MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Unidentified: Lingering mysteries in the Theater Collection

Since fall of 2013, the City Museum has been involved in a large scale digitization project to digitally capture and describe over 30,000 images of theatrical production. It gives me great pleasure and supreme pride to announce we now have over 15,000 images freely available to view on the Museum’s Collections Portal. Cue streamers, balloons, fireworks, and all other celebratory ephemera.

15,000 images is a lot, and our powerhouse cataloging team has done an excellent job identifying the productions and people in each photograph. Every once in a while, however, a mystery emerges, and there is no way to know just who or what is in the photograph.  Let’s take a look at some of these mysteries: unidentified people or productions that deserved to be known.

Friedman-Abeles. [[Unidentified actress during rehearsal for Flora, the Red Menace.] 1965. Museum of the City of New York. 92.52.5.24

Friedman-Abeles. [Unidentified actress during rehearsal for Flora, the Red Menace.] 1965. Museum of the City of New York, 92.52.5.24.

The first mystery image comes from the 1965 Broadway production of Flora, the Red Menace. This musical not only marked the Broadway debut of Liza Minnelli, but was also the first collaboration between composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, the duo that went on to create Chicago and Cabaret.  In the above photograph, we see a dancer captured mid-air during a rehearsal.  Who was she and what was her role in Flora? The mystery endures.

Unfortunately, many of the unidentified persons are dancers, who as any lover of A Chorus Line will tell you, are no less deserving of recognition than the stars of the show.

Edward Thayer Monroe. [Unidentified dancer in "Bombo".] 1921-1922. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.923.

Edward Thayer Monroe. [Unidentified dancer in Bombo.] 1921-1922. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.923.

These two dancers (above and below) come from the 1921 musical revue Bombo. Built around the talents of star Al Jolson, these beautiful photographs beg the question of identity. What kind of pose is the dancer striking? Are those blonde curls a wig? So many questions.

Maurice Goldberg. [Unidentified dancer in "Bombo".] 1921-1922. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.917.

Maurice Goldberg. [Unidentified dancer in Bombo.] 1921-1922. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.917.

The passage of decades might perhaps explain the missing names of the Bombo dancers, but even a more recent production such as the 1971 musical Follies leaves gaps in knowledge when it comes to the some of the dancers.

Martha Swope. [Unidentified showgirl in "Follies".] 1971-1972. Museum of the City of New York, 92.52.26.33.

Martha Swope. [Unidentified showgirl in Follies.] 1971-1972. Museum of the City of New York, 92.52.26.33.

Showcasing the stunning costumes of Florenz Klotz, the identity of these Follies showgirls remain a mystery even amidst a musical about showgirls.

Martha Swope. [Unidentified actress in "Follies".] 1971-1972. Museum of the City of New York, 92.52.26.42.

Martha Swope. [Unidentified actress in Follies.] 1971-1972. Museum of the City of New York, 92.52.26.42.

Most of the mysteries in the theatrical production photographs revolve around the identity of the person in the picture. On rare occasions, however, the person is known, but the production remains unidentified.  In the photograph below, we know the performer is Dorothy Dickson, but we don’t know what she’s performing.

Hixon-Connelly. [Dorothy Dickson in an unidentified production.] 1917. Museum of the City of New York, X2013.42.797

Hixon-Connelly. [Dorothy Dickson in an unidentified production.] 1917. Museum of the City of New York, X2013.42.797.

This photograph was originally filed with Caliban of the Yellow Sands, but it does not at all resemble other photographs from that production. It possibly was mislabeled, but what is it then? Besides terrifying, I mean.

Unknown. [Unidentified performance.] 1900-1950. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.1328.

Unknown. [Unidentified performance.] 1900-1950. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.1328.

On rarer occasions still, we are totally stumped.  Dorothy Mackaill is identified in the dinner scene below but her companion is not.  Originally, the photograph was part of the the file for the 1912 play,  The Bird of Paradise, but Ms. Mackaill never appeared in that show. Also, the setting does not match the description of the play or particularly its Hawaiian setting.  It is even possible that this photograph could be a movie still. (Gasp!)  We just don’t know.

Unknown. [Theater still from an unidentified production.] ca. 1915-1935. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.776.

Unknown. [Theater still from an unidentified production.] ca. 1915-1935. Museum of the City of New York, F2013.41.776.

If you have any information, dear reader, about the above images (or any other unidentifieds you may have come across on the Collections Portal), please do not hesitate to email us at collections@mcny.org or leave a comment below..

Digitization of theatrical production photographs is made possible by the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Frederick Loewe Foundation. And we are not done yet, so stay tuned for more Portal uploads, more blogs, and possibly more mysteries. Cue eerie music and curtain.

About Morgen Stevens-Garmon

Associate Curator, Theater Collection Museum of the City of New York

7 comments on “Unidentified: Lingering mysteries in the Theater Collection

  1. Amy Stoller
    February 26, 2015

    I have contacted some actors who have “worked with everyone” and a couple of friends with superb personal collections of theatrical memorabilia. One of my actor friends responded after looking online and said it was too overwhelming! I suggested he contact a curator and ask to be shown just a few pix from the era he knows best. I hope that was a good idea.

    I assume you have already consulted the librarians at the Billy Rose and Jerome Robbins Collections at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. Have you also consulted residents of the Actors Home? Have you asked Actors’ Equity to help, and to spread the word?

    • Morgen Stevens-Garmon
      March 2, 2015

      Thanks for the comment Amy! Our catalogers are definitely familiar with the resources at NYPL, but thank yor for the additional suggestions of Actors’ Equity and the Actors Home. The best way to get in touch with further info or questions is to email collections@mcny.org.

  2. Peter Stoller
    February 26, 2015

    If nothing else, I can confirm that F2013.41.1328 is indeed from “Caliban of the Yellow Sands.” See here: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/archives/rbml/urban/html/proj-13482-gallery.html

    • Morgen Stevens-Garmon
      March 2, 2015

      Thanks for the info Peter!

  3. Amy Stoller
    March 4, 2015

    I’m passing the contact info to my pals via Facebook. At least you know you have two Stollers on your side!

  4. Marcus
    May 22, 2015

    The glamor girl in the brilliant Follies costume is Kathy Dalton. She was Jonathan Tunicks girlfriend.

    • Morgen Stevens-Garmon
      June 3, 2015

      Thank you Marcus! The record has been updated with appropriate credit given to the glamorous Kathie Dalton.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2015 by in Digital Project, Theater Collection and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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