Legendary Texas drama educator Ruth Denney (1914-2007) was the founder and first principal of HSPVA. It was primarily through her drive and determination that the school was created with a focus that has not changed since its inception:
…the purpose of such a school would be to more effectively and professionally train and educate those students with the ability, potential, and desire in any of the many fields of the performing and visual arts.
Memo to HISD administrators, February 23, 1971
Born April 4, 1914, in Ohio, Denney was educated at Ohio Wesleyan University. After teaching for several years in Ohio she moved to Houston, where she taught at Lamar High School. While she was there, her students won six state championships in the University Interscholastic League’s one-act play contest. Nine-time Tony Award-winner Tommy Tune credited Ruth with setting him on the path to show business, “High school theater was extremely important for me in helping to shape my later career.”
After more than a dozen years in the classroom, Denney took an administrative job with the Houston Independent School District and set about creating a high school for the arts. In 1971, her dream was realized and she became the first principal of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, only the third such fine arts magnet school in the nation when it opened.
In addition to Tommy Tune, her students over the years included notable performers including Robert Crutchfield, Robert Foxworth, Carlin Glynn-Masterson, Paula Prentiss and Jaclyn Smith.
In 1976, Denney became a professor of drama education at the University of Texas. She taught at UT until 1988. At retirement she was named professor emeritus and many of her former students and colleagues helped establish a scholarship in her honor. The Ruth Denney Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Theatre helps benefit theater arts students.
Denney’s inspiration is credited for the establishment of a performing arts high school in Austin: The Fine Arts Academy at McCallum High School.
Denney’s contribution to the arts has been honored many times by organizations including the American Association of Theatre Education, Theatre Under the Stars and the Texas Education Theatre Association. In 1987, she was selected to receive the Houston Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts for her role in creating a strong arts community in Houston. In 2002 she was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame.
In recognition of her contribution to its success, the HSPVA named its theatre the Denney Theatre. The Denney Theatre signs from the original campus of HSPVA now hang in the school Commons in front of the second theatre to be named in her honor.