Letter from Basil Burwell
on the occasion of the 1997 

Cherry Lawn School Reunion


(June 21, 1997, New York City)

Dear Cherry Lawners,

When we faculty members were informed in August 1972 that Cherry Lawn School would not be opening in September, it was hard for some of us to believe. I had been at the school off and on for thirty years, Ludwig Zuber for thirty-one. Both of us lost a couple of years to the Army, and I spent a few months writing my first novel, Our Brother the Sun, before returning to teaching. It did shortly get published, but it was some years before I wrote and had published another. But to get back to the closing of the school, we were let go with no prospects and no severance pay or retirement fund. I was 59 years old and fearful that age and lack of academic degrees would make it impossible to find a job. I lacked confidence. Nancy, on the other hand, was sure something would turn up eventually. Our son Jeremy, the last Cherry Lawn valedictorian, was about to enter college. Our son Fred was still in grade school. What to do?

First of all I felt that I had to get my head together and reorganize my life. We decided after selling our house, the only capital we possessed, to go down to Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and join the Quaker center for study and meditation known as Pendle Hill. We did so, and lived there for nine months. During that time I job hunted; and thanks to the reputation I had developed at Cherry Lawn and did not realize, I received three job offers. I finally accepted one from William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, a boys school founded by Penn and famous for its athletics and academics.

I was brought in to strengthen the artistic phase of the school. I did productions of Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III, Sheridan's The Rivals, and various modern plays, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing. I also conducted English courses, of course my Shakespeare course was the most successful. Thy kept me on there until I was into my seventies. When they retired me, I went to work for the drama school at the Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest steadily producing theatre in the country. Even Edmund Kean acted there. As an actor, I played an old man role in As You Like it. I taught classical and Shakespearian acting to educators until I was seventy-five.

Then we retired up to Belfast, Maine, where we had spent some vacations and owned a cottage which through the aid of some Cherry Lawners had kept us from losing. No theatre group currently existed in Belfast, so we decided to start one. It is now entering its eleventh year, and now operates in an old railroad freight barn which our group transformed into an excellent small theatre which seats one hundred and twenty.

Last fall, in honor of my eighty-fifth birthday, a group of Penn Charter graduates invited Nancy and I to return to Philadelphia for a birthday party. Actors from area theatre groups, including the Chestnut Hill Stagecrafters, agreed to attend and even a few Cherry Lawners. Unfortunately, I was knocked out by a heart attack. The party was postponed until this June to give me time to recover. Then, when these Penn Charter grads learned what a problem June 1997 was becoming for me, they very graciously moved the party to October. I hope many of you will attend. It will be held at the Commodore Barry Club, the Irish Center at Mount Airy, Philadelphia, on October 4th.

Today is Tuesday, June 17th. Almost a week ago, Nancy and I drove to Weston, Vermont, where I was part of the original company of actors that started the sixty years of theatre at the Weston Playhouse. Entering their sixty-first year they were having a celebration and building a financial campaign to insure the theatre's future. Another original company member whom I had brought to Weston in 1937 was the important celebrity needed to add luster to the occasion, Lloyd Bridges, with whom I first acted in Sean O'Casey's Within the Gates in Los Angeles in 1936.

In the course of about five years, including two summer seasons at Weston, he and I acted together in about thirty productions before he received a Hollywood contract. When that contract came, he already had a contract to teach dramatics at Cherry Lawn. A problem. Perhaps his old friend Bazz would be nice and take over the Cherry Lawn job. He did, and fell so much in love with the school and its students that he stayed thirty years and had two of his three sons graduate. Jeremy was valedictorian and Christopher, known a Chips, as the salutatorian six years earlier.

But what can I say that will help anyone with common sense understand why I worked six or seven day weeks for little pay -- the most I ever was paid, and that was for one year only, was $10,000. During most of the time, the salary was $5,000. When the school folded, I had three job offers -- the least of these was $15,000 including a small pension. Nevertheless, I went on missing Cherry Lawn even though its last years were sad and often unpleasant. One innovation introduced by the new headmaster, Al Medved, was the summer session on tour in the British Isles. A few students went along two or three times. But the great days at Cherry Lawn were during and shortly after Worth War II when the school was truly an international one. Dr. Staël and Dr. Boris Bogoslovsky were in their primes as teachers as were many of the faculty. Burn out was yet to come. So were drugs, dirt, disorder and disrespect. Even in the bad days that came toward the end, Cherry Lawn was still very special, and I still loved my students.

The heart attack I suffered last fall has slowed me down and made me cautious. I kept thinking I would join you and hug each one of you, but medical advice suggests that I be wary of straining this 85 year old heart. I'm already preparing a show for August and writing a children's play for fall as well as studying modern Welsh, Scottish and Irish poets for an Elderhostel class I'll be teaching.

I'm sorry not to be with you. Please try to get down to Philadelphia on October 4th for what will be my 86th birthday celebration.

Much love,