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Memorable Man: Reflections on the life of Paul Baker

By Meg Cullar
Photograph by Danny Turner

In fourteen years at the Baylor Line, I have to count the legendary Paul Baker (pictured in 2001) as one of the most interesting people I have ever interviewed. Of course, I was well aware of his history with the university and the controversy surrounding his departure when I met him, but I was interested for other reasons too.

In case you don’t remember, Baker left the Baylor faculty in 1963 after a showdown with then-university President Abner McCall. The reunion of Baker’s former students held by the Baylor Theatre Department in the summer of 2001 marked his first appearance on campus since that stormy departure, and I was thrilled to have the chance to hear the story from Baker’s perspective.

Baker had brought national attention to Baylor’s theater department from the late 1930s to the early 1960s, attracting noted actors and directors to campus. He famously staged a 1956 production of Hamlet in which four different actors played the title role. He recruited film actor Burgess Meredith to play Hamlet and then split the main character into three parts–each played by a different actor and each representing a different psychological aspect of Hamlet. These three shadowed Meredith’s Hamlet, speaking with him or echoing his words. Baker was also known for designing and building an innovative Baylor theater in 1941, where the audience sat in the center in swiveling chairs and turned to view action on various stages.

In 1962, Baker acquired the rights from Eugene O’Neill’s widow to stage the only college production of O’Neill’s posthumously published Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But the honor came with a stipulation: the play must be produced verbatim; no words could be changed. This was significant at a Baptist university, since the play contained curse words. When a church youth group attended the play, their leaders were shocked–and angered–by the content. President McCall fielded their complaint, and he informed Baker that the offensive words in the play would have to be removed. When Baker refused, McCall shut down the play.

In response to what he called “censorship,” Baker left Baylor and took the entire faculty of the theater department with him, along with one math professor–his wife. Trinity University, which had no theater department at the time, hired the whole staff and established a respected program in one fell swoop.

But it wasn’t just this controversy about Baker–and the prospect of hearing about it firsthand–that piqued my interest in him. Over the years, I had met numerous Baylor alumni who said Baker had changed their lives. Now that’s a tall claim, and I wanted to meet such a person for myself. Some of these former students were theater majors who had extensive contact with Baker, but some of them had taken only one class from him–his introductory course, “The Integration of Abilities.”

In class, students were instructed to clap out the “rhythm” of someone they knew, and Baker would describe that person. He could actually name the person if it was someone he knew. Or Baker might instruct his students to choose an inanimate object, like a stick or paper clip, and then create four forms of art based on it–a song, a poem, a painting, and a dramatic scene. The sometimes irascible and gruff Baker enthusiastically promoted his theories about perception, collaborative creativity, the five senses, and the interdisciplinary nature of everything. And it was these ideas, in part, that changed people’s lives.

It was this power of Baker’s to influence and inspire others that I wanted to see firsthand. And I did. He undoubtedly had an aura about him. While he was a major presence in any room he occupied, he tended to deflect attention to others at the same time. There really was something about him that sparked creativity. It’s an intangible quality that’s hard to describe, but he certainly possessed it.

When I interviewed Baker, he was ninety years old. He walked in a hunched-over shuffle, he was hard of hearing, and his voice had a whispery “godfather” quality that can come with age. But he was still quite feisty, and he would barrel out instructions to a roomful of his former students, who still hung on his every word.

The continued devotion of Baker’s former students was evident at their reunion in 2001. I’m left to imagine what his classes were like, but after watching him over just one weekend, I think I have an inkling.

To share your own thoughts and memories of Baker, go to the Baylor Line Forum.

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