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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

Scope and Content of Collection

The collection comprises 385 studio portraits of variety show artists, including vaudeville, burlesque, minstrel and other stage performers, dating from the 1870s to the 1930s. The collection, which is fairly equally divided between American and European performers, spans the heydays of what were known as the music hall or variety show entertainments in England and the European continent and as vaudeville and American burlesque in the United States.

Depicted are sketch, character and comedy actors; singers; dancers; acrobats; gymnasts; contortionists; clowns; acrobatic cyclists; jugglers; aerialists and trapeze and wire artists; ventriloquists; minstrel (i.e. blackface) singers and players; comedians; male and female impersonators; strongmen and strongwomen; and show riders. Some of the later performers represented in the collection, such as Bert Coote and Billy B. Van, made the transition from stage to film. Many of the specialized variety artists were photographed in costume and holding props such as juggling pins, fans and riding crops to signify their specialties. Singers and actors tend to be photographed in street or evening clothes, although some of these performers are dressed as the characters they were most well-known for portraying. Although sitters represented in the collection such as monologist Frank Fogerty, the "Dublin Mistrel," who won the New York Morning Telegraph's contest for most popular vaudeville actor in 1912; the actress Blanche Walsh; Nellie Doner, boy impersonator and later ballet mistress of the New York Hippodrome; and comedian and White Rats vaudeville labor union leader, George B. Reno, may have been household names at the time their portraits were taken and collected, their popularity has been long-eclipsed by ever more recent entertainers and today their names and acts are scarcely remembered.

Photographers hail from across the United States and Europe, with New York- and Paris-based photographers predominating respectively. Most photographers represented in the collection were local or regional portrait photographers and are not well-known today. European photographers of some note include George Henry Hana in London, Paul Boyer of Paris and Wilhelm Scharmann in Berlin. Present is one portrait by the Spanish photographer Jean (Juan) Laurent. The collection also includes a few portraits from Latin American countries, notably Cuba and Argentina, and one by the Egyptian photographer G. Lékégian.

Many of the New York photographers represented in the collection were among those who had studios located on or near Broadway and who were patronized by theater personnel. These include Otto Sarony; Joseph Hall; Theodore C. Marceau (who also had studios in Philadelphia and Boston); Apeda Studio and White Studio. Other areas of the United States with established theater districts also had photography studios which drew a theatrical clientele. W. M. Morrison is among several Chicago photographers present in the collection; San Francisco is represented by Elite Studio, Louis Thors and other studios. Elmer Chickering had a studio in Boston. A number of photographers in the collection hail from Ohio including Baker's Art Gallery in Columbus, which was run by the photographer Lorenzo Martin.

Most of the portraits take the form of card mounted photographs, with the bulk being cabinet cards (approximately 6 1/2 x 4 inches), although the card sizes range from cartes-de-visite to boudoir cards and from Paris and imperial cards to larger mounted portraits. Also present are both photographic and photomechanical postcards, as well as a few unmounted photographic prints. The type of card mount or mount dimensions are noted in the item-level scope and content notes. Unless otherwise noted, the postcard format is 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches. There are two sets of similar or often identical brief French annotations written on most of the versos of the photographs. Ballpoint ink annotations on most versos in French, often found on a brown paper label, seem to signal the unknown collector who assembled the present collection. These annotations echo the second set of annotations written in a shakier, more elderly hand. Additionally, parts of two distinct large collections are present in the overall assembly. Series I hails from Edmund Desbonnet's Collection athlétique, while Series II originally formed part of Mike Teller's collection of stage personalities and performers. Both of these collections were originally amassed in the vaudeville era and later dispersed.

Series I contains 76 items that originally formed part of Edmond Desbonnet's Collection athlétique and they bear his collection wet stamp. The portraits in this series were made by a wide variety of photographers, mostly European, although a few were taken by American photographers. None of the portraits present here are known to have been taken by Desbonnet himself. The sitters are European men and women who performed as gymnasts, acrobats, dancers, contortionists, equestrian acts, jugglers, trapeze artists, acrobatic cyclists, clowns and singers.

