Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.
Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.
The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.
The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.
The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.
During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.
Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.
I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:
As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.
Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.
The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.
Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.
There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.
The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.
Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.
Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.
The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.
Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.
The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.
Paula Lupkin, a professor in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, recently spent time as a fellow working in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection at the Ransom Center. Her research yielded some surprises and insights into the regional vaudeville circuits in the Southwest, which she shares here.
When I arrived at the Ransom Center to take up the Mayer Filmscript Fellowship, my intention was simple: to learn as much as possible about the design and use of the fabulous vaudeville theaters designed by architect John Eberson for the Interstate Amusement Company in Texas. These theaters are an important component in my study of regional architecture in the Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century.
Many of them are no longer extant, and it was essential to find period photography and documentation of the buildings themselves. The Center is home to the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection, which has the most complete photographic record of the theaters, as well as accounts of their planning, construction, programming, and management. Right away I found wonderful pictures, theater programs, and company records that suggested how and why the buildings looked as they did. Through these materials I learned a great deal about these fantastical structures, which included themed interiors, starlit skies, luxurious lounges, and even child care centers.
To an architectural historian, these archival sources were rich indeed, but they were not the greatest treasure I found during my fellowship month. After about a week, I came across something that transformed and enriched the way I think about those theaters: a 1912 program for Interstate’s southwestern vaudeville circuit.
Of course I knew about circuits before I saw this pamphlet. From the first day in the archives, the company’s business records made it clear that the theater buildings were only one part of Interstate’s system of delivering talent to the public in a profitable and efficient way. The company assembled talent into programs of entertainment, known as “bills,” and then sent the acts on a railroad journey from theater to theater. Some were the elaborate venues designed by Eberson, but equally important were the smaller towns and more modest opera houses that allowed performers to travel profitably the long distances between places in this region, with regularly spaced “jumps” between gigs. The circuit was an experience designed from a business perspective to make efficient use of the existing rail lines to offer as many shows as possible on consecutive nights.
With this basic knowledge of the vaudeville circuit, I began to see that Interstate’s theaters were more than a regional group of buildings linked by a common architect and ownership; they served as a series of nodes within an entertainment transportation system. Interstate’s building activity was not restricted to theaters; the company was constructing patterns and systems of movement along the Illinois Central, the Frisco, the KATY, and the Missouri Pacific Railroads.
The 1912 pamphlet I found crystallized and confirmed this rereading of the history of theatrical architecture. This clever piece of ephemera presented Interstate and its southwestern vaudeville circuit in the guise of a railroad system. The red cover introduced “The Interstate Line” as “the Route of Superior Attractions.” As was typical in railway literature of the time, the name of the president and local agents of both the national and local officials of the company are listed in the brochure. The “railway” president was the company president, Karl Hoblitzelle. The “traffic manager” is listed as Cecilia Bloom, the company’s booking agent. For each city on the circuit, the local theater manager is listed as the “city passenger agent.” The week’s entertainment bill is presented as a special train, “The Interstate Flyer,” which leaves from Chicago and runs in seven sections (acts) to Fort Worth, and then on to the rest of the cities on the circuit.
With this pamphlet in hand, as it became clear to me that the Interstate Company envisioned itself not as a series of theaters, but an infrastructural system and a space-time experience that united performers and audiences across the southwest. Actors traversed the territory in a series of rail cars, dressing rooms, hotels, and restaurants, playing to urban audiences in theaters in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Galveston, and Birmingham. The performers and audiences were linked together, defining a regional entertainment landscape.
My newfound understanding of the theaters as part of the railroad-based geography of the vaudeville circuit fits very well into my developing project, “The Great Southwest: Trade, Territory, and Regional Architecture.” Most studies of regional architecture focus on formal and material similarities between buildings in a particular location. My project moves away from style and suggests instead that regional architectural patterns are formed by banking, commerce, and transportation networks. Looking at the triangular strip of land between St. Louis and Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I map financial and architectural connections between buildings and sites along the conduits of the railway lines.
