The American Vaudeville Museum – holder of the largest collection of Vaudeville memorabilia and artifacts in the world – donated its entire collection to The University of Arizona, which will be hosting a showing of several shorts.
The UA will is now a center for the uniquely American art form, offering students studying theater arts, music, film and other disciplines the opportunity to access more than a century’s worth of materials that influenced contemporary entertainment and pop culture.
This week, the Friends of The University of Arizona Libraries is hosting an evening of eight Vitaphone Shorts.
The Feb. 27 event, "The Talkies Come to Town: Vaudeville on Film," will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fox Theatre located in downtown Tucson.
A recpetion will be held after the show and tickets are $50. Proceeds will benefit the Friends of the University of Arizona Libraries and the UA Foundation Vaudeville Fund.
Faculty, visiting scholars and the general public also will have access to the collection through UA Special Collections. ”The UA is an ideal place for the collection,” said David Soren, Regents’ Professor of classics and himself a former Vaudevillian. “The collection is going to benefit a lot of people. It’s popular. It’s entertainment. It’s America.”
The American Vaudeville Museum, originally based in Boston, features recordings, sheet music, videos, costumes, posters and other artifacts dating back to Vaudeville’s beginnings in the 1860s.
Owning the world’s largest collection of Vaudeville artifacts will allow the UA to integrate the materials into classroom instruction, especially for students in the College of Fine Arts.
Jerry Dickey, vice director of theatre arts at the UA, expects students to utilize the collection as soon as it is fully archived by Special Collections. “I currently teach a course in the history of theater in the Americas,” Dickey said.
“It has long been a goal of mine to educate students about 19th century popular entertainment, like Wild West shows and Vaudeville. This way students will get into the material firsthand," Dickey said.
According to Maurice Sevigny, dean of the College of Fine Arts, students in his college will especially benefit since Vaudeville encompassed areas such as music, dance, theater and media arts – all UA disciplines.
Dickey cites the individual performer files featuring correspondence, photos and sound recordings as one of the areas of the collection that will be used extensively by students and professors.
Vaudeville’s influence on contemporary American entertainment is extraordinary. Dickey and Soren cite programs such as “American Idol,” “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and "Late Show with David Letterman" as being heavily influenced by the Vaudeville tradition of brief variety acts featuring music, comedy and other forms of entertainment.
"Students in our five professional schools will be able to go back to history for new ideas," Sevigny said. Sevigny is hopeful that owning such a prestigious collection will grow the UA's relationships with Hollywood and attract other collectors interested in donating their memorabilia.
“This is going to be wonderful for studying theater arts, film, history and music,” Soren said. “The sheet music archives read like a history of everything that was going on in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Bringing the American Vaudeville Museum collection to a university with an active theater arts program, along with music, dance and other performing arts, will help ensure that Vaudeville will continue influencing young performers and that the lives of Vaudeville’s pioneers will be remembered.
"Vaudeville was seminal to the entertainment business,” Soren said. “We need to know about these people and they shouldn’t be forgotten lives.”
The American Vaudeville Museum was the brainchild of veteran theater professionals Frank Cullen and Donald McNeilly. They spent many years amassing material for the collection and generating donation commitments, in addition to publishing the Vaudeville Times magazine.
Three years ago the search began for a permanent holder of the collection. “When the collection was going to be taken down, I thought about the UA being a center for this great American art form,” Soren said. “We communicated that the UA would be a place that would cherish it.”
UA Special Collections will house the American Vaudeville Museum collection, making all of the memorabilia available to students, faculty, visiting scholars and the general public. ”In speaking with Frank we assured him that we would be great custodians of the collection and use it extensively,” Dickey said.
"Vaudeville is at the root of many of the things we do," Sevigny said.