The Current Literature Club, an organization for women who shared an interest in literature, decided to bring the arts and lectures on current events to campus. The goal was to expand access to drama, music, and knowledge of world events to the student body. In 1903, the Current Literature Club sponsored the first “Lyceum Entertainment.” The performance consisted of a reading of “David Harum”, which started as a best-selling book, first published in 1898, by Edward Noyes Westcott. Edward P. Elliot portrayed each of the twelve characters.
“From the interest shown in these entertainments, and from the
packed house that greeted Mr. Elliot, we feel sure a complete
course of lyceum lectures would be appreciated by the students,
and hope that arrangements for such can be made for the coming
The North Texas Journal, 1903
That hope was fulfilled as fine art programs and lecturers were brought to campus to expand the cultural horizons of students and the citizens of Denton. Among the early acts booked were the Metropolitan Grand Quartette, Grand Opera Singers, Henry Lawrence Southwick (a performer of Shakespeare’s works), Maude Powel (violinist), and Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic Motion Pictures.
The Lyceum Series, or popularly known as the Lyceum Course, was also a popular place to meet or take a date. This social aspect was captured in a poem that was published in the 1925 Yucca:
“Any girl can be gay, in a nice coupe,
In a show they can all watch you slumber.
But the girl worthwhile is the girl who can smile,
When you take her to a lyceum number.”
By 1917, the performers were booked by the Calendar Committee and tickets could be purchased for $1.50. By 1919, the Lyceum Series was paid for by a student activity fee. Season tickets were also sold to the citizens of Denton. Tickets could be purchases at the college library or Curtis’s Drug Store.
The Mary Arden Club also sponsored the Lyceum Series into the 1920s. Then the Fine Arts Committee was formed. Dr. Sam B. McAlister served as its chair for 31 years, until 1963.
The composition of the Fine Arts Committee has been altered many times over the years. By 1971, there were no students on the committee. However, in 1972, the committee was reorganized to have an equal number of faculty and students.
The Fine Arts Series was not stopped during times of war. However, the world pandemic of 2020 did temporarily stop the program.
By the 1930’s the Fine Arts Committee, composed of faculty and students, brought nationally and internationally known artists to campus and funded performances by the College Players. In 1938, The Eva Jessye Choir performed in the auditorium, in what is now called the Auditorium Building. She was the first African American woman to be an internationally known choral conductor. She also served as the musical director with George Gershwin on Porgy and Bess. The Martha Graham Dance Company and the premier of the opera “Cynthia Parker,” by composer and UNT alumna Julia Smith, were just two of the offerings that the activity fee made possible in 1939. In 1945, the Yucca (the school yearbook), stated that “…since its inception, [it] has attempted to provide a series of programs in which every student regardless of individual tastes would find numbers that he would enjoy. These various types of programs are alternated throughout the year.”
Lectures were part of the diverse educational offerings. John Dewy, Margaret Bourke White, Senator Robert La Follette, and Lech Walesa addressed the students. The Campus Chat (now known as the North Texas Daily), stated that “…the Normal has always maintained a strong course of lectures and entertainments, each year securing the best available talent. Men and women of national reputation, famous as leaders in public life, noted artists, musicians, and writers have been secured, who have contributed much to the student’s realization of the college purpose of helpfulness and spiritual uplift.” [Campus Chat, 1963-05-07]
Maria Tallchief appeared with the Chicago Opera Ballet, Jose Ferrer, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra were among the artists that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. Not all acts that appeared were successful. One, Love is a Ball, received bad reviews from the audience. It closed soon after playing Denton. Other acts, such as Hal Holbrook’s performance in Mark Twain Tonight, were great successes. Other well received programs included the rock musical, Your Own Thing, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dame Judith Anderson playing Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Hip Pocket Theater production of A Saga of Billy the Kid, the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, the Nishikawa Dance Troup, and the artists Janet Fish and English potter Richard Batterham.
The conviction that the student experience should be enhanced by bringing the best performers in fine arts (drama and music), exposure to the visual arts, and thought-provoking lectures has continued and become a hallmark of the well-rounded student and graduate of the University of North Texas. The program was honored by having a newly constructed, five hundred seat, auditorium named the Lyceum in the Union Building. The auditorium name was continued when the Union was expanded in 2015.