April 1976: Harsh review of college play enrages readers

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I was surprised to learn this week that the Daily Mountain Eagle used to review local plays, and after reading the reviews of the review, I think I understand why we no longer do.

Walker College students performed in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" on Sunday, April 25, 1976. Critic Curtis A. Mauldin got straight to the point with the headline of his recap in the next day's Eagle —  "Singing lacking in college's 'Oklahoma.'"

Rodgers would have walked out and Hammerstein likely turned over in his grave, according to Mauldin. 

"The college production of the Broadway success seemed more like a take-off and the three performances appear to be a struggle to get oil from a dry well," he wrote.

Mauldin went on to compare one of the male performers's voice to that of a bullfrog, dismissed one of two female performers as "not a singer" and expressed shock that audience gave the cast a standing ovation.

Mauldin deemed the choreography "bad and stiff," the makeup "atrocious" and the music "lacking."

Toward the end of the review, Mauldin seemed to backtrack a bit by saying that he enjoyed the play "for the most part" but then got in one last dig.

"I always recommend anybody to see theatrical productions and I recommend this one. But I would be remiss if I didn't recommend better productions at the University of Alabama or those available in Birmingham," Mauldin wrote.

Perhaps to stave off the inevitable "Who does he think he is?" reaction, the Eagle printed Mauldin's qualifications at the end of the review. He had worked with productions in Washington D.C. and Norfolk, Virginia and had been a reviewer and critic of productions of the Auburn University Department of Theatre as entertainment editor of the Auburn Plainsman.

The fallout must have been swift because the Eagle's Skip Tucker came out with a column of his own on April 27.

"Walker College and a good part of the country are up-in-arms over Curt Mauldin's rather straightforward opinion of the college production of 'Oklahoma,'" Tucker wrote.

Tucker went on to tell about his own appearance in a Walker College play and how the review crushed his aspiring actor's heart.

It seems that the Eagle got "a million phone calls from Walker College supporters" and the turnout for the Monday performance — the day that Mauldin's review was printed — was larger than attendance for opening night.

The standing ovations weren't praising the play's professionalism but the work that the college and students put into it, Tucker pointed out.

"Looking at the play in black and white, it was shaky. Looking at it from an amateur standpoint, it was fantastic," Tucker said.

The first wave of letters to the editor appeared in the April 29 edition.

"The Mountain Eagle's attempt to soar into an upper stratosphere of dramatic review and criticism on Monday resulted in flight failure for Mr. Curtis A. Mauldin," Walker High School English teacher Joan King wrote. 

She continued, "The Eagle would demonstrate wisdom in sending Mr. Mauldin and a few of his associates to review courses in paragraph structure, verb parallelism, diction, redundant clauses, subject-verb agreement, comma usage, ambiguity and ethics...If the press of Walker County demands professional production from amateurs, it is only proper that the people of Walker County demand professional journalism from the press."

King ended with a dig of her own: "It would be an unexpected pleasure to read one news article which lacked an abundance of grammatical flaws or to see this complete letter published without typographical errors."

Terry Kimbrell of Jasper pointed out in his letter that the play was one of the college's bicentennial projects and that the actors were volunteers. 

"Personally, I think Mr. Mauldin owes these honorable students an apology. All would be much better if Curtis Mauldin would keep his biases opinions to himself," Kimbrell wrote.

The Eagle's only response seemed to be an editorial reminding readers that it was the paper's longstanding policy not to publish unsigned letters.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.