From Cambria to Broadway: The Short, Wonderful Life of Russel G. Siegfried

An Unjustly Forgotten Man

Purdue Debris, 19285
On May 26th, 1929, the Governor of the state of Indiana, Harry G. Leslie, arrived with his wife in the little town of Mulberry, Clinton County, to serve as honorary pall bearer for "one of the best known and most highly respected young men of the state."1,2 The young man in question, only thirty-four years old when he died, was a theater director and Purdue professor whose ingenious staging was so well regarded that one world-famous Broadway playwright came all the way to West Lafayette to see it, and was so impressed at what he saw that he took the director to New York City to introduce him to the professional Broadway set.3,4 Tragically, by that point, the professor had less than a year to live.

Yet somehow, even given all of the above, even given that I grew up in the same postage-stamp town that he was born and raised in, even given that I went to the high school where he taught English and first discovered his talent for stagecraft, even given that I discovered theater in that very same school, neither I nor anyone I asked had ever heard of him until I stumbled across his name while researching Cambria.

Let's fix that.


Cambria circa 1940s. Building with carport (center) was David Siegfried's work.6

Russell at I.U., 191813
On August 24, 1895, in the tiny town of Cambria, Clinton County, Russel Grant Siegfried was born.7 His father, David, was a brick mason who made bottle-shaped cisterns and was responsible for several of the earliest buildings erected in Cambria, some still standing today.6 There Russell attended the primary school he would one day teach, until at the age of twelve he moved with his family to Mulberry.

After graduating Mulberry high school in 1913, he returned to Cambria in 1914 to teach grade school.6 He must have discovered he liked teaching, because he then went to Indiana University to get his B.A., after which he taught at I.U. for one year, then moved to teaching high school at Rossville.6,8,9 (One obituary says while at I.U. he "went to officers' training camp for service in the World war,"7 but presumably he went no further because the war ended. On his draft card, it says he was exempt from service due to a rupture.10 It was around this time (1919) he learned his younger brother, Paul, died on active duty in France. Paul was seventeen years old.)11,12

Pvt. Paul Siegfried12

Plays At Rossville and Mulberry

It was while he was teaching at Rossville that he first began directing.7,1 There, he "put on one of Oliver Goldsmith's plays in a manner never before attempted in so small a place."1 These first plays appear to have done well, with one in Rossville netting $190 in 1921 (equivalent to about $2,700 in 2018), which was considered "a financial success."14 One member of the Rossville High School class of 1923, remembering a 1921 play which was likely the one referenced above, wrote: "Our play, 'The Poor Married Man,' proved to be a great success and helped fill our coffers."15 They also mention a play put on the next year called, "And Billy Disappeared," which "proved very successful," though there is no indication whether Siegfried directed it.

The timeline is a little unclear as to when exactly he taught at Rossville, but assuming he was still a teacher there when he directed that play in 1921, he must have been splitting his time between Rossville and Purdue, because he became an English instructor at the University in 1920. That was a pivotal year for him because it was also when he married Ailene Atherton, a fellow I.U. alum16 from an upwardly mobile family in North Judson (father an English blacksmith-turned-president of the North Judson Packing & Creamery Co., mother an Illinoisan president of various ladies' charitable clubs),17,18 and moved back to Mulberry, where he would live for the rest of his tragically short life.

The Journal and Courier's account of their wedding is amusing, so I give it here in full:
The quietude of the east part of Mulberry for which its citizens are noted, was suddenly broken Monday evening by the sudden outburst of shrieks, yells and bombardment of firearms by the 'young bloods of our town,' when they had an old fashioned 'belling' for Mr. and Mrs. Russel Seigfreidt, recently married. The bride and groom were not at home when the 'bellers' arrived but the 'company' remained until they came.19