What I found in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection helped me understand that these buildings are regional not on the basis of their appearance, but as elements of a regional entertainment system: like beads strung along a necklace. The “Interstate Line” brochure encapsulated that in a series of images, confirming that my own way of understanding the theaters was shared by the company itself, and no doubt by the vaudeville performers themselves, whose lives and experiences were defined by movement from theater to theater on the spine of the railroad system.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Preservation Housings Manager Apryl Voskamp spends a lot of her time at the Ransom Center making boxes. Yet, she says, “every now and then you have to think outside the box.”
That’s because the preservation lab is responsible for housing every type of item in the Ransom Center’s collections: from Lewis Carroll’s photo album to Ezra Pound’s chess set.
“Every single box in the lab is custom-made,” Voskamp says. “Every housing has to fit the unique object stored inside. We take three measurements for every item: length, width, and thickness. Then we look at what material the item is made of. That way I can figure out what other materials can be housed with it, like tissue, felt, or other kinds of non-abrasive materials to cushion or pad the items.”
The preservation lab has compiled a binder full of templates for common housings such as boxes for books, custom-made folders, and more. But some items are so unique that the preservation team has to come up with entirely new and innovative designs.
For example, the preservation team is currently devising housing for a wicker form in the colleciton. The two-piece form is too tall and fragile to be stored in one piece, so the top and bottom halves will be stored separately. The top half currently lies in a box, and the legs greet visitors to the preservation lab.
“The top half is most stable lying down. I put some batting inside the housing and wrapped simple, muslin, non-bleached cloth around the batting so it has a little pillow for support,” Voskamp says. “We realized that the bottom half would be most stable standing up. Because of the angle of her legs, it tends to roll to one side if you lay it down. We’ll make some sort of support structure for the bottom half.”
One challenge of housing the wicker form is that it’s spray-painted gold.
“The gold pigment is probably a mixture of copper and zinc, which can react adversely with the acetic acid in some adhesives commonly used in boxmaking,” Voskamp notes. “In this case, we would prefer to use water-based chemicals.”
Voskamp had to think creatively when she was asked to store Arthur Conan Doyle’s golf clubs and golf bag. She devised a box that was anything but elementary.
“I put the clubs in the bottom of a box and used foam supports to stabilize them and then hollowed out grooves that he clubs could fit into that would support them. Then there was a shelf above the clubs that the golf bag would sit on. The leather was deteriorating, so we wrapped the shelf with non-abrasive material. Then we gently stuffed the golf bag full of tissue paper to hold its shape,” Voskamp says.
Robert De Niro’s collection, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2006, kept the preservation lab busy devising new housings for swords, a machete, baseball bats, suitcases, and a plaster facial cast from Frankenstein (1994), to name a few. For Voskamp, one highlight was De Niro’s tackle box full of makeup from when he was first starting his career as an actor.
“It was one of the last things he gave us because he wanted to hold onto it. That was special because it was his, it wasn’t a prop,” Voskamp says.
While planning how to house the tackle box, Voskamp faced an unusual challenge: after years storing bottles of adhesive and makeup, the box had started to smell.
“I was fortunate because when it came in, someone who worked specifically with film props was visiting the department. It was incredible timing that we had the perfect person to consult,” Voskamp says. “He was really excited. His reaction was, ‘Wow, this is great! What’s in here?’ We talked about what he would do about the smell, and he encouraged me to make a ‘breathable’ box.”
The sides aren’t completely sealed, which promotes air circulation. But the housing still protects the tackle box from light and dust, which Voskamp says is always her number one concern.
“If you create an isolated and somewhat air-tight environment, you can possibly do harm to the object inside. It could become a problem. It was really important to get air exchange into the enclosure and let those potentially harmful chemicals diffuse, or ‘breathe.’ Eventually whatever reaction is going on inside will slow,” Voskamp says.
In the end, the preservation lab’s boxes are essential to the items they’re housing. Without the proper box, Gloria Swanson’s sunglasses, Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and coin collection, and Queen Elizabeth I’s wax seal would be lost to the ages.
Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.
Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American Studies and the Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, has written extensively about Arthur Miller. He recently published a biography on the playwright, Arthur Miller (Harvard University Press, 2009), and he writes here about working at the Ransom Center.
