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A lost piece of Theater History

 

One of the most satisfying aspects of working in a digital library is the opportunity to expose people to a life or a story they may not have realized existed. A week ago I was presented with an archival box full of pieces of a puzzle. The pieces belonged to a man named Howard Merrill Shelley and the puzzle I am working on is how to put together the events that make up the life of this man. I have begun scanning in images and other assorted items from the box, and his story is slowly coming to light, possibly for the first time in fifty years.

Howard Shelley (1879-1956) was known primarily as a Philadelphia theater and opera personality. However, before I go into that, I would like to delve into his ancestors, an interesting topic of its own. Howard Merrill’s lineage plays like a who’s who of American history. Howard’s mother, Sophia Rittenhouse Shelley, is directly descended from the famous scientist and astronomer, David Rittenhouse. Howard’s grandmother, Amanda McClellan is related by marriage to none other than Benjamin Franklin and is directly related to the Civil War general, George B. McClellan.

 

 

George himself was the grandson of General Samuel McClellan of the Revolutionary War. Samuel married Rachel Abbe, a direct descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

 

 

Howard also had a famous second cousin named Kate Shelley. While not a household name today, in her own time she was a famous poet and folk hero. As a young girl she risked her own life to save hundreds of lives by averting a potential train accident.

Not surprisingly, Howard Shelley thought his own family history quite interesting and wrote a successful play about it in 1914 called The Family Tree. At the time in Philadelphia, as well as other major cities, there was a craze to document and brag about one’s own family history in order to secure social prestige and Howard took advantage of this subject to write his satirical comedy. Prior to The Family Tree Howard co-wrote a popular musical called The Beauty Doctor in 1904. An article in the Geneva Daily Times described this production as a piece “based on the beauty culture craze, which is handled in a broadly humorous way and is said to afford ample opportunity for hearty fun”.

After writing two successful satires for the stage, Howard went on to become a theatrical press agent. He wrote an early form of gossip column about society under the name Barclay Beekman for the New York Daily Mirror and was also employed by stars of the stage, including Lillian Russell, an actress and singer, and Luisa Tetrazzini, an Italian opera soprano.

 

Digitizing the Howard Shelley Collection has been like working on a miniature time capsule of Philadelphia genealogy and theater history. I have only completed about a third of the collection and am eager to discover how the other pieces of the puzzle come together. What I find remarkable is that despite having two hit shows and an active life in theater and opera, Howard Shelley and his productions have managed to escape history’s grasp. It causes one to realize that the majority of popular culture today may not survive a hundred years, for better or worse. For my part, I am glad to have the opportunity to once again put Howard Shelley in the spotlight.

Posted for Karla Irwin, Fall 2011 Digital Library Intern.

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Exploring French theatre at the turn of the 20th century

  • Posted by: Laura Bang
  • Posted Date: May 31, 2011
  • Filed Under: Theatre, World

Posted for Alexandra Edwards (Falvey Memorial Library Intern and Digital Library student employee)

One of the best parts about working in the Digital Library is getting to experience, firsthand, historical materials related to your own interests. Recently, I worked on digitizing issues of a French theatre magazine, Le Théatre, from the turn of the 20th century — a project that combined my love of the stage, the French language, and fin de siècle culture.

Le Théatre gives a fascinating glimpse into French cultural life during this highly artistic time period. The magazine covered the world of French theatre and dance in-depth, and provides an intriguing primary-source look into stage conventions, costuming, set design, and theatrical celebrity.

Of particular historic interest are the articles on Loïe Fuller, the American dance sensation with no formal training who is now credited as a pioneer of modern dance as well as theatrical lighting. Videos of her performances have been preserved and are exhibited around the country to this day — I recently saw a Library of Congress video of her signature dance style at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Several issues of Le Théatre mention Fuller, either in reference to the dancer herself, or to the style of dance she created, which was subsequently picked up by other performers.

The December 1898 issue devotes an entire section to Fuller, including a color cover featuring a dancer dressed and posed in the style of “La Loïe Fuller.”  After several pages of more traditional-looking ballerinas, the section on Fuller highlights the somewhat shocking, modern quality of Fuller’s style.  The dancers pictured wear long and flowing dresses which can be held up — it appears that rods have been inserted into the fabric — to give the appearance of wings.  Indeed, butterflies are pictured on many of the dresses.  A captivating action shot hints at the effect of Fuller’s twirling style in combination with the flowing costume.

The article mentions that Fuller was basically unknown a few years prior, but has since taken the dance world by storm.  The author notes that Fuller may not be the best dancer on the stage, but rather that there is a kind of magical quality to her dancing in and of itself:


Subsequent issues of Le Théatre profile “Le Théâtre de la Loïe Fuller” (August II, 1900), as well as Japanese dancer Sada Yacco, who worked closely with Fuller after the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 (October II, 1900).  Fuller served as Yacco’s manager and press agent, proving herself as savvy a businesswoman as she was entertainer and theatrical inventor.

Seeing Fuller’s work documented in Le Théatre emphasizes both her importance in the history of dance and the necessity of preserving historical primary-source materials.  Researchers across the world can now access these documents for free, allowing them to understand, in the original historical context, the impact that Fuller made on the world of French theatre and dance.

References:

Loie Fuller.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 May 2011. Web. May 2011.

Collier, Peter and Robert Lethbridge, eds.  Artistic relations : literature and the visual arts in nineteenth-century France.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.  Print.

Garelick, Rhonda K. Electric Salome : Loie Fuller’s performance of modernism.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.  Print.

Holmes, Diana and Carrie Tarr, edds.  A “Belle Epoque”? : women in French society and culture, 1890-1914.  New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.  Print.

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Last Modified: May 31, 2011