Mulberry School ca. 191520

Russell never acted himself, but Ailene did in at least one of his plays.1,21 She played "Mrs. Frank Fuller" in "Small Town Follies," the third of three annual musical comedies he directed with the local actors of the Mulberry Dramatic Club. Though these were put on by small-town amateurs, they were serious musicals. Of the 1924 play Ailene starred in, the Journal and Courier noted:
No stone has been left unturned by R. G. Siegfried, who has the complete direction of the production in making this year's show better and bigger than ever. 
Mr. Siegfried has just been to the New York Costume house at Chicago getting additional chorus sets and scenery. The elaborate costumes, scenery and lighting effects will make the production one dazzling spectacle of splendor. 
Ollie McIntyre's orchestra of Frankfort will furnish the music for the show.21
The Mulberry Reporter, in Siegfried's obituary, said of these three Mulberry musicals: "These entertainments outdid anything of the kind ever seen here, and probably we'll never see their equal. Two of these comedies were played two nights, each to crowded houses, at the Conley theater in Frankfort."1 Of the 1921 show, J&C reported that one thousand people were expected to attend.22

Plays At Purdue

A Chorus of "Stage Beauties" in the 1928 All Men's Revue5

Soon, Siegfried began directing the Little Theater Players and the All Men's Revue, both at Purdue, and both extremely successful. The latter, in which an all-male cast dressed up and danced as women, seems to have been especially popular. Here are just a couple excerpts from the J&C review of his 1926 Revue, "Assorted Nuts," which is praised at length:
Stage Beauty5
To say that there is not a dull moment in the entire performance is not enough. It is delightful entertainment from beginning to end, two hours and a half of lively fun-making, brilliant dancing, colorful singing, to say nothing of graceful stepping by the agile chorus, the best ever seen here in a  production of this kind. The success achieved by R. G. Siegfried, the director, in transforming burly Boilermakers into really charming stage beauties of the opposite sex, is nothing short of wizardry. The foxiest denizens of the bald-headed row would never fathom the deception. 
... As for Mr. Siegfried's work, it is eminently successful, adding more laurels to his reputation as an effective theatrical coach. In "Assorted Nuts" he has fairly outdone himself and wins a world of credit, particularly in his skill in developing that marvelous chorus that is the outstanding feature of the production. ... 23
It is during this period, in 1923, that we have the first possible sign of the disease that would kill him. There is a one-line news item which reads, "R. G. Siegfried, of the English department at Purdue, is in Rochester, Minn., where he underwent an optical operation at the Mayo Brothers hospital."24 In six years he would be dead of Hodgkin's Disease (now known as Hodgkin's lymphoma), at which point one obituary noted, "The disease first manifested itself some five or six years ago and from the very first there was a constant, persistent downward trend."1

But Siegfried still had the best of his life ahead of him. He did so well with the Little Theater Players and All Men's Revue that in 1926 the board of the Purdue Harlequin Club, the major dramatic organization at the university, voted to make him their director too. "Mr. Siegfried is the first faculty member ever selected as Harlequin director and his appointment gives him direct charge of all student theatricals at Purdue."25 He was basically the Drama Czar, and he took over to rapturous reviews.

"Castles In The Air" 1928 (no men in this photo)5

On a 1927 dress rehearsal of "The O'Brien Girl":
Final Rehearsal Proves a Revelation Even to Director Siegfried; Troope Perfect in Presentation. 
Just how well Russell G. Siegfried, director of the 1927 Harlequin club musical comedy, "The O'Brien Girl", has succeeded in perfecting his cast in the intricacies of that sparkling production, to be presented at the Mars theater Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights of this week, was revealed to a select audience of friends of the organization at a complete dress rehearsal late Tuesday night at the Mars, and the performance was a success beyond the fondest expectations. Indeed, the director himself congratulated the members of the company and the professional orchestra and declared that they had mastered every detail of the play. 
"Castles In The Air"5
Mr. Siegfried's methods have really accomplished wonders this year in the Harlequin production. The rehearsal went through without a single hitch and was timed exactly as a public presentation of the play will be. There was not a moment's loss of time, nobody forgot or fumbled in any word, song or dance, and the chorus work was a marvel of precision and grace. The specialties were particularly dazzling. 
But it was the perfectly trained chorus that came in for the lion's share of applause. Both the young men and young women execute maneuvers never attempted before by amateurs, and their work is faultless, presenting many new ideas in formation and fancy stepping. As for the costumes, they baffle description. Purdue's beauties are seen in the most beautiful creations of the stage costumer's art. They are graceful girls and stunning in their display of feminine charm. 
The principals perform brilliantly, bringing out the rich comedy of the play and appearing in song and dance numbers that are by far the best things ever seen in a Harlequin play. The opening performance Thursday night will be a revelation to the public. Seats are still available at the Mars box office.26
"Castles In The Air"5
The following month, that show played in Indianapolis at the Murat theater to a crowd that included both then-Governor Edward L. Jackson and future-Governor (and future pall-bearer for Siegfried) Harry G. Leslie.27 Whether this was when he first met Leslie, or how close they ever were, I do not know, but it seems likely they were at least acquainted, given that Leslie was both a native of West Lafayette and a Purdue grad.28 (Indeed, Leslie had a great deal of fame himself from his time at the university, as he was not only a star football player, but one of only two people on the team to survive the Halloween 1903 Purdue train wreck that killed 14 of his fellow players. The other survivor was flung through a window and landed miraculously unharmed on his feet. Leslie survived through a different kind of miracle: he was pronounced dead on the scene and carted to the morgue, where he surprised the morticians preparing to embalm him by still being alive. Trick or treat!)

