Newly Recovered Music and Voice Recordings from the 1950s Arts Scene

During the 1950s the United States and Russia not only competed in terms of military might, they also vied against each other for world influence. Though America may have been on the leading edge of manufacturing, technology, and popular culture; the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in eastern Europe were the generally accepted leaders in high culture and art.

Robert Breen, opening night of Porgy and Bess, 1952

Robert Breen, opening night of Porgy and Bess, 1952. From the Robert S. Breen Papers.

Enter Robert Breen. Breen was a World War II vet, theater actor, and producer who had participated in the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s. After the war Breen started up the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA). ANTA, chartered in 1935 but dormant during the Depression, was an organized, non-commercial but self-supporting national theatre program. It’s intent was “to bring to the people throughout the country the great drama of the past and the best of the present.”

By 1949, ANTA and its Secretary Breen, had begun a series of cultural exchange tours, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, that would span the next decade. Beginning with a European tour of Hamlet, which culminated in a performance at Elsinore Castle in Denmark, the actual setting of the play, ANTA produced such projects as the American National Ballet Theatre’s tour of Europe, and American participation in the Berlin Arts Festival in 1951. Productions showing different sides of life in America were played to European audiences. Among the many were the musicals Oklahoma and George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

 

Original tape box from a recording of a Porgy and Bess performance

Original tape box from a recording of a Porgy and Bess performance, 1955. From the Robert S. Breen Papers. Photo by the author.

Later in the decade ANTA would produce the extremely short-lived Blues Opera, with music by Harold Arlen, the composer of the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz and other recognizable standards, such as [That Old] Black Magic, Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive, It’s Only A Paper Moon, Stormy Weather, I’ve Got the World on A String, Get Happy, and about 400 others.Recently, SC&A had the content from sixty-eight 1950s vintage open reel tapes in the Robert Breen

Original tape reel from Porgy and Bess performance, 1952

Original tape reel from Porgy and Bess performance, 1956. From the Robert S. Breen Papers. Photo by the author.

Papers converted¬† into digital format (96 KHz sampling rate and 24 bits/channel) as a preservation and access measure. The content of the tapes includes both performances and rehearsal sessions of Porgy and Bess and Blues Opera, as well as other interesting material recorded by Breen, such as an informal personal performance by Arlen in his home and a 1954 appearance by Arlen on The Ed Sullivan Show.¬† More will be written here on what we’ve discovered on the recordings as we listen to them closer.