Displaying items by tag: theater
This week we received two items that had me nostalgic for … February. They were handbills for local theaters. Remember theater? Remember going out and doing things?
The first handbill is from about 1931, when the Norris Theater was less than a year old and showed both live vaudeville acts and movies. Both shows illustrate trends in American entertainment in the early 1930’s. The first is hillbilly music, a phrase coined in the 1920’s for what we now might call bluegrass, folk, or Americana. Groups like the Blue Ridge Ramblers toured the country on the vaudeville circuit and recorded 78rpm records. They played traditional songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Golden Slippers.” Radio shows also featured groups like this, as the advertisement points out at the bottom, “You’ve heard these Hill-Billies on the air – now see and hear them in person.”
The show is combined with the movie, Svengali, starring Hollywood megastar John Barrymore. Svengali was a horror movie about a singing teacher who hypnotizes a tone deaf milkmaid (people’s idea of “scary” has changed). Horror was a popular genre in the early sound days of film. Universal Studio’s monster movies are probably the best remembered examples. Svengali was released in May of 1931.
The other handbill is from 10 years later and features Norristown’s three theaters: the Norris, the Grand, and the Garrick. The three theaters were all owned by the same family so they advertised together. The Norris still seems to be the premier theater, showing the biggest movies, in this case A Yank in the RAF with Tyrone Power and Nothing but the Truth with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The other two theaters show “B” movies, like The Smiling Ghost, an example of the horror comedies popular in the 1940’s.
Hopefully we’ll all be back in theaters someday soon whether it’s for a movie or clog dancers or whatever “Spark Plug – the 16 year old boy wonder” is. If you’re curious to hear what the Ramblers sounded like, you can hear some of their songs here.
As part of my job, I often receive emails asking if the historical society has a certain resource or asking for a small amount of research. Most of these requests have to do with family genealogy or the history of our fine county. Last week, I received an unusual request. An independent researcher was looking for the original appearance of the following story:
“A horse ran away at the railroad depot, in Philadelphia, yesterday, and knocked down seventeen persons, each one belonging to a different Pinafore company about starting on a country tour.”
The short little joke appeared in newspaper across the country and was attributed to Montgomery County’s very own Norristown Herald and Free Press (today known as the Times-Herald). The researcher, Russ Sype, an expert on Gilbert and Sullivan who’s working on a book about H.M.S. Pinafore in the U.S., wanted to find the original appearance.
So, I went to our microfilm collection and loaded the 1879 reel onto our microfilm scanner. If you’ve never had an opportunity to read a nineteenth-century newspaper, they were little different from today.
You’re probably not surprised that there are no photos or even drawings, but there are also no headlines. Headlines start appearing in newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century when the number of newspapers increased, when they had to compete for readers.
In fact, there isn’t even much news on the front page. There are several fictional stories on this front page and part of a continuing series on ancient mythology. On the right hand side is news from the literary world and a section called “Editorial Etchings.” Page 2 usually contains national news and often more Editorial Etchings, while local news, including train schedules and social announcements appear on page three. The back was mostly advertisements for ready made clothes, patent medicines, and anvils.
I while searching for the story, I concentrated on the Editorial Etchings, since most of the items there were short and humorous.
Sorry about blurriness; the microfilm is old and the original type is very small (I should also apologize for reproducing such awful jokes). It took me a while to find the piece I was looking for, but in the meantime, I found nearly a dozen other references to H. M. S. Pinafore. The editors at the Herald were obsessed with it. According to Sype, all of America was obsessed with Pinafore. He explained that the operetta debuted in Boston in late November of 1878 and in early 1879 “an armada of touring companies” worked their way around the United States. It was even translated into Pennsylvania Dutch for a performance in Reading.
Here are some of the quotes I found:
This one was from the "Philadelphia News" section:
And my personal favorite:
I suspected right away that many of these touring companies weren’t paying royalties for their performances, and according to Wikipedia, that’s correct. The U.S. generally didn’t recognize international copyright, and Americans often pirated European works.
With all of this obsession, I was hoping to find evidence of a performance here in Montgomery County during this initial period of enthusiasm, but so far no luck.
I did find evidence that the enthusiasm for Pinafore did not wane. We have in our collection a scrapbook kept by Margaret Blackfan, an avid theater-goer from Norristown. She kept programs from all the performances she attended and clipped newspaper articles about the theater in Norristown and Philadelphia. These two articles, about two different productions of Pinafore, appeared in the same newspaper. The article is undated, but the scrapbook was produced between 1896 and 1899.
Now, I think I'll go home and reaquaint myself with H.M.S. Pinafore.