The Indianapolis performance was, of course, a rousing success:
It was another triumph for coach, cast and chorus and the audience, the largest that ever witnessed a Purdue play in the capital city, was enthusiastic in registering approval of the work of the company. ... Russell G. Siegfried, the director, came in for a lion's share of the praise bestowed by Indianapolis on the Harlequin play. Mr. Siegfried's work was pronounced the best ever seen in that city in a college play.27
News of his talent spread, and "a Chicago amusement company offered Mr. Siegfried a tempting salary to come to Chicago,"1 but Purdue found a way to keep him. One month after the Indianapolis performance, they promoted him from Instructor to Assistant Professor of English29 with "a salary that justified him in remaining there."1

"Castles In The Air" cast, 19285

The following year, 1928, Siegfried directed what seems to have been both his best and last play. "Castles in the Air" by Raymond W. Peck had opened on Broadway two years earlier, and in London in 1927.30,31 How it came to be that the "world-famous New York playwright" himself came to see the performance, I do not know, but he "pronounced it equal to the professional offering in many respects, and even better in others."3 It was so popular that after its normal three-day run in April, they staged it again a month later for those that could not get tickets the first time.

That year's Purdue yearbook, The Debris, was dedicated to Siegfried "as a tribute to his genius in Purdue theatricals," and the following month he traveled with his wife and son to New York as Peck's guest. "Mr. Siegfried and his family will spend several weeks in the east and he will attend rehearsals of Ziegfeld and Shubert shows as a guest of the management. Mr. Peck is a great admirer of the Purdue director..."3

It must have been the happiest time in Siegfried's life, and serves as a sign of what he might have gone on to accomplish. But eight months later, he had to withdraw from dramatic work due to his health, and three months after that he was dead.32,7

Final Illness

In the last month of his life, the community came together to try to save him. When it was learned he needed blood for transfusion, over 200 Purdue students volunteered to be tested for compatibility. In the end, they chose one described as his "protege," Bill Miller, an actor in many of Siegfried's plays and a star fullback on the varsity football team.38,33 After the transfusion at St. Elizabeth hospital, he seemed to rally. "He bore his suffering with fortitude during his long illness and without complaint, and while he knew the end was near in his last hours continued in that same characteristic vein of cheerfulness that won for him a multitude of friends who will mourn on account of his death."1 Twenty days later, he died. He was thirty-four.33,7
Profile of Bill Miller 19285

The funeral, held at his home in Mulberry, was: of the most largely attended ever seen here. The attendance from Mulberry and immediate vicinity was augmented by numerous friends and relatives from the Rossville and Cambria neighborhoods, and many students as well as members of the faculty were here from Purdue. Gov. Leslie and his wife were over from Indianapolis, but President Elliot of Purdue was in the West and could not be here. 
There never was such a profusion of floral tributes seen in this town. There were more than fifty pieces of floral designs, baskets and bouquets, and it required seven automobiles to convey them to the cemetery.2

Among his pall bearers were several actor/students of his, including Bill Miller,1 and some of the faculty to attend were: "Dr. and Mrs. H. L. Creek, Prof. and Mrs. Paul Sidwell, Prof. and Mrs. R. W. Babcock, Prof. and Mrs. Richard Cordell, Profs. A. H. Monroe, H. H. Wikel, F. A. Cummings," and "Mark Liddell."34

