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Treasures, Oddities and Ephemera: 3-D Objects from Billy Rose Theatre Division’s Theatre Cabinets

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The Theatre Cabinets (or T-Cabinets as we call them) of the Billy Rose Theatre Division are packed full of objects large and small. The cabinets are a repository for all the three-dimensional items that have accompanied our larger collections or have been given to the division separately as a gift. I absolutely love the T-cabinets. Being hidden in the back of a locked cage and full of mysterious items is only part of the allure. The other part is the extreme variety of the items themselves.

I have tried to highlight this diversity in a two-case exhibit entitled Treasures, Oddities and Ephemera: 3-D Objects from Billy Rose Theatre Division's Theatre Cabinets located on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts. I was familiar with a few items from the cabinets as we had used them in a 2006 exhibit celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Theatre Division and while we have a basic inventory of the contents, I soon found out that what sounded interesting on paper was not and vice versa! I realized I had to go through the cabinets piece by piece in order to discover the true nature of the objects and the exhibit is the result of my treasure hunt.

I was already aware of the more priceless objects of the cabinets including:

An enameled belt belonging to actress Sarah Bernhardt and supposedly worn while portraying CleopatraAn enameled belt belonging to actress Sarah Bernhardt and supposedly worn while portraying CleopatraA delicate, sequined fan used by Mary Ellis as the title character in Rose-Marie (1924), from the Mary Ellis PapersA delicate, sequined fan used by Mary Ellis as the title character in Rose-Marie (1924), from the Mary Ellis Papers

Aside from the treasures, I never knew what I would pull out from the archival envelopes and was delighted to discover:

Craddock's Soap Theatrical playing cards, published in 1895 by the Eureka Soap Co., highlighting prominent theatrical actors and actresses of the time while also promoting “the best soap made”Craddock's Soap Theatrical playing cards, published in 1895 by the Eureka Soap Co., highlighting prominent theatrical actors and actresses of the time while also promoting “the best soap made”A charming sketch of actress Gertrude Lawrence that was given by the star to director Arthur Sircum in 1950 on opening night of Traveller’s Joy at Cape Playhouse, Massachusetts. Lawrence was playing the part of Bumble and signed her name as “Gee”. There is a 1945 penny in the purse!A charming sketch of actress Gertrude Lawrence that was given by the star to director Arthur Sircum in 1950 on opening night of Traveller’s Joy at Cape Playhouse, Massachusetts. Lawrence was playing the part of Bumble and signed her name as “Gee”. There is a 1945 penny in the purse!A tunnel book peep-show souvenir from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York CityA tunnel book peep-show souvenir from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City

And then there were the more unusual objects such as:

A lock of hair belonging to actor Edwin Booth, entwined around his portrait along with pressed pansies from his casket, from the collection of his daughter, Edwina Booth GrossmanA lock of hair belonging to actor Edwin Booth, entwined around his portrait along with pressed pansies from his casket, from the collection of his daughter, Edwina Booth GrossmanA wig piece belonging to actor Zero Mostel from the Zero and Kate Mostel PapersA wig piece belonging to actor Zero Mostel from the Zero and Kate Mostel PapersFinally, the last object I found was the best of all. Wrapped up in the very back of a cabinet, was a huge, tarnished, silver platter. No one knew it was there, in fact no one knew it existed at all. The inscription was the clue: "To Brooks Atkinson With Love March 2, 1958." But what was the plate in honor of? That date was not significant in Atkinson's long career as a theatre critic and columnist.

I turned to the Theatre Division's massive clippings files and found a delightful Time magazine article in Atkinson's own file describing a surprise party for Atkinson "given with love, to let Brooks know what theater people think of him." Helen Hayes presented the plate to Atkinson, Mary Martin sang "A Wonderful Guy" to him accompanied by Richard Rodgers on the piano, and the 130 guests (all of their signatures are on the plate) read like a Who's Who of theatre. Even Marilyn Monroe's name is there, as she was married to playwright Arthur Miller at the time. We surmise that the plate came to us with the Brooks Atkinson Papers and after years of being hidden away, it is now polished and hanging on the wall over the exhibit cases. This exhibit is but a small sampling of the many three-dimensional objects the Theatre Division holds. Please visit the Library for the Performing Arts—you never know what you will find!

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Great post! The exhibit is

Great post! The exhibit is just as great...so many cool objects, it's great to read more about the story behind them. And who'd have guessed there would be not one, but two items featuring hair!

What a rug for Zero! Love the

What a rug for Zero! Love the story surrounding the Atkinson plate. That's what we love about archives...amazing discoveries are just a cabinet away!

What A Fabulous Job!

I just love your exhibit, Amy! I love looking at it, every morning, when I come in. I also take personal pride in owning two things featured in it--the Carol Channing "Loreli" button, and the "I Have Been Nicked!" button, from the 1981 Broadway verson of "Nicholas Nickelby." Which was thirty two years ago! Gasp!

Billy Rose

My grandmother, Babette Tyana, was a circus strong woman who worked in a number of shows for/with Mr. Rose: Diamond Horseshoe, Jumbo, Mrs. Astor's Horse, Small Time Cavalcade... I have ephemera from these shows, which include signed and unsigned photographs, drawings, memento albums, written remembrances. My brother and I are considering selling them (we have no children) as a group. Any advice?

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