Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp celebrating centennial |

Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp celebrating centennial

Andy Bockelman

A dancer performs during the early days of Perry-Mansfield in the 1920s.

From its earliest days, the arts world continually has grown, developed and built on its origins. No matter how many transitions occur, the styles of dance and theater and the people who perform them share a universal bond that has changed very little across the centuries.

This is the type of belief that holds true at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, where a centennial celebration promises a summer season that pays tribute to the hundreds of people who have contributed to and benefited from its programs and, perhaps more than anyone, the founders who made it possible.

2 women, 1 dream

The camp's sign notes 1913 as the year of its establishment, though the exact date is debatable. What is definite is that it was the brainchild of Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield, two graduates of Seven Sisters school Smith College who became lifelong friends through their shared love of the arts. Perry was the daughter of a prominent Denver family, and Mansfield — who eventually changed her original surname from Swett to her mother's maiden name — hailed from Chicago.

Fresh out of school and eager to share their crafts of theater and dance, the two first became enamored with the idea of starting a summer camp for youngsters in the mountains after a 1911 camping and hunting trip with Perry's family. They established a partnership and worked to raise money toward their goal by teaching and doing various jobs in Chicago.

It was summer 1914 when the duo was able to set up the Rocky Mountain Dancing Club, which offered a series of classes for 15 young women in the setting of Lake Eldora. Besides the arts pursuits, horseback riding also was a prominent activity run by Perry's sister, Marjorie.

Although the first summer was largely successful, poor weather proved problematic, as did other factors. Lucile Bogue's history of the camp, "Dancers on Horseback: The Perry-Mansfield Story," notes the near-scandal that occurred that season:

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"Young men from Denver, hearing that scantily clad nymphs were gamboling about the mountains at Nederland, drove up by the dozens and trained spy-glasses on the chiffon-robed girls who danced at the edge of the lake with bare feet and gossamer scarves," Bogue wrote.

It was later that year, traveling in Northwest Colorado, that Perry and Mansfield found the ideal spot for their future: a 15-acre property near Steamboat Springs' Strawberry Park, which they purchased for $200. The friends took up residence in Cabeen, a cabin thought to have been built on the property in the 1880s. It still exists today.

From there, the institution exploded in the coming years, taking on the Perry-Mansfield brand in 1921, continually growing in enrollment as young people from across the country attended. But it was more than just a summer getaway for young people who loved to perform. The two women helped their students see the country, Mansfield offered health and wellness classes to adults and the faculty members who taught at the camp used their time there as a springboard to greater careers, such as Agnes De Mille, Valerie Bettis, Louis Horst, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, all of whom were prominent in dance and music.

Thelma Ray Faulkner, better known as T. Ray to Perry-Mansfield staff, noted that the camp played a significant part in the modern dance movement.

"Everyone who was ever a part of the growth and development of modern dance in the United States at one time or another came to Perry-Mansfield either as a student, teacher or guest artist," she said.

Faulkner, 81, first came to the camp in 1957 as a cabin counselor. Finding a brochure on the program while earning her teaching certificate at Oklahoma College for Women, she was exhilarated by the promise of being able to enrich young minds, sit in on dance classes and enjoy a natural setting all at once.

Her experience only improved when she was asked by Perry and Mansfield, both in their late 60s, to be their personal assistant.

"It was a wonderful learning experience for me. We all had so much respect for them," Faulkner said. "They were magical women that did a magical thing for a lot of people."

She noted that the camp's equestrian program, which continues today, was even more integral in the earlier days, seen as an important way to motivate and inspire students with the natural surroundings. Within the classroom, Faulkner added, she was particularly impressed by the pair's teaching techniques.

"Because of the way they were brought up and the way they were educated, they were very positive about life in general," she said. "You never heard them say a negative thing. They were always very constructive in the way they approached things. They'd say, 'Maybe we should do it a different way or 'maybe we could do this at a different time,' but they'd never put you down. They always praised you for what you did, respected you for being a human being and gave you as much love as you wanted to give to them."

Changing of the guard

In 1963, Perry-Mansfield celebrated its 50th anniversary, a festivity that was somewhat dampened as the two founders moved toward selling the property to Stephens College, of Columbia, Mo., a transaction finalized in 1965.

The college used the camp largely as a training ground for its students while still offering programs for younger campers. The ladies who had started it all turned their attention to other activities as new faculty took over the camp.

Faulkner did not stay for the Stephens era. She had only recently completed a master's degree in dance from Texas Western University following a short time in elementary education and found a new career teaching at Indiana University. However, leaving Perry-Mansfield at the end of the 1965 season was difficult.

