Little Theater Movement

By: Helen B. Frantz and Gynter Quill

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: May 9, 2017

The little theater movement in Texas was an outgrowth of an interest in dramatics that stemmed from the days of the Republic of Texas and that at times found expression in dramatic clubs in more than 100 Texas towns. (Little theater is a small theater designed for low-cost theatrical productions produced for a small or limited audience.) Before the beginning of the little theater movement in Texas in 1919, sporadic, unrelated attempts had been made to form theatrical groups, notably the Curtain Club of the University of Texas under Stark Young in 1909 and the Red Lantern Players of Houston. The first actual little theater, known as the Green Mask Players, was founded in Houston in November 1919. It was followed by the Dallas Little Theatre in early 1920. Gradually the movement spread, until by 1930 there were sixty-eight little theaters in Texas. The most successful of these was the one in Dallas. In international competition in New York it won the Belasco Cup for three successive years (in 1924, 1925, and 1926). By 1927 it had built its own theater at a cost of $120,000. From 1926 through 1930 an annual competition was held among the Texas little theaters. Winners were Sherman, 1926; Denison, 1927; Nacogdoches, 1928; Dallas, 1929; and Waco, 1930. During the Great Depression many of the little theaters disbanded, though the organizations in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Tyler, and other larger Texas cities continued to flourish. Personnel difficulties during World War II brought all Texas little theater activity to a virtual standstill, the chief remaining function being to entertain at military encampments.

With the end of the war and with renewed interest in theater to supplement and substitute for the decrease in the touring professional theater, the community theater flourished in Texas on a broadened scale from Amarillo and Midland to Beaumont and Port Arthur. Every major city had at least one local theater; some, such as Houston and Dallas, had more than one within the city limits and one in almost every suburb. In many cities of 25,000 or less it was the major cultural activity. Much of the impetus for this growth came with the industrial expansion of Texas, which brought into the state many residents who had known the theater elsewhere and wanted it in their new communities; also the spectacular growth of educational theater sharply honed the urge for theater activity among its trained graduates and excited the interest of those from other disciplines.

By the late 1960s some of the larger community theaters were professional in all but name, with volunteer actors and technicians trained in the universities and on the professional stage. Some had full-time salaried directors; a few also had paid staffs. Others had operating budgets of $50,000 or more, with paid memberships nearing 2,000. Some had their own buildings-not remodeled garages, but theaters designed for their function-costing $100,000 or more. From the 1960s through the 1990s community theaters continued to flourish, despite increased competition from other forms of entertainment. Community theaters continue to serve as a valuable outlet for those interested in drama, from rank amateurs to seasoned professionals. Though theater companies in some small towns have struggled for existence, community theaters in the larger cities have continued to expand their programs and attract ever-larger audiences. See also THEATER.

Betty Jean Brown, A History of the Little Theater Movement in Plainview, Texas, from 1924 to 1949 (M.A. thesis, West Texas State College, 1949). Frank Harting, "The Little Theater in Texas," Bunker's Monthly, June 1928. La Verne Pollard Phelps, A History of the Little Theater Movement in Amarillo from 1888 to 1946 (M.A. thesis, West Texas State College, 1946). Adel Speiser, The Story of Theater in San Antonio (M.A. thesis, St. Mary's University, 1948). Ann Barham Stephens, Survey of the Little Theater Movement in Texas Colleges and Communities (M.A. thesis, Texas Christian University, 1950). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Helen B. Frantz and Gynter Quill, “Little Theater Movement,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

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May 9, 2017