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Remembering P. T. Barnum’s pre-circus career on his birthday

By Lisa Pulsifer

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.

 

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Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

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.

A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

By Alicia Dietrich

Kenneth Brown
Kenneth Brown
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.

The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.

The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.

Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.

The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.

But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!

And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.

So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.

Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”

And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”

And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.

It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.

Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.

The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.

Before and After: Repairing a poster

By Elana Estrin

A poster in the Ransom Center’s Harry Houdini collection arrived just like Houdini would’ve wanted: folded up to an eighth of its size. Stephanie Watkins, Head of Paper Conservation, and her team faced a daunting project: the brittle paper couldn’t easily be unfolded without causing damage to the item. Once they successfully opened the poster, they had to remove dirt, acid, and discoloration, and restore missing pieces. Read about how Watkins and her team performed some magic of their own to treat this damaged item.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

David Mamet papers now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

The papers of David Mamet, author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award, are now open at the Harry Ransom Center.

A finding aid for the collection can be accessed here.

The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. The collection is made up of more than 300 boxes of material, covers his entire career through 2007, and contains manuscripts, journals, office and production files, correspondence, and multiple drafts of each of his works, including the acclaimed plays American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1982) and screenplays The Untouchables (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and Wag the Dog (1997). These materials record the writing and revision of all of his published texts, as well as several that are unpublished or unfinished.

 

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Collection of Italian opera libretti now accessible through database

By Alicia Dietrich

Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice, Florence, 1600.
Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice, Florence, 1600.

A major collection of Italian opera libretti is now accessible through an online database. The collection of 3,421 items was donated in 1969 by New York rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. The collection consists primarily of texts of Italian operas but also includes Italian cantatas, serenatas, oratorios, dialogues and Passions. The collection, which dates from the 17th through the 20th century, documents musical performances by Italian, French, German and Austrian composers performed in numerous Italian cities and elsewhere. Learn more about the collection.

How to have literature in a pandemic

By Gabriela Redwine

Today is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, remembering the dead, and celebrating the living. The Ransom Center’s collection includes several people, both famous and ordinary, whose lives have been touched by AIDS. Among the most well known is Terrence McNally, whose plays Lisbon Traviata (1985, 1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), and Love! Valour!
Compassion!
(1994), as well as the Emmy-winning television movie Andre’s Mother (1988, 1990), incorporate AIDS as part of the social, emotional, and biological fabric of their characters’ lives.

All five of these works are represented in the McNally papers at the Ransom Center, in addition to manuscripts, correspondence, and production materials related to his other works, and other materials dating from his high school years through the present. His papers also include 174 computer disks with contents ranging from manuscripts to correspondence to photographs. Digital drafts exist for three of the plays mentioned above: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; and Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love! Valour! Compassion!, which won a Tony for best play in 1995, is the story of eight gay friends, one of whom owns a large house in the Hudson Valley where the group meets for holiday weekends during one summer. These gatherings become a celebration of friendship and an exploration of life and desire in a time of AIDS. Andre’s Mother first took shape as a short play written for Urban Blight, a musical revue performed at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1988. Both the original eight-minute play and the television movie version, which aired on PBS in 1990 as part of the American Playhouse series, explored the confrontation between Andre’s lover and his mother, and were set at Andre’s memorial service shortly after his death from AIDS.

In addition to drafts with McNally’s handwritten corrections, the boxes related to these two works contain a small amount of correspondence from ordinary people who wrote to share their personal experiences with McNally after seeing Andre’s Mother or Love! Valour! Compassion! One letter is from a mother who lost her own son to AIDS. Another is from an older gay man who cared for his long-time partner in his final years. In 1991, Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times review that Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, and Andre’s Mother “offer unsentimental hope about the possibilities for intimacy at a time when fear and death rule.” McNally’s larger collection and this small pocket of correspondence are a testament to the power of stories, both public and private, to connect people.

The ballet performance that sparked a riot

By Elana Estrin

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 costume is part of the Ransom Center’s current display in honor of this year’s centenary of the Ballets Russes, located in the Director’s Gallery on the third floor of the Center through December 18.

Explore the New Publication "Magic, 1400s–1950s"

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center’s performing arts collection documents several popular entertainments, including vaudeville, the circus, pantomime, puppetry, and magic. TASCHEN Books recently published Magic, 1400s–1950s, and included more than 30 images from the Center’s collections. Edited by Noel Daniel, the 650-page book is a multilingual edition, with content in English, French, and German. The book is authored by Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer, with contributions from Ricky Jay. Below are excerpts from the book, alongside images from the Center’s holdings.

From the chapter “From Black Magic to Modern Magic,” explained by Mike Caveney.

During the mid-19th century, the most influential magician in the world was a Frenchman named Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin. On this advertisement for his appearance at St. James’s Theatre in London, he is seen producing a seemingly endless quantity of military plumes from a scarf. A skilled watchmaker as well as a magician, he often employed an artful combination of techniques to produce the astonishing results that made him famous.

From the chapter “The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds,”
explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

At the Egyptian Hall theater, Maskelyne and Cooke produced a humorous play lampooning Spiritualism. Mrs. Daffodil Downy’s Light and Dark Séance parodied the excitable or suspicious characters in a Bloomsbury, London, séance parlor. At the climax of the play, Maskelyne’s illusions eclipsed those of any supposed medium when he produced a glowing skeleton that rattled its jaws and floated over the audience.

From the chapter “Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic,” explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

Houdini’s Milk Can Escape, first performed in 1908, reignited his career. It was a brilliant invention that allowed him to bring the excitement of his water escapes to a vaudeville stage. This poster captures the nail-biting terror. The central image is a special cut-away peek at the can’s interior, offering a view that was never seen onstage.

Ransom Center Celebrates Tennessee Williams's Induction into Poets' Corner

By Jennifer Tisdale

Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams will be inducted into the Poets’ Corner in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with celebrations beginning today. Previous inductees include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

The Ransom Center holds materials that document the family, life, and work of the American playwright Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams. The collection contains numerous manuscript drafts, including those for the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs.

The Tennessee Williams collection was built from four major acquisitions in the 1960s with smaller amounts of material added over the years. The nucleus of the collection began with Williams’s own papers, acquired by the Ransom Center from 1962 to 1969. These materials included over 1,000 separately titled works, numerous clippings, and several boxes of correspondence. In 1964, the Center expanded the collection with the purchase of the correspondence between Williams and his agent, Audrey Wood. In 1965, the Center acquired a large number of manuscripts, including Williams’s first full-length play, Candles to the Sun, from Williams’s official bibliographer, Andreas Brown. Brown’s materials also included a complete run of Williams’s publications, and Brown’s own correspondence, notes, and drafts from his work on Williams’s bibliography.

The Williams family papers were also acquired in 1965 from Williams’s mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. These materials included original manuscripts and works of art by Williams, over 700 letters, scrapbooks, personal memorabilia, and 650 photographs.

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