"When I drove over Rabbit Ears Pass, I decided not to live in the past but to make the very best of whatever was to come in the future," she said.

Faulkner also taught dance at University of Oregon, Eastern Michigan University and Arizona State University, but no matter where she went throughout the years, she quickly found Perry-Mansfield catching up to her, meeting former campers in numerous locations such as London, Rome and Mexico City.

In the early 1990s, the camp changed hands again when Stephens, facing financial difficulties, was considering shutting down the program. A local group, Save Perry-Mansfield, offered to take over, eventually raising enough funds to buy the camp outright.

Volunteer Karolynn Lestrud has been involved with the organization for nearly 20 years.

"I've been a theater fan my entire life, so that was a piece of it," she said. "Being in a dance concert or in a play is like being on a team. You have to work on your individual skills and mesh with the whole group, so I think for young people to participate in an arts program is as valid as a sports program, which we have a lot of in Steamboat."

Now a nonprofit, Friends of Perry-Mansfield has continued the legacy started a century ago by keeping the program going. The budget for a summer is about

$1 million, and the dream of Perry-Mansfield still is going strong.

Contributions to entertainment

One can't talk about Perry-Mansfield without mentioning some of the most famous alumni and faculty names who got their start there.

Some were directly influenced by their time in Northwest Colorado. Agnes de Mille, relative of film giant Cecil B. DeMille, taught dance at Perry-Mansfield in the 1930s before moving onto a line of work choreographing some of the biggest Broadway shows of the 1940s and '50s.

Lestrud said the cowboys of the area eventually showed up on stage in a new form via de Mille's dance steps in "Oklahoma!"

"She went to a barbecue, and the way they were jumping around there, you can tell that's what inspired her," she said.

Perhaps one of the first campers to make a name for themselves was Julie Harris, who attended the camp from 1940 to 1942, blossoming from a painfully shy girl to the dynamic actress who dominated the Great White Way for decades, winning multiple Tony Awards.

Other famous names who got their start at the camp include Lee Remick, a teenage Joan Van Ark and Asian-American student Makoto Iwamatsu, better known by his stage name, Mako.

Additionally, Dustin Hoffman trod the boards of the newly dedicated Julie Harris Theatre in 1957 and 1958.

The young Hoffman was a far cry from the man who would go on to be one of the fresh faces of the New Hollywood period of cinema. Back then, he was intent on being the world's greatest dancer and refused to consider an acting career.

"He and Charlotte fought about that all summer," Lestrud said. "Well, I think we know who won that fight."

In Bogue's book, Hoffman was described as being "a royal pain" his first year at Perry-Mansfield and almost wasn't allowed to return for a second summer until Perry gave him another chance. Faulkner was at the camp the same time as Hoffman and only has fond memories of the actor despite his knack for getting under other people's skin.

"He was a really great guy," Faulkner said.

From campers to artists

For every Hoffman or Harris, there have been hundreds of other campers who have found different levels of success in the arts, some of whom never go on to pursue a career in that field.

"It's the kind of program that lets people decide if that's what they want to get into, or if it'll just be something like a hobby for them," Executive Director Joan Lazarus said.

As a teenager living in Fort Morgan, Theresa Brust studied dance at Perry-Mansfield in the summers of 1959 and 1960.

"When I came to camp, I saw what real dance was," she said. "It opened the doors of dance to me, which I happened to stay in the rest of my life."

Brust studied dance further in California and went on to establish her own performing arts venue in Indiana for dance, gymnastics and other disciplines. Now a full-time resident of Steamboat, she is glad to be close to the place that started her down that path.

"Those summers were so magnificent," she said. "It was indescribably wonderful to be able to dance all day and be in so many performances. It was so different from what I was used to."

Steamboat native Jake Barker studied musical theater for five summers between 2005 and 2010 as a way to try something new.

"What it taught me the most was how to branch out and meet people," Barker said. "Each summer, I was able to go into this unknown environment with people I've never met before, and in a four-week period, I made some of the closest friends of my life. It's a very intense, professional and positive program."

Having just completed his freshman year at Middlebury College, Barker still is undecided whether he wants to pursue the arts full time, but he said he'd definitely like to stay involved in that world.

Drew Lyon, originally of Craig, moved straight from his time at Perry-Mansfield into matriculating at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

"They actually recruited me right from the camp," he said.

Lyon, who now works in post-production for Denver's Starz Entertainment, attended the camp in the late 1990s and early 2000s and later worked as a counselor. Besides studying drama locally, he also had the opportunity to travel to England through the camp for international workshops.

