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April, 2019

Hartke Collection Enters CUA Archives

By Richard Wilkinson

Father Hartke shows Jimmy Cagney the script of the play Yankee Doodle Boy, which CUA drama Professor Walter Kerr wrote about the “father of American musical comedy” George M. Cohan. Cagney later portrayed Cohan in the 1942 Academy Award-winning musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” (Photos courtesy of CUA's archives.)

Earlier this year a virtual pantheon of Hollywood’s biggest 20th-century stars entered CUA’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives incognito: Their images were ushered in within the donated papers, photos and tape-recorded interviews of Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P. (1907–1986), America’s “showbiz priest” and the founder of CUA’s drama department.

The donated materials include hundreds of photos of Father Hartke hobnobbing and collaborating with show business luminaries, several of whom he persuaded to visit campus and speak to CUA’s drama students. Photos show the priest with Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Sidney Poitier, Clint Eastwood, Orson Welles, Helen Hayes, Jimmy Cagney, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Cecily Tyson, Farrah Fawcett, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Judy Garland, Johnny Carson and many others. In addition, there are photos of Father Hartke with Mother Teresa and with each U.S. president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.

“Father [Hartke] had a way of accepting everyone, even celebrities, as human beings with needs and problems. Perhaps that insight gave him a special mission to the famous and powerful,” writes CUA alumna Mary Jo Santo Pietro, B.A. 1967, in her book Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater, published in 2002 by The Catholic University of America Press. Santo Pietro says Father Hartke made CUA’s drama department one of the best in the nation, and that he did it through his incredible ability to befriend and influence people of all kinds, the famous and the nonfamous.

It was Santo Pietro who gave CUA’s archives the Hartke photos and other materials, which she had used to write the biography — 33 boxes of the priest’s personal papers and 200 hours of video and audio recordings. The latter include her many taped interviews with the famous Dominican friar. A sampling of those interviews can be listened to in the archives.

In the final years of his life, Father Hartke had asked Santo Pietro to write the biography and bequeathed his personal papers to her.

Television personality Ed McMahon, B.A. 1949, speaks to media and an assembled throng at the 1967 groundbreaking for the Hartke Theatre building. Father Hartke, standing behind McMahon with hat in hand, labored for a decade to see the building become a reality.

Father Hartke was “absolutely unique in the history of the theater,” especially in the way he combined Church, theater and public life, opined Washington, D.C., theater impresario Patrick Hayes around the time of the priest’s death. Many believe that Father Hartke single-handedly changed the course of “Catholic theater” in the United States, according to Santo Pietro’s book.

CUA’s archivists say they expect theater historians and people writing about famous actors will come to CUA to do research using the Hartke materials.

The major donation supplements the archives’ already large holdings related to the history of CUA’s drama department. Those holdings include video and audio recordings of CUA drama productions and thousands of photographs of student productions, including the plays in which future movie stars Jon Voight, B.A. 1960, and Susan Sarandon, B.A. 1968, performed.






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