Billy Rose Theatre Collection


Today’s New York Times reported on the acquisition of “memorabilia” relating to Off Off Broadway venue, Caffe Cino, including the 1966 program for “Dames at Sea” pictured below:Image

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Brochure for the current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Brochure for the current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

While the exhibit devoted to Serge Diaghilev continues at the first floor Oenslager Gallery at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, downstairs in its Astor Gallery is a lovely selection of materials from its recently acquired and processed Katherine Hepburn Papers. 

The Hepburn heirs divided the papers into two collections based on her stage and movie careers, the former going to the New York Public Library and the latter going to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles.  Nevertheless, the division between her two vocations is not nearly so neat and her papers at NYPL contain many materials devoted to her motion picture activities.  When combined with the Library’s own film holdings, the picture that emerges is a rounded one. 

Hepburn2

In chronological order the exhibit goes through the major segments of her career, highlighting her little-known early stage appearances.  In addition to many photographs (both publicity and candid), there are many magazines (as the exhibit notes state) which, at the outset of her film career, tried to reconcile Hepburn’s unusual looks with then-current ideas of beauty, sometimes resulting in images in which one strains to see a resemblance to the actress.

Here is presented a very different side of Hepburn.  On stage and in costume, she holds herself both regally and sensually depending on the dramatic situation.  It is a pity that with rare and late exceptions (such as the excerpt from the musical Coco, broadcast as part of the Tony Awards of 1970) there are no filmed records of Hepburn on stage.  Such is the ephemeral nature of the performer’s art.  Yet with ample documentation of scripts, letters, photographs and programs, one can get a sense of how Hepburn commanded a stage.  As Bob Taylor, the former curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division stated in a video, these materials show part of Hepburn’s career that is often overlooked.

It is a fascinating trove:  there are a loads of letters, annotated scripts and documents.  One gets the sense that Hepburn strived to save materials relevant to her activities.  Apparently not content to simply collect, she frequently made notes on these materials.  So many items, even ephemeral ones, have her annotations, comments, thoughts, or communications, providing a deeper context for each item.  She apparently saved fan letters along with the most trivial of items.  That’s what makes not only the exhibit but her archive so rich:  she kept so many things that, while seemingly ephemeral, played some significant part in her life. 

It’s a lesson to us all on what makes a worthwhile archive: not the mere collection of lots of ephemera, but all of it having an organic connection to its creator/collector.  The result is a vivid picture of not just a performing artist but someone fully engaged with life and the world around her.

Just had a chance to see one of the two exciting shows at NYPL’s Performing Arts Library, as mentioned by elssler1: “Focus on the 70s: The Fabulous Photography of Kenn Duncan.” Fabulous, indeed. The photographs are quite stunning and capture the fun and carefree, sometimes tacky beauty of my favorite decade. Seeing almost iconic images of many of the almost completely forgotten major (and minor) stars of the period, as well as glamor shots of young, up-and-comers who wound up turning into industry giants, is enough to keep one smiling throughout the gallery stroll. Arthur Mitchell’s shot, with dapper fedora and New York backdrop, is especially wonderful.

My big complaint, though, is the decided lack of information provided in the exhibit and the decision that was made by the curator to provide nothing but photographs or copies of photographs and reproductions of magazine covers. A display case featuring actual magazines and some other Duncan and period ephemera would have been a nice addition. And more detailed information about Duncan’s life and work, as well as some pieces written by friends and colleagues, would have made the exhibit feel less impersonal. I am thinking of the vast array of material and the general care that was displayed in the Jerome Robbins exhibit and cannot help but feel a little let down about this one. Also, let’s face it, an exhibit that highlights the 70s really needs to be as wild and silly (and outlandish) as possible. Why was the design team not given more liberty to go a little crazy?

In the very short program that is provided for the exhibit, there is a paragraph that reads: “Kenn Duncan’s reputation as a photographer has undeservedly lain dormant for 20 years. Now is the time to open up his world of singular beauty for a new generation.” To me, this paragraph demonstrates the exhibit’s essential disparity. The unnamed writer of these lines is absolutely correct that a celebration of Duncan and his work is way long overdue; however, why does the writer feel that “now” is the time for this celebration? Of course, I do know what the writer is getting at, but it is clearly not expressed as well as it should be. Accordingly, while the images in this exhibit are extraordinary, the curator has failed to provide substance or context and has not succeeded in adequately affording Duncan the full celebration that he deserves.

Please, though, go and see it! The photographs are a joy to behold.