His son, Thomas, was six years old.1 Aelene moved with him to West Lafayette, where she took a job as secretary of the Y.W.C.A.35 A year later, she married Cash B. Pollard, a Purdue chemistry professor, and they eventually moved to Gainesville, Florida, where I will assume they lived a long, happy life.36,37

Dedication To Russell G. Siegfried
With deepest and most sincere gratitude for the fine successes of our dramatic productions for the past few years, do we
dedicate this

1928 Purdue Debris5


1: "Russel G. Siegfried Expires" The Mulberry Reporter, 24 May 1929
2: "The Siegfried Funeral" The Mulberry Reporter, 31 May 1929
3: "Harlequin Club Will Repeat Highly Successful Operetta" Journal and Courier, 23 May 1928, Wed, Page 3
4: "Siegfried to be New York Guest" Journal and Courier, 19 Jun 1928, Tue, Page 16
5: Purdue Debris (1928) - Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries
6: "History of Cambria" by Edith Gum Cheesman (1970)
7: "R. G. SIEGFRIED SUCCUMBS TO RARE DISEASE" - Journal and Courier, 24 May 1929, Fri, Page 10
8: "25 YEARS AGO TODAY IN THE COURIER" Journal and Courier, 03 Oct 1944, Tue, Page 6
9: Bloomington, Indiana City Directory (1920)
10:  World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918
11: Frankfort Crescent, 12 June 1919
12: - Paul E Siegfried
13: "Indiana University Arbutus" (1918)
14: "MULBERRY" Journal and Courier, 12 May 1921, Thu, Page 3
15: "ROSSILLLE HIGH SCHOOL CLASS HISTORY 1923" from school history binder in Frankfort library under the heading "Karen Timmons Patchett submits the following article found in her mother's high school scrapbook."
16: "WEDDINGS" Journal and Courier, 03 Sep 1920, Fri, Page 5
17: "Apoplexy Claims Alma R. Atherton" Journal and Courier, 24 Dec 1928, Mon, Page 8
18: United States Federal Census Year: 1920; Census Place: Wayne, Starke, Indiana; Roll: T625_466; Page: 16A; Enumeration District: 281
19: "MULBERRY" Journal and Courier, 03 Sep 1920, Fri, Page 9
20: The Indiana Album - Harley Sheets Collection
21: "MUSICAL SHOW FOR MULBERRY" Journal and Courier, 08 Apr 1924, Tue, Page 2
22: "MULBERRY" Journal and Courier, 07 Apr 1921, Thu, Page 8
23: "AUDIENCE FINDS ALL-MEN REVUE VERITABLE GEM" Journal and Courier, 19 Nov 1926, Fri, Page 1
24: "PERSONAL AND GENERAL" Journal and Courier, 13 Mar 1923, Tue, Page 3
25: "NEW HARLEQUIN CLUB DIRECTOR" Journal and Courier, 15 Oct 1926, Fri, Page 18
26: "Harlequin Cast Displays Great Skill on Stage" Journal and Courier, 27 Apr 1927, Wed, Page 14
27: "HARLEQUIN PLAY AT CAPITAL CITY" Journal and Courier, 03 May 1927, Tue, Page 3
28: Harry G. Leslie Wikipedia Page
29: "PROMOTION" Journal and Courier, 16 Jun 1927, Thu, Page 9
30: Internet Broadway Database - Castles In The Air
31: Guide To Musical Theater - Castles In The Air
32: "Director Siegfried Forced To Retire" Journal and Courier, 06 Feb 1929, Wed, Page 5
33: "PROTEGE GIVES BLOOD TO HELP SICK EDUCATOR" Journal and Courier, 04 Apr 1929, Thu, Page 1
34:"PERSONAL AND GENERAL" Journal and Courier, 27 May 1929, Mon, Page 5
35: United States Federal Census Year: 1930; Census Place: West Lafayette, Tippecanoe, Indiana; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 0028; FHL microfilm: 2340365
36: Tippecanoe County Indiana; Index to Marriage Record 1921-1941 Jan. 1, 1921 to, W. P. A. Original Record Located: County Clerk's O; Book: M-44; Page: 483
37: Federal Census Year: 1940; Census Place: Gainesville, Alachua, Florida; Roll: m-t0627-00573; Page: 62A; Enumeration District: 1-9
38: "MANY RESPOND" Journal and Courier, 03 Apr 1929, Wed, Page 1


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