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An Introduction to the Dorothy Loudon Papers
Dorothy Loudon would have made a fine archivist.
As it happens, Ms. Loudon chose another line of work. An acclaimed nightclub singer, television performer, and theater actress, Loudon's most famous role was that of Miss Hannigan in the original 1977 production of Annie. The Tony Award she won for that performance opened the door for leading roles in a series of Broadway hits: Ballroom, The West Side Waltz, Noises Off, and Jerry's Girls.
But, in addition to being a star, Loudon was a saver.
An only child, adored and encouraged by her parents, Loudon seemed to intuit from the very beginning that she would be a success. While many prominent artists don't start keeping memorabilia until after their first brush with fame — an epiphany of, "hey, somebody will be interested in this stuff someday" — Loudon's documentation of her earliest professional work is just as voluminous as her last. Her meticulous record-keeping captured in amber a series of semi-forgotten worlds: the Manhattan cabarets of the 1950s; the live television variety shows and theatrical touring companies of the 1960s; and the Broadway whirlwind of the 1970s and 1980s.
Eventually, Loudon's scrapbooks became known throughout her Broadway circle, and something of a community effort. Friends, journalists, publicists, and her devoted agent, Lionel Larner, often sent her obscure clippings. During his last years her father, who lived to the age of 93, became an enthusiastic scrapbooking consultant and de facto assistant archivist from his room at the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey.
After Loudon's death in 2003, the Dorothy Loudon Foundation donated her papers to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. In all, the collection comprises 20 linear feet, housed in 75 archival boxes. (If you can't visualize that, it would fill two large bookcases and then some.) The centerpiece of Loudon's archive is a set of 37 scrapbooks, into which she pasted her most treasured photographs, correspondence, and newspaper and magazine articles.
Loudon created her scrapbooks with a curatorial perspective, arranging items roughly in chronological order but also in attractive arrays that draw the eye around the pages. And even the way she constructed her scrapbooks, Loudon had a sense of drama.
Her longest-running Broadway production, Annie, spans three hefty binders. Widely chronicled in the press at the time, the story of Loudon and Annie was one of epic triumph and tragedy. Loudon, a last-minute, out-of-town replacement as Miss Hannigan, found in the role just the right showcase for her brassy voice and her sharp sense of humor. (Loudon said in interviews that she created much of her own dialogue in Annie, a claim that is lent credence by the wit on display in her private letters.) The Tony she won in June 1977, for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, brought a forceful end to Loudon's rep as a sort of Broadway jinx, who typically got the best reviews in a succession of resounding flops. (1962's Nowhere to Go But Up, directed by Sidney Lumet and Mel Brooks, who called it Nowhere to Throw But Up, lasted all of nine performances, and in 1969 The Fig Leaves Are Falling managed only four.) And the sudden death six weeks later of Norman Paris, a bandleader to whom Loudon had been married for six years but had known and worked with for more than twenty, brought her crashing down to earth.
That's a classic three-act structure, one that Loudon tacitly followed as she divided her memorabilia between the three Annie scrapbooks. There's even a sort-of cliff-hanger: a tiny obituary for Norman Paris, mounted forlornly at the center of the very last page of the middle book.
Over the coming months, and just in time for the revival of Annie that is scheduled to open on Broadway this fall, this NYPL blog will spotlight moments from the career of Ms. Loudon, as well as items from the Library's Dorothy Loudon Papers.