J.J. Stamm, first musical director SVHS, 1967-84

Mr. James Stamm directing students in 1967 in the school’s first musical, Annie Get Your Gun.

The spring musical will celebrate its 51st anniversary next year, but without its founding director. Mr. James J. Stamm, who directed the school’s first musical in 1967 and set the bar for its excellence, died at his home in Florida. He was 93.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Fr. Mark Francis, C.S.V., a 1971 graduate who appeared in musicals and the St. Viator Chorale, both under Mr. Stamm’s direction, and he credits—in part—his experience on stage with preparing him for the priesthood.

“He helped me appreciate how these expressions of the human spirit can enliven and render more profound communicating the experience of God,” Fr. Francis said.

Mr. Stamm directed the musicals from 1967 to 1984, and in the beginning staged 10 shows over the course of three weekends.

He began with Annie Get Your Gun, and directed nearly every big name show for the next 17 years, including The Music Man, Carousel, West Side Story, South Pacific and Oklahoma, to name just a few.

The 1967 yearbook, Viatribe, described mounting the first show as five months of hard work, from the late rehearsals to writing out individual tickets, to making costumes and sets.

“It was all the glitter and appeal of show business,” yearbook editors wrote. “Annie was, most of all, successfully meeting the challenge of producing a professional Broadway show at Saint Viator.”

It was Fr. Paul Gilgallon, C.S.V., the school’s first fine arts director, who asked Mr. Stamm to come to the school to direct a musical. He had traveled to Taft High School in Chicago, where Mr. Stamm worked as a teacher and director, to see one of his shows. At the time, Mr. Stamm had a son at Saint Viator and daughters at Sacred Heart of Mary high schools.

In an interview for Saint Viator’s 50th-anniversary book, Mr. Stamm said he readily agreed, but he went into it as more than an interested parent.

“Right from the start,” Mr. Stamm said, “I wanted to make sure it was absolutely professionally done.”

Mrs. Kathy Koehl served as Mr.Stamm’s assistant director throughout his run at Saint Viator and she said his training as a teacher—and musician—made its impact on students.

“He was a taskmaster, but the kids loved him,” Mrs. Koehl said. “They knew what they could do and what they couldn’t, which wasn’t much.”

Mrs. Kate Costello performed under Mr. Stamm’s direction as a student and she inherited the musical when she returned to Saint Viator in 2002. She points to his practice of double casting his leads as groundbreaking since it allowed more students to be involved, and to his high standard for the music—setting it even higher than the acting.

“Mr. Stamm set the bar high, and we have endeavored to keep it there,” she says. “The musical offers so many opportunities for students. It expands their horizons and introduces them to so many aspects of the arts.”

“For most of us,” Mrs. Costello adds, “it’s something we’ve carried with us for the rest of our lives.”