Gilbert “Gib” Hartke was the son of an interdenominational love match that transcended the social norms of late-nineteenth-century Chicago. His father, Emil, the offspring of a prominent first-generation German and Lutheran household, left medical school at the University of Illinois to marry his mother, Lillian Ward, a first-generation Irish Catholic. Emil converted to Catholicism over family objections, marrying Lillian and settling into a comfortable Rogers Park home on Chicago’s North Side. On January 16, 1907, Gilbert arrived weeks early, forcing delivery on the family’s dining room table. He enjoyed the sort of comfortable childhood appropriate for the offspring of a well-respected pharmacist.
The camera-friendly Gib tried his hand at acting and modeling as he moved through high school at the Jesuit-run Loyola Academy. Although drawn to athletics, he enjoyed greater success on stage, and he advanced from the school to semiprofessional stages around Chicago’s North Side and northern suburbs. Gib’s interest in the spiritual life took hold as he approached high school graduation. He arranged to stay at Loyola an extra year as an assistant football coach so that he could pursue more advanced training in Greek and Latin. He was set on becoming a Jesuit priest, but chance encounters with the Dominican priests Father Tomony and Father Lawlor changed his life. For young Gib Hartke, the Dominicans’ commitment to evangelization appeared more congenial than the scholarship of his intellectual Jesuit high school instructors.
In 1927, he set out for the Dominicans’ new—and, at the time, only—college in the United States: Providence College in Rhode Island. Over the course of the next decade, Hartke moved within the Dominican world, seeking opportunities whenever possible to pursue his interest in theater. He wrote plays, studied drama at DePaul University in Chicago, and organized performance training for the Dominican seminaries. Ordained as a priest in June 1936, Hartke received an assignment to join the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, across the street from the Catholic University of America, where he was to pursue graduate studies in English.
As he passed through various Dominican institutions, Hartke increasingly engaged with an intensifying movement to create a national “Catholic theater” in the United States. Launched by Father Urban E. Nagel, OP, and Father Thomas Carey, OP, such initiatives coalesced to become the “Blackfriars Guild,” which sought the union of Catholic values and the American stage. Father Hartke arrived at Catholic University just as it was to become a crucial hub of this crusade.
In his quest to develop a campus drama program, Father Hartke relied increasingly on homegrown talent. He encouraged young Leo Brady, still an undergraduate, to try his hand at writing. Brady’s first work, Brother Orchid, became an immediate favorite that would be revived in the future. The play earned a congratulatory note from the Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson, as well as the attention of Warner Brothers (Brady, however, was not involved directly in writing the script for the 1940 film starring Robinson, Ann Sothern, Humphrey Bogart, and Ralph Bellamy). Rookie professor Walter Kerr, who went on to become the well known theatre critic, wrote an original play—Hyacinth on Wheels—which recreated Coriolanus in modern dress. Kerr, in particular, proved full of fresh ideas that immediately energized the program. His classroom presence attracted new students.
These exciting developments converged with the program’s first megahit: Yankee Doodle Boy, Kerr and Brady’s musical biography of the fabled Broadway actor George M. Cohan. Cohan’s very public connection to the department firmly established Catholic University’s Department of Speech and Drama as an important presence in both Washington and the nation.
Hartke first met Cohan on a trip to New York when he saw the star play Franklin Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right. Hartke invited him to campus to meet with students when the touring show visited Washington. During the car ride from the university back to his hotel, Cohan confided in Hartke that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was about to offer him a half-million dollars for the movie rights to his story. However, Cohan was loath to do so because of his early marriage to a Jewish woman, Ethel Levey. The marriage had led to the breakup of the family vaudeville act the Four Cohans, and he did not want to sell this story to the film studios.
Hartke encouraged Brady and Kerr to try their hand at writing a biographical play, which they did while leaving out both the marriage to Levey and the actor’s acrimonious confrontations with trade unions during the bitter Actors’ Equity strike of 1919. The pair completed a draft script by October, with casting taking place a month later. A freshman, Gilbert Graham—later a Dominican priest—was chosen to portray Cohan.
The expansive production – with forty-six actors with eighty-five roles — proved larger than the department’s diminutive Music Building stage, and the company struggled to make adjustments throughout preparations for a December rollout. Hartke plowed ahead, even though the company had no funds to support the venture, planning three shows on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, December 16–18, 1939. Cohan attended the Monday evening performance to avoid the fans and critics who had come to the opening to see him. He correctly anticipated a frenzy of national and local press interest.
The Catholic University production team restaged the musical in April 1940, when Cohan returned to Washington on his last tour, in Return of Vagabond. He used his appearance at the National Theatre to accept the Congressional Gold Medal for meritorious service in World War I. And he granted Catholic University full rights to his story during the visit.
Warner Brothers secured the film rights and rewrote the script for the screen, leading to its release as Yankee Doodle Dandy in early 1942, with James Cagney playing Cohan. The film’s patriotic tone earned an enthusiastic reception during the uncertain early months of World War II. Cohan’s caregivers arranged a private preview as he recovered from cancer surgery at his home in Monroe, New York. He died a few months later, in November.
Yankee Doodle Boy secured the place of Catholic University’s Department of Speech and Drama in popular and academic theater circles. For Washington, it underscored the program’s importance as a center for innovative performance worthy of patronage.
Perhaps Father Hartke’s greatest achievement was his ability to form a tightly knit team that functioned as a family as much as a university faculty. Remembering this period, Kerr told Hartke’s biographer Santo Pietro in 1987 that “it was an astonishing group, a group of extremely workable people; and we all liked each other. Meetings were a pleasure. Rehearsals were pleasure. Friction was a minimum.” Hartke, for his part, proposed in 1986 that “Almighty God dropped all of them on my lap within a year.”
Father Hartke’s importance to Washington area theatre extended well beyond this period. He figured prominently in the re-opening of Ford’s Theatre. He founded the touring company now known as The National Players, which he moved to their present home base at Olney Theatre. He was president of Olney Theatre Corporation, where he served for 33 years. In 1970, Catholic University named their new performance space The Hartke Theater. Actors inspired by his teachings (“Father’s kids”) stayed in the area to open theatre companies, such as Washington Stage Guild. Ann Norton, a co-founder of WSG, said: “Father Hartke was one of the greatest producers I have ever known. He had the ability to see potential and figure out how to make that potential happen.”