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The Department of Theatre Arts originated from the Department of Elocution and Oratory which formed around 1898. In 1914 the department changed its name to become the Department of Public Speaking, and in 1942 it became the Department of Speech and Drama. The department name changed again in 1967 to become the Department of Theatre Arts. Since 1996 the name has been the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance. The first drama courses offered for credit were held in the summer of 1922 and the 1923-1924 academic year and they were taught by Alexander M. Drummond (also referred to as A.M. Drummond).

The Cornell Dramatic Club (CDC) formed in March 1909 and its first production, staged at the Lyceum Theater, was "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Professor Smiley Blanton. Professor Blanton served as the CDC's director until 1911 when Lew D. Fallis assumed the responsibility for a year. Alexander M. Drummond became the director in 1912 and served until 1947. Walter H. Stainton served from 1947 to 1952 and George McCalmon served from 1952 until his death in 1965. Cornell University Theatre (CU Theatre) was created in 1930 by the Trustees of the University to bring together the theatre-related activities at Cornell. CU Theatre was supervised by the Department of Public Speaking, and Professor Drummond served as its director until 1952 when he retired from the University. George McCalmon took over as director after Drummond's retirement.