Ursula Murders a Roman Emperor

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for  "Nero," a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

Ursula poses in costume for a photographer ostensibly taking publicity pictures for “Nero,” a Roman tragedy produced by the English Club at UC Berkeley around 1922

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club's play "Nero,"  a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

As a junior at UC Berkeley, Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta in the English Club’s play “Nero,” a tragedy by Stephen Phillips

In an earlier post I mistakenly noted that Ursula played the wife of the Roman emperor Nero in a college production of the English dramatist Stephen Phillips’s tragedy, “Nero.” In reality, she was cast in the small role of Locusta, the infamous poisoner who, according to ancient historians, supplied the toxin to murder the fourth Roman Emperor, Claudius, at the behest of his wife, Agrippina. (Agrippina wanted Nero, her son from a previous marriage, to become emperor of Rome.)

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1922

In addition to that role, Ursula, our “Mystery Dancer,” danced with other young women in a scene featuring a great banquet held during the burning of Rome — “the most spectacular part of the play,” according to the Blue and Gold yearbook. Produced by the English Club during Ursula’s junior year and performed in the Greek theater, the play “set a new standard for campus drama, and added another achievement to [the club’s] splendid record.”

At some point during the play’s production, a photographer took pictures of Ursula and the other dancers in costume under the pretext that the photos were to be used for publicity. The women, who had given their consent for this use, were upset upon learning that the photographs actually were intended for publication in the Blue and Gold yearbook.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ursula headed the group in protest and demanded that the photos not be printed. She and the other dancers felt that the poses arranged by the photographer, while apparently acceptable for publicity shots, “were such that they were not proper for the formal yearbook.” As a result, Dean of Women Lucy Stebbins called a meeting between Ursula and the yearbook publishers, and it was agreed that the pictures would be kept out of the yearbook.

I am thankful that, while not deemed suitable for the yearbook, the photograph of Ursula in Roman dress did make it into the antique photo album! It is one of my favorite pictures, and contributed to my desire to buy the album and discover and share Ursula’s story.

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Ursula Plays Leading Lady (and Leading Man?)

Blue-and-Gold-Cover-1921The University of California, Berkeley’s yearbook, called “Blue and Gold” for the university’s official colors, has been a gold mine of information about Ursula’s college years. Through online digital scans of each year’s edition, I have learned of all Ursula’s official college activities (would that I had letters or diaries to discover more personal details!). Among them were:

  • Participating in (and living with) the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority
  • Singing in the Treble Clef Society, the women’s choral organization
  • Serving on the Sophomore Informal (dance) and Junior Prom committees
  • Taking part in the Woman’s Council
  • Singing in the A.W. S. (Associated Women Students) Quartet
  • Serving as a member of the Spanish Fete Committee
  • Helping with the costumes and acting in the “Senior Extravaganza”
  • Acting, singing and dancing in numerous campus dramatic productions

Membership in the Treble Clef Society figured prominently throughout Ursula’s college career as she honed her singing, acting and dancing chops. She also acquired leadership skills as Vice President of the Society during her junior year (1921-1922). Among other choral offerings, the club, which was founded in the 1870s, produced an annual opera or musical comedy. By her junior year, Ursula was starring in leading roles.

Here are group photos of the Treble Clef Society from Ursula’s junior and senior years. I love seeing the fashions she and her classmates wore.

In her junior year, Ursula (pictured kneeling at far right) served as vice president of the Treble Clef Society, a women's choral group that produced an annual musical comedy

In her junior year, Ursula (pictured kneeling at far right) served as vice president of the Treble Clef Society, a women’s choral group that produced an annual musical comedy

The Treble Clef Society — senior Ursula is in the front row, third from left

The Treble Clef Society — senior Ursula is in the front row, third from left

On October 6, 1921, under the headline “Bizarre Dance Numbers to Be Feature of Treble Clef Play,” the Oakland Tribune announced:

“Miss Ursula Cheshire, well known college singer, will play [a] leading role in the opera, while in other parts will be seen a group of the best known Thespians at the University.”

The opera was Polly Put the Kettle On, a two-act musical comedy that takes place in a Greenwich Village artist’s studio. In it, a young woman named, you guessed it, Polly (played by one of Ursula’s classmates), tries to become a successful sculptor to prove to her wealthy aunt that she is fit to make her own way in the world. The yearbook noted that Polly “would have been a credit to a professional company, and was indeed one of the best productions of the year.”

TrebleClefOpera_Polly1923-yrbkI’m not sure what role Ursula played, but judging from a yearbook photo of one of the scenes, I think it may have been a male character named Cyril. Look at the figure in black below. Doesn’t that look like Ursula in drag with a goatee? A national report of Zeta Tau Alpha announced that “ Ursula Cheshire played second lead and certainly won many laurels.”

Is that Ursula on the right? She played a leading role in the musical production "Polly Put the Kettle On" during her junior year in 1921

Is that Ursula on the right? She played a leading role in the musical production “Polly Put the Kettle On” during her junior year in 1921

The following year, a photograph of Ursula appeared in the Oakland Tribune (October 29, 1922) with the caption “Miss Ursula Cheshire, cast for a part in University of California Treble Clef opera, The Campus.” (I do not include the photo here, as it is of terrible quality in the newspaper facsimile.) It seems that by her senior year, Ursula had truly made a name for herself on campus. The article announced:

Ursula in the lead role of "The Campus." Do you recognize her dress? (See the post, "A Big Move.)

Ursula in the lead role of “The Campus.” Do you recognize her dress? (See the post, “A Big Move.)

“Ursula Cheshire, prominent in campus dramatic circles and a popular member of Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority, has been chosen as the prima donna of the production.”

Presented on campus in the Greek Theatre, The Campus portrayed college life, with its football heroes and romantic co-eds. Ursula played opposite Robert S. Stanton, who takes the part of a football hero who, according to the Tribune article, “is a practical and matter-of-fact college man with no romance in his makeup, much to the disgust of the heroine whose ideal is a romantic cave man.”

A not-so-favorable review of the production in that year’s Blue and Gold nevertheless singled Ursula out for praise:

“…if it hadn’t been for the excellent cast my interest would have faltered completely. I have to hand it to Ethel Stone; and, Ursula Cheshire, of course, was good.”

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