Alice C.D. Riley

Name: Alice C.D. Riley (Cushing Donaldson)
Birth Date: March 18, 1864
Birth Place: Morrison Illinois, USA
Death Date: November 12, 1953
Death Location: Pasadena California, USA


Alice Cushing Donaldson Riley (1864-1953) was an author and playwright who lived in Evanston from 1898 until 1931. She wrote children’s poetry and stories, and several one-act plays. Her best known work is “Slumber Boat,” a familiar children’s lullaby which she co-wrote with Dorothy Gaynor. Her home at 1822 Sheridan Road (now demolished) was the scene for many amateur theatricals, writing workshops and club meetings. She and her friends formed the Riley Circle and the Drama Club of Evanston. She was also an active member of the Garden Club of Evanston and a founder of the Evanston Art Center. Her work with amateur drama groups led her to help found the Drama League of America, which for many years was the primary national organization for such groups. She and her husband Harrison retired to Pasadena, California.


Alice Cushing Donaldson Riley was an author and playwright who lived in Evanston from 1898 until 1931. She wrote children’s poetry, songs, stories and several one-act plays, her best known work being “Slumber Boat,” a children’s lullaby co-written with her dear friend Dorothy (Jessie) Gaynor. She is responsible for establishing clubs including The Riley Circle, which led to the Drama Club of Evanston and inspired the Drama League of America; she was a charter club member of the Garden Club of Evanston and initiated the Evanston Arts Center.

Born March 18, 1887 on a farm near Morrison in Whiteside County, Illinois, Riley was raised by strict parents who did not encourage her or her sisters to dance or play cards at home. Instead they amused themselves with housework and games such as authors, dominos and jack-straws. However, music always filled her house as her father played the cello and sang tenor in the church choir, while her sisters played the piano and sang. Even as a very young child she enjoyed the excitement of getting dressed up in a new outfit for a trip into the village square. She saw her first play, Wagner’s “Tannehauser” at age sixteen played in the local opera house and performed by Gilmore’s Band, which excited her enormously. Her interest in drama became well established and secured a lifelong interest in the arts. Along with Riley’s passion for drama was her keen interest in gardening which developed at a very young age. Her ailing grandfather lived with the Riley family from when she was six years old until his death and it was he who demanded she tend the garden with him.

Through the influence of her cousin Sara Collins, Riley moved to Chicago in 1885 to teach primary-grade girls at the Park Institute finishing school. In her spare time she learned French and music at the school. At the end of her term at the school she moved to Nebraska to work with her brother-in-law Harry Palmer, copying records from the county clerk’s office which led to work at the Statehouse in Lincoln, Nebraska. When she returned to Chicago, Riley resumed weekly French lessons while rooming on Warren Ave in Chicago. It is here she met her neighbor Dorothy (Jessie) Gaynor in 1896. Gaynor started a music class which Riley joined and they soon exchanged lessons; Riley taught Gaynor French while Gaynor taught Riley music composition. Riley made up some lyrics to finish her lesson on lullabies and Gaynor was so impressed she asked her to write lyrics for a song for her daughter. They quickly began collaborating together with Riley writing lyrics and Gaynor putting them to music. The songs they collaborated on were mostly for children, finding inspiration from the domestic scene. The most well known collaboration is called Slumber Boat which Gaynor sang in her recital work. Soon, the song received notoriety and they were approached by an agent from John Church Company of Cincinnati, Ohio who wanted to publish a children’s kindergarten book. They did and it was very successful all over the United States, Canada, England even English schools in Japan.

Alice Cushing Donaldson married Harrison Riley April 3, 1889 and had two children, Donald and Dorothy. In 1901, Riley got in the habit of having her friend Marie Bartlett over for tea on Thursday afternoons. Initially she would read while Marie sewed and they discussed current events. Soon other neighbors joined in and before long, the expanding group was named the Riley Circle. The Riley Circle met at her home in Evanston for many years following the same format, but a lecture given by James O’Donnell Bennett at the Chicago Woman’s Club proved critical and changed the Riley Circle agenda from discussing current affairs to reading plays. At the lecture, O’Donnell stressed that Chicago needed to develop an educated audience for drama and realized the immense influence women could bring toward this goal. Riley credits this lecture for the idea to transform the Riley Circle into the Drama Club of Evanston. The organization was formally founded in 1909, making it the first drama club in the world, according to The Evanston Review, April 24, 1947.

In 1929 Riley spent her time between her two residences in Evanston, Illinois and Pasadena, California and it was during this time she co-founded the Evanston Art Center. On a trip back to Evanston in September 1929, she outlined the plan for the Arts Center, collaborated with the library board and put through all resolutions and programs. By October 1929, Riley and the Art Center committee had appointed all committee members and planned details for the Art Center opening which was held October 28, 1929 in the center’s rooms at the Evanston Public Library. Through her work in the Riley Circle, the Drama Club of Evanston and the Evanston Arts Center, Riley galvanized interest in the arts in Evanston. She provided a forum for like-minded women to discuss the local arts scene and made the arts come alive in Evanston, a city which today still boasts a vibrant arts scene.

Children: Two: Dorothy, Donald
Years in Evanston: 1898-1931

Sources: Archives and Collections: Archives Collection 102. Evanston History Center. "Evanston Women Pre 1950." Newspaper Clippings. Evanston History Center. House Cards. Evanston History Center. Lakeshore Historic District Nomination. Evanston City Directory Newspapers: "Evanston Equality League Scores Unique Success at it's All Star Meeting" Evanston News, May 1, 1919.