Somewhere within the Special Collections archives of MU’s Ellis Library, Hamlet and Ophelia sit next to Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. Hamlet, however, can be found in three roles: In 1964, Richard Burton played Shakespeare’s conflicted protagonist at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. In 1971, Judith Anderson took on the role at the American Theater, and in 1998, Alex Jennings played the Shakespearean figure at the Kennedy Center.
These records of “Hamlet” productions comprise one of the library’s many hidden treasures within the Special Collections. The gold, in this case, is the nearly 1,000 playbills in envelopes and boxes that each contain details such as the cast, scenarios and musical programs of a production. That’s playbill with a small “p,” as well as the theatrical programs known as Playbill.
This treasure has a buried past; how or why the collection started seems a mystery among current staff, and there are no records that track when each playbill arrived.
Although most of the playbills are from America after 1945, the collection also features programs such as that from “L’Aiglon” (“The Eaglet”), a play put on in New York in 1900. The playbill, which is more like a thin book, is now faded and torn, and it carefully details each of the play’s six scenes in both English and French. Playbills from overseas include theaters from London, Germany and France and have advertisements in native languages. Each theater has a different type of playbill, and those from the early 20th century seem to be more like bound books than paper pamphlets.
A majority of the playbills come from Broadway and include shows such as “Funny Girl” with Barbara Streisand, “Hello, Dolly!” with Carol Channing and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” with Matthew Broderick playing opposite Sarah Jessica Parker.
Amidst cast member profiles and summaries of the plays, the ads also reflect the times. A 1919 production of “Come Out of the Kitchen” has fading ads for playing the piano, box coat suits and shampoo powders. The 1931 program from “The Green Pastures” has ads for Gold Strike Adjustable Silk Stockings and the Empire State Observatory. A 1971 production of “Hamlet” has Jack Daniels ads and advertises Lake St. Louis as “The place.” Current Kennedy Center playbills for shows like “Guys and Dolls” display ads for Chanel, Geico Insurance and Georgetown University.
Although the collection is currently not in any type of database, the public is welcome to look at the old playbills. Special Collections, on the west side of Ellis Library’s fourth floor, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or appointments can be made by calling Special Collections at 882-0076.
Donations to the collection are welcome — to help the show go on.