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Artifact in Harry Houdini scrapbook collection highlights career of mind reader “The White Mahatma”

By Helen Baer

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Harry Houdini scrapbook collection. More than 50 items from that collection, including the scrapbook highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.

 

American magician S. S. Baldwin (1848–1924), also known as “The White Mahatma,” was a celebrated mind reader or “mentalist” who made several tours around the world, initially with his wife and partner Clara Baldwin, and later with his second wife, Kittie Baldwin. The centerpiece of his act was a question-and-answer session in which he hypnotized his wife. Under his spell, she would answer questions from the audience without having heard the questions. Like his contemporary Harry Houdini, Baldwin insisted that he did not possess any supernatural powers, and he sought to expose spiritualism as trickery.

 

In 1924 Baldwin’s daughter Shadow sent Houdini her deceased father’s scrapbook from his fourth tour around the world. This magnificent scrapbook is an eclectic mix of photographs from places he traveled, juxtaposed with printed notices of his performances and other items. Many of the images reflect Baldwin’s interest in the indigenous peoples of the countries he visited.

 

The first image shows a piece of Baldwin’s stationery from his fifth world tour, ca. 1889–1890, embellished with skulls and devils.

 

The second image features an engraved notice for Baldwin’s performances in Peking, China, in 1879, pasted above a review for an appearance at the Academy of Music (city and date unknown).  Notably, the engraving was designed and printed by a local Chinese artist, Ning Foo Shang. Also included are photographs from Burma, British Guiana, and, somewhat incongruously, England (one photograph is labeled “Castle Gate, Nottingham”).

 

Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Zarzuelas: The music of the sueltas

By Paloma Graciani Picardo

As cataloging of the Texas collection of comedias sueltas continues at the Harry Ransom Center, new features about these plays continue to be identified. The sueltas collection comprises nearly 14,000 titles published from the second half of the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. More than half of the collection’s cataloged works were published between 1850 and 1900, which isn’t surprising as theater was the center of cultural and social life in nineteenth-century Spain.

 

The nineteenth-century witnessed the building of new theaters, a growing audience, an increasing number of highly prolific writers, and the development of new techniques of staging and dramatic performance. One of the most prominent developments, however, was the blossoming of lyric theater, which in Spain reached its pinnacle with its very own national genre: the zarzuela.

 

Lyric theater has existed in Spain since the 1630s, when King Philip IV started hosting performances at his hunting lodge near Madrid, known as La Zarzuela because of the brambles (zarzas in Spanish) that surround it. One of the earliest known performances of this genre is El jardín de Falerina written by Calderón de la Barca with music by Juan Hidalgo. In fact, Calderón became the most prominent lyric theater author, and some of his later works, such as El Laurel de Apolo, were already being referred to as zarzuelas.

 

When Italian opera was brought to Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, its popularity overshadowed the baroque zarzuelas. In the 1850s, while some intellectuals in Madrid were trying to create a truly national Spanish opera, other less ambitious composers revived the zarzuela. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that zarzuelas would reach their Golden Age with authors such as Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, Tomás Bretón, Federico Chueca, Amadeo Vives, and Ruperto Chapí.

 

Differing from opera because it included dialog alongside singing, the new zarzuela had an excellent reception in Spanish society. At that time, Spain was going through a tumultuous period marked by the Revolution of 1868, an economic crisis, political instability, and the eventual crisis of identity brought on by losing the Spanish American War of 1898. Zarzuelas were an escape for the nineteenth-century Spanish theatergoers, much in the same way that musical films were for the American postwar public of the 1940s and 1950s. Zarzuela themes—usually love stories—were based on Spanish folklore and set in familiar Spanish locations. The plots, set mostly in the working-class districts, ranged from the buffa, or comic style, to the extremely dramatic. They were sung in Spanish and frequently included folkloric dances and costumes. Some of the most popular titles like La verbena de la Paloma, La Revoltosa, La Gran Via, or El barberillo de Lavapies are still being performed today in Madrid at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, open to the public since 1856.

 

The librettos and music were generally sold separately, and the rights of reproduction were held by different entities, as can be inferred from the catalogs printed on the wrappers and the dealers’ stamps found in the cataloged zarzuelas. However, some of the copies in the Ransom Center’s collection include additional pages with printed or handwritten scores and lyrics.

