Babcock, Maud May (1867–1954)

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Babcock, Maud May (1867–1954)

First woman professor at the University of Utah, whose blend of classes in oratory, speech, and physical education became the basis for the earliest university theater in the U.S. Born Maud May Babcock in East Worcester, Otsego County, New York, on May 2, 1867; died on December 31, 1954, in Salt Lake City, Utah; daughter of William Wayne Babcock (a doctor) andSarah Jane (Butler) Babcock ; graduated from high school in Binghamton, New York; granted B.A., Welles College, 1884; B.E. in elocution, Philadelphia National School of Oratory, 1886; attended Harvard University, 1890–92; granted diploma, American Academy of Dramatic Art, 1890; pupil of Albert Ayres, 1891; studied in London and Paris one year, and University of Chicago, 1901; never married; no children.

Taught in the public schools, New York City (1888–89); was visiting professor of oratory and speech, Rutgers College; taught at School of Physical Education of Harvard University (1890–92); accepted position of professor of oratory, speech, and physical education at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory (1892); with brother, Dr. William Wayne Babcock, joined in providing $2,500 for equipment for first women's gymnasium in Utah (1893); directed first public performance (1893); produced Eleusthenia (1895); guest director for the Washington Square and Provincetown Players (1916); conducted first university Little Theatre west of the Mississippi (1917); made world tour (1928–29); manager of Utah Theatre (now Playhouse) and other theatrical companies performing in the intermountain region; member of executive council of National Association of Teachers of Speech; instigated Theta Alpha Phi dramatic fraternity at the University of Utah and was national president for two years; served on board of trustees of State School for Deaf and Blind (1897–1917), and was board president for 12 years, the first woman to preside over the trustees of a state institution.

Selected writings:

The Handbook for Teachers of Interpretation, Interpretative Selection for High Schools, Interpretative Selection for College, and Interpretation of the Printed Page (all text books); contributed to Quarterly Journal for Speech Education.

A fetching photograph made in 1892 suggests something of the nature of the independent-minded woman known to decades of students at the University of Utah as "Miss B." A slender young woman with round, prominent eyes in an oval face stands staring into the camera, while one shapely leg points to the side in a ballet-second position. Above her black stockings, navy blue bloomers end just below the knee, and a long-sleeved navy blouse is filled in at the neck, sailor-suit style, by a striped dickey, while a sash wrapped around her slim waist adds a touch of flair. This innovative "bloomer-suit," introduced at the University of Utah in the year of May Babcock's arrival was for women to wear while playing basketball, a sport the new teacher introduced to her female students shortly after its invention back in Springfield, Massachusetts. Before this outfit, revealing hitherto "undisclosed knee and well-turned ankle," could be introduced, the innovative teacher had to ride out the protests of some students' mothers, but Babcock's activity costume prevailed. With typical aplomb, she then went on to other things. While women's basketball competition remained under her direction until 1900 (a full decade before the men's first games), Miss B's main interest was in the theater.

Born on May 2, 1867, in East Worcester, Otsego County, New York, Maud May Babcock was the daughter of Sara Jane Butler and physician William Wayne Babcock. The family moved to Binghamton when Babcock was ten; there, she completed high school. In later years, she gave credit to an elderly, doting neighbor who played "audience" to her earliest impulses, heartily applauding her dramatic portrayals. At age 15, she gave a stirring Daniel Webster oration at school that won her encouragement to become an elocutionist.

After graduation from Welles College in 1884, Babcock studied elocution widely, first at the Philadelphia National School of Oratory, then the American Academy of Dramatic Art, where she received a diploma in 1890; she also studied in London and Paris for a year and spent the summers from 1890–92 at Harvard University. Apparently a sickly child, she grew stronger from doing light calisthenics and performing the Delsarte system of exercise required in her oratory classes. Her most valued training came under the Shakespearean dramatist Alfred Ayers, whom she often quoted as saying, "If you can read Shakespeare properly, you can read anything."

In 1888–89, Babcock taught in the public schools of New York City and was a visiting professor of oratory at Rutgers University. In the summer of 1892, while directing a summer school of physical education for women at Harvard University, she impressed a young woman student, Susa Young Gates , a daughter of Brigham Young, who encouraged her to consider teaching at the University of Utah. Accustomed only to established communities but curious about life in a frontier area that was not yet a state, the adventurous Babcock decided to move west, at age 25, with her handmade shoes, gloves, and Eastern ladies' regalia.

Enchanted by the welcome she received, Babcock quickly made Salt Lake City her home. Nestled downtown, the University of Utah would relocate at the turn of the century to the foothills of the eastern Rocky Mountains bordering Salt Lake; meanwhile, she became its first woman educator appointed in the new but promising field of physical education and elocution; 12 years later, she would be made a full professor.

Blending physical culture and oratory, Babcock presented her first public production on May 23, 1893. It was described as "largely a demonstration of drills with dumbbells, wands, Indian clubs, and dances" but possessing dramatic elements. That same year, she joined with her brother Dr. William Wayne Babcock, a specialist in spinal surgery and author of specialty medical texts, in providing the school with what was then the lordly sum of $2,500 for equipment to set up the first women's gymnasium in Utah in the remodeled Social Hall. This became the basis for a physical education summer program featuring other outstanding visiting professionals in the field, and led to a blending of physical culture and oratory that was to become the first university theater in the United States.

