The history of the Gilbert V. Hartke Theatre is inextricably intertwined with the person of Fr. Hartke himself, his successors as chairs of the Catholic University of America Drama Department, and the faculty and students that comprise the life of this department. From its inception in 1937, The Catholic University Drama Department seeks “to offer opportunities for intellectual growth and cultural enrichment and for the development of imaginative, disciplined expression in the theatre.” Headed under Fr. Gilbert Hartke O.F.M., the program enjoyed much success and attracted students and the brightest faculty in the country including Dr. Josephine Callan, James D. Waring, Leo Brady, William Graham, Alan Schneider, and Joseph Lewis, all of whom built the department into a nationally eminent institution. Within the first decade, six University productions moved to Broadway, possibly the most famous of which was Yankee Doodle Boy. From these achievements, Fr. Hartke was able to found the University Players, providing creative opportunities for faculty, staff, and students that moved beyond the academic scope of the department. From these endeavors, the University Players split into the National Players, a touring group that travelled and performed nationally and internationally (even behind the iron curtain) and still tours today, and Olney Theatre Center, a current major theatrical producing body in the DC-Maryland area.
After spending the first 30 years at CUA producing university productions in Ward Hall and then an Army Surplus movie theatre Fr. Hartke purchased for $1 from the US Army, a snow storm destroyed the school theatre, prompting the planning, construction, and subsequent opening of the Gilbert V. Hartke Theatre in 1970. From this new facility, the Hartke faculty and staff was able to usher in students and offer incredible artistic opportunities with artists such as Helen Hayes (who performed her final stage performance on the Hartke stage as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night) and Cyril Ritchard. Even past Fr. Hartke’s passing in 1986 his spirit lives on in the alumni, current students, faculty and staff, and all who meet to participate in theatre and scholarship at the Catholic University of America Drama Department.