Happy Halloween!

A snake charmer shares the stage with a magician who is about to saw his assistant in half. Ralph Chessé papers C0224, Box 1, Folder 19. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.

Happy Halloween! There is something inherently creepy about marionettes to me and after looking through photographs of marionettes used by the Federal Theatre Project, I thought a Halloween blog post might be the perfect way to highlight some of the photographs from the newly processed Ralph Chessé papers. All of these photographs are from productions of a Marionette Variety show produced in San Francisco in July of 1936 and a later incarnation in Los Angeles in 1938. I’m sure there was nothing scary about the actual performances; in fact at a time when the country was seized by the Great Depression I’m sure that the marionettes brought a lot of joy to the audience, but the shadowy atmosphere of the black and white photographs suggests that the puppets could have just as easily been involved in sinister activities. More images from the Chessé collection can be found on our digital collections site.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson puppet. Ralph Chessé papers C0224, Box 1, Folder 19. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949) was a popular African-American entertainer from the early 1900s. A native of Richmond, Virginia he was most known for dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films from the 1930s. He began his career in the theatre and vaudeville in Washington, D.C., and New York City and developed as a tap dancer and actor in musical comedy shows. He was a popular figure on Broadway and in the nightclubs. It wasn’t until he was 50 years old that he began performing for white audiences. Fellow puppeteer Bob Baker also created a Bill Robinson marionette in the late 1930s. Video of Baker’s Robinson can be found on YouTube.

George Bernard Shaw was the master of ceremonies at the Marionette Variety show and here he is sharing the stage with quintuplets. Ralph Chessé papers C0224, Box 1, Folder 19. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University. Public domain. There are no known restrictions.

Ralph Chessé began his career with government sponsored work in 1934 when he was selected to add a mural to the Coit Tower in San Francisco. Two years later he joined the Federal Theatre project as Director of the Puppetry Unit and in 1937 Chessé moved to Los Angeles to take over as State Director for California. The Chessé papers contain materials such as photographs, watercolor set and costume design sketches, playscripts, and programs relating to Federal Theatre Project marionette productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some of these plays are Child of God, Crock of Gold, The Emperor Jones, Hansel and Gretel, Marionette Varieties, Rip Van Winkle, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. The papers also include magazine articles from the 1970s that highlight Chessé’s mural painting at the Coit Tower.

New FTP finding aid available!

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

Reprocessing the Federal Theatre Project – Music File

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.

Happy Fourth of July! Reprocessing the Federal Theatre Project – Play Reader Reports

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.