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Your field guide to the Ransom Center

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
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.

Scholar explores vaudeville circuits and regional architecture

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.

 

'Every now and then you have to think outside the box'

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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.

The Harry Ransom Center's 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.
The Harry Ransom Center's 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.

"The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence."

'Arthur Miller' by Christopher Bigsby
'Arthur Miller' by Christopher Bigsby
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?

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

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.

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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.

Ernst Stern (1876-1954). Costume design for Macbeth, 1945. Patricia Jessel as Lady Macbeth.
Ernst Stern (1876-1954). Costume design for Macbeth, 1945. Patricia Jessel as Lady Macbeth.

A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

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

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.

 

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David Mamet papers now open for research

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

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.