I have been visiting the Harry Ransom Center for more than 30 years, most recently working on Arthur Miller’s papers, though the staff there must have been somewhat irritated when Miller held back boxes of materials so that I could work through them to write his biography. It delayed their arrival in Austin by nearly two years. You will even find among them a page bearing a lipstick kiss from Marilyn Monroe, a touch distracting to the serious scholar.
I once made a BBC television film about the Ransom Center during which I learned that in the event of fire, the area floods with inert gas. It is designed to preserve the collection though, alas, not the researchers. I am told that more recently they have exchanged this for a sprinkler system. As an academic I think that shows a failure of nerve. I approved of the earlier priority.
In England there is an excellent fish and chip chain called Harry Ramsden’s. I’ve been known to confuse the two, not least because both offer immediate satisfaction wrapped up in yesterday’s papers. For academics the Center is a kind of limbo. When you go there, you don’t know whether you will discover a path to heaven or hell. Will the hidden be revealed, theories proved, or will the notebooks of writers contradict everything you wish to say? Does tenure await or a life in advertising?
The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence. Admittedly it hasn’t as yet produced many Popes, but it has had a hand in a new Renaissance. In the past, its money, admittedly, came from oil and not banking (hard to know which it is harder to love right now) but its role in preserving our cultural heritage (the UK’s no less than the US) has been central. Where else but Texas, after all, should we look to research Winnie the Pooh?
July 5, 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of P. T. (Phineas Taylor) Barnum, famed circus showman, museum proprietor, lecturer, author, and one-time mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Barnum loved that his birthday followed the July 4 holiday, and in his first autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1855), he wrote, “Independence Day had gone by, the cannons had ceased to thunder forth their remembrances of our National Anniversary, the smoke had all cleared away, the drums had finished their rattle, and when peace and quiet were restored, I made my début.” Such theatrical prose was typical of the man who entertained the American public for nearly 80 years.
While many associate P. T. Barnum with the circus, a unique framed composite grouping of 42 cabinet cards from the Albert Davis collection of theater memorabilia showcases Barnum’s American Museum. Collector Albert Davis (1865–1942) compiled the piece in the early twentieth century.
Barnum opened his American Museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann streets in New York City in 1841. Over the course of 24 years, he amassed a collection of more than 850,000 items, only to see his vision burned to the ground. The engraving in the center of Davis’s composite shows Barnum’s museum engulfed in flames on July 13, 1865. Undeterred, Barnum reopened at a new location on Broadway and Canal streets just eight weeks later with a new collection of 100,000 items. When his second location burned to the ground in 1868, he moved away from his museum career to a new calling with the circus.
Barnum offered many of the same exhibitions in the circus as he did in his museums, including displays of wax figures, animals (both dead and alive), and human platform performers, referred to at the time as “freaks.”
Platform performers typically lived on the top floor of the museum and performed, on average, 10 to 15 times per day. Their salaries ranged between $25 and $500 per week, depending on their talents, but they also had an opportunity to make an additional income selling souvenirs such as the cabinet cards seen in this composite, though the profits were split between the museum and the performer.
Curiously, given the central image of the museum, only a few of the performers seen in these cabinet cards were actually associated with Barnum’s American Museum. Most notably we see the picture of Zip the Original What Is It? directly above the engraving of the museum, and the photograph of Tom Thumb’s Carriage in the right column. Both Zip and Tom Thumb were among Barnum’s most famous exhibitions.
Others performers that Davis identified in the group, including Lallo (actually Lalloo), Francis Letini, Farini’s Earth Men, Myrtle Corbin, the Original Pin Cushion Man, the Pedal Musician, and the Oriental Twins, did not work at Barnum’s museum. In fact, some of these performers were not even born when the museums were open. Davis’s composite, though somewhat misleading, is an apt tribute to the history of popular entertainment and a reminder of the importance of Barnum’s Museum as a predecessor to the circus.
A small case of materials from this collection is on display outside the reading room on the second floor of the Ransom Center this month.
Learn more about the performing arts collection at the Ransom Center.
The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.
From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.