Tag Archives: Collections

Breeches on Broadway

With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots, and Matilda currently on stage, Broadway has placed a spotlight on issues of cross-dressing and gender identity. While processing the Museum of the City of New York’s Broadway Production Files as part of a project funded by an IMLS Museums for America grant, I’ve come across plays that have made me realize how much of our theatrical culture has included elements of drag and gender confusion, whether for comic or dramatic effect.

Mickey Rooney in drag for the musical revue Sugar Babies, 1979. From the Theater Collection, The Museum of the City of New York. 85.58.2.

Mickey Rooney in drag for the musical revue Sugar Babies, 1979. From the Theater Collection, The Museum of the City of New York. 85.58.2.

Cross-dressing has had a long and frequently controversial history in theater. While it was often used to draw laughs from the audience, traditionally with males impersonating female characters, even comedies can have a serious subtext. They permit a way of examining various facets of gender without overtly threatening social norms. Women were banned from the stage primarily for reasons of maintaining female chastity until the 17th century, when female singers were cast in male roles in operas. The term “breeches role,” referring to a role in which an actress appears in male clothing, originated during this period – breeches being the standard male garments worn at the time. Women wore these breeches to make them look the part of a masculine role, but the tightly fitted clothing still accentuated the feminine calves and contours that audiences found alluring. While males impersonating females on stage traditionally served as comedic relief or to cross sexual  boundaries and gender-specific behavior in a way that was acceptable to the audience, females impersonating males were required to act boyishly but still retain acceptable feminine attributes. This tradition lasted well into the twentieth century, and still holds precedence today. Women were cast in male roles because of their androgynous physicality and because females were better envisioned playing weak, fragile, or effeminate male characters.

This is exemplified in the play L’Aiglon by Edmond Rostand about the life of Napoleon’s son Napoleon II of France, Duke of Reichstadt. The play premiered in Paris in 1900 starring Sarah Bernhardt as the title character and in New York at the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1901 starring Maude Adams. The role of Napoleon II (who was nicknamed L’Aiglon, or “little eagle”) was played only by women, who portrayed L’Aiglon according to descriptions that characterized him as vulnerable and effeminate. Bernhardt had already become famous for cross-dressing while playing Hamlet on Broadway that same year.

Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of L'Aiglon, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 28.67.23

Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of L’Aiglon, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 28.67.23

Bernhardt commented on this in a Boston Transcript’s April 1, 1901 issue: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man. These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty. A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon…an older man…does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thought of the man.” She apparently had a method form of acting while putting on L’Aiglon, wearing men’s clothing off-stage and even at home to immerse herself in the part.

Miss Elsie de Wolfe, actress and prominent figure in New York City society at

Maude Adams as L'Aiglon, 1900. From the Theater Collection. The Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.127.

Maude Adams as L’Aiglon, 1900. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.127.

the time, commented on the differences she saw between Bernhardt’s L’Aiglon and Maude Adams’s in a September 17, 1900 issue of the New York Times: “Miss Adams sees in the Prince a weakling, which he was, a man without force or will; a dreamer. In her performance I think we will get the poetical side. And she is correct in her views. Hers will be the historical character. With Bernhardt you get a suggestion of power that did not belong to the man. It pervades everything she does – voice, bearing, and action.”

Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs, at one time wife to actor John Barrymore and sister-in-law to actress Ethel Barrymore, played L’Aiglon in 1927 at the Cosmopolitan Theatre. Oelrichs wrote and acted under the pseudonym Michael Strange as an act of defiance against social norms.

Michael Strange as L'Aiglon and Effie Shannon as Marie Louise, 1927. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 50.178.678.

Michael Strange as L’Aiglon and Effie Shannon as Marie Louise, 1927. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 50.178.678.

Later in life, she and the author of the children’s book Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, formed a long-term romantic relationship. While Bernhardt and Adams are known for shaping the role, Strange is best known for looking the part with her famous androgynous features.

Eva La Gallienne joined the ranks of female stars playing L’Aiglon at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1934. In an article of the San Bernardino County Sun published that same year, Miss Le Gallienne stated that along with Peter Pan, L’Aiglon was a role that, as a stage-struck young girl, she had written down on a list of parts she intended to play before she was thirty-five. She was thirty-four when she was cast as L’Aiglon, and said of her success that, “you can do anything if only you want to enough.”

Eva Le Gallienne as L’Aiglon and Ethel Barrymore as Marie Louise. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 37.350.32.