Series II comprises a small group of 22 portraits that originally formed part of Mike Teller's collection of theatrical portraits. The items in this series were determined to have been part of Teller's collection based on the dedications they bear. The photographers in this series are all American portrait photographers, primarily located in New York, Chicago and Cincinnati, Columbus or Toledo, Ohio, although the work of quite a few regional photography studios is also represented. Most of the sitters are American, although a few were of British birth. Present are actors, singers, comedians and other variety artists.

Series III comprises 287 portraits that cannot be definitively assigned to either the Desbonnet or Teller collections due to their lack of explicit dedications or collector's stamps, although some of the images included in the series could have originally been part of either collection. Overall, the items in this series would seem to have been collected piecemeal by the unknown collector. The series is further divided into three subseries: III.A Portraits of women; III.B Portraits of men; and III.C Group portraits. The series comprises relatively equal numbers of portraits of American and European performers taken by a proportionate number of American and European photographers. The American performers are primarily dramatic artists, comedians and singers while the European performers are more varied in their specialties which are of a broader gymnastic or athletic nature. Also included in the series is one circus-related pamphlet entitled The Call of the Calliope.

Many of the cards in Series I and III bear a talent agent's or agency's label or wet stamp on their verso. These include Agence Rubini; C. M. Ercole; E. de Rasim; Emmanuel Roche; E. Schlax; Richard Warner; J. D. Marcadet; E. Perrìer; Staveau & Wilson; G. Hoffman American Star Agency; and the Globe Amusement Association. The presence of these agency markings is noted in the scope and content notes for the individual items. The physical descriptions and imprints of the most prevalent agencies are as follows:

Agence Rubini labels are buff with lines left for Nom, Genre, Libre and Conditions. The label imprint reads: Agence Rubini / Ex-Regisseur-Général / des / Deux Cirques / 117, boulevard Richard Lenoir, 117 / Paris / Adresse télégraphique / Agence Rubini, Paris. This adddress is crossed out and new address stamped in purple ink: 12, Boulevard du Temple, 12. Some cards bear only an Agence Rubini wet stamp with the later address on their versos: Agence Rubini / 12, boule du Temple / Paris.

The C. M. Ercole labels are green with lines left for Genre, No[m], and Adresse to be filled in. The label imprint is as follows: C. M. Ercole / Théâtres / Concerts & cirques / 8 rue de Port-Mahon 8 / Paris / Adresse télégraphique / Ercole-Paris. Also sometimes present is a purple wet stamp reading either: Théâtres - concerts / cirques / C. M. Ercole / 8, rue de Port-Mahon, 8 / Paris, or: Ercole / 22 chaussée d'Antin / Paris / théâtres / concerts / cirques.

The purple Schlax wet stamp reads: Agence générale / artistique / E. Schlax / 37, rue de Trévise, / Paris.

The purple wet stamps for Roche read either: Emmanuel Roche/ Agent for variety artistes / 72, rue du Château-d'Eau, 72 / Paris, or: Cirques-variétés / A. E. Roche / 72, rue du Château-d'eau, 72 / Paris.

Warner wet stamp reads: Richard Warner Cie, Ltd. / Agence internationale / pour théâtres / music halls et concerts / 45 rue Richer, 45 / Paris.

Marcadet wet stamp: Théâtres, concerts, cirques, music-halls / J. D. Marcadet / Imprésario / [various dates] / Correspondances en toutes langues / Agences succursales: Bruxelles, Londres, Berlin / 4, rue de l'Échiquier, 4 - Paris. Variant wet stamps are noted under the portrait on which they appear.

Perríer stamp reads: E. Perríer / Agence théâtrale internationale / 20 bould. St. Denis / Paris.

Staveau & Wilson wet stamp reads: Staveau & Wilson / Agence artistique / 19, rue d'Enghien, 19 / Paris. [telephone] 1524.

The individual items in the collection were numbered prior to final arrangement. Thus, while items are sequentially filed within each box, the arrangement in the finding aid is not sequential.


Arranged in three series:
Series I. Desbonnet collection, 1889-1906, undated;
Series II. Mike Teller collection, 1886-1909, undated;
Series III. Other entertainers and personalities, 1870-1951, undated.

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