their selections in a capable and interesting manner … The chorus, which is small but well balanced, was directed by Alfred E. Plumpton. Its selections on a whole were in a lighter vein than those of the orchestra but were equally well received. Miss Germaine Pellerin acted as accompanist.” The chorus sang several popular songs, including “Too-ra-loo, that’s an Irish Lullaby.” The orchestra played along when the singers belted out a medley of “Dixie” and other familiar southern tunes.
On March 16 the FMP musicians and singers gave the first of several live performances broadcast by WFEA radio in Manchester. Concert broadcasts were popular during this era before television when families would gather around the radio in the evening to listen. The WPA Orchestra later became known as the New Hampshire State Symphony Orchestra. Within two years of its March 1936 debut in Manchester, it performed more than 150 concerts, reaching thousands of people. The orchestra was honored to be featured at the New Hampshire Music Festival on Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, and at the Copley Theatre in Boston.
A writer in the Portsmouth Herald newspaper in 1938 echoed the opinion of many in regards to New Hampshire’s WPA orchestra: “It is doing thoughtful, serious, and intelligent work and has won the admiration of critical audiences throughout the state.”
Next week: The history of music and musicians in New Hampshire.