Notes from 1958: Bill Mooney
To celebrate the rich history of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, we’re sharing stories from actors, directors and crew involved in the very first festival in 1958. This story comes from Bill Mooney, a Boulder resident and seasoned actor whose credits include roles in “A Man for all Seasons” and “Lolita” on Broadway and a 13-year stint on “All My Children.”
I grew up in Arkansas. At my school, I was the president of everything I could be the president of. My dad bought a mill down in Salida, and that’s what brought me to Colorado and CU.
I came to Boulder the same day Dwight Eisenhower visited to dedicate the new [Laboratories of the National] Bureau of Standards. There was a traffic jam, which was almost unheard of. Boulder was considerably smaller back then; the town only had 17,000 people when I started at CU. I think we’ve all gotten more sophisticated. Boulder has become a destination rather than a way station. It’s high tech, but it’s still a little bit weird, like Austin.
I’d wanted to be an actor since I was 11 or 12. When I came to the university on freshman orientation night, a group came and did the play in the third act of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. A rumor started going around that this was written by Shakespeare. I thought, “That can’t be true, it’s too funny.”
[In 1958,] I played Horatio in “Hamlet,” Lucentio in “The Taming of the Shrew” (pictured above, on the left) and Octavius in “Julius Caesar.” It was really just a schoolboy operation; there were no professionals. There was no theatre department at that time, so the students came from all over the university. Some were engineers, some were philosophy majors.
There was hardly any scenery, just like in Shakespeare’s time. People either sat on the hard stone seats or brought their own pillows to watch. Sometimes thunderstorms would chase us away. We were just really shouting our lines; we didn’t have mics. I shudder now at what I must have looked or sounded like, how I handled the language. I sometimes wonder why audiences sat and endured it! We had a wonderful time, but we never thought [the festival] would go on for 60 years.
I went on to have a career as a professional actor in New York. When I was young, Joseph Papp hired me to play a breathless servant and move scenery at the New York Shakespeare Festival (now Shakespeare in the Park). There was a young man who was cast to play Richard III and who had never been in any Shakespeare play before. It was [“Patton” and “Dr. Strangelove” star] George C. Scott. He was absolutely amazing and terrifying.
The fact is that Shakespeare’s language is still being spoken and people are still being entertained and enlightened by it. The guy may have written it 400 years ago, but it’s still as interesting as anything we would ever see on Broadway or on the West End. We’re very fortunate, we English speakers, to be able to keep digging into this man’s words.