I am happy to announce that a new finding aid for the Federal Theatre Project collection is available! In total the collection numbers 363 boxes of material created by the Federal Theatre Project and donated to George Mason University from the Library of Congress.
FTP gift collections awaiting reprocessing.
Originally the collection was much larger when it first came to Mason in 1974. Two Mason professors, Lorraine Brown and John O’Connor, located the collection at a Library of Congress off-site storage facility in Maryland and negotiated for the collection to come to Mason on permanent loan. The collection was returned to the Library of Congress in 1993. A year later duplicate copies of the materials were returned to Mason thus creating the collection that we have today. For a complete history on how the collection came to be at George Mason see the article “The Discovery of the Federal Theatre Project Archives” on the newly published George Mason University: A History site.
In addition to the collection from the Library of Congress, Special Collections also houses a number of gift collections from actors, directors, and other participants in the FTP. Rehousing and in some cases reorganizing these gift collections is the next stage of reprocessing our Federal Theatre materials. These collections contain scrapbooks, programs, newspaper clippings, and letters, that provide a detailed view about what working with the FTP was like.
The following photograph is of two pages from a scrapbook donated by Fernando Mesa and features a telegram envelope with notes, telegram, photograph, and two newspaper clippings from September to October of 1936. The material relates to The Modern Rip company at the Centro Asturiano Theatre in Tampa, Florida, part of the Spanish-language theatre produced by the FTP.
Scrapbook donated by Fernando Mesa
There were three main concerns that became apparent while reprocessing the Music File series of the Federal Theatre Project collection. When I opened the first box, I immediately noticed the sheet music was as large as the folders. This caused curling that hid the folder title and hindered removal from the box. The second concern was the arrangement of the music that changed with each play production. And the third concern was what to do with all of the miscellaneous music – either printed music that was being considered for inclusion in plays, or fragments from productions.
I tried to correct the curling by removing the papers, refoldering, and placing preservation bricks on top of the folders. This treatment lessened the curling and made the folders easier to handle. I placed folders into the boxes so that only a small amount of space remained, enough to easily remove folders, and still prevent severe curling. Also important to reboxing was alternating the direction of the papers. In the first folder the title page is facing the back of the folder and in the second folder the title page is facing the front of the folder, so that the pressure from each side will help flatten both. Unfortunately not much can be done about the size of the papers. The papers still obscure the title but are able to fit comfortably in the box.
Box with sheet music, after treatment and refoldering. Federal Theatre Project Collection C0002, Box 313. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain.
My concern with the order of the papers was that some play titles were arranged by sets, so that there was a complete set of all (or some) of the instruments used in the production arranged in standard orchestral instrument order. But other play titles had all of the instrument scores together – so all of the copies of the violin music would be together, for instance. Should I put all the instrument scores together within a production title or should I have full copies of the play music in orchestral order? For this I decided to pretty much leave it as I found it which means most are arranged in orchestral order but there are a couple arranged by instrument type – not ideal but manageable and still findable.
The miscellaneous music is currently labeled “miscellaneous” although the title of the song, date published, and the composer if known are also included. Fragments are arranged alphabetically within the series. This separates the published music from that created for the Federal Theatre Project without dividing this series into subseries as it was originally. Because this series is much smaller than the original music file this seems to be an acceptable option.
The first page of the conductor's score from the Los Angeles production of Aladdin. Federal Theatre Project Collection C0002, Box 313 Folder 1. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain.
Fourth of July play reader report (1936-1939) from the Federal Theatre Project Collection C0002, Box 26 Folder 5. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.
