Young Bill Mortensen was just twenty-six years old in 1929, when he was appointed director of the Horace Bushnell Memorial Theater by its founding trustees. The son of Danish immigrants, William H. Mortensen was a college dropout, who would go on to become Mayor of Hartford—and a self-made millionaire. Hartford in the 1930s was a vibrant city. “Chick” Austen was bringing modern art and theater to the Wadsworth Atheneum; Mortensen provided Hartford audiences with a vast array of alternative experiences during the Bushnell’s early years.
The Bushnell Symphony Series featured performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic. The American Ballet Theater Company and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo both performed at the Bushnell during the 1930s. Nelson Eddy, a popular radio and film star, performed in Verdi’s “Requiem” in 1932. Gladys Swarthout, also a film star as well as a performer with the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, performed in “Faust” in 1935. Patrice Munsel, “Princess Pat,” the youngest performer ever to appear at the Metropolitan Opera would be featured at the Bushnell in the 1940s.
In 1931 Mortensen began the Bushnell Motion Picture and Lecture Course, a fall series scheduled on weekends to encourage youth to attend. Motion pictures included popular hits such as “Stage Door” (1937) and “You Can’t Take it With You” (1938). Lectures included such gripping topics as “Alaska Ice Inferno,” by Father Bernard R. Hubbard, the “Glacier Priest,” and “Head-Takers of Formosa,” by Captain Carl von Hoffman. Stage shows ranged from marionette shows and musical comedies to performances by Helen Hayes and Ethel Barrymore. Productions like these lifted the spirits of theater goers during the dark days of the Depression and the years leading up to World War II.
By the time Mortensen retired in 1968, the Bushnell had served over 12 million audience members and presented over 6,000 performances and events. Of all the remarkable personalities featured at the Bushnell over the years, Mortensen himself was surely one of the most outstanding. In 2002, a large collection of photographs and memorabilia documenting his career was donated to the Connecticut Historical Society. A selection of these photographs may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at www.cthistoryonline.org.