Eau Claire Rotary Club Records, 1925-1975

Biography/History

Walter Francis Kerr--drama critic, playwright, director, author, and professor--was born on July 8, 1913 in Evanston, Illinois. His active interest in the performing arts began at an early age. At thirteen, he received his first job as film reviewer and editor for the junior section of the weekly Evanston Review. While a student at St. George High School, he was promoted to regular film critic for that newspaper, and later filled the same position for the daily Evanston News Index. In addition, he was editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, member of the dramatic club, and a writer for the sports pages of other newspapers.

After graduation from high school, Kerr was awarded a scholarship to De Paul University in Chicago, and he attended school there from 1931 to 1933. Those were Depression years, however, and the young student was forced to drop out of school and seek employment. He worked for the Fox Film Company for two years.

By 1935, conditions had improved sufficiently for Kerr to enter the drama department at Northwestern University. Here he was influenced by such outstanding teachers as Theodore Fuchs, Hubert Heffner, and Lee Mitchell. In his junior year, Kerr was cited for his academic work, and he won additional recognition as the editor of The Daily Northwestern, writer for The Purple Parrot, author of two musicals and other plays, and publicity director of the University theater. He received his B.S. degree in speech in 1937, and stayed on at Northwestern for his M.A., which he earned a year later.

Now ready to teach, Kerr left the Midwest to go to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He was an instructor in speech and drama there from 1938 to 1945, and an associate professor of drama from 1945 to 1949. During his stay at the university he directed about fifty plays, some of which he had also written or adapted. In 1939, he did his own adaptation of Coriolanus in modern dress, as well as Yankee Doodle Boy, a musical biography of George M. Cohan that he wrote with Leo Brady. In the same year, he also won the Maxwell Anderson play contest at Stanford University with the play that had been his M.A. thesis, Christopher over Chaos.

During the 1940s, many of Kerr's productions at Catholic University moved to Broadway or to other university and regional theaters. Cook Book, a 1941 collaboration with Leo Brady, toured colleges and universities; their 1942 effort, Count Me In, was taken to New York. Kerr's Stardust (1943) folded in Baltimore but later proved successful in regional productions. Sing Out Sweet Land ran for 101 performances on Broadway in 1944.

Walter Kerr met Jean Collins in 1941, while she was a student at Marywood College in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They were married on August 9, 1943, after she received her B.A. degree. Jean Kerr received an M.F.A. from Catholic University in 1945, and she participated as actively in dramatic life at the university as did her husband. Her That's Where the Money Goes was produced at the university in 1946. The two collaborated on the adaptation of Franz Werfel's Song of Bernadette (New York, 1946) and on the musical Touch and Go (New York, 1949). In 1948, Mrs. Kerr's play Jenny Kissed Me was produced in New York.

In 1949, Walter and Jean Kerr moved to New York, and with that move Kerr also changed the direction of his career. After Touch and Go, he had decided that the few critical articles he had written had sparked more interest than any of his Broadway plays, and so he became a critic. In 1950, he joined Commonweal as drama critic, a position he held for two years. In 1951, he served as guest drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune; in 1952, he became the newspaper's regular critic. He remained with the Herald Tribune until 1966, when it ceased publication.

In September of 1966, Kerr became the drama critic for the New York Times, and in 1967 he began writing reviews only for the Sunday dramatic section of the Times. In July 1979, Mr. Kerr became the chief drama critic for the Times, contributing two columns a month to the Sunday edition and two pieces a week to the daily paper. But in September 1980, he relinquished this position and returned to writing only for the Sunday drama section. Mr. Kerr retired from the New York Times in 1983.

Kerr has also published several books of criticism: How Not to Write a Play (1955), Criticism and Censorship (1957), Pieces at Eight (1957), The Decline of Pleasure (1962), The Theater in Spite of Itself (1963), Tragedy and Comedy (1967), Thirty Plays Hath November (1969), God on the Gymnasium Floor (1971), The Silent Clowns (1975), and Journey to the Center of the Theater (1978). In addition to his writing, Mr. Kerr's activities have included radio broadcasts, educational films, and numerous lectures. New York's radio station WQXR featured Mr. Kerr in many broadcasts during the early 1970s, and he made a series of cassette recordings in 1970 and 1971, which were distributed to radio stations across the country. Mr. Kerr appeared in The Comedy Tradition, an educational film made for the Museum of Modern Art, and in a film titled Introduction to the Performing Arts -- Theater with Walter Kerr, produced by his long-time associate Robert Saudek. Walter Kerr has lectured throughout the United States, participating in a seminar at Harvard University in 1970 and in a lecture series on film acting at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978. He has contributed articles to numerous journals and books.

Another facet of Walter Kerr's career is his work in television. He has written or adapted scripts for such programs as Omnibus and The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries. He also served as drama consultant for Robert Saudek Associates, producers of Omnibus.

In recognition of the high caliber of his work, Kerr has received many awards. Among them are: the Sylvania Television Award for Omnibus (1957); the David Merrick Award for Criticism (1962); the George Jean Nathan Criticism Award (1964); the Dineen Award of the National Theater Conference (1965); an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1972); and the Pulitzer Prize for dramatic criticism in April 1978. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana (1956); La Salle College in Philadelphia (1956); Northwestern University (1962); Fordham University (1965); Notre Dame University (1968), St. John's University (New York), St. Peter's College (New Jersey), and the University of Michigan. He has also served on committees which have awarded prizes to outstanding persons in the theater world, including the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Clarence Derwent awards committee, and the drama jury for the Pulitzer prizes. Walter Kerr was a member of the Dramatists Guild, ASCAP, and the New York Critics Circle, of which he served as president from 1955 to 1957.

When Walter and Jean Kerr moved to New York in 1949, Jean Kerr continued her career as playwright and humorist. She wrote sketches for John Murray Anderson's Almanac (1953) and collaborated with Eleanor Brooke on King of Hearts (1954). The musical Goldilocks, produced in 1958, once again called for the collaborative efforts of Kerr and Kerr; the husband and wife team wrote the lyrics and script, and Walter Kerr directed the play. It was a solo venture that proved most successful however--Jean Kerr's play Mary, Mary opened in 1961 and ran for more than 1,000 performances. Her Poor Richard was produced in 1964. Finishing Touches played on Broadway in 1973, and Lunch Hour opened in New York City in November 1980.

Jean Kerr's wry, witty, and perceptive comments on everyday life were not confined just to the stage. In 1957 her autobiographical book Please Don't Eat the Daisies was published, and it became a best-seller. Three other books, The Snake Has All the Lines (1960), Penny Candy (1970), and How I Got to Be Perfect (1978), are collections of articles. Mrs. Kerr has written for a variety of journals, including McCall's, Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Saturday Evening Post.

Jean Kerr, too, is the recipient of many awards. She has honorary doctoral degrees from Northwestern University (1962) and Fordham University (1965). She received the Gold Medal from the National Institute for Social Science in 1973. She and her husband received Catholic Action Medals in 1966 from St. Bonaventure University, and the Campion Award presented by the Catholic Book Club in 1971. Also in 1971, Mrs. Kerr received the Laetare medal, Notre Dame's highest honor. She was a member of the Dramatists Guild and ASCAP.

Jean and Walter Kerr had six children: Christopher, born in 1945; twins Colin and John, born in 1950; Gilbert, born in 1954; Gregory, born in 1959; and Kitty, born in 1963. From 1953 on, the Kerrs lived in their castle-like house in Larchmont, New York.