Comedic play addresses journalism ethics

Tuesday, September 9, 2008 | 7:56 p.m. CDT; updated 10:32 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 15, 2008
Weldon Durham, right, answers a telephone call during a rehearsal of the first scene of the play "The Front Page" at the Missouri Theatre on Monday night. Durham plays one of the leading roles as the managing editor of a 1920's newspaper.

COLUMBIA — In 1928, a Chicago reporter hid a runaway convicted murderer in a roll-top desk to get the scoop on his story. It was the fictitious plot of the Broadway comedy "The Front Page," written by former journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Eighty years later, Maplewood Barn Community Theatre is performing a special three-day run. Opening Thursday at the newly renovated Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, "The Front Page" will be presented in conjunction with the Missouri School of Journalism centennial and dedication of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

If you go

"The Front Page" film viewing

WHAT: “The Front Page,” original 1931 film
WHERE: Ragtag Cinema, 10 Hitt St.

WHEN: 2 p.m. today
ADMISSION: Free to all



"The Front Page" play

WHAT: “The Front Page,” a Maplewood Barn Community Theatre production
WHERE: Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, 203 S. Ninth St.
WHEN: 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
ADMISSION: Free with registration to the Journalism School centennial. Adults $10, seniors and students $8.

Media Ethics lecture

WHAT: “Media Ethics: What if Hildy Johnson Worked at”
WHERE: 278 Gannett Hall
WHEN: 9 a.m. Thursday
ADMISSION: Open only to those registered for the centennial

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"The play celebrates the time and reasons why the Journalism School was founded," said Byron Scott, co-director and MU professor emeritus of journalism. "Walter Williams started the school because of a lack of professional standards."

In the play, star reporter Hildy Johnson hides convicted murderer Earl Williams in a newsroom desk. Williams, who is to be hanged for killing a policeman, has run away from jail and claims innocence. Johnson, hoping to get the first scoop on Williams' story, hides the man. Meanwhile, Johnson's managing editor, Walter Burns, will do just about anything to further his career and political interests.

"It pretty accurately portrays the wild reporting of that era," Scott said. "Reporters were ethically loose."

Scott proposed the play to the Maplewood Barn Community Theatre board of directors as well as Dean Mills, dean of the Journalism School, and Suzette Heiman, the school's director of planning and communication who is overseeing the centennial.

"The whole scope of the play fits in. I thought it would be fabulous," Heiman said. "And having it at the Missouri Theatre brings in the community, too."

Scott co-directs the play with Charlie Wilkerson, who also plays Johnson.

"We've established a great working relationship," Wilkerson said. "Byron can explain what's going on journalistically in the play, and I give actor and blocking advice."

Scott and producer Lee Wilkins bring unique journalism backgrounds to the production: Scott headed the international office at the Journalism School for six years, and Wilkins is an MU radio and television journalism professor and a media ethicist. Both are on Maplewood's board of directors along with Wilkerson.

On Thursday, Wilkins will lead a journalism ethics discussion after the play.

"We'll use the play as a springboard for discussion of issues bothering journalists in the 21st century, like scoop and sensationalism," Wilkins said.

In the play, editor Burns brings up many of these journalistic issues.

"He is the absolute worst face of journalism, trying to use the power of the press to go with his political interest," Weldon Durham, who plays Burns in the production, said. "But he does it with such charm and verve that you're kind of cheering for him because the politicians (in the play) are even worse."

Although there is an appeal to journalists and students in the field, the play has reached a broader audience for more than 80 years, Wilkins said.

"The character of journalistic enterprise is a very hot potato," said Durham, a professor emeritus of theater at MU. "There's a lot of (discussion) about the function of journalism."

Performance of the play falls in sync with a few celebrations: The Maplewood Barn Community Theatre is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts has recently reopened after renovations that took the better part of a year. The theater first opened in 1928, the year "The Front Page" first opened.

"(I think it's) the best restored theater in the country outside of New York," Scott said. "I couldn't think of any other place to do (the play.)"

For the School of Journalism, the centennial celebration is a way to recognize and honor the work of people, Heiman said.

"Let's celebrate what we've accomplished and the people who contributed to the first 100 years," she said. "It's also a time to look ahead at the next 100 years."


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