In the development stage of most exhibitions, there are a few images or artifacts that inspire the team. It can be something that impacts the design or structure—a color that sets a mood or a typeface that defines a period.
For me, it is usually an artifact that inhabits the theme of the exhibition. So, in starting to blog about artifacts, I wanted to start with one of those pieces. It defined the theme and set one end of a chronological span.
This rondel was on the cover of the program for the Hammerstein Roof Garden, on top of the Victoria Theater at 42nd Street and Broadway. That alone puts it in the center of the performing arts universe. It served as one of the two symbolic images for Vaudeville Nation, the popular exhibition from 2006-2007, which can still be seen in its online version (legacy.www.nypl.org/vaudeville).
For many modern-day visitors to the real and virtual gallery, she was a smiling, vaguely 19th-century face. As with so many artifacts, the deeper you go, the more we can share what it meant to its original viewers at the turn of the last century. It is a woman because women were a targeted audience in vaudeville and women found employment in vaudeville. The leaves behind her mean that the smiling woman was at a roof garden theater—a cabaret space on top of a theater that featured an outdoor space or a glass roof. She is wearing what we now would think of as a clown suit, but was then known as a "Yama-Yama" from the popular Bessie McCoy song "Yama-Yama Man." Most meaningfully, she has a drink with ice cubes—clues that the roof gardens were cooled and served iced drinks.