On June 6, 1895, Babcock produced and directed The Eleusthenia, based on the Greek harvest festival and the myths of Demeter and Perse-phone, as the university's first dramatic production, at the Salt Lake Theater. Acclaimed as "sensational" by the local press, it received praise from the university's new president, James E. Talmadge, who wrote, "I was so enchanted with Eleusthenia that the critical faculty was entirely subdued in me." A new play followed each year, and, after the school's relocation in 1900, a dramatic club was organized, and both a freshman play and a varsity play were performed annually. Miss B took the best productions to smaller communities in Utah and Idaho, bringing Shaw, Ibsen, Barrie, and Shakespeare to the outlying regions.

In 1920, the Utah Alpha chapter of the national dramatic fraternity Theta Alpha Phi was installed at the university, opening a new epoch of college theater, in which alumni members added maturity to the productions and became devoted troupers, building scenery and contributing costumes and props. By the early 1930s, the construction of Kingsbury Hall included a theater, giving the campus a permanent performance setting. Under Babcock's direction, one to three full-length plays were put on each year over the 46 years of her professorial career.

When he entered the university, Herbert Maw, the future governor of Utah, approached Babcock, describing his insecurity and need to improve his confidence in order to succeed in his chosen field: law. Babcock encouraged him to enroll in her drama class and try out for a play. As he sat through an evening listening to his betters in the tryouts, the shy student hoped to land a part of perhaps 10–12 words, but at the next meeting Babcock announced that Maw was to take the role of king. Thus followed "six or eight weeks of torture" in which he learned to "stress lines," said Maw. "The worst of it was my walking…. [S]he had to teach me to walk with dignity—the dignity of a king." Instructing him to walk with his head held high and shoulders straight, Miss B would remind him, "You are the king…. Don't walk like a nincompoop." By opening night, Maw could walk on stage with the queen at his side, feeling that he was indeed the king. Then, for her production of Twelfth Night, the wily professor cast him as the drunken fool, explaining, "You need ease while performing." When he was cast as Pete Swallow, a tombstone salesman, she said it was because "he needed a little more freedom to weave things into his acting on the impulse of the moment."

Babcock was also a champion of women's rights, insisting that "our women must and are freeing themselves from the false ideals of our grandmothers that little girls should 'sit still,' 'be quiet,' 'fold their hands,' and grow up 'little ladies.'" She blessed "gumption" feeling the soul was devoid without it. She insisted on literary excellence in oratory and interpretation of the printed page, expecting any reading to be done "with brains—one would understand the thought, hold the thought, and give the thought, and then could perform skillfully." She claimed "literature was written to be spoken…. A poem is not truly a poem until it is voiced by an accomplished artist."

In 1916, Babcock was guest director for the Washington Square and Provincetown Players; the following year, she conducted the first University Little Theatre west of the Mississippi; meanwhile, she was largely responsible for the University of Utah being among the first colleges to offer undergraduate classes in dramatic production. She traveled widely in the U.S., doing dramatic readings from her vast repertory of literary and theatrical works that drew large audiences. In 1928–29, she traveled around the world, and she managed the Utah Theatre (now the Playhouse), a professional company, for one year, as well as other theater companies that performed in the Intermountain Region.

In her home, Babcock was a gracious hostess, surrounded by objects collected in her travels. She was especially fond of treasures from the ancient Chinese culture, and she set her table with a delicate hand-embroidered linen cloth that was complemented by pieces of ancient carved ivory and jade from her Oriental collection, with hand-painted dishes, and imported gold-rimmed crystal that had been her mother's. Large bowls of steaming rice would be topped with her special recipe of chicken chow mein, while her Chinese Chow dog Chi Mu would rest at her feet and Loreeta, a mimicking parrot from South America, added bits of jargon. Hand-carved chests of Chinese camphorwood, imported Chinese nesting tables, objects of cloisonne and carved ivory memorabilia stood in rooms lined with shelves of her professorial books. On her desk, she kept a long letter from Madame Chiang-Kai-Shek (Song Meiling ) thanking Babcock for her interest in the Chinese people and contributions for the aid of Chinese victims of the Sino-Japanese war. She answered her phone with a perfunctory "yes," voicing a slight upswing, and penned her notes and comments to students and friends in purple ink; she was an institution.

In June 1939, Miss B became Doctor Babcock, awarded an honorary doctorate at commencement. In November 1950, she gave what proved to be her final address, in response to a special request from the National Speech Association, which she had served as president in 1936. She had been one of a very small group who brought about the recognition of speech as an academic discipline on the college level, making her program at Utah one of the first to achieve departmental status anywhere in the country. She has been credited with starting the now widespread practice among American colleges and universities of presenting dramatic productions with regularity. The Pioneer Memorial Theatre has now been named the Babcock Theatre. In her last years, Maud May Babcock suffered from Alzheimer's disease; she died December 31, 1954, at age 87, in her beloved Salt Lake City.


Babcock, Maud May, Litt. D. Interpretation of the Printed Page: Mental Technique of Speech. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1940.

Chamberlain, Ralph Vary. The University of Utah: A History of Its First Hundred Years, 1850–1950. Salt Lake City, 1960.

Gates, Susa Young. "Maud May Babcock, B.E.," in The Young Woman's Journal, The Organ of the Y.L.M.I. Associations. June 1894.

Glade, Earl J. Utah's Distinguished Personalities. Vol I. Compiled and edited by Ralph B. Simmons. Salt Lake City, UT: Personality Publishing, 1933.

"Maud May Babcock celebration," presented by the Maud May Babcock Reading Arts Society in cooperation with the University of Utah Theater Department, October 8, 1981.

Price, Raye. "Utah's Leading Ladies of the Arts," in Utah Historical Quarterly. Volume 38, no. 1. Winter 1970, pp. 77–82.

Harriet Horne Arrington , women's biographer, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Babcock, Maud May (1867–1954)

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