Play Reader Reports (PRR) represent one of the larger series in the FTP collection. This series consists of thousands of mostly one-page typewritten reports that have been created for plays produced and the many more that were rejected. I have kept the folder titles as I found them for the most part – that is arranged in loose alphabetical order. At first it was thought possible to list all of the titles contained within a folder and weed duplicates but it quickly became apparent that it would be a huge undertaking and take more time than we can spend on it at present. Here is an example of what the scope note would look like for the first folder alone:
A La Carte; Abigail; Academic Ballyhoo; Adam and Eva; Adam and Eve Driven from Eden; An Adamless Eden; Adieu, My Love; The Admirable Crichton; Admirals All; African Vineyard; Age 26; The Age of Gold; Ahasverus; Ai-Noa (Free-Eating); Air Raid; The Airplane Rescue; The Alabaster Box; Alice in Hungerland; Alice in Wonderland; Alice Mutton; All-Americans; All Desirable Young Men; All Doubled Up; All God’s Chillun get Wings; Allison’s Son; All Well that Ends Well; All is Well that Ends Well; All Rights Reserved; All the World Loves a Lover; All we like Sheep; All Women are Mothers; Almost Eighteen; Almost Rehearsal-less Plays; Amaco; Amateur Hamlet; Amateur Hour; Ambitious Lucy; America and the Jew; American Fairy Tale; Ancient Gods; And Give you Peace; And Stairs Remain; And the Sun Goes Down; Andrew Takes a Wife; Angel Child; Angelica, Inc.; The Angelus; Animal Operetta; Anna; The Annunciation and the Visit of Elizabeth to Mary; Around the Fireside; The Art of Being Bored; Ascalon; Ascendancy; Any Day Entertainment; The Ascension; The Ascent of F6; Association Copy; Assignment for Tomorrow; At the Gate of the Kingdom (Ved Rikets Port); At Ten Paces; At the end of the Warpath; At the Game; The Aulis Difficulty; Aunt Jerusha’s Quilting Party; Alice sit by the Fire
In honor of the Fourth of July holiday, I’ve scanned a play reader report for the children’s play “Fourth of July”. This report has a common format of featuring a synopsis, production notes, and an opinion on if it would be suitable for production. Some of the reports include only a short reason for rejecting the piece, and others consist of multiple page summaries. Most of the reports also include who reviewed them and the date reviewed.
A screenshot of the map view created from the Federal Theatre Project Poster, Costume, and Set Design slide collection data.
Digital projects are a great way to promote collections. At SC&A we having been adding new ways to interact with materials from our collections online.
One online tool we are using to highlight the Federal Theatre Project collection is the Library of Congress endorsed Viewshare. Viewshare is a dynamic tool that allows users to upload data and then visualize that data in new and exciting ways. Among the viewing options is a gallery, map, timeline, list, table, and pie graph. We have utilized some of these views to create a new display of our Federal Theatre Project Poster, Costume, and Set Design Slide Collection. Users can now browse the collection in a gallery view, list view, or on a map (above) or on a timeline (below).
A screenshot of the timeline view created from the Federal Theatre Project Poster, Costume, and Set Design slide collection data.
Since data uploaded to Viewshare can be set to public it is also possible for users to create their own “views” based on the data we have created. Here is a link to our data set – http://viewshare.org/data/gmu_sca/federal-theatre-project/
In support of JAM (Jazz Appreciation Month) I’ve selected two scripts from the Federal Theatre Radio Division of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) to highlight in this update on reprocessing the FTP. In the radio script series we have over 200 original scripts used for radio productions. These productions are arranged alphabetically by title. Found within overarching titles are often multiple broadcasts. Examples include stories of Detective O’Malley, the Federal Theatre of the Air, the Ibsen and Oscar Wilde cycles, and many non-fiction themes such as History in Action, Pioneers in Science, and Portraits in Oil. One theme that dealt with contemporary history is the set of broadcasts called “The Story of Swing”. Two of the scripts housed at George Mason Special Collections and Archives are “Harlem in the 30’s” and “White Jazz and the Commercial Era”.
First page of the radio scripts “Harlem in the 30’s” and “White Jazz and the Commercial Era” from the Federal Theatre Project Collection C0002. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.
These shows featured conversations on the history of jazz and the popularity of swing at the time. As the announcer says at the beginning of “Harlem in the 30’s”:
And so throughout the length and breadth of America, today modern music …SWING music… has become the most talked-of topic in every walk of life. Some shudder at this new trend…others glory in rhythm that spreads from the bistros of 52nd Street to the sanctified concert hall.
Even Gilbert and Sullivan have fallen under the spell of glorified swing…as witness the current Federal Theatre hit – THE SWING MIKADO.
But whether you consider swing music to be a meaningless jumble of noise, or something beautiful and original…the fact remains that swing comes from jazz…and jazz is America’s own folk music.
As one can see in the above photograph the theme music for the show is denoted – Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express” was used for both productions. Here is clip by Gira78giri on YouTube of that song.