NYC museum to preserve and digitize hundreds of 19th-century theatre playbills

Curator Morgen Stevens-Garmon says the project includes a playbill for what may be the world's first musical.

Curator Morgen Stevens-Garmon says the project includes a playbill for what may be the world's 1st musical

An example of one of the old broadside theatre paybills that the Museum of the City of New York will be digitizing and publishing online. (Museum of the City of New York)
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The performers may have exited stage left centuries ago, but they're about to take a belated curtain call — online.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Museum of the City of New York announced it is restoring and digitizing hundreds of playbills from theatrical performances stretching back as far as 1780.

Morgen Stevens-Garmon, a curator at the museum and director of the two-year preservation project, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the unique collection and the history of theatre in New York.

Here is part of their conversation.

Some of these playbills are a couple of hundred years old. What shape are they in?

The actual quality of the paper is pretty good. It's rag content paper, which means that it's not very acidic.

The paper that we have today is wood pulp and the acid in it sort of eats away at it. You leave a newspaper in the sun for a couple of days and it becomes what we call embrittled and crumbles very easily to the touch.

But these 19th-century broadsides, they are made from rag content paper and the paper is pretty stable.

But they are very, very fragile. They weren't built to last. They were meant to be pasted up to a wall and then torn down the next day.

The Museum of the City of New York has about 700 playbills. (Museum of the City of New York)

It's amazing that any of them even survived.

It is, and some of them have not been treated nicely over the years.

They've been folded. They've been wrinkled. They've been taped.

Tape is the worst thing you can do to an object because the tape will fall off and leave a stain.

Of course, what's on them is the most interesting thing. Just describe some of the playbills, the most interesting ones.

We have about 700 in the museum's collection. They contain information about the shows. 

This would not just be one show, like you would go to the theatre today to see one thing.

This would an entire evening's worth of entertainment. So there would an interact piece, or a before piece, or side, like dancing or songs that would happen in addition to the main theatrical attraction.

It includes the information of what shows an audience member would be seeing and who was performing the parts. Sometimes a synopsis. Sometimes a block print giving illustrated information. There's also the theatre manager listed.

Tell us your oldest playbill that you have.

Our oldest playbill is for The Merchant of Venice and it was performed in 1785.

The advertisement just says "theatre" because there was only one. So, you didn't have to wonder, "Oh, which theatre?" There's just one theatre. 

When you think 1785, for The Merchant of Venice, it was just the last century previous to that that Shakespeare was writing it. He died in the 1600s. So this is not a contemporaneous play, but it seems it wasn't distant history, was it?

Yeah, it's closer to Shakespeare than it is to us, I think.

The oldest playbill in the collection is for a 1785 performance of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I understand you have one for what's believed to be the first musical ever?

So The Black Crook is considered by many, or it's pointed to, as the first musical, and we have broadsides advertising its performance.

It came about when a troupe of Parisian dancers were scheduled to perform in New York and their theatre burned down. A theatre burning down happened quite frequently in the 19th-century.

And so, in order for the producers not to lose money in bringing them over, they sort of mashed them into this melodrama, The Black Crook, which was playing at Niblo's Garden Theatre in New York City.

What can you do to save these paybills?

The bulk of the funding that comes from [the] grant will be used for the conservation. So what I'm going to be doing in the next few weeks is packing up hundreds of these broadsides [and] sending them to a conservation lab.

We will be working with the Northeast Document Conservation Centre. Those conservators will treat each object, taking all of the little frayed ends and making sure they match up, making sure the objects are stable, taking out wrinkles, doing what they can to minimize stains and really just stabilizing the object.

Those will come back to the museum and we will photograph them. We will catalogue them, so assign descriptive terminology so that they can be findable and then put them on our online portal so that they can be viewable to anyone, anywhere in the world, with internet access.

Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Nathan Swinn. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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