A Night… at the Opera?

1898 Mustard and Cheese “Off the Stage” cast

A night out on the town for Lehigh students may consist of dinner at the Thai Kitchen and trip up Rte. 378 to the Rave Theatre at the Promenade Shops for a movie. This will probably run you and your date at least $40 for dinner and $30 for the movie tickets and concessions. Perhaps you will watch a movie about a groom and the best man having some encounters with the police and missing the wedding. The title of the movie might be named after a popular pop song of the year. And the movie ends with plenty of laughs and you and your date had a good time.

In 1896 a similar scene was being enacted by Lehigh students of ages long past. There were no movie theaters until after the turn of the century, but Lehigh students could opt to spend the evening at the local opera house Fountain Hill Grand Opera House! For the mere price of $1.00 a student could find prime seating in the orchestra section. If he were feeling a bit more parsimonious a gallery seat only cost a quarter. Included in that cost was the chance to see their fellow students on stage, for Lehigh’s own Mustard and Cheese Drama Club were the ones putting on the show.

The Mustard and Cheese Drama Club has a storied history at Lehigh. As with many Lehigh students, the foundation of their inspiration was “beer and companionship.” One night in 1884 at Rennig’s bar here in Bethlehem, two brothers, Richard Harding Davis and Charles Belmont Davis, decided that the university needed a dramatics organization. The name “Mustard and Cheese” was derived from the copious amounts of cheese and condiments consumed at Rennig’s to accompany the beer.

One the club’s first productions were the play “The Wedding March” by W.S. Gilbert (better known for his collaborations with Sir Arthur Sullivan). This was the farcical story of a wedding party gone awry and the police are forced to intervene until a guest bribes the police officer in charge. The name of the play itself comes from a popular wedding song of the era by Richard Wagner.

Creating such a production in 1896 was no small expense. Each individual costume for the twelve cast members cost the club a hefty $1.50 with an additional $0.50 charge for the wig. A receipt for 200 monochrome posters billed Mustard and Cheese $35.00. Hiring an orchestra for two nights ran $34.00, including railway fare and a car ride to the opera house. To recoup the costs, admission was opened to the public and tickets were sold at Hohl’s Drug Store. Total attendance was only 203 persons with a gross of $143.30, from which the opera house deducted expenses, leaving Mustard and Cheese with only $75.00.

The cost of creating these theatrical events was well worth the expense to the members of Mustard and Cheese. As the productions continued through the years, alumni would often write to the club asking about the current state of affairs. Current club members would reciprocate with invitations to new productions. A scrapbook, now in Special Collections, was kept to record these comings and goings, complete with records of each production and even cast photographs. A brotherhood was created here at Lehigh University that has continued through the years.

Today’s Mustard and Cheese has changed from its origins. The opera house in Bethlehem is long gone, replaced by the Zoellner Arts Center and the Touchstone Theater. The student actors are no longer required to wear costume dresses since now there are women in the club. Ticket prices have certainly gone up too. So I say to you, Lehigh students of today, why not get in touch with your Lehigh roots and take the time to have a night at the opera?

*Contact Special Collections to access variety of documents and photographs related to Mustard and Cheese.

One thought on “A Night… at the Opera?

  1. Mustard and Cheese Drama Club used the Grand Opera House in its early days for performances and rehearsals, then after 1920s, they also used South Bethlehem Junior High School’s stage often.
    Unfortunately, that auditorium and the stage are too gone with the demolition of the Broughal Middle School’s original building.
    Lehigh Alumni Bulletin’s Summer 2010 issue has great articles 125th anniversary of the Club.

    The history of the M&C Drama Club is one of the good examples of Lehigh’s close connections with the community…

    Thanks for this great post!

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