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Behind the Scenes: Smith’s Role in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Smith & Northampton

Still from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, kitchen

Published October 15, 2015

When the classic Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is shown next week at the Academy of Music in Northampton, the audience is sure to recognize the views of Smith that appear throughout the movie.

But few may be aware that the 1965 film shoot on campus was the subject of controversy at Smith.

Documents in the College Archives reveal the shoot was marked by problems with security, “gawkers” and media leaks. Some alumnae were adamantly opposed to Smith’s participation in a movie they feared would hurt the college’s prestigious image.

Among the archival documents about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ” is a 119-page report by Herbert Heston, director of public relations at Smith at the time of the filming. “The Warner Brothers Episode” is written as a cautionary tale about Smith’s experience in hosting the high-profile movie shoot.

The story begins in April 1965, when representatives from Warner Bros. first contacted Smith for permission to photograph locations for the movie on campus. The film, starring Taylor and Burton, was based on a Tony Award-winning Edward Albee play about the strained marriage of two middle-aged academics.

Warner Bros. was interested in filming at Smith because the appearance of Tyler House matched Albee’s descriptions of his characters’ home, according to a letter from Hal Polaire, an advance man for the film company.

College President Thomas Mendenhall was initially bemused by the request.

“I see no reason why you shouldn’t try this,” Mendenhall wrote to Polaire on April 14, 1965. But, Mendenhall added, “I’m quite fascinated that anyone would think Smith’s architecture of a sufficiently definite character to warrant such a survey. The local word to describe it is ‘motley.’”

After weeks of discussion between the college and the film company, a contract was drawn up on June 1 to allow filming outside of Tyler Annex, Dewey Hall, and the area between Dewey and Seelye Hall.

Under the terms of the contract, Warner Bros. agreed that Smith would not be identified in any film credits or publicity about the movie. Filming was to last a week and would take place outside at night.

Warner Bros. agreed to pay Smith a fee of $25,000 to cover expenses involved in the shoot, including staff time and the possible lowering of Paradise Pond “to restrict noise” during filming.

Despite efforts to keep the Smith location secret, word leaked out long before the cameras started rolling on Aug. 23, 1965.

“Smith Admits College Scene of Burton Film,” the Boston Record American reported in June. Other newspaper accounts warned of anticipated crowds of “gawkers” and guards hired to protect the stars.

The attention led the California-based Berkeley Gazette to ponder, “Is Smith Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Issues with media coverage continued after the filming began. Heston’s report notes that The Sophian’s news editor, Marsha Cohen ’68, had to be escorted off the set after she mistakenly sat in one of the chairs meant for the stars.

Cohen—who published a three-part series of Sophian articles in the fall of 1965 about the filming—said she doesn’t remember the chair incident, but does remember feeling fortunate to be on the set.

“Burton and Taylor were extremely famous, so this was really big stuff,” said Cohen, now a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “It was cool that the college made sure the campus newspaper person could be there to write about the filming.”

The arrival on campus of reporters from The New York Times and Life magazine also led to a verbal showdown between Smith staff and the lead actors. Heston said the “misunderstanding” was due to “the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Burton as artists were not familiar with the agreement between Smith and Warner Bros. that there would be no press coverage of the filming.”

While some alumnae were thrilled about hosting celebrities on campus, others were dismayed to learn the college would be part of a film whose main characters were bitter, quarreling alcoholics.

The late Anna Mears ’24, of Riverton, N.J., was blunt about her feelings in one of many letters President Mendenhall received from alumnae.

“I am not very happy about this,” wrote Mears, who died in 1994.

Heston’s report ends with advice to other colleges that may be considering hosting Hollywood movie crews. He warns that Smith’s experience with the Warner Bros. movie “proves the impossibility of maintaining secrecy in any college activity which may be of interest to the public.”

Still, in the end, college PR chief Herbert Heston concluded the filming “did not injure Smith’s role,” its image or teaching mission.

Alison Klejna, the Academy of Music’s theater manager, said her staff has had fun highlighting “the Smith connection” to the film in social media posts and other promotional materials about the Oct. 22 anniversary screening.

Academy staff did their own digging in the Smith College Archives while planning the event.

“It was interesting to find out about the back story and see the photos,” Klejna said. “It was a nice little look back at the Smith campus.”

Smith has longstanding ties to the Academy. A representative of the college sits on the Academy’s board, and Smith recently donated $10,000 to the Academy’s capital campaign. Over the years, the college has contributed computer hardware and software to the Academy as well as funds for renovating and upgrading the historic building. The theater has also served as a venue over the years for performances by numerous faculty members and students.

Smith is a sponsor of the 50th anniversary screening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to be held Thursday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. at the Academy. The event will feature an introduction by Mike Haley, an actor and producer who worked with the film’s director, Mike Nichols.

Admission to the screening is $8. Tickets are available at the Academy box office at 274 Main Street, Northampton, or online.

Still from the 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”