By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Pinkies up, elbows in, ankles crossed: This meeting of the Shakespeare Club is now in session.
OBSERVER Photo by Matt Panebianco
First row: Joyce Shutt, past vice president; Gloria Garrotson, past president; Pat McQuiston, present vice president. Second row: Judi Woods, present secretary; Alice Jonus, past treasurer; Constance VanScoter, present president; Minda Rae Amiran, past secretary. Missing from photo is past treasurer Rosie Sanden.
And has been since 1885. That's right - The Shakespeare Club has been meeting here in the Fredonia/Dunkirk area for more than 100 years. That makes them one of the community's oldest social and academic organizations. And these ladies prove there's no school like the old school. SUNY Fredonia's Dr. Virginia Horvath was invited to speak at the Shakespeare Club's annual fall tea, and got to see for herself why this club has not only endured, but is thriving.
The Shakespeare Club's president of 42 years, Mrs. Jack Van Scoter of Fredonia, introduced Horvath, who called the Shakespeare Club "legendary" and said she "couldn't wait to meet (them)."
Every year, the Shakespeare Club chooses an academic theme for its season, and members present scholarly papers related to that theme at their weekly meetings. This season's theme is "Authors as Social Commentators," and the club could think of no one better suited for the role of fall tea speaker than Fredonia's newly-appointed president.
Horvath, who has years of experience in the teaching and administrative fields of academics, has witnessed her fair share of just how influential writers can be for young people and society as a whole. After a few gracious opening remarks to the crowd, which for this special event included club members' spouses, Horvath began her talk by explaining how she used children's books to help teach her own young children about the horrors that took place during WWII and the effects of atomic bombs. She went on to say that through exposure to world events and multiculturalism with our children's books, we can foster valuable social awareness in our young people at an early age.
"We coach our children's responses to things through our library selections," Horvath said. "When we hear people's stories, we hear their social positions and learn about what they struggle with."
Horvath's speech then broached the topic of feminism, and how instrumental literature has been in helping women not only understand their positions throughout history, but empower them to change those positions and learn from the processes. It was obvious that the group appreciated Dr. Horvath's visit, and took a special interest in the focus of her lecture. After all, the Shakespeare Club has occupied a unique position throughout its history: some of its most notable traits are feminist in nature (it is a group of resilient, intelligent women), while it retains traditions of a century-old Victorian society in which gender roles were more rigidly defined.
See SHAKESPEARE, Page C5
To those lucky enough to observe the fall tea meeting of the elite and locally-famous Shakespeare Club, those Victorian traditions are surprisingly present. The scenery feels a bit anachronistic, as if a time-traveler visited the turn of the last century and swiped a few things before returning to 2012. Flanking the seating area, a long table is draped with a crisp white linen and embroidered table runners. A silver tea service is polished to a high gleam, its matching sugar bowl and creamer pitcher winking in the late afternoon light. Delicate porcelain tea cups, hand-painted with tiny violets and rosebuds, nestle together in neat stacks awaiting the ladies' use. Cut crystal bowls hold candies and mints. Doilied silver trays display rows upon rows of colorful cookies and tarts. When the Shakespeare ladies do their fall tea, they don't skimp on the details.
"All of this belongs to the members," Van Scoter said, sweeping her arm to indicate the elegant table settings and hollowware. "To be in the club, you have to be a hostess."
But it's not just the Victorian-themed table settings that hearken back to decades past. The ladies themselves carry the nobility and grace of a bygone era. There are no jeans or T-shirts here. No one has pulled her hair back in a hasty, still-damp ponytail. No rubber-soled sneakers squeak across the floor. No hooded sweatshirts or track jackets lounge on chairbacks.
Instead, the group's members have taken obvious care with their appearances, all conscious of upholding the dignified standard of the Shakespeare Club. They have carefully curled or coiffed their hair, the colors of which range from soft chestnut in the younger members to the regal silver of the club's veterans. They have considered the inventory of their closets, and unwrapped their best dresses from years ago. Looking around the room, one can see ghosts of the glamorous '80s, the vibrant '70s, and even the demure '50s. Their makeup has been artfully applied, each murmuring mouth painted in pale peach, dusky pink, or bold mauve. To say the least, they certainly make an impression.
"We're ladies," explained Fredonia resident Judi Woods, the group's secretary. "We follow Victorian [rules of] etiquette."
And those rules involve more than tea tables and party dresses. If they are married or widowed, the ladies refer to themselves and each other by their traditional married names: the title of "Mrs." added to the husband's full name, as in "Mrs. Martin Sanden," Dunkirk resident and the club's treasurer, and "Mrs. Julian McQuiston," the club's vice president and another Fredonia resident. If a lady is not married, she calls herself by her full maiden name, adding "Ms." as a title.
The Shakespeare Club is not a free-for-all, "join-if-you-like" kind of group. This social and academic club has not survived for 127 years by letting in just anyone.
"We're invitation only," Van Scoter explained. "The club votes on new members, and they're asked to join."
There are also conditions for those accepting membership into this exclusive group of women. Ladies must not only know how to hostess, but be able to actually receive the club in their own homes or host a restaurant outing for one meeting per year.
"There is a limit of 20 members," Van Scoter said. "Right now we have fewer, since some of our members have passed away. But we usually convene for 20 weeks."
At each of their meetings, one woman from the club presents an academic paper on a topic the women have chosen. This has been a tradition of the club that dates back to its founders.
"There is a list in the archives of all the papers presented that goes back all the way to the 1800s," Woods said. "It would be so interesting to dig that out."
The club's historical documents are housed in the Barker Library, and available for public perusal.
The club decides on the theme for their papers at their summer picnic, which, like their fall tea, is another of their special occasions. The title of this event alone evokes clear images of Victorian club members at the turn of the last century at their own summer picnics: lace-clad figures in long skirts and wide plumed hats, playing crochet, mingling in the garden, and drinking tea on the lawn. But for a few wardrobe and activity changes, the tradition of the summer picnic carries on uninterrupted.
"We also celebrate the bard's birthday in April," Van Scoter said. "We have a birthday party for him. This year we had a beautiful cake."
To say the least, the late lady-loving poet and playwright would be thrilled. Shakespeare, who in his own time wrote so many sonnets expressing his affections, has 20 elegant women devoted to his work and his memory. His birthday parties are just icing on his own face-shaped cake. And with a track record like this club's, it is certain that the bard will be honored by these ladies and their future members for years to come.
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