by Jessica Kosinski
Broadway shows have become a major part of the culture of both New York and the United States as a whole. Theatre productions are also popular in many other parts of the country, especially large cities like Boston and San Francisco. In fact, plays, operas and pantomime performances have a long history in several cultures. In the United States much of the thrill of visiting Broadway or seeing another theatre production is seeing the show itself. However, for theatre enthusiasts another part of the thrill is collecting memorabilia from famous or favorite shows. Let’s take a peek at the practice of collecting Broadway and other theatre memorabilia.
Theatre productions were popular in England long before the colonization of the United States. As the original 13 U.S. colonies were founded, those traditions came with some of their founders. Soon Charleston and Philadelphia established theatres. Surprisingly, New York did not follow suit immediately because its predominantly Dutch population was against such productions. However, by 1750 prevailing attitudes had begun to change. The Ballad Opera was performed at the Nassau Street Theatre in New York City that year. Eventually, that early showing led to the excitement and activity of Broadway as we all know it today.
The Evolution of U.S. Theatre Souvenirs
In the early days of U.S. theatre productions the only souvenirs given out during the show were typically programs. These listed the actors in the productions, known as the players, and some also listed other relevant information about the production, such as basic plot summaries and summaries of the acts. Originally meant as useful information for audiences to reference during the productions, many attendees kept their programs as souvenirs.
The magazine Playbill was started in 1884 for a theatre on 21st Street in New York City. Many may not realize it is a magazine because the content is “wrapped around” the information about the particular play being shown. It typically includes biographies of the cast, staff, writers, and composers. It also can contain historical information on the theatre itself. A Playbill for the opening night of a Broadway show is stamped with a seal on the cover.
Over time Broadway shows began to offer a wider array of souvenirs. But it wasn’t until the original production of Cats hit the theatre stage in London in 1981 that the theatre souvenir industries in both Europe and the U.S. were forever changed. It started when extra Cats t-shirts made for the crew were sold in the lobby. Soon everyone was lining up to purchase more trinkets with the iconic cat’s eyes logo. Since that time many major theatre productions in England and the United States have included predetermined types of merchandise to be sold in theatre lobbies, and even Broadway production heads have embraced the trend.
Types of Theatre Souvenirs
T-shirts are still popular theatre souvenirs today. They are given out in the lobby or by third parties whenever a major production takes the stage. Since many theatre productions are musicals, the soundtracks to those productions are also often sold before and after the shows. Other types of souvenirs vary based on the production but often include themed items based on the shows in question. For example, a plush flying monkey is one of many souvenirs you can find from the hit show Wicked.
Note that some theatres were not originally set up to accommodate vendors. Therefore, you may have difficulty finding souvenirs in their lobbies. However, in such cases official vendors can usually be found outside or nearby. For example, many Broadway souvenirs are sold in Times Square instead of or in addition to inside the theatres themselves.
Collecting modern theatre souvenirs is an activity that will be based on your individual tastes, but the best time to collect them is while you are seeing the productions in question. When you buy souvenirs in the theatre lobby it is likely that proceeds will go to support the theatre. You can also find theatre souvenirs online, but beware of the fact that some are not officially licensed.
As far as purchasing original souvenirs from early productions, such as the original run of Cats, that process can be more difficult. Many of them are in the hands of museums, such as the Museum of the City of New York. Others are held in private collections. However, the internet is an endless source of information and may yield some interesting results. But when buying online you must be wary of the authenticity of such pieces and make sure their origins can be verified.
Jessica Kosinski has been a freelance writer specializing in writing short articles for 15 years. She is also an avid collector of both antique books and Star Wars memorabilia. Although she is not in the antiques industry professionally, she has learned a lot about antiques over the years by periodically helping out at her mom’s antiques shop in Greenville, NH. She currently balances maintaining the antiques shop’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MallofNE, and working on various freelance writing assignments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.