 

The hundreds of zarzuelas in the Ransom Center’s sueltas collection provide an excellent example of this genre’s popularity and reach. Without a doubt, these works constitute a valuable source for the study of Spanish popular culture of the period, as well as for the understanding of specific matters related to nineteenth-century theater as an organized entertainment industry.

 

The cataloging of the comedias sueltas is supported by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives.

 

Related content:

Ransom Center receives grant to catalog Spanish comedias sueltas

Stories from the Sueltas: Cataloger sheds light on gems in the Spanish comedias sueltas collection

Illustrating the Sueltas

Sueltas feature cartoons by Spanish caricaturist Manuel Tovar

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Curator of Norman Bel Geddes exhibition discusses influence of the industrial designer

By Ady Wetegrove

 

Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.

The exhibition Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which was on view at the Ransom Center in fall 2012, opens at the Museum of the City of New York today. To celebrate this traveling exhibition, the Ransom Center is giving away a free “I Have Seen the Future” totebag to all Ransom Center visitors, while supplies last. The galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.

Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

By Abigail Cain

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

Dramaturg James Graham admits he had barely heard of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth before starting work on the play. Alongside Williams’s other works—including Pulitzer Prize winners A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof—the difficult script often fades into the background.

This summer The Old Vic in London is bringing Sweet Bird of Youth to center stage. The play, which follows professional gigolo Chance Wayne and aging Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, exists in countless forms. Williams spent over 15 years writing and rewriting the play; some versions conclude with the characters alive and well, others with them dead. Entire acts that were slashed from earlier versions are later revived as Williams struggled to get it right.

Dramaturging involves editing and analyzing an existing text, and in the case of Sweet Bird of Youth, this task was especially difficult. Although many theaters select a single version of the play to perform, Graham instead wove together the different versions to make a cohesive whole. As part of his research, he spent time with the Williams collection at the Ransom Center in early 2013 reading through drafts of the play.

“Following [Williams’s] brain was an adventure—insertions, appendices, and keys leave a trail,” Graham said. “Seeing the names of his characters evolve, as Delphine became Valerie became Heavenly, and Phil Beam elevated to the more heroic-sounding Chance Wayne. I noted his coffee stains and allowed myself to imagine the smell of cigarette smoke wafting from the page.”

The Ransom Center’s collection is one of the principal archives of Williams’s works. The Center acquired the author’s own papers between 1962 and 1969, which document his career through more than 1,000 separately titled plays, poems, and short stories, along with correspondence and newspaper clippings. In 1964, the Center purchased the correspondence between Williams and his literary agent Audrey Wood. Then, in 1965, the collection expanded with the acquisition of family papers from his mother.

Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered on June 1 and will run through August 31 at The Old Vic in London.

Watch a scene from the production.

Anthology documents 22 plays performed at 2 London theaters

By Harry Ransom Center

 

Title page of “Measure for Measure” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”
Title page of “Measure for Measure” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”

Sarah Alger is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is working to complete her degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies. As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections”, taught by Michael Laird, Ms. Alger studied the Ransom’s Center’s copy of Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.

The original intent of my research was to study a particular printing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream published in 1779. The library’s catalog lists each play individually. But when I viewed the document, I discovered this was not just a single play but a whole collection of comedic plays. And not all of them were by Shakespeare. While about half were by Shakespeare, the rest were written by a collection of various playwrights who were not necessarily Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

How did this collection of seemingly unrelated comedies come to be bound together?

The only real connection between these 22 plays was that they were all comedies and all performed between the years 1776 and 1780 at two playhouses in London: The Theaters Royal at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The Theater Royal at Drury Lane is London’s oldest functioning theater. Founded by Thomas Killgrew in 1663, the modern building is the fourth playhouse to stand on that site. These plays would have been performed in the third building on that location, completed in 1794. The previous building was demolished to create a larger theater.

This particular anthology seems to have been printed with the sole purpose of preserving comedies that were performed at this historic theater in the late 1770s. Appreciators of the London theater will find this anthology offers an insightful look into early forms of the Georgian theater.

