The Swing Mikado: Gilbert and Sullivan Reinvented in 1938

Cast photo of Swing Mikado, Chicago, 1938. Federal Theatre Project photographs #C0205 Box 46, Folder 17

Here in the Special Collections Research Center, we are gearing up for #GandS2017 – our celebration of all things Gilbert and Sullivan, culminating in the opening of an exhibit of materials from the David and Annabelle Stone Gilbert and Sullivan Collection.

One of Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular comic operas is The Mikado; or, The Town of Titpu. It opened on March 14, 1885 and ran for 672 performances as a production of the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

The Mikado remains popular, and in the years since it opened, has been updated and re-imagined. In 1938, The Swing Mikado premiered in Chicago as a production of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project. The production was conceived and directed by Harry Minturn, with swing re-orchestrations of Sullivan’s music by Gentry Warden. First staged by an all-black company in Chicago, it became a huge hit with audiences black and white alike. It also featured a live swing orchestra. The show was later produced on Broadway to similar acclaim.

Cast photo of Swing Mikado, Chicago, 1938. Federal Theatre Project photographs #C0205 Box 46, Folder 17

The Federal Theatre Project itself was a New Deal program to fund live artistic programs during the Great Depression, one of numerous relief measures to employ artists, writers and theatre workers.

Set models in the Federal Theatre Project personal papers

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Set model by Samuel Leve for the production Cherokee Nights. The Federal Theatre Project personal papers, Box 28, Collection #C0227, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

There are a number of recent additions to the FTP personal papers collection. The number of boxes in the collection has gone from 9 to 29 since the finding aid was originally created in October 2012. This is mainly due to a processing decision that instead of processing each collection individually we would put them all together in one larger collection. The finding aid lists the materials alphabetically by donor.

These are fun collections to look through because they contain personal items that shed light on individual experiences. Some of my favorite items from this collection include hand drawn and colored costume designs by Rhoda Rammelkamp Bolton, original poster mock ups by Anthony Velonis, and set designs by Sam Leve.

In addition to Federal Theatre Project materials, this collection also has some non-Federal Theatre Project play related documents. Images below are of a set model for the play Hand in Glove by C.K. Freeman and G. Savory. Sam Leve created the scenic design for the December 1944 to January 1945 production that opened first at the Playhouse Theatre and then continued at the Forrest Theatre both in New York City. This model is interesting because the set consists of two main scenes, an outside and an inside view of a house, that can swivel around allowing for quick transitions.

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Set model by Sam Leve for the December 1944 to January 1945 production of Hand in Glove. This image shows the set with the back of the house visible. The Federal Theatre Project personal papers, Box 29, Collection #C0227, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

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Set model by Sam Leve for the December 1944 to January 1945 production of Hand in Glove. This image shows the set with the inside of the house visible. The Federal Theatre Project personal papers, Box 29, Collection #C0227, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

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Set model by Sam Leve for the December 1944 to January 1945 production of Hand in Glove. This image shows the set from above. The Federal Theatre Project personal papers, Box 29, Collection #C0227, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Voices from the FTP – a new exhibit from SC&A

We have recently installed an exhibit outside of SC&A in Fenwick Library focusing on the Federal Theatre Project titled “Voices from the FTP”. This exhibit takes the individual personal papers we have from FTP participants and integrates their story into the larger context of this government sponsored program. These may not be the most well known FTP participants but their stories are equally as interesting. Hopefully the exhibit will spark an interest in the people, productions, and experiences that transpired because of the Federal Theatre during the Great Depression across the United States.

The following blog post breaks down each of the four cases in the exhibit. Case 1 features the papers of Kate Lawson and serves as an introduction to the FTP. Case 2 focuses on the marionette units of the FTP and uses material from the Molka Reich papers and the Ralph Chessé papers. Case 3 briefly tells the story of Eda Edson and her vaudeville success Follow the Parade. Finally case 4 looks at the theme of controversy and the FTP and features Arnold Sundgaard’s play Spirochete as an example of some of the serious issues the FTP was exploring through the venue of live theater.

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Federal Theatre Project personal papers

A number of personal collections related to the Federal Theatre Project are now processed and finding aids are available online.  The J. Howard Miller papers include custom-made  scrapbooks bound by the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, part of the Works Progress Administration of Wisconsin. Inside the scrapbooks are programs, photographs, posters, flyers, and newspaper clippings. Miller was an actor and stage manager, and he worked with the Federal Theatre Project as an assistant to Hallie Flanagan, as the Regional Director in the west, and later as the Deputy National Director.

Two scrapbooks from the J. Howard Miller papers. The one on the left features photographs and promotional flyers for a production of Alice in Wonderland performed at the Savoy Theatre in San Diego. J. Howard Miller papers C0228, Box 1. Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

More recently added collections include:

Arnold Sundgaard papers

Sundgaard worked for the Chicago Federal Theatre Project and is best known as the writer of the Living Newspaper production Spirochete. He worked with the FTP from 1936 to 1938 as an author and play reader, after which he made a living as a writer. This collection is larger than many of the other FTP personal gift collections and includes materials that span Sundgaard’s career as an author. He is the author of plays, articles for the New Yorker and Atlantic magazines, children’s books, and various music and lyrics.

Theodore Browne papers

Originally from Suffolk, Virginia, Browne joined the Federal Theatre Project in Seattle, Washington. In Seattle, he worked with the Civic Repertory Theatre, a community theater group that would become the Seattle Negro Unit of the Works Progress Administration in 1936. The unit produced four plays written by Brown including Lysistrata of Aristophanes, A Black Woman called Moses, Swing, and Natural Man.

Eda Edson papers

Eda Edson directed the Los Angeles Federal Theatre Project variety unit’s productions Follow the Parade and The Black Crook.

Ben Russak papers

The Ben Russak papers is a collection of Federal Theatre Project and Federal Writers’ Project material collected by Ben Russak from 1935 to 1942. The papers include playscripts and publications created by the Federal Theatre Project, as well as pamphlets and collections of folklore material created by the Federal Writers’ Project.

Southwestern folk history (Oklahoma), May 27, 1939 (box 3, folder 7) and Nebraska folklore: Animal legends, August 1, 1937 (box 4, folder 8), Ben Russak papers C0221, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University.

Kate Lawson papers

The Kate Lawson papers includes newspaper clippings and press releases on Federal Theatre Project productions, FTP administrative correspondence including job descriptions, memorandums on employee reclassification, complaints from employees and audience survey questionnaires, research lists, production records, and personal correspondence.

Louis Simon papers

Louis M. Simon worked for the Federal Theatre Project as New Jersey State Director and later as Production Director in New York State. The Louis Simon papers contains newspaper clippings, photographs, programs, and correspondence relating to Federal Theatre in New Jersey and New York.

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.