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Crawford's contribution enriches performing arts

By Casey Pearlman
On October 15, 2013

  • CELEBRITY STATUS. Joan Crawford, actress and Brandeis donor, cuts the ribbon at an opening ceremony surrounded by onlookers.
  • PENSIVE POSING. Joan Crawford (above) sits for a photo while dreamily looking into the distance.

Everyone knows Joan Crawford as the famous American actress who appeared in over 80 movies. However, to Brandeis, she was more than just an actress.
Crawford first arrived on campus in the 1960s when she showed her support for the arts program and the dance program through the donation of a dance studio to the University's recently built Spingold Theater Center. According to letters exchanged between Crawford and the first president of Brandeis, Abram Sachar, the students at Brandeis were so "happy ...from year to year as they go through their ballet training and their dance routines in this lovely Joan Crawford hall."

The purpose of the dance studio was to encourage the dance and arts program. The studio was not meant only for the extraordinarily gifted, but rather it was donated as a place to teach students respect and understanding of their bodies and have more appreciation for the "oldest art form known to man." The first president of the University had a personal relationship with Crawford and was constantly exchanging letters with her. Sachar shared with Crawford in a letter dated Oct. 14, 1965, "you have not merely dedicated a room, you have dared to meddle with the future" because of what the students in the dance studio would take away with them for the rest of their lives. This statement rings true, as students today continue to use the studio.

In February 1967, Sachar wrote to Crawford that he was authorized to invite her to become a Fellow of the University. Along with Crawford, other Brandeis Fellows included Oscar Handlin, Leonard Bernstein, Nobel Prize winner Selman Waksman and other people of "elite caliber." The purpose of the fellows is to act as "foster alumni." They give their advice to the University as well as raise funds, make financial contributions and serve on advisory boards. In the letter written by Sachar to Crawford informing her of her appointment, Sachar described the honor as given only to, "men and women who have become symbols of productive creative activity in their communities or in their areas of competence. We go to them for counsel ...and we profit most from their specialized knowledge, influence and judgment." When given the news of her appointment as a fellow, Crawford was "delighted beyond words and accept[ed] with the greatest of pleasure." She claimed the honor was "delicious!"

Beyond being a fellow, Crawford also donated many of the awards she received throughout her lifetime to the Brandeis University Robert D. Farber Archives and Special Collections. Her awards hail from theater events, community events and business events. She was given them for her extraordinary work as an actress in the theater industry, the outreach she had done within communities and business achievements she made throughout her lifetime. The awards she donated to the library were in high demand when she was deciding to give them up. One of the other potential schools to receive her awards was Boston University, but Crawford was "delighted that [her] trophies have found a permanent home at Brandeis."

In an email to the Justice, Ingrid Schorr, associate director of the office of the arts, explained that when Spingold was built on campus, there was no other regional theater in Boston. "Boston had its commercial theaters, but that's a different world-those theaters mostly served to preview plays that were produced in New York," and for that reason, Spingold's main theater was built with room for 800 people so it could be a theater for the Greater Boston area. Schorr believes that it was because of this fact that Crawford was attracted to the University. In addition, "support of New York and Hollywood for Brandeis," was shown with the Creative Arts Awards, which were created to "recognize excellence in the arts ... of active American artists." For these reasons, Crawford was inspired to attach herself to Brandeis. 

Joan Crawford was an amazing actress and member of the entertainment community. To Brandeis, however, she was so much more. The dance studio she donated is home to many students interested in the arts and dance, and her awards are a testament to how great she truly was.  

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