In the normal course of my day as Theater Archivist for the Museum of the City of New York, I can count on encountering objects that impress, interest, inform, or even surprise me. Rarer is the object that utterly confounds me, such as the following image, discovered while doing some routine research.
Who were these people and what could they possibly be doing?
Information in the record linked the “Carolyn” of the capers to the Carolyn Laundry in Harlem. Located around 111 East 128th Street, the Carolyn Laundry was a large wash and delivery service that operated in the early decades of the 20th century. There’s evidence to suggest a branch or garage space in the Bronx in addition to the Harlem building. The company was concerned with maintaining a clean workplace. As early as 1915, workers from various departments participated in monthly meetings that addressed safety concerns. I wasn’t able to dig up much else on the history of the organization or its fate. The Byron Company, however, documented just enough aspects of life at the laundry to pique the curiosity. Below is the building’s exterior.
The delivery men all stand at attention next to their trucks, the very picture of a formal and professional work environment. A photograph of the “Capers” is perhaps a bit less formal.
I still don’t know how exactly the “Carolyn Capers” emerged from the laundry. My best guess is that the “Capers” consisted of employees putting on amateur entertainments, presumably for each other. I found no evidence that the performers pictured were, in fact, employees, but it was not unheard of for companies to provide an entertainment outlet for their employees as a way to boost morale. It is possible that the office parties of yesteryear involved costumes, props, and a few solid musical numbers.
Workers, like the ones pictured above, might have been able to kick up their heels with an original dance routine.
The “Capers” appear to follow a variety show format. The Byron Company captured a few years of productions. It’s possible the “Capers” was an annual event in the follies tradition of Ziegfeld, Grand Street, and Greenwich Village. I haven’t noticed a particular holiday theme, but the footwear and lack of set pieces seem to imply dance numbers, songs, and comedic sketches. These are not the dramatic poses of a straight play.
At the very least, performers showed more leg than work uniforms allowed.
Though I found no information specifically about the “Capers,” amateur productions were experiencing a significant boom in Harlem at the time they were performed. Playwright and teacher Randolph Edmonds wrote in 1949 about the “Negro Little Theatre Movement,” describing a huge influx of amateur performances in predominately African-American neighborhoods. The Little Theatre Movement sprang out of communities forming small groups to perform non-commercial works for each other. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, several amateur groups emerged in Harlem as a way to give outlet and find audiences for African-Americans excluded from the Broadway stage. The world famous Apollo Theatre began its amateur night in 1934. The “Capers” may seem to us a curious anomaly, but they were very much a product of their time.
Visit the Museum’s Collections Portal to view more images of the Carolyn Laundry and the company’s capers.