by Maxine Carter-Lome
Growing up in and around New York City in a family that loved the theater and were frequent patrons, I was fortunate to see more than my fair share of Broadway Musicals in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. That was back when the price of a ticket to even the hottest show on Broadway was somewhat affordable and going to the theater was an event you dressed up for. I remember my nights at the theater as much for the performance seen as the evening spent with the person who took me. Like others, I took home and saved the Playbills, purchased the souvenir program, and bought the cast album to relive the experience at home. I suspect this is how many theater collections are started. Today, everything from souvenir t-shirts to signed Playbills, costumes, props, scripts, posters, sheet music, and more are collected by theater lovers and ardent collectors, alike.
In the new millennium, theater producers have gone back in time to re-boot popular musicals hoping nostalgia and the lure of a big name in a limited run performance will entice people to make an investment in seeing a Broadway show, which can now exceed $500 for an evening for two when you include parking, dinner, childcare, and decent seats. When you talk about Hamilton you can double that price! Although gross ticket sales for Broadway shows in the 2016-2017 season (which ended May 21, 2017) were up 5.5%, general attendance was down 0.4%, according to The Broadway League, a trend that reflects less people spending more money to go to the theater. This challenge, in part, is driving the revival movement.
According to Playbill, the Top 5 Most Revived Musicals in Broadway History are Guys & Dolls (#5), Peter Pan (#4), Show Boat (#3), The Three Penny Opera (#2), and Porgy & Bess (#1), which premiered in 1935 and enjoyed a revival in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1953, 1976, 1983, and again in 2012 starring Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life. Everything associated with these beloved musicals is collectible, with items dating to the premier productions being the most coveted.
My grandfather was an avid collector of autographs and, with an apartment in the theater district, a consistent patron of the theater, often standing in the back when he was younger to afford the ticket. He never left the theater without taking a few copies of the Playbill, which he mailed to the theater with a handwritten note sharing his flattering thoughts on the performance and its stars and asking for cast signatures. Although the letters he sent are lost to time, the beautiful letters he received in return with the signed Playbills indicated the recipients appreciated his sentiment. When he died, my grandfather’s theater collection of signed Broadway Playbills, spanning the decades 1940-1980, numbered over 1,000. They represent not only a great history of Broadway performances but a tangible record and reminder of my grandfather’s lifelong love of the theater.
One of the largest collections of theater-related memorabilia is housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Their Performing Arts holdings cover the widest range of formats including manuscripts, photographs, set and costume renderings, posters, prints, set models, audio and moving image recordings, newspaper clippings, and over 200,000 Playbills and programs from theatrical productions dating back to 1696 London. The collection continues to grow through gifts and acquisitions from lifelong collectors, producers, actors, and even Harry Houdini. In January, 2018, The Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of American playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005). Obtained from the Arthur Miller Trust, the archive spans Miller’s career and contains multiple versions of his scripts, many re-edited throughout his career for new productions, as well as contracts, set designs, marketing materials, reviews and awards, and drafts of his speeches and essays. In 2017, the Center obtained the extensive archive of British-Irish theatre and film actor Peter O’Toole (1932-2013), which contains theatre and film scripts along with O’Toole’s writings, including drafts, notes and working material for his multivolume memoir Loitering with Intent. It is a treasure trove of theater history that is free (although donations are encouraged) and open to the public.
While theater memorabilia can be found in abundance on eBay and other online auction sites, one of the most fun and interesting places to acquire a piece of theater history or something to remember a favorite show by is the annual Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction held in September to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tables of theatrical collectibles representing Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, theatre owners and producing organizations, unions, guilds, marketing groups, ticket agencies, concessionaires, and fan clubs set up along West 44th and 45th Streets and Shubert Alley, offering fans and collectors the chance to buy or bid on one-of-a-kind showbiz treasures, meet their favorite cast members, and bid on exclusive backstage experiences. In 2017, this event raised over $1 million to fund AIDS research. The story behind this amazing annual event, now in its 32nd year, can be found on page 26.
I hope this issue brings you back to the magical Broadway moments in your life, and puts a smile on your face and a song in your heart.