Title page of “The Beggar’s Opera” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”
Title page of “The Beggar’s Opera” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”

Conservators repair Bel Geddes poster for 1926 Macy’s parade

By Ady Wetegrove

Norman Bel Geddes. Punch and Judy, clowns, airplane float for a Macy’s parade, October 12, 1926. 41 x 91 ½ inches. Pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper.
Norman Bel Geddes. Punch and Judy, clowns, airplane float for a Macy’s parade, October 12, 1926. 41 x 91 ½ inches. Pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper.

For Macy’s third annual parade in 1926, Norman Bel Geddes produced seven posters that now reside in the Ransom Center’s archive. Learn about the efforts of Ransom Center conservators to repair and frame one of the posters for the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America. The project was funded by a Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant from The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

From the Outside In: Typescript of "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller, ca. 1948

By Edgar Walters

Typescript of "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, ca. 1948.
Typescript of "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, ca. 1948.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

Etched into the windows of the Ransom Center is an image of one of Arthur Miller’s typescripts for the play Death of a Salesman. The excerpt depicted is between the title character, Willy Loman, and his wife, Linda, in the opening scene of the second act. Large scratch-outs zigzag through whole paragraphs, arrows rearrange the words, and new lines have been handwritten into place. The first lines discuss the couple’s dreamy expectations for a brighter future soon to come—a business loan his son might be given, a new house in the country, and an office job in the city so Willy can stop traveling. But Linda’s reminder “to ask [Willy's boss] for a little advance” in the last lines “because we’ve got the insurance premium” exposes the discrepancy between their dreams and a reality in which they are barely getting by. The passage encapsulates the play’s central theme that valuing oneself in terms of the American dream is a setup for failure.

Although Death of a Salesman was not Miller’s first successful play, it was the play that established him as a great American playwright. Miller wrote the play in the spring of 1947, within a small studio he built himself next to his Connecticut farmhouse. The writing flowed easily for Miller, who finished the first half of the play in one day and night, and the second half in the next six weeks. According to his biographer Christopher Bigsby, Miller wanted “to take the audience on an internal journey through the mind, memories, fears, anxieties of his central character.” Rather than adhering to earlier playwrights’ conventions, Miller gave the play a radical structure in which the past and the present coexist, and where walls can sometimes be stepped through. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and was met with critical acclaim, winning Miller numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The play has remained popular and has since been produced into films, translated, performed internationally, and revived on Broadway. Playwright Tony Kushner, while discussing the continuing importance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, has stated, “Willy is part of our mythology now.”

This typescript represents one of several papers within the Arthur Miller archive held at the Ransom Center, which includes the manuscripts of 34 different works, dated from 1935 to1953. Viewing Miller’s early notebooks and seeing how his works took shape gives one a more intimate understanding of the playwright who represented his generation so well by writing about the dreams and tragedies of his era. A leading scholar of Arthur Miller’s work and life—Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies and Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia—benefited from studying these papers. Regarding his 30 years of research in the archive, Bigsby has stated, “The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence… it has had a hand in a new Renaissance.”

Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.

From the Outside In: Model of "Motorcar No. 9," Norman Bel Geddes, ca. 1932

By Edgar Walters

Model of "Motorcar No. 9." Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Model of "Motorcar No. 9." Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This image of a streamlined car is the product of designer Norman Bel Geddes, who gained fame during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for a broad range of designs. He received his start in New York designing theatrical sets in which he emphasized the use of lighting to set mood as well as provide illumination. He also designed film sets in Hollywood, including some for director Cecil B. DeMille.

Bel Geddes’s design ideas embraced all of modern life. Motorcar Number 9 provides an example of his interest in streamlining. In many ways this car is different from any built at that time or later. It offered excellent visibility through the use of curved glass for the windshield and windows. The steering wheel and single headlight were in the center. The car featured a vertical stabilizer, or rudder, in its tail, like an airplane. The front and rear bumpers were made of chrome, and the rear bumper was attached by three hydraulic shock absorbers. This design offered good use of interior space, providing seating for eight.

