Written By Charles R. Hill. Ph.D., Austin, Texas August 2011
Someone once said that the famous Broadway producer Brock Pemberton had a drawl as flat as the plains of Kansas. Truly, Pemberton never forgot his Kansas roots and remained loyal even after he and his also famous brother Murdock ventured to tackle the wonders of New York City. Armed with letters of introduction including one from the internationally respected editor William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette, the ambitious brothers began their careers writing for the city’s newspapers. Brock started by being one of the many so called drama critics at that time eventually ending up as an assistant to the producer Arthur Hopkins where he learned important lessons about the theatre on Broadway just before World War I. So by 1920 he was ready to launch out on his own as an independent producer achieving a solid reputation over the next three decades. Early along the way he made contact with Antoinette Perry who was an actress in one of Broadway’s most productions he produced called The Ladder. The critics had panned the play, but the wealthy Texan financing the play kept it running for 792 performances because he believed in its message of reincarnation. Perry and Pemberton became business partners, and she began directing his plays making her niche as a talented Broadway female director. Their achievements together were legendary, and when she died in 1946, Pemberton suggested to the Theatre Wing they create an award in honor of her memory: thus the Tony awards were created.
One of their most successful and lasting productions was the play HARVEY written by Mary Chase. It became a long running hit and eventual movie starring James Stewart. In 1948 Pemberton brought the production back to Emporia, Kansas, his home town where his mother and sister still lived and performed the leading role of Elwood P. Dowd in it himself along with a cast from the University of Kansas. Being the loyal Kansan, he considered this production his gift to Emporia. Another of his contributions to his home state was to act as chairman of the Alf Landon campaign in NYC during the Kansas governor’s bid for the presidency of the U.S.. whack was a feeble attempt in the wake of President Roosevelt’s popularity.
However when Pemberton brought HARVEY to Emporia, I saw the production and became interested in his work since he was a local person. Being a theatre major I was later to play the role myself in the first Summer Theatre production at Emporia State Teachers College in 1955. I later repeated the role twice more, once in Emporia and here in Austin, Texas. The portrait of Harvey and me hangs in my living room today. So, as I was finishing work on my Ph.D. at the University of Kansas and seeking a dissertation topic, it became rather obvious a look into Pemberton’s career and contributions would be worth investigating. and so it was. He was an important and major figure in the American theatre from 1920 to 1950, the year of his death. His many and varied productions are fascinating, and The Ladder still is an amazement in the annals of Broadway history.