Friday, September 5, 2008

Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater, 1850-1970

Leonard Jacobs should be given a preservation and presentation award for this beautiful and moving book. I was touched by these photos -- and the corresponding text -- of Broadway in a bygone era and glad someone cared enough to bring that spirit back to life.

Historic Photos is more, though, than a sentimental journey in a gorgeous coffee table book. And it’s more than a history of some of Broadway’s first century. It captures the soul of so many people who went before us, many whose performances are no longer even a memory to anyone living. Here they are frozen in time, yet brought forth into a new century in a way that makes them seem not so far removed.

Jacobs, Back Stage’s national theatre editor, selected his photos from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ collection, which is the world’s largest archive devoted to theatre documentation. It houses about nine million items, a third of which are photos. As theatre division curator Bob Taylor points out in his forward, they are “the only existing visual documentation of plays, vaudeville acts, concerts and dance during that unusually rich period of American performing arts.” These include not just performance shots, but rehearsals photos and backstage candids.

Out of the library’s three million theatre images, Jacobs chose 240 to help tell the story of Broadway. “It’s as much a metaphor, an idea, a symbol, a brand, a destination, as it is a long, jagged thoroughfare extending nearly 150 miles from Bowling Green in lower Manhattan, to Albany, capital of New York State,” Jacobs writes in his Preface.

I love the production shots and the feeling of journeying back in time to a former New York, but what I find most touching are the photos of individual performers. In costume and looking excited, or alone in a dressing room wearing far-off looks, these faces of long dead actors captured in their showbiz world will be treasures to anyone whose life revolves around the theatre. As a critic, I see so many seasons come and go and so many shows open and close. It can be sad how quickly the glory passes. In the future, people will probably view glimpses of our world on YouTube or through other mediums, but I don’t see how that will ever be as evocative as these simple black and white photos.

“These images ask us not to judge and not to linger,” Jacobs writes. “They simply ask us to pay a visit, tip our hats in respect, and take the full measure of our present moment in the theater by sneaking a quick peek through that metaphorical window to the past. . . . They also let us celebrate our present and they ultimately demand that we press on, to welcome the future with fully open arms.”

This book will be a blessing to all the theatre lovers on your holiday shopping list. I highly recommend it.

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