Known for decades as Mrs. Flagstaff Theatre, there’s likely no other person in the city’s history as deserving of being the namesake of the community theatre building than Doris Shirley Harper-White. That’s what the Theatrikos Theatre company decided when it celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2002 and renamed the building in Doris’ honor.
When the sign with her name on it was revealed at the 30th anniversary event, Doris “was blown away by it. It was shocking to her. She had no idea it was being named after her,” Linda Sutera, longtime Theatrikos board member, actor, director and friend of Doris, said. “She did so much for the theatre. She was the theatre, really. She taught so many of us everything we know about theatre.”
Doris was born in Detroit on July 27, 1927 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University in 1949 and 1951, respectively.
She came to Flagstaff with her three children in 1968 when her husband, Clifford E. White, became a professor at Northern Arizona University. (Known as Mr. Flagstaff Theatre, Clifford, too, would later come to have a Flagstaff theatre named after him – The Clifford E. White Theatre at NAU.)
Doris began teaching part-time at the university and held acting classes for interested citizens around Flagstaff. A few years later, Doris wanted to see more theatre coming to life in town. So in 1972, she and a handful of other thespians “met in the basement of the Weatherford Hotel to form a non-profit community theater. After more than a decade performing in a variety of venues throughout Flagstaff, Theatrikos finally found its permanent home in 1989,” according to Theatrikos’ website.
The Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse was originally built in the 1920s as the town’s Elks Lodge, then became the public library. When the city council was debating whether or not to tear the building down to make a parking lot, Doris fought for the space to become home to her community theatre group. And with the passion and dedication she was famous around town for having, she won, saving the building and transformed it into a theatre. The Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse now stages around a dozen productions each year, serving thousands of patrons in their MainStage, Studio Series and Theatrikids performances.
Doris died October 6, 2009, but her passion is still embedded in the actors, directors and shows performed there. Her picture still greets visitors, welcoming them to enjoy and be transformed by live theatre.
“She never did anything for recognition. But she had such an impact on me, on us, and on this town,” Tony Sutera, Theatrikos actor and long-time friend of the Whites, said.
The name Doris comes from Greek myths of the sea, according to BehindTheName.com. Theoi.com adds that the name Doris was a famous mother in the underwater legends and comes from the Greek words “doron” meaning gift and “zoros” meaning “pure or pure water.”
Doris was the seventh most popular name in the U.S. the year Doris Harper White was born and peaked in popularity two years later, getting as high as the sixth most popular name for baby girls in 1929, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration’s name database. It dropped out of the top 1000 girls names in 1993 and hasn’t since been back. When the name Doris was most popular in the 1920s, a woman named Doris Stevens was in the public eye, famous for fighting for women’s right to vote.
- Interview with Tony & Linda Sutera, friends/colleagues of Doris & Clifford, and active Theatrikos board members, actors and directors.
- NAU’s archived audio/video interview with Clifford White from 2005.
- The Arizona Daily Sun Doris Harper White obituary
- Clifford E. White obituary
- KNAU’s “Remembering Doris Harper White” audio story by Laurel Morales
- KNAU’s “Clifford E. White Remembered for his Many Roles” by Laurel Morales
- Special thank you to Sarah Freeman with Wayne State Alumni Relations for helping find information on Doris’ university degrees.
- U.S. Social Security Administration’s name database
A version of this story first appeared on the Arizona Name Stories Instagram storytelling project page:@AZnamestories. This story is part of the project that explores the history of names in Arizona and that is also asking citizens of Arizona of all ages, cultures, backgrounds to share their own name story. If you’d like to submit your name story (and you’re from AZ or currently are a resident), read the instructions at AZnamestories.com. We welcome your participation. (Not all stories from the Instagram page will be posted on Names Redefined.)