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Portraits of performers, 1870-1951, undated (bulk 1870-1935)

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Finding Aid for Portraits of Performers, 1870-1951, undated, bulk 1870-1935

Biographical/Historical Note

The present collection was assembled by an unknown collector or collectors. It was formerly part of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center collection, where it had been donated in 1998 by Mark Story. It is not known how Story obtained the collection or whether or not he was in any way responsible for its assembly. There are two sets of similar or often identical brief French annotations written on most of the versos of the photographs. One set is written in a shakier hand, often in pencil and could belong to the original assembler. The second set is written, usually in ballpoint pen, on brown paper labels adhered to the versos. These appear to be the more recent annotations. Parts of two distinct large collections are present in the overall assembly. One group hails from Edmund Desbonnet's Collection athlétique and the other from Mike Teller's collection of stage personalities and performers, both of which were originally amassed in the vaudeville era. The remainder of the items would seem to have been collected piecemeal by the unknown collector.

A French academic, photographer, gymnast, and fitness theorist and instructor, Edmond Desbonnet (1868-1952), was an early proponent of the physical culture movement that was a response both to the perceived decadence of the Belle Époque and to the physical weakness that France's recent loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany seemed to signal. Desbonnet was the creator of the eponymously-named méthode Desbonnet of gymnastics and founder of a chain of physical culture or fitness centers, opening his first rooms in Lille in 1895 and then in locations such as Roubaix, Paris, Geneva, and Brussels. Using the slogan "Santé, Beauté, Force," his method was based on analytical exercises, weightlifting and stretching.

Desbonnet authored numerous books on physical culture including his most well-known volume Les rois de la force, histoire de tous les hommes forts depuis les temps anciens jusqu'à nos jours (1911) and published five journals on the subject, the most popular of which were La culture physique and La santé par les sports. He was the first person to use photography to illustrate fitness methods, and his stereographs, along with stereo viewers, were available for purchase through his magazines.

A sickly child, Desbonnet was required to perform gymnastic exercises as part of his treatment. When still a boy he found his first photograph of a strongman, which spurred his interest in collecting images of athletes. These athletes were often performers - strongmen and strongwomen, acrobats, gymnasts, and jugglers - in vaudeville shows, cabarets and theaters. Desbonnet amassed a large collection of perhaps thousands of photographs. Little seems to be known of the history of his Collection athlétique and its ultimate dispersal.

Michael "Mike" Teller was the proprietor of the Teller Theatrical Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a business that he founded in 1871 and ran until his death in 1914. The hotel or boarding house, ultimately located at 701 Vine Street, was the temporary or seasonal residence for innumerable theatrical "artistes" passing through Philadelphia during the heyday of American variety theater. Teller, Civil War veteran-turned-hotelier, was apparently much beloved by his guests. Following in the tradition of collecting celebrity portraits that had begun with the carte-de-visite craze in the 1860s, he amassed somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 photographs, most of which hung in his hotel in large frames containing between 100 and 300 portraits. He received most of the portraits directly from his guests, who usually wrote dedications to him across the photographic image or on the mount. Philadelphia's Evening Public Ledger noted in a brief obituary the day after Teller's death that, "His autographed pictures of old-time stage favorites is considered a rare collection, of which he often boasted" (26 December 1914).

Teller's Theatrical Hotel closed at the end of May, 1915. Teller had bequeathed his collection to the comedian Billy B. Van, who was one of Teller's first guests and a life-long friend. Van moved the collection to Georges Mills, New Hampshire, and installed it in the Van Harbor Casino Movie Company, his own moving picture studio. The collection was apparently dispersed at some later date and its subsequent whereabouts have remained unknown to the cataloger.

Sources consulted for Edmond Desbonnet:

Early Visual Media, Photography section, "Early French Culture Physique Photography: Professor Edmond Desbonnet," ©2003,

Legendary Strength, Stongman Mastery section; "Edmond Desbonnet," October 18, 2013,

Sources consulted for Mike Teller:

New York Clipper. "Mike Teller Dead," January 2, 1915, p.10.

Philadelphia Record. "Famous Hostelry is Discontinued," June 6, 1915, p. 3.

Public Ledger (Philadelphia). "Michael Teller,"December 26, 1914, p.15.

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