The Great White Wayback Machine|
by Laura Frankos
Musical Theatre Museum
The Great White Wayback Machine now takes you on a tour of the Musical Theatre Museum! The exhibits of the MTM contain items illuminating art, history, culture, and social life, as in any good museum. The difference here is that the provenance of these objects is the world of musicals. On this tour, you can test your knowledge and see if you can guess where each artifact originated. I'll reveal the answers in the next column. There are sixty-six objects. All but one come from Broadway shows; the exception is a much-revised show that eventually played off-Broadway. Most come from the modern era (1943 on), but there are a few from the thirties, and two from smash hits of the 1880s and 1920s.
Statues and Paintings
The Hall of Statues' centerpiece is the magnificent marble statue of Venus (Aphrodite), found in Anatolia, where the Greeks once had colonies. Opposite Venus is another figure from mythology, the youth Adonis, created by the noted sculptress, Talmea. We can see the classical influences in the next exhibit, a nude male bronze statue of the Renaissance era from Florence, Italy. Contrast this with the style of Bulgarian sculptor Boris Adzinidzinadze, whose female dancer (c.1893, France) seems to be caught in the act of dressing for her next number. The Hall's entry is flanked by two statues of Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War, an unnamed general, whose uniform appears tattered and torn, and a copper infantryman with a flag, whose head is unfortunately missing.
The museum also possesses the complete works of British painter Priam Farll(fl. 1905) and Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asnières (1884). (Items from eight shows total.)
The highlights of this case include a British threepence (also known as a thrupenny bit or thruppence) from late in Queen Victoria's reign and a silver denarius depicting Julius Caesar. Legend has it Caesar carried this coin when he was assassinated, but this is quite fanciful. To the left, we have some American coins: two buffalo nickels (1913 and 1937the latter is quite scuffed), and a penny from the 1980s, which is severely dented. Only dedicated scholars will recognize the provenance of the British coin from 1947. This case also contains three gold nuggets, one from the 1853 California rush, and two from the Klondike, Alaska rush of the 1890s. (Items from nine shows total.)
The MTM's jewelry collection spans the globe and many centuries. The display case holds: a Roman ring with engraved geese, a boar's tooth necklace (Polynesian), an inexpensive American locket (c. 1920s), a Victorian era gold locket with woman's picture inside, an opal pendant (European, 19th c.), and an amethyst tie-pin (possibly Italian, early 20th c.). (Items from six shows total.)
Show Business and Sports Memorabilia
The capstone of the collection is, of course, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the film The Wizard of Oz, but the curator tells me that other famous Hollywood shoes are in storage. The early sixties are represented by the set of three matching bouffant wigs; though I find myself wondering if they are displayed correctly! Broadway flops are in evidence, with a poster for Funny Boy, the musical version of Hamlet, and a huge assortment of Playbills. Take special note of the one for Happy As Larry, since there weren't very many of those printed. The oldest theatrical object is a beautiful colored handbill advertising an appearance of British actor Edmund Kean (c. 1816). The Museum also owns an actor's contract for The Passion of Mary Magdalene, inexplicably signed "Peter Rabbit," and a poster from the Graham-Vanessi production of The Taming of the Shrew during its Baltimore tryout. Sports memorabilia include a 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey (#42), a 1955 Washington Senators jersey, and 1920s pennants from Tait College. (Items from ten shows total.)
Documents and Correspondence
The MTM's archival division possesses some hugely important historical documents, as well as sets of correspondence between men and women, both famous and ordinary. The oldest piece is a resolution passed by the legislature of the colony of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, which was passed on to the Continental Congress. The same period saw the signing of an alliance treaty between the newly-formed States and France. Finally, there is a diplomatic treaty from 1853-54, cementing a trade agreement between the United States and Japan. Dry and dusty documents, but with great historical significance, and what's more, they inspired musicals!
In the display case devoted to correspondence, we have a series of letters between unusual couples: an Italian soldier and his mistress, 1860s; two Hungarian "lonely hearts" club members, 1930s; and famed German composer Kurt Weill, and actress Lotte Lenya, 1920s-40s. Philatelists may be interested in the stamps from these collections. (Items from six shows total.)
The MTM collection of musical instruments features standard items, such as an American bugle (circa 1920s), cornet (1912), and a well-used trumpet (1920s), but also more exotic pieces like a Lichtenburgian ocarina and a small Chinese drum. (Items from five shows total.)
European and American Life
Museums can teach patrons much about everyday life through exhibits of objects used by ordinary people in bygone days, and the MTM has an exceptional collection of artifacts depicting both European and American societies. The European Life Hall contains whimsical pieces, such as the late nineteenth-century French music box in the shape of a monkey, as well as reminders of the grim past, including the opium pipe from a slightly earlier period. The display also contains Victorian era razors with silver handles, a late sixteenth-century Spanish wash basin, a British gramophone (c. 1910), and a Russian sewing machine (c. 1900).
The American Life Hall has a good selection of children's toys, including a laughing doll from the B.G. Bigelow Company (mid-twentieth century), a toy piano (c. 1970s), and an assortment of gag toys and gifts (early 1960s). There are humble items, such as an earthenware saucer (1930s), a four-poster bed (c. 1890s), a bottle of patent medicine "Egyptian Exilir" (early twentieth century), a woman's compact (damaged condition, 1960s), several sets of well-used dice (mid-twentieth century), and a pair of Sleep-Tite pajamas (1950s). Printed ephemera include a complete set of Allure Magazine from 1941. Before computers, people relied on typewriters, and the MTM owns quite a few, two of them oddly broken. One (1930s) is missing its "W," the other (late 1940s, portable model) has several damaged keys, including the "P". The other typewriters, dating from the early sixties, seem to have been part of a secretarial pool, and are in better condition. Political ephemera are represented by "Wintergreen For President" posters and handbills from the early campaigns of Fiorello La Guardia. (Items from twenty-one shows total.)
The Egyptian Tomb
We conclude our tour with the Egyptian tomb, completely reconstructed from its original site: the only musical I can think of that opens and closes in a museum! Be sure to visit the gift shop. My favorite souvenir is the pen that you tilt so the little Show Boat "glides" along the Mississippi, but the set of Follies action figures in their own Weismann Theatre (with "Wrecking Ball for Demolished Wall Fun"contains small pieces, not suitable for children under three) is fun, if expensive.