Gillen, Martin

Martin James Gillen (October 1, 1872-September 22, 1943) was a nonprofessional member and a nationally known business counselor, economist, and writer. Gillen was elected to The Lambs in 1931. He was an invaluable member of the Council during the Great Depression. As chairman of the Finance Committee, he was chiefly responsible for reducing the mortgages and contributed his own check for $10,000. For his generosity he was named an Immortal Lamb.

Gillen was born in Racine, Wisconsin, the son of Irish immigrants Edward Gillen and Mary C. Mulherin. He attended parochial schools. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gillen earned degrees in civic history and law.

He practiced law in Racine until 1912. He moved to New York and became nationally known as a business counsellor, political economist, and writer. During World War I he was an official of the United States Shipping Board, created by Congress to address the shortage of U.S. shipping. During the 1920s he accumulated great wealth and became a philanthropist.

Gillen had an estate in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, where he died at 70 of heart disease. He donated more than 5,500 acres of forest land and lakes to Notre Dame to set up a laboratory and forestry school. The university set up an environmental program that is still in place today. The Martin J. Gillen Foundation donated more than $1 million to the university and churches and schools in his hometown. A bachelor, Gillen was interred with his family in Calvary Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleum in Racine.

From The Lambs Script, September-October 1946 Issue

What is an amateur? Now, there is a word that takes quite a shoving around in our profession.

We interpret it to our own satisfaction by concluding that an amateur is just another fellow who doesn’t know our game.

If, say, Roy Walling, a playwright, decided to paint his own house, over in Jersey, he would be an amateur painter. If his regular CIO painter decided to write a play, and had it produced by the Shaw-Ibsen Democratic Poker and Social Club of Teaneck, the painter would become an amateur playwright. And so on.

By this somewhat vulnerable reasoning, we may conclude that a Lambkin is an Amateur Lamb. The antonym for amateur is, of course, expert, but Mr. Webster declares that the English took the word “amator,” meaning “lover” or “devotee.” Broadly, then, an amateur Lamb, or Lambkin, comes into the Club and is devoted to it, without hope of personal gain.

That’s an idealistic incident, “devoutly to be wished for.” Yet it does work that way, on occasion, believe it or not!

Take the case of that former bill-collector, Martin J. Gillen, from Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin.

When he became a Lambkin, the most suspicious person in the world couldn’t question his motives. What could a brilliant lawyer, writer, and wealthy business counselor hope to get from us? Very little, compared with what he had.

Then why did he become a Lamb?

The answer took days to find, and we wound up having to drag out that old, threadbare phrase we’ve used before on “lay” members, i.e.– “He just loved showfolks.”

Looking back through the research for this series on Immortal Lambs, it’s just a little bit disturbing to note that, when disaster threatened us, as it frequently did in the past, we have been kept off the rocks by some strong “layman”– a leader whose sole motive in taking the helm was based only on his love for the theatre and its people. We may well wonder whether our luck will continue to hold.

We seem, then, to have two courses open to us. First, we can continue to keep our rabbit’s foot and pray, or, second, we can begin to train new members–and some old ones, too–in what will be required to sustain the future life of this, the oldest, continuous theatrical club on Earth.

Our library, card room, billiards room, bar, restaurant, theatre: These various and pleasant places are not The Lambs. Rather, they are but tinsel on the sturdy tree that is truly The Lambs.

You can get a good dinner, shoot a game of pool, play bridge, or sip a cocktail in any one of a thousand other pleasant places in New York.

What, then, makes The Lambs?



These things, and these alone, are our actual reasons for existence.

Our great reading room, or big, worn leather chairs, our massive fireplace, even our stairways, are peopled with the ghosts of yesterday. The lifesize oil portraits of men famous around the world–members now gone–look down on us from every wall. Beginning with Henry Montague, past Clay GreeneArthur WallackCharles HoytSir Henry IrvingWinchell SmithIrvin S. CobbVictor HerbertJohn Drew…The Barrymores…The Frohmans…Tom WiseChauncey OlcottDeWolf HopperJames K. HackettJefferson DeAngelis.

The list of our great members is seemingly endless; these Lambs were not merely of the Theatre, they were the Theatre.

Let the dead past bury its dead?

No, we cannot afford to do that, lest we become just another roomy gin-mill; just another address where we stop because the roast beef is good. If we forsake our traditions, we perish.

Martin J. Gillen, an influential “layman” who loved showfolks, realized these things that set us apart, and his efforts to preserve them have never been fully appreciated. To him, The Lambs symbolized The Theatre. Finding us rather unsound, financially, he set about to save us from ourselves.

As Chairman of the Finance Committee, he was chiefly responsible for the return of our second mortgage bonds, and the reducing of that mortgage from $87,000 to $2,000.

Later, he was the moving spirit in the reduction of our first mortgage, which was reduced from $325,000 to $150,000. This happy shrinkage brought about by the cash payment of $50,000. The Club paid $40,000 of this sum, and Martin J. Gillen personally contributed his check for $10,000.

Figures are boring to many of us. Acting and accounting seem incompatible, but, possessing as we do this half-million dollar storehouse sheltering the treasures and traditions that are truly the American Theatre, we must become aware of the arithmetic involved. Either that, or trust to luck–hoping that a Bert Brown, a Bob Hague, or a Martin Gillen will appear to us when we’re again in danger. And that lackadaisical philosophy is, of itself, a danger.

Hence it might be well for all of us to become Amateur Lambs—using Mr. Webster’s interpretation of the word–to become devoted Lambs; actors should inquire within themselves if they have given of their goods and talents as much as they might easily spare, that The Lambs may prosper.

Martin Gillen, Amateur Lamb, was an executive of the United States Shipping Board during World War I; he made generous contributions to many charities. He gave Notre Dame University some 5,500 acres of land for a forestry school, camp, and laboratory, and presented his own estate to the University’s teachers for their own.

Martin Gillen’s keen mind, trained in the ways of finance, fastened upon our necessity born of our weakness. He set about to substitute the sand in our foundation with rock.

He visualized a “long-term” future for us. Now that he is dead, that future can offer us small comfort if left to the mercies of men who disregard our past.

He was a notable American, a devoted Lamb.

Listen, then, without scoffing, when you hear the Ghosts of the Round Table whisper to you.

Martin Gillen did.

Tom McElhany