This piece by former Texas Collection director Kent Keeth originally was published in The Baylor Line in June 1981, then was reprinted in Looking Back at Baylor (1985), a collection of Keeth and Harry Marsh’s historical columns for the Line. Blogging about Texas periodically features selections from Looking Back at Baylor, with hopes of sharing Keeth’s work with a new audience.
One of the most magnificent and well-known buildings on campus is the Armstrong Browning Library, known for its large collection of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning works and beautiful stained glass windows. But before the iconic building was constructed, the Baylor Browning collection was housed within Carroll Library. Read on to learn more about the collection and performance based on one of the stained glass windows.
For the first four years after its inception in 1918, Baylor’s Browning collection shared quarters with the university’s general library in the Carroll Chapel and Library Building. Starting with Dr. A. J. Armstrong’s gift of his personal library of Browning manuscripts and publications, the burgeoning young collection rapidly acquired a large oil portrait of Robert Browning painted by his son, its famous bronze casting of the Brownings’ clasped hands, and additional writings and memorabilia.
When the library building caught fire and burned in 1922, Dr. Armstrong made certain that the rescue of the Browning materials received priority. An account of the incident notes that “the portrait and Browning collection were the first considerations of the rescuers, and the entire collection was saved with little harm to any item.” While most of the general library’s materials received priority. An account of the incident notes that “the portrait and Browning collection were the first considerations of the rescuers, and the entire collection was saved with little harm to any item.” While most of the general library’s materials were also saved by the formation of a human chain of students, faculty and bystanders, the fire destroyed the building’s interior completely, leaving only its outer walls standing.
Reconstruction of the building was begun immediately, and its use devoted entirely to library purposes. By early 1924 the Browning collection occupied a prime location across the east end of the second floor, and Dr. Armstrong was at work on his plan for a ceremony which would not only commemorate the establishment of the Browning room’s separate identify, but also would give wide publicity to the collection.
Among the features of the new Browning Room were three art class windows which depicted scenes from the poet’s works. The largest of these represented “the Pied Piper of Hamelin” after he had enticed away the town’s plague of rats and then returned to claim its children as well. Taking his theme from this window, Dr. Armstrong organized a musical pageant which would recount the story upon which browning’s poem was based. As was typical of his projects, the pageant was designed on a large scale.
The performance took place during Baylor’s commencement exercises in June, 1924. After members of the music faculty had performed a four-voice operetta al fresco on Burleson Quadrangle, a large cast of actors mimed the events of the story. Miss Annie Lee Truett, daringly dressed in knee breeches, played the part of the Piper, and other students represented the various citizens of Hamelin. The dual roles of rats and children were taken by some four hundred children of Waco.
Thorough in all details, Dr. Armstrong and his helpers even designed the costumes of these important cast members: “The attention of the parents of the children is called to the fact that each wants to be supplied with a costume for a rat, something on the order of the brownie costumes, one piece with rat ears, a tail which should be stuffed with cotton or excelsior and perhaps wired. The length of the tail should vary according to the age of the child. The following facts are to be notes: Those children whose last names begin with the letters A to E are requested to be white rats, those whose last names begin with F through O will be gray rats, P to T brown and U through Z black rats.”
The pageant, which was followed by the formal presentation of the window to the Browning Room by its donor, Mrs. George K. McLendon, was a resounding success. One newspaper estimated that it attracted an audience of ten thousand persons, and Dr. Armstrong himself modestly acknowledged that it assembled “one of the largest crowds ever gathered on the campus.” As he had foreseen, the event received nationwide newspaper and magazine publicity and even attracted notice in Europe. One of the pageant’s participants was less deeply impressed, however. Two-year-old Marvin Goebel retained no memory of it at all. Goebel, now director of the Baylor press, recalls only that for several months thereafter, he and his playmates dressed up and played in their “rats suits” until they had finally become outgrown.
The Browning Room remained in Carroll Library until 1951, when it moved into its new home on the other side of the campus. The Pied Piper window, like the collection’s other display pieces, was installed in its own specially designed and handsomely appointed niche. There the Piper has continued to exert his magical charm, helping to attract and captivate visitors to the Armstrong Browning Library.