Archives Diary: Catch a Performance in the Theater Programs Collection

A 1891 playbill for Daly’s Theatre in New York has information about the production currently on stage as well as a few jokes, the company’s vacation dates, and a variety of advertisements.

A 1891 playbill for Daly’s Theatre in New York has information about the production currently on stage as well as a few jokes, the company’s vacation dates, and a variety of advertisements.

Plenty of people don’t like big cities and cannot understand why anyone would choose the urban life. I, on the other hand, love that cities are dynamic and ever-changing. We never know who we’ll meet up with out on the town, or what new restaurant will become the favorite, or what buildings will go up or come down or undergo renovations.

Special collections, like those at the Burns Library, hold evidence of these continual urban metamorphoses, sometimes in the darnedest places. But consider: an item that has an advertisement holds a bit of history. Anything that has a rendering of a building captures the architecture of the time. Any pamphlet that contains a name, face, a snippet of biographical information – see where we’re going here?

A “Who’s Who in the Audience” column from a December 1938 Colonial Theatre program for Merchant of Yonkers makes a note of Eleanor Roosevelt’s pendant selection.

A “Who’s Who in the Audience” column from a December 1938 Colonial Theatre program for Merchant of Yonkers makes a note of Eleanor Roosevelt’s pendant selection.

By these measures, the newly processed Theater Programs Collection holds an amazing amount of history, a true case of “something for everyone.” The collection contains theater playbills dating from 1850 to 2005. Many of the theaters are in Boston, New York, and the northeastern United States, but the collection also represents theaters in the western U.S., Europe, and Asia. In addition to the treasure troves of playbills, the collection also contains scrapbooks, clippings and writings, photographs, correspondence, and postcards. Some were marked up by their creators, containing performance notes or personal reminisces, giving clues about how or why these items were collected.

Not only does the collection reflect the kind of items given out or purchased at theater shows over the years, it reflects on the people collecting the items. The theater programs collection comes to the Burns Library from more than twelve different sources and reveals different experiences.

A page from Bruce J. Browning’s scrapbook, vol. 1904-1906, showcases a theater playbill alongside photos of some of the cast members.

A page from Bruce J. Browning’s scrapbook, vol. 1904-1906, showcases a theater playbill alongside photos of some of the cast members.

Julia Fairbanks, whose materials span 1894-1912, and Bruce Browning, who collected from 1895 through 1925, both created scrapbooks to reflect their theater experiences. What did each find important about their concurrent theater-going? Did they ever attend the same plays, and what does that say about their lives? A side-by-side comparison of their scrapbooks could yield some interesting analyses.

We also have five volumes of playbills from a New York theater owned by Augustin Daly, a playwright and theatrical manager. With a full run of six years’ worth of playbills, researchers have insight into the big picture at Daly’s Theater and the cultural and economic trends that might have affected its production choices, its prominent advertisers, and even the playbill joke section.

 J. Robert Barth, SJ, used this playbill for a 1986 Theatr Clwyd production in Wales to critique the performance of the cast members.

J. Robert Barth, SJ, used this playbill for a 1986 Theatr Clwyd production in Wales to critique the performance of the cast members.

The Theater Programs Collection also contains playbills collected by professors of the college. J. Robert Barth, SJ, who taught English at Boston College and later became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, collected playbills from 1943 to 2005. Barth attended performances far and wide – Minnesota and Missouri, England and Wales, France and Taiwan; the playbills’ design and contents, as a result, vary widely as well. Former theater professor J. Paul Marcoux stayed much closer to home. With the exception of one North Shore venue and one Cambridge one, his collection is from the theaters of Boston: twelve theaters in all. The programs coincide with his teaching years. Think his choices in Boston College productions (he directed over 60 here) were affected by his attendance? That is for you to discover in this collection!

If you’re wondering what plays attracted Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention, or how alcohol and cigarettes  used to be marketed, or what changes were made to playbill mastheads over time, or what Boston’s theater scene was like back in the day, make time to come see the Theater Programs Collection. For more information, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Stephanie Bennett, Archives Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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