Change comes slowly to Mobile, and to its historical neighborhoods slowest of all. Since the advent of historical preservation, the growth of institutions has been piecemeal and painstaking, taking a patchwork approach to expansion.
Reading announced plans and city codes, one of those establishments may have little choice toward that end soon. And the unfortunate victim of such might be one of the state’s most decorated cultural organizations.
Sitting on land owned by the Roman Catholic archdiocese since 1927, Mobile Theatre Guild (MTG) has given over a half-century of award-winning work to local theatrical patrons. According to their website, they began in 1949 as a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) summer project. Fr. Anthony Zoghby cultivated the group, staging plays in a variety of venues around town until they became a full-fledged community theatre in 1954 with a state charter.
Zoghby threw himself into the affairs, writing, directing, creating sets and costumes, even recruiting family members for his productions. In his 2009 book “Opposable Lives,” former Joe Jefferson Players director Peter Carnahan described Zoghby as “…black-haired, strong-featured, intense and bursting with energy. I have never met such a theatre enthusiast. He loved it. All of it. Every kind of theatre.” His portrait still hangs in the current facility.
In 1958, the group took up residence in land owned by the archdiocese at 14 N. Lafayette St., adjacent to what is now McGill-Toolen Catholic High School. Their name changed from the Catholic Theatre Guild to its current moniker.
Tom Pocase was recruited as director in 1972. Then in 1984, Mike McKee, who taught part-time at the University of South Alabama and the University of Mobile was hired to succeed Pocase.
McKee set them in a new direction, emphasizing smaller, fresher, more out-of-the-mainstream works. It was an insurance of quality.
“These are Tony award-winning shows that just don’t tour,” current MTG Board President Barney March said. “That’s what we’ve traditionally brought to the community. We can hold our own with any community theater in the country.”
MTG’s scope and presence spread beyond the Azalea City. They became a participant in the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) festival and began to collect honors at every level imaginable.
“The culmination came with 1997’s production of ‘Smoke on the Mountain’ placing first place nationally and I was cited for outstanding direction,” McKee said in a 2001 interview. “As a result, I was awarded the Marian Gallaway Award for outstanding contribution to the state of Alabama by the Alabama Conference of Theatre and Speech.”
The International Amateur Theatre Association recommended MTG to the Monaco Festival founded by Princess Grace where they represented the nation as one of only 24 countries invited. During the 1990s, MTG had five productions performed in festivals at state, regional, national and international levels.
“We have brought home 28 awards, including many of the top honors,” McKee said in 2001. “We have been to Ireland’s festival twice and now will perform at the crown jewel of international festivals, the only recognized world festival in Monaco.”
McKee received a 2013 Greater Mobile Art Award for his contributions at the helm of MTG. He resigned his directorship in 2011.
Considering the lofty pedigree they’ve earned, MTG’s place in Mobile’s cultural scene would seem assured. However, to those who can read between the lines of news stories, that spot might not be so safe.
McGill-Toolen Administrative President Fr. W. Bry Shields, Jr., has boldly announced a $6.5 million capital campaign to media over the last year. The reason is spelled out on the McGill-Toolen website.
“We are beginning a planning phase for the campaign to fund a new student center, which will include a dining hall for 400, a student plaza, and a new chapel,” Shields wrote.
“ Architectural plans for the new student center are 95-percent complete. Other projects include additional parking, two new locker rooms for the gymnasium and new, updated technology infrastructure for the campus.”
According to the same website, “the new student center will occupy space currently used for parking. This campaign will provide funds for land acquisition to replace this student and visitor parking.”
Rumors running through local Catholic and arts circles put MTG at risk. Beyond that, little is clear.
According to the Mobile City Code, Chapter 64-6 – accessible at www.municode.com – certain ratios are established for schools in relation to their enrollment. In order to ease curbside parking problems, the code calls for senior high schools to provide parking lots with one spot for every four students enrolled.
Mobile City Planner Rick Olsen told Lagniappe Mobile County Public Schools are exempt from those ordinances and older schools are grandfathered in due to age. Hence, Murphy High with an enrollment of 2,300 need not supply 575 spots. He also said parochial and private schools must fall within code.
McGill-Toolen’s website gives its 2013 enrollment as 1,111 students. By current code requirements, that calls for 278 parking spots.
“We meet the city requirements and in fact exceed that right now, but what we are concerned about is serving our students and their parents,” Shields told Lagniappe. “We draw students from all over the city and Baldwin County and it’s a convenience and even a necessity for the children to be able to get to school. If they can get there on their own, it’s a great help. They come from so far away they really need the parking so that’s our main concern.”
Owing to its location in a historic neighborhood, McGill-Toolen has few options. They recently purchased the lot at 1504 Old Shell Road, along with a Craftsman-style cottage probably erected in the early 20th century. It’s likely to become parking to adjoin the lot to its immediate west.
“We’re trying to actively find somebody to move that house,” Shields said. “We did get some bids on moving it. The ballpark estimate on that is between $16,000 – $20,000.”
On another boundary, a parking lot sits on the northeast corner of Lafayette and Dauphin by McGill-Toolen. It was purchased by the archdiocese in 1993.
To its north at 8 N. Lafayette is an apartment building Shields said they purchased the first week of April 2014. Its lack of historic status means it could be razed by McGill-Toolen.
“We’re trying to expand the parking lots that we have, to see if we can’t replace the parking we have that way,” Shields said.
Immediately north at 12 N. Lafayette is a two-story house owned by Tyrone and Maureen Russell, according to the city site. Mobile Historic Development Commission Director Devereaux Bemis said the structure is guarded from destruction by historic preservation regulations, however, it could be moved if bought.
“If we do acquire that, we wouldn’t demolish it but would use it for some purpose for the school,” Shields said. “It’s a two-story house so it would be very expensive to move it.”
Next to the north is MTG at 14 N. Lafayette St. The building is unprotected by historic preservation.
“We don’t know yet about the Theatre Guild, so it’s just kind of a wait and see,” Shields said. “It doesn’t seem that building has any historic value for the neighborhood. It’s got a sign on there that it was built in 1951 or ‘52.”
“To my knowledge (the archdiocese) has not submitted anything to the city (regarding demolition),” Olsen said. “Normally if they’re looking at doing something like that, they’d contact us and historic development prior to submission, let us know there’s going to be a very detailed review of the application.”
Olsen said the application process is normally a 30 – 60 day procedure. Any appeal might lengthen that. Shields said he hopes for a resolution within the calendar year.
“They could go vertical in the form of a multi-level parking garage but those are just so expensive,” Bemis said. “It’s far cheaper to just buy land and make a lot.” He said any structure erected would also have to meet the approval of the historic commission.
On the verge of their 65th season, the directors of MTG seem unfazed. They tip their hat and exude confidence.
“The Theater Guild has long enjoyed a great working relationship with the archdiocese,” March said. “They have been very gracious about allowing us autonomy, of letting us present material and having artistic freedom on stage. In turn, we’ve always been respectful of that. I don’t see that relationship ending anytime soon.”