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Blue-Collar Broadway

Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater

Timothy R. White
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Blue-Collar Broadway
    Book Description:

    Behind the scenes of New York City's Great White Way, virtuosos of stagecraft have built the scenery, costumes, lights, and other components of theatrical productions for more than a hundred years. But like a good magician who refuses to reveal secrets, they have left few clues about their work.Blue-Collar Broadwayrecovers the history of those people and the neighborhood in which their undersung labor occurred.

    Timothy R. White begins his history of the theater industry with the dispersed pre-Broadway era, when components such as costumes, lights, and scenery were built and stored nationwide. Subsequently, the majority of backstage operations and storage were consolidated in New York City during what is now known as the golden age of musical theater. Toward the latter half of the twentieth century, decentralization and deindustrialization brought the emergence of nationally distributed regional theaters and performing arts centers. The resulting collapse of New York's theater craft economy rocked the theater district, leaving abandoned buildings and criminal activity in place of studios and workshops. But new technologies ushered in a new age of tourism and business for the area. The Broadway we know today is a global destination and a glittering showroom for vetted products.

    Featuring case studies of iconic productions such asOklahoma!(1943) andEvita(1979), and an exploration of the craftwork of radio, television, and film production around Times Square,Blue-Collar Broadwaytells a rich story of the history of craft and industry in American theater nationwide. In addition, White examines the role of theater in urban deindustrialization and in the revival of downtowns throughout the Sunbelt.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9041-7
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    IT IS SAID that good magicians never reveal their secrets. This has certainly been true on Broadway, where the virtuosos of stagecraft have built scenery, costumes, lights, and other components for decades but left few clues about their work. Theater historians have gathered some information about these physical components and the stagecraft of putting them together, but most studies of scenery, costumes, or lights focus on design rather than construction or implementation. Despite a rich scholarship of theater history, there exists scant published information about how and where American craftspeople actually built such products.¹ Perhaps this is because no party...

  4. Chapter 1 “Second-Hand Rose”: The Stage Before the Broadway Brand
    (pp. 9-34)

    IT WAS 1875, and Mathias Armbruster did not know any better. He did not know that scenery shops should be in New York City, nor did he know that painted backdrops for the commercial stage were supposed to be crafted with a “Broadway” pedigree. He did not know these truisms of the commercial stage because they were not yet true—not in Columbus, Ohio, and not in 1875. It was in this city and