Of all the materials included in the American Variety Stage collection, theater playbills and programs have received the least attention from researchers.
Nevertheless, they are significant documents because they present a superb record of changing social and economic forces operative in the theater, and record both important and representative theatrical events.
The group of playbills and programs assembled here is somewhat eclectic and reflects the Library source collection from which it has been chosen. There are playbills and programs from number of specific theaters, though these materials do not seem to have been accumulated to document a particular theater's series of attractions. Rather, they seem to have been amassed by patrons as theater souvenirs. Methodical sequences of "house" programs might seem more useful for some investigations because they would document the complete tour of a theatrical company and provide more orderly, chronological historical samples. Unfortunately, this collection does not offer that kind of orderly sequence of theater programs.
This collection does, however, provide examples of programs from many kinds of variety entertainment: full-length, traditional vaudeville shows; early musicals and burlesques; revues; specialized magic shows; and minstrel shows. And because it includes a broad cross-section of programs, one can use them to track the development of the program as a print phenomenon. The collection is also a rich source of advertising, feature articles, and graphic design marketed to a popular audience during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The programs presented here date largely from the 1890s through the 1910s, with a few examples from the 1880s. None represents the earliest period, the 1850s, in which the modern program or playbill evolved. (There are examples of earlier playbills in the poster collection that will added to the American Variety Stage digital collection in 1997.) By 1900, the modern program or playbill as we know it was established throughout the United States. Consequently, this collection contains programs from both major urban theaters and smaller venues, such as Greene's Opera House in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (which is well-represented).
Some background on playbills and programs will help place the items in this collection in context. A distinction is generally made between playbills and programs, although they often serve the same purpose: distributing information within a theater. Technically, the playbill is a long, narrow theater announcement, and was frequently, but not always, posted. Most playbills are printed on one side. In contrast, a program is a printed document composed of one or more folded sheets printed on both sides. By the late nineteenth century, the long, narrow playbill was largely supplanted by the folded program.
In the 1870s, many theaters published their own programs, but it was also commonplace for publishers or printers to supply programs for theaters. These published programs were financed by a multitude of large and small paid advertisements secured by the publisher. These ads sometimes obscured information about the actual performance. There are programs in this collection that are so crowded with advertisements that only a few lines about a performance appear per page. Interestingly, this format was a convenient one for theaters to use for variety acts because the bills were usually short and featured a small number of performers.
Although few examples are included in this collection, special programs were printed when performances had long runs. (This happened with greater frequency in the legitimate theater than in variety.) For long-run productions, managers promoted their shows with souvenir programs of all sorts that were printed on silk, satin, parchment, or other fancy materials. Often, these more lavish programs commemorated landmark performances. One such special program in this collection is a pictorial souvenir from a performance of Weber and Fields which was published in 1901 during the peak of their residency at New York's Weber and Fields Music Hall.
In 1884, a man named Frank V. Strauss began to gather ads for the Madison Square Theatre in New York City and soon began printing programs for many theaters. He founded the first company devoted primarily to the publishing of theater programs. The title of the programs he published was "The Playbill," which is still in widespread use for theater programs, and is an exclusive registered trademark. Although Strauss specialized largely in programs for legitimate theater, a few of his published programs for variety theater are included in this collection. (See, for example, Weber & Fields Broadway Music Hall, November 7, 1898.)
Because others imitated Strauss, the size of theater programs eventually became fairly standardized. However, most of the items in this collection are larger in size than today's "Playbill." Today's programs also include extended feature articles in addition to pages of advertising. Contemporary programs have become rather like compact and informative magazines, distributed free to theater patrons. An early example of the emerging, modern type of program found in this collection is New York's Fourteenth Street Theatre's program for the Hanlon Brothers' production of "Superba." This program includes jokes, conundrums, and other features.
Many venues are represented in the playbills and programs assembled here, including: the Fourteenth Street Theatre, New York City; Weber and Fields' Broadway Music Hall, New York City; Greene's Opera House, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; The Columbia, Washington, D.C.; New National Theatre, Washington, D.C.; Chase's New Grand Theatre, Washington, D.C.; Park Theatre, Boston; Herrmann's Theatre, New York City; The Hippodrome, New York City; Illinois Theatre, Chicago; The Globe, New York City; and the Grand Opera House, Washington, D.C.. Greene's Opera House in Cedar Rapids is one of the best represented venues, and the relatively large quantity of materials associated with it allows an interesting glimpse into the nature of a Midwestern road-show house which, apparently, was largely devoted to variety entertainment for families.
Many of the variety forms represented in the playbills and programs are also illustrated in the American Variety Stage poster collection (to be released in 1997); some playscripts also overlap. Some of the highlights in this collection include: Primrose and Dockstader's Great American Minstrels (one of the principle large minstrel troupes at the turn of the century); the extravaganza, "The Black Crook" (one of its many revivals and road companies); the team of Ward and Vokes in a burlesque musical called, "A Pair of Pinks"; Ziegfeld Follies of 1912 (on tour); the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company (the earliest American troupe called "burlesque"); the Great Herrmann (one of the top magicians at the turn of the century); Montgomery and Stone in "Chin-chin" (a Strauss program of a major musical hit starring a well-known comedy team); and the "Polite Vaudeville" show, in Washington, D.C. (containing its own version of polite vaudeville). The "Polite Vaudeville" show, dating from 1901, uses a biographical film as the last act or "chaser." Raymond Hitchcock, a very popular performer of the time, is described in a program for a 1909 show that embraces "minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque, and musical comedy," an indicator of how these variety theater forms were blurred early in the twentieth century. Among the performers listed in this collection's program books are a number of headliners, including the female impersonator Julian Eltinge and the blackface minstrel star Eddie Leonard.