This image comes from a time when streamlining was thought to be the wave of the future. In 1931 Bel Geddes described a “House of Tomorrow” that set the stage for architectural streamlining focused on clean and uncluttered lines. He then incorporated the same concept in his design for a “City of Tomorrow,” which became the basis for the hugely popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Bel Geddes’s ideas have made great contributions to modern design, particularly in the field of transportation. He designed trains, ocean liners, airplanes, cars, and even a flying car. On the exterior, they achieved streamlining by means of a teardrop shape. In the interior, equal attention was given to the use of space, designed to provide large capacities and unique functions. His airliner, for instance, had decks that featured a gymnasium, a solarium, and even areas for deck games. He also designed the interior of the Pan American China Clipper airliner, which featured a central lounge wider than a Pullman club car and was fitted with broad armchairs. These ideas are still visible today—just look at the streamlined vehicles on the animated show Futurama, which borrowed its name from Bel Geddes.

The Ransom Center’s extensive Norman Bel Geddes archive includes a model of Motorcar Number 9, along with other designs, models, and papers that span over 50 years.

Ransom Center volunteer Ray McLeod wrote this post.

The ballet performance that sparked a riot

By Elana Estrin

Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947.  Hat and robe from the original production of "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), 1913
Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947. Hat and robe from the original production of "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), 1913

It is 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the audience is screaming, cat-calling, and fist-fighting. It’s the most famous riot in classical music history at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and premiered by the Ballets Russes.

Accustomed to more “palatable” ballets such as Swan Lake, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was shocked by the dissonant and jarring music, the violent and unnatural choreography, and the depiction of a Russian pagan tribe celebrating the arrival of spring by choosing a sacrificial virgin to dance herself to death. Upon hearing the opening bassoon solo played in an unrecognizably high register, French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens is said to have fumed: “if that is a bassoon then I am a baboon!” He then stormed out of the theater.

The Ransom Center holds one of the costumes that no doubt helped to spark the legendary riot. The costumes were designed by archeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich.

The University of Texas Symphony Orchestra joins the world famous Joffrey Ballet for a performance of The Rite of Spring tomorrow and Wednesday, March 6, to celebrate the centennial of the work’s world premiere in Paris in 1913. The Joffrey Ballet’s Rite of Spring explores Stravinsky’s revolutionary score and Nijinsky’s radical choreography with a reconstruction of the 1913 production with original costumes, choreography, and design.

This blog text was adapted from an earlier version of this post from 2009.

Stella Adler scholar explores acting master's interpretation of great American playwrights

By Emily Neie

Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris
Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris

“Mommy, is that God?” a little girl once whispered to her mother as Stella Adler swept into a party in New York City. The girl’s mistake was understandable: Adler was known as a presence of divine proportions, a tall, glamorous woman whose grand gestures and dramatic one-liners captivated audiences both large and small. Adler began acting at age four in the “Independent Yiddish Art Company,” run by her parents, and continued her acting career until 1961. In 1931, Adler joined the Group Theatre, where she worked closely with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.

In 1934, she went with Clurman to Paris to study with Constantin Stanislavski, an acting great famous for developing the Stanislavski System, a set of acting techniques that was tweaked by Strasberg and is known today as Method acting. Adler believed strongly that actors should use their imagination to synthesize characters, whereas Strasberg relied on emotional memory exercises, and the two eventually split over their differences. Adler left the Group Theatre and later opened her own acting school, The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in 1949 in New York City, where she taught famous actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. She opened another school, The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, in Los Angeles in 1985 with her friend and protégé Joanne Linville, who continues to run the school today.

The Ransom Center hold Adler’s papers, which were used extensively by Barry Paris in his book Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights (Knopf). The volume peeks into Adler’s classroom and explores the acting master’s take on American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, and others.

The book was put together using transcripts from Adler’s script analysis classes, where lively discussions of American culture, socioeconomics, and history fleshed out the context of the plays—a practice on which Adler placed the utmost importance. Adler once said of the great artists featured in the book: “these playwrights all saw what was wrong.” She believed it was imperative for the actor not only to bring personal experience to the role, but to truly understand the beliefs, prejudices, and lives of the playwrights who crafted the plays she taught. Peter Bogdanovich, one of Adler’s former students, praised the book for “bring[ing] back the sound of Stella’s unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision.”

Paris, the book’s editor, did extensive research in the Ransom Center’s holdings on Stella Adler and Harold Clurman.

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