Eva Le Gallienne as L’Aiglon and Ethel Barrymore as Marie Louise. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 37.350.32.

The actresses playing L’Aiglon used the role in different ways to denaturalize gender as a dichotomy and instead blur the opposition between the two genders to show that there was a great deal of the female in this male role. While these women made great strides to challenge gender norms and achieve success in a male role, there still existed gender stereotypes connecting femininity with fragility and immaturity. Characters like Hamlet and L’Aiglon were considered inappropriate models for manhood and were therefore played by females. Whether it’s L’Aiglon or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, theater creates a space for the audience to acknowledge and question these stereotypes.

Animals on Stage

Thanks to a generous Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, I have the pleasure as Collections Assistant to aid in processing over 30,000 unique images documenting theatrical productions on New York City’s Broadway and Off-Broadway stages from the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection. The grant allows the museum to digitize these images and make them accessible to the public, including performing arts scholars and theater enthusiasts across the nation.

The notion of Broadway evokes glamorous stars of the stage – Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead, and Gene Kelly, among others. But some of the most charismatic and hardworking actors from some of Broadway’s notable productions of the past weren’t humans at all.

Animals have been acting in stage productions on Broadway for decades, providing companionship to characters and making audiences smile.  Rigorous training goes into preparing an animal for a role, teaching him or her multiple commands so that the same tasks may be performed consistently several times a week on cue. One early canine actor played Flush in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Flush, the cocker spaniel from The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Flush, the Cocker Spaniel from The Barretts of Wimpole Street. 1931. Museum of the City of New York, 33.34.35.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a play written by Rudolf Besier in 1930 and based on the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. It opened at the Empire Theatre on Broadway in 1931 starring Katharine Cornell and Brian Aherne, and ran for 370 performances. Flush the Cocker Spaniel was not only in the original production but also in the 1934 and 1945 revivals. According to the directions written by Besier in the official play script, a dog can sometimes be more of a diva than a human actor. Besier advised: “In the original production, the dog ‘Flush’ was an actor. But since to train a dog is sometimes even more difficult than to train a human actor, it is suggested that the dog should not be allowed on stage.” This did not deter any of the Broadway productions, however, and the dog playing Flush got a sparkling review by Andre Sennwald in the New York Times in 1934: “A report on the acting would be woefully inadequate without a tribute to Flush, the Cocker Spaniel of Elizabeth. His almost human and occasionally superhuman powers of expression are so remarkable as to cause some alarm for the superiority of the human race.”

Dog trainer Paul Sydell and canine assistants Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle

Dog trainer Paul Sydell practicing with his canine assistants Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle. 1961. Museum of the City of New York, 68.80.4927.

Paul Sydell with Smoothy the dog.

Paul Sydell with Smoothy the dog in Carnival. 1961. Museum of the City of New York, 68.80.4945.

In the musical Carnival a naïve, orphaned girl is taken in as an apprentice to a traveling French circus. Opening in 1961 at the Imperial Theatre, the show included several sensational acts like stilt-walkers, trick cyclists, and of course dog acrobats Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle with their trainer Paul Sydell. According to the show’s original Playbill, Sydell and the dogs were a top variety act and led a very glamorous life: “They have entertained audiences in such supper clubs as the Copacabana, the Palmer House, and Chez Parce. They have played all the leading theatres including the Radio City Music Hall, and appeared on all the leading television shows including those of Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, and Patti Page. Mrs. Sydell travels with the act and cooks for Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle. Once a week, after their bath, they get egg yolk enlivened by a dash of cognac.”

Jimmy Durante and Big Rosie the elephant

Jimmy Durante and Big Rosie the elephant in Jumbo. 1935. Museum of the City of New York, 37.414.10.

Just to show that not all animal actors come in small furry packages, Big Rosie the elephant made her stage debut in Jumbo, a musical about a financially-strapped circus which opened on Broadway at the Hippodrome Theatre on November 16, 1935. At the end of each performance, Jimmy Durante would lay down on the stage and permit Rosie to place her foot upon his head. The large, 5,000-seat theater was turned into a big top circus tent where various specialty acts, including acrobats and animal actors, performed during the show. Durante and Big Rosie apparently brought the house down at each performance with the famous ending line: when Durante tries to sneak off with Rosie, away from creditors, they ask him where he’s attempting to go with the elephant; Durante answered, “What elephant?”