"For me, it was a cultural eye-opener," he said. "Perry-Mansfield definitely laid the groundwork for my career. I really do attribute them to making me into the person I am because I feel like I grew up there."

The next 100 years

Back when Perry-Mansfield began in its current location, it consisted of 15 acres and had minimal structures other than Cabeen. Today, its acreage and building count exceed 70.

Beyond the larger physical space available, the future of the camp continues to expand. With newer programs like New Works, performing shows by commissioned playwrights across the nation, proving to be a hit, Lazarus, who became executive director last summer following a career in dance instruction, would like to see similar developments to further include the Steamboat community in the camp's activities.

This year will make a good starting point, as the schedule for the centennial celebration is chock-full of entertainment commemorating the occasion.

"It's kind of a dream job to be able to come into something that's 100 years old that has had a profound impact and visualize what it's going to be in its second century," Lazarus said. "It's nice to step into a program that I really believe in and keep it as vital and as world class as it's been."

However, even as the Perry-Mansfield family looks toward the coming years, its appreciation for the rich history that led to the camp's current state hasn't waned.

"I've always believed in these two ladies who started it and defied convention and defined it as 'the brotherhood of the arts,'" Lestrud said. "It's such an unsung little gem right here in Steamboat."

Perhaps no one has a greater appreciation than Faulkner. Apart from working with Perry and Mansfield personally, she returned to the camp after she retired from teaching in 1996, worked in the camp office for a brief period and served as the historian and archivist.

In her view, the ladies' original vision for their establishment has changed very little, if at all.

"It's still doing what it did back then: Give young people the opportunity to study the arts in a beautiful setting and develop an appreciation of the out-of-doors along with the beauty of the arts," she said. "What was started is still being done, and that's just magical."

“It is to be deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, where the rushing streams flow straight from the snowy peaks of the Great Divide, and the wind blows fresh through the forests of dense pine and spruce. Here life is free, simple, and sweet. For perfect expression in dancing, music or any creative art, freedom of the body, and of the spirit, is necessary. Life in the great silence of the stern white peaks is healthful and free, it recreates the body and the mind in simplicity and beauty.”

Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield’s original mission statement

Summer schedule

June 14: New Works staged readings, 7:30 p.m. at Chief Theater

June 15: New Works staged readings, 3 and 7:30 p.m. at Perry-Mansfield

July 4: Parade performance, 10 a.m. in downtown Steamboat Springs

July 5: Junior Camper Showcase, 8:30 a.m. at Perry-Mansfield

July 8 to Aug. 3: Young Artists Intensive, Perry-Mansfield

July 10: Tango! with Nick Jones and Diana Cruz, 6:30 p.m. at Strings Music Pavilion

July 14: Tango Milonga, 6:30 p.m. at Colorado Mountain College

July 20: Tribute 100, 5 p.m. at Perry House

July 21: Open house, 10 a.m. at Perry-Mansfield

July 23 and 24: Scene Crawl , 8 p.m. at Perry-Mansfield

July 25: Pre-Professional Observation Day, 8:30 a.m. at Perry-Mansfield

July 26 and 27: Evening of Dance, 8 p.m. at Steamboat Springs High School

July 28: Evening of Dance, 3 p.m. at Steamboat Springs High School

Aug. 1 and 2: Young Artist Intensive YouthFest, 7:30 p.m. at Perry-Mansfield

Aug. 2: Young Artist Intensive Observation Day, 8:30 a.m. at Perry-Mansfield

Aug. 10: Discovery Camp Showcase, 10 a.m. at Perry-Mansfield

Check http://www.perry-mansfie… for more information.


“When I came to camp, I saw what real dance was. … (Perry-Mansfield) opened the doors of dance to me, which I happened to stay in the rest of my life.”

Theresa Brust, alumna

“For me, it was a cultural eye-opener. Perry-Mansfield definitely laid the groundwork for my career. I really do attribute them to making me into the person I am because I feel like I grew up there.”

Drew Lyon, alumnus and former counselor

“What it taught me the most was how to branch out and meet people. Each summer, I was able to go into this unknown environment with people I’ve never met before, and in a four-week period, I made some of the closest friends of my life. It’s a very intense, professional and positive program.”

Jake Barker, alumnus

“It was a wonderful learning experience for me. We all had so much respect for (Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield). They were magical women that did a magical thing for a lot of people.”

Thelma Ray “T. Ray” Faulkner, historian and archivist as well as former counselor, office worker and assistant to founders Perry and Mansfield

“The programs and how they’re visualized by the people who teach here and the understanding of what it means to create an immersion program and to be of this kind of caliber is just so exciting to me.”

Joan Lazarus, executive director