secret_history (2007-13)

The Upstairs Studio

Emily Mahan's School of Drama, and its most famous alumnus

by Jack Neely

I keep thinking that one day I'll be done with this. I'll consider all the unlikely stories of Knoxville fully told, and finally get on with my own career. I was, after all, going to be a novelist or a foreign correspondent, or maybe a beachcomber.

But then I run into someone, often a newcomer or someone who's very young, who's astonished at a story I thought was well known, and I think well, maybe it needs telling again. Every year brings more people whose limited exposure to the city protects them from any illusion that Knoxville could ever have bred someone like, say, the actress Patricia Neal.

In the movies she was as grownup and dangerous as cigarette smoke, and cut a sharp and jagged swath through postwar cinema, playing opposite Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Paul Newman. She was both the angular, smoldering, subtly dominant Dominque Francon in The Fountainhead --and, two years later, the plump, scrubbed, all-American Mommy opposite a killer robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still . (I'm still half-convinced that was somebody else.) Later, she tended to play variations on the part of the smart but selfish, manipulative older woman, ravenous but somehow also ravishing, in movies like A Face In the Crowd , Breakfast at Tiffany's , and Hud . (She was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate , but couldn't accept it due to her health.) If it was typecasting, she made the best of it. The Hud role earned her the Oscar for Best Actress.

She survived more crises than anyone should have to, love affairs gone horribly wrong, the deaths of small children, and a disabling stroke at the age of 39. Her life was a Russian novel, two or three of them, maybe. And then she founded a rehabilitation center.

The other day I ran across a new biography called Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Hollywood scholar Stephen Michael Shearer. The narrative is about 350 pages long, but breezes over her Knoxville years at a rate of about a page a year. The writing's tolerable--her own autobiography, As I Am , is a better read--and is sometimes confused about local geography, as almost all out-of-town writers seem to be. But the new book brings up details about the actress's youth here that I hadn't seen.

She was born 81 years ago this month, in the tiny mining town of Packard, Ky., the daughter of a transportation manager for a coal company. In early 1929, he took a job at the company headquarters on the 15th floor of the Holston Building in Knoxville, and moved his family, including three-year-old Patsy.

Shearer suggests the Neals were at first intimidated by Knoxville, which was industrially sooty and infested with a hidebound social hierarchy. (Knoxville's Social Register was published yearly at that time, and I don't think the Neals ever made it.) During their first couple of years, they'd return to Kentucky two or three times a month, to escape Knoxville's "citified ways." Both Neal's and Shearer's books use that phrase.

They lived at the corner of Parkview and Chestnut, in the old Park City neighborhood, not far from Chilhowee Park. She was barely 10 before she was appearing in school shows.

Around 1936, a New York-trained thespian named Emily Mahan, whose father had founded Coot Neal's company, opened an acting school, and the not-quite-11 Patsy begged for some lessons for Christmas.

Mahan's place was a former dancers' studio in a walkup space on Cumberland Avenue near 18th. The building, long gone, was just east of what's now the First Tennessee Bank. In her book, Neal says it was above a filling station, but the city directories say the first floor was a restaurant called the Sawdust Trail, among other things.

One of Mahan's first students was little Patsy Neal, who took the bus there twice a week and read monologues.

Neal attended Knoxville High on Fifth Avenue, and joined a community troupe called the Tennessee Valley Players. Later, while still in high school, she began performing at Abingdon's famous Barter Theatre. The troupe would sometimes travel within the region, and Shearer's book emphasizes one public performance of Thunder Rock , in July, 1942, at Knoxville High's auditorium. Her fellow actors, Barter pros, were awed by her portrayal of the moody Melanie. Malcolm Miller, the Chicago-born former professional actor and performing-arts impresario who was probably the most discerning drama critic in local history, raved about her. He took a strong interest in Neal's budding career. As an encouraging influence, he comes up in the new book repeatedly as mentor and cheerleader.

But of all the details in the new biography, I was most intrigued with the story of Emily Mahan and the upstairs studio on Cumberland Avenue that happened to produce an Oscar-winning alumnus. I went to the library to see what became of her, and tried to trace the life of Emily Mahan in yellowed clippings in brittle old envelopes.

Emily Mahan married a UT football star, and closed her school in the '40s when she started having children of her own. She helped co-found UT's Carousel Theatre around 1950 and later was involved in establishing the Clarence Brown Theatre as well. There's a theater-school scholarship with her name on it. I didn't realize it until this afternoon, but when I was a kid, I lived down the street from her. I just knew her as Mrs. Faust.

You don't always expect that a New York-trained actress who opened an acting academy in Knoxville 71 years ago might still be around to talk about it. But as it happens, I reached Emily Mahan Faust by phone just today. "I had the school for a number of years, off and on, when I could afford to do it," she says from her Knoxville home. "I love acting, and I love teaching, so it was a good combination. It's been a wonderful outlet for me."

She talks slowly, and naturally it's hard to remember details after six or seven decades, but she does remember some. "Patricia Neal was among my first students," says Mrs. Faust, who is modest about her own influence. "She had a great deal of talent to begin with, and I was able to realize that." In her sessions, they would do readings from plays--mostly obscure ones, she says, that wouldn't be recognizable today--and spend time "imagining things." At the end of the year, she says, her students would put on a performance, often including dancing, for parents and others.

"There were a number of very talented people," who came through her studio, she says. "It was great fun and I ended up with a lot of very good students"--among them, a little later, future opera star Mary Costa who was, among many other things, the singing voice of Sleeping Beauty in the Disney film.

She speaks of Patricia Neal as you would of any old friend. "Her family were good friends with my family," she says. The actress visits Mrs. Faust when she's in town, which is not unusual.