Sarah Jessica Parker as Annie with Sandy the dog in Martin Charnin's Annie. Museum of the City of New York, 79.56.5.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Annie with Sandy the dog in Annie. 1979. Museum of the City of New York, 79.56.5.

Perhaps one of the most famous animal actors of all was Sandy, named for the character he played in the 1977 Broadway production of Annie, originally starring Andrea McArdle. (She was succeeded by a fourteen-year old Sarah Jessica Parker in 1979.) Sandy had led a hard-knock life as a stray and was one day away from being put down at the Connecticut Humane Society when trainer William Berloni adopted him, paying $8 and giving him a new life in the theater. Sandy was trained to be calm in front of thousands of people and learned to heel, stay, bark on cue, and cross the stage to search for Annie night after night. He went on to appear in 2,377 performances of Annie over seven years, performing twice at the Tony awards and six times at the White House, entertaining Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Sandy’s titular autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster, told the story in the “first person” of a dog that goes from being an abused puppy to a Broadway star. Sandy’s memory is honored through The Sandy Fund, affiliated with the Humane Society of New York, which has raised over $10,000 for animal rights, welfare, and rescue. Sandy’s story is an example of a classic rags-to-riches story, proving that even a mutt from Connecticut can make it big on the stage.

Alfred E. Smith – the people’s politician?

Archival Intern, Karis Raeburn

Archival Intern, Karis Raeburn

This week, we have a  guest post from one of the interns who worked with us over the summer, Karis Raeburn, who has since returned to Dayton, Ohio, where she is obtaining her Master’s Degree in Public History, with studies in archives management, museum studies, and collection management, at Wright State University.  Karis processed the Alfred E. Smith papers  (finding aid available on the Museum’s catablog for archival collections) and before she headed back to school, she took the time to tell us more about Smith,  the collection, and her experience of processing it:

Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith (1873-1944) grew up in the Fourth Ward of New York City’s Lower East Side.  This map provides a snapshot of living conditions in the neighborhood approximately ten years before his birth.  The wider electorate looked upon Smith as a “typical” New Yorker, and New Yorkers loved him for his humble origins.  Smith rose through politics with the backing of the  Tammany Hall political machine, sitting on the New York State Assembly and serving first as Sheriff of New York County and then as President of the Board of Aldermen, before going on to be elected governor of New York State four times between 1919 and 1928.  Smith went on to run as the Democratic candidate for the United States presidency in 1928, losing to Herbert Hoover.

Cartoon which would have been published in "The World" if Smith had won the 1928 presidential election. 1928. Museum of the City of New York. 43.366.48

Cartoon which would have been published in “The World” if Smith had won the 1928 presidential election. 1928. Museum of the City of New York. 43.366.48

When I first started looking at the documents in the Al Smith collection, I couldn’t quite believe that people had so much respect for a politician.   I’m British; we don’t like our politicians very much.  The collection, however, holds published articles in praise of Smith, an honorary doctorate from SUNY, and a booklet full of voter signatures in Smith’s home district pledging their support in the 1928 election.  Other messages of support came from the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America, and one of Smith’s former teachers.  Could people really like a politician this much?

Front page of a book of signatures pledging support for Smith in the 1928 presidential election. 1928. Museum of the City of New York.

Front page of a book of signatures pledging support for Smith in the 1928 presidential election. 1928. Museum of the City of New York. 45.117.56

When I began researching Smith, I discovered that, far from the one-sided view of him I feared I was getting, the collection is actually an accurate representation of how popular Smith really was, at least in New York City.  It would be foolish to think he was universally loved: he was a Catholic, he was anti-Prohibition, and he was linked to Tammany Hall.  He was progressive in his support for civil rights, women’s rights and worker’s rights – gaining him admirers as well as detractors – but he tried to follow a populist line and always maintained an image as a true working class New Yorker.

Smith’s down to earth persona helped him win the race for  Governor of New York in 1918.  Although he lost the  next election in 1920, he was successful in the 1922, 1924 and 1926 elections, choosing not to run in 1928 in order to run for the United States presidency.  Running for president proved to be vastly different from running for governor, and Smith’s image worked against him in places that distrusted urbanites, despite the reality that, by 1928, Smith’s life in upstate New York looked more like that of a country gent than of a city slicker.  Smith was also seen as having a limited view of the country’s issues; he had never traveled outside New York state before the election campaign, spoke with a heavy New York accent, and his Roman Catholic religion was attacked with abuse and slurs throughout the campaign, especially in the south.

