Performing Arts Collections: Overview

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University houses a large and varied selection of original materials that illuminate the history of world theater and the performing arts.  Comprised of masks, puppets, stage models, photographs, and ephemera, as well as the personal papers and archives of musicians, theater and film people, agents and organizations, the collections are a rich resource for the study of music, drama and performance history.  Among its treasures are the archives of architect and stage designer Joseph Urban (a collection of more than 16,000 items including letters, drawings, watercolor renderings, and stage models), the papers of “Kiss Me Kate” writers Sam and Bella Spewack, the papers of Florine Stettheimer, including the figurines that she made for “Four Saints In Three Acts,” the Robert Wilson archives, and a major Tennessee Williams collection.

The core of the Columbia University holdings relating to theater is the Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum collection, a group of nearly 100,000 materials in various formats chosen to illustrate the history of theater and performance throughout the world.  The Brander Matthews collection includes masks and puppets, as well as account books, manuscripts, theatrical portraits, and printed books.  Collected between 1912 and 1929, with substantial later additions, the collection was acquired by gift and maintained for many years by Columbia as a separate research and exhibition archive.  It has been housed since the 1970s in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Brander Matthews (1852-1929), a Columbia University faculty member, man of letters, and prolific writer on the theater, was America’s first professor of drama.  Throughout his teaching career, he gathered books, manuscripts and realia relating to the theater.  Added to in the years since his death and currently still growing, the Dramatic Museum collections include 5,000 volumes; 34,500 engravings, several thousand cartes-de-visite, and theatrical photographs; 18,500 playbills; 23,000 programs; 109 scrapbooks; 15,000 vertical file items and 400 posters.  The Brander Matthews papers extend to 120 linear feet; the Dramatic Museum papers to 17 linear feet.

The Dramatic Museum collection is supplemented by separate collections relating to George Odell, Matthews’ successor and author of Annals of the New York Stage; Dirce St. Cyr, translator of dramatic works in the early years of the century; James Woodman Thompson, New York stage and costume designer; Randolph Somerville, organizer of the Washington Square Players; Eleanor Robson Belmont, actress and philanthropist, and Joseph Urban, the Austrian-born architect and artist, who designed original settings of the Ziegfeld and other Broadway producers, and for the Metropolitan Opera from 1912 to 1932.

Papers of theatrical agents Leah Salisbury and Annie Laurie Williams contain unique items relating to their clients, including correspondence with John Steinbeck and Truman Capote about their theatrical endeavors, as well as contracts and financial records. The papers of music agent Constance Hope document her shaping of the careers of such notables as Jascha Heifetz, Lotte Lehmann, and Erich Leinsdorf.

Film holdings include the papers of documentarians Robert and Frances Flaherty (“Nanook of the North,” “Man of Aran”), and Pare Lorentz (“The Plow the Broke the Plains,” “The River”), screen writer William Goldman (“The Princess Bride, “Marathon Man”) and film historians Cecile Starr, Erik Barnow, and Amos Vogel. Recent additions include the papers of film critics Andrew Sarris and Judith Crist, and exhibitors Dan and Toby Talbot of New Yorker Films.

Music holdings include the papers of composers H. Lawrence Freeman, Douglas Moore, Jack Beeson, Jerome Moross, Ulysses Kay and Sid Ramin, a composer who orchestrated all versions of “West Side Story,” as well as “Gypsy” and many other shows.  Jazz studies include the papers of the Louis Armstrong Foundation, the Eddie Locke photograph collection, and the papers of Cholly Atkins.

Dance holdings include, for example, Les Ballets Russes material in various collections, including the Dramatic Museum ephemera and Bakhmeteff Archive.

The Oral History Research Office holds significant material relating to the performing arts, the largest collection being the Popular Arts Project. With some 80 participants and running to 7,812 pages, it contains interviews with producers, directors, writers, playwrights, scenarists, composers, lyricists, orchestra conductors, designers, cinematographers, film editors, actors, dancers, advertisers, distributors, music publishers, journalists, columnists and critics and fan magazine editors. Memories of the film industry date back to nickelodeon days: early studios and equipment in New York and New Jersey; film distribution techniques; silent movies; the coming of sound; the emergence of slapstick; state censorship; origins of the motion picture code; mechanical and technological innovations and new ideas in writing, acting and producing.