Smith and members of his family at the Oliver Street polling station. 1924. Museum of the City of New York. f2012.58.1175

Smith and members of his family at the Oliver Street polling station. 1924. Museum of the City of New York. f2012.58.1175

The 1928 Presidential election, though difficult to call during the campaign, resulted in a landslide victory for Hoover. After his devastating loss, Smith left politics behind and became president of Empire State, Inc., the organization that built the Empire State Building.   He held this position until his death in 1944, never returning to the political stage.

The collection contains documents that span Smith’s entire life, from playbills that document his childhood exploits in amateur dramatics at St. James’ School to his calendar notebook for 1945.  Smith’s scrapbook, created around 1896, shows his early interest in politics: he pasted a number of newspaper clippings on New York political stories alongside playbills and invitations to events.

Alfred E. Smith at Coney Island, age 4. 1877. Museum of the City of New York. 45.117.239

Alfred E. Smith at Coney Island, age 4. 1877. Museum of the City of New York. 45.117.239

There are photographs showing him throughout his lifetime, from a picture of him taken at Coney Island, aged 4, to a shot of him surrounded by his children and grandchildren.  There is even a memorial postage stamp in the collection, issued in Smith’s honor in 1945.  Among other documents attesting to his popularity, from as early as 1916, is a  beautifully illustrated testimonial presented to him from the Knights of Columbus  celebrating his election as Sheriff of New York County.

Front page of testimonial presented to Smith by the Knights of Columbus. 1916. Museum of the City of New York.

Front page of testimonial presented to Smith by the Knights of Columbus. 1916. Museum of the City of New York. 45.117.57

In 1928 his former teacher presented him with a certificate and photographs entitled “Fond Memories and Fonder Hopes to my Dear Boy Alfred E. Smith.” The honorary doctorate of laws conferred on him by SUNY in 1933 states, “Public Education in this State owes much to his broad-minded, consistent and courageous support, and the conferring of an honorary degree upon him will be but a just acknowledgment of this debt.”

Al Smith fishing. c1933. Museum of the City of New York. 45.117.132

Al Smith fishing. c1933. Museum of the City of New York. 45.117.132

The City Museum’s Alfred E. Smith papers are a window into the life of a man who, while not quite making it big on the national stage, was an extremely successful and well liked politician in New York City and State.  Click here to see more images of objects related to Smith in the collection.

The Restoration of a Pilot House

Reginald Marsh. Tugboat pulling freight car floats. ca. 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 90.36.2.22.2C

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cargo containers coming into New York Harbor were loaded from ocean-going vessels onto large barges with railroad tracks on the deck. Vessels like the steam tugboat New York Central No. 31 (built in 1923 for the New York Central Railroad) moved these barges between rail yards so that the containers could be attached to trains headed to the rest of the country.

Reginald Marsh. Tugboat pulling freight car floats. ca. 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 90.36.2.22.1E

These vessels had distinctively tall pilot houses, enabling the captain to see over the cargo on the barges in order to pilot the craft safely around the Harbor, as well as several windows for good visibility in all directions.

New York Central No. 31 was operated by a crew of 6 in the freight yards of Weehawken, NJ, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  She retired in 1970, and the South Street Seaport Museum purchased her pilot house for the collection in 1980 with funds from the Seamen’s Bank for Savings.

Long a fixture on Pier 16, the pilot house had not been restored since 1989.  When the Museum of the City of New York took over operations at the Seaport Museum, it was clear that the time had come for some preservation work, as the harsh weather conditions on the waterfront had damaged the structure.

BEFORE: New York Central No. 31 Pilot House (1980.007) in April 2012

Glen removing the rotted layers of the roof in early May

A cross-section of the roof, including the original canvas covering

One surprise when we removed some of the rotting siding — graffiti from before the last restoration in 1989! Wonder if this couple is still together…

In early May, Jim Clements and Glen Garver, both master joiners, came to the Museum to begin work.  Jim and Glen have done extensive work both ashore and afloat, including several other pilot house projects. We were fortunate to have these two fine artists working with us on the restoration of the New York Central 31 pilot house.

The first step was to remove all of the rotting wood, exposing the internal structure of the pilot house along with a few surprises, including the original canvas roof and a graffiti record of 1980’s-era love.

Jim and Glen removed any material that was rotted and replaced it with historically – appropriate materials that would be able to withstand the harsh waterfront weather conditions.

New and old wood along the roof edge

New siding done in traditional tongue-in-groove technique

Jim fairing joints at soffit and fascia.

Once the structure was updated, Jim and Glen primed the building for painting, which Sal Polisi, the woodcarver at the Seaport Museum’s maritime crafts center, completed.  The pilot house had long been painted a greenish-gray color, but Norman Brouwer, a noted maritime historian who is consulting with the Museum on various projects, selected an olive green and bright red color scheme that is more historically accurate.

Sal painting the name board he hand-carved for the pilot house

Sal also restored and repainted the name boards he’d made for the pilot house back in the 1980’s.  These signs are exact replicas of the signs the vessel would have sported in the 1930’s.

Waterfront staff led by waterfront director Jonathan Boulware then moved the pilot house to a new location on the pier using pipe rollers and a forklift.

With a few coats of paint, the pilot house now looks cheery on the pier, and it currently serves as the ticket office for Trapeze School New York.  Come on down and check out a piece of history before you go fly high over the East River!

The Seaport Museum, currently under the management of the Museum of the City of New York, is open seven days a week from 10:00 – 6:00.

AFTER: the pilot house, brightly painted in historically accurate colors, after her restoration

The Education of a Young New York City Gentleman

I decided to check back in on Fairfax, and see what else he’s been up to since we first introduced him. If you aren’t familiar with young Master Harrison, check out our earlier post, “Who was Reginald Fairfax Harrison?”

Diary of Reginald Fairfax Harrison, 1883-1884, in the Manuscript Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 71.123.

Fairfax’s diary entry for May 17, 1883, begins: “I went to school, and Mr. Cutler told us that Mr. Treton was going to look over our compositions and that Mr. Roosevelt and the Rector of Mt. Zion Church and another gentleman were going to judge who should get the prizes. Mr. Roosevelt is our oldest graduate and it will be very nice to come back after being away so long and … be an honored Judge.”

There are two names in this diary entry that gives us clues to the caliber of education Fairfax was receiving – “Cutler” and “Roosevelt.” According to an obituary in the New York Times, Dr. Arthur H. Cutler served as headmaster to the school he founded, the Cutler School, for nearly 40 years.

Wurtz Brothers. 49 East 61st Street. General exterior, ca.1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1110

The obituary states that the school was a private, collegiate preparatory institution, attended by the sons of many of New York’s prominent families. “The first graduate of the Cutler School was Theodore Roosevelt, who went to Harvard in 1876, and the roster of pupils through the succeeding years includes the names of J.P. Morgan, Waldorf Astor, and many others” (“Dr. Arthur H. Cutler, School Founder, Dies,” New York Times,June 22, 1918).  According to real estate listings in the New York Times, the school held four different locations during its existence; it was originally founded at 20 W. 43rd Street around 1873, then moved to 20 East Fiftieth Street in 1893, and moved again to 49 – 51 E. 61st Street in 1913. The school moved to 755 Madison Avenue following the death of Dr. Cutler, in 1918.

Theodore Roosevelt for Governor, 1898, in the Ephemera Collection.Museum of the City of New York. 41.310.57. William McKinely and Theodore Roosevelt, 1900, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 41.310.50.

When Theodore Roosevelt, future President of the United States, visited the Cutler School in 1883, he was finishing out his term as New York State’s youngest State Assemblyman, having been elected right out of Harvard.   Fairfax’s diary entry is very respectful when he speaks of “Mr. Roosevelt,” and the reader can tell that his participation in the Cutler School composition competition was very exciting for Fairfax and his schoolmates, and that they enjoyed knowing that an alumnus of their school had already achieved such a great reputation.  Little did Fairfax know that this noted alumnus of his school would go on to serve as Governor of the State of New York in 1898, Vice President of the United States in 1901, then quickly move into the office of President following the Assassination of William McKinley in September of that same year.

The Sultry Showgirl

When Stanley Kubrick was a young man, he had the good luck to be assigned a job for LOOK Magazine that allowed him to create an intimate  photographic portrait of Rosemary Williams.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Showgirl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11448.62B

This story, shot in the spring of 1949, captures the young Rosemary as she transforms herself from an everyday gal into a showgirl.

Although a majority of the negatives and prints from this story show the budding Rosemary in her home, preparing coffee, lounging on a chair with a book, or praying at church, they caught my eye because of the continuous thread of theatricality.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Showgirl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11448.42

Kubrick was able to capture the careful construction of a personal image. Within all of these photographs, Rosemary is never out of character.  The combination of the general staged aspect of LOOK and the calculated influence from entertainment studios has created a story that is campy in nature but also emphasizes how celebrities (major and minor) painstakingly construct their own image.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Showgirl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11448.104D

However, what becomes apparent through the constructed moments and interactions within the photos is Kubrick’s cinematic eye. Although many of the photos contain that trace, I was knocked over by the photo above, which reminds me of a still from a film.  The posed figures, purposeful illumination of the interaction between the two characters, and stark background allude to actions happening outside of the frame.

One can imagine that Rosemary was perhaps a commuting showgirl, driving back and forth every night from the depths of New Jersey.  Thank goodness Kubrick happened to be present the night her car got a flat!

Follow this link to get a dose of a fast talkin’ 50s news story about Rosemary Williams and the dastardly Sidney M. Levy.

Although the Museum has documentation that Rosemary appeared on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1953 musical comedy, Me and Juliet, as a chorus girl alongside Shirley MacLaine, Rosemary seems to have disappeared into the fog of time. We’d love to find her or discover something about her post-showgirl life. Email us at collections@mcny.org if you have any information. You could win a free reproduction print from our collection as a thank-you!

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Showgirl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11448.99F

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Showgirl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11448.121F

Circus

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327

1948 was a good year for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The “Big Show” traveled from coast to coast with a coterie of performers and animals, encountering raving fans and sold out shows.

On May 25th of that year, LOOK Magazine ran a story about the circus with accompanying photographs by Stanley Kubrick.  He captured the many aspects of the troupe’s life on the road: rehearsing, playing cards, training animals, and their children at play.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.73

The images retain the mysticism of the circus; focusing on portraits of the performers, aero stars (possibly the famous Ming Sing group), and the workers who cherished the livelihood of ‘Big Bertha’.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.136

These images reflect my fascination with circuses from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.  When I was an undergrad, I noticed that there was an underground revival of the Vaudeville tradition.  There were a few occasions when troupes traveled through our little college town.  These days, it is a romantic notion that people can exist within smaller, untouched pockets of society.  Even so, I like to subscribe to the ideas of those quiet rebellions.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.23

America’s intrigue with the circus has lasted over 200 years.  Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.  Everything else is supposed to be bad for you.  But the circus is good for you.  It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.36

Today, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still tours extensively.  Although the circus now plays to sold out arenas, and is a large corporation, there are still smaller operations that retain the aesthetic and values of the early 20th century circus.  One of the most noted is the Big Apple Circus, which was recently featured in the series Circus on PBS.  It’s a fantastic series, and quite honestly made me want to hop on the road with them!  Maybe next year….

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.39

The Tale of the Shoe Shine Boy

Stanley Kubrick’s 1947 pictorial for LOOK Magazine.

At the age of 13, Stanley Kubrick was given a Graflex camera by his father which triggered a fascination with still photography.  He sold his first photo to LOOK magazine when he was 17 years old and soon became a staff photographer.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Shoe Shine Boy, 1947. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10368.286

In 1947, a year after he started photographing for LOOK, Kubrick shot the story of the Shoe Shine Boy.  This pictorial contains a total of 202 images captured on 35mm film strips and medium and large format negative, most of which have never been published.

This story follows Mickey,a 12-year-old boy from Brooklyn who shines shoes for 10 cents a pop to  help support his sizable family, including nine brothers and sisters.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). The Shoe Shine Boy, 1947. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10368.262

Kubrick follows Mickey throughout his day, photographing him boxing and playing basketball, going to the laundromat, interacting with his family, and shining shoes.

Even in the early stages of his professional career, Kubrick has the eye of a director.  The photographs seem artfully staged and speak about the human condition, something that Kubrick uses as a ongoing theme within his films.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). The Shoe Shine Boy, 1947. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10368.230

Kubrick often spoke about his early days as a photographer and how he could not have been the filmmaker that he was without a ‘photographer’s eye’.

**Stanley Kubrick shot for LOOK magazine from 1946 to 1951.  The Museum of the City of New York has approximately 12,000 Kubrick negatives and 10,000 contact sheets. We are in the process of digitizing ALL of them!

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). The Shoe Shine Boy, 1947. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10368.281

To read more of an in-depth (and incredibly interesting) description of Kubrick’s days at LOOK Magazine, go to the 2005 Vanity Fair article.

Do you have information about Mickey or his family? We’d like to find him. Help us out and you could win an archival quality print from this series. Email collections@mcny.org with any information.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). The Shoe Shine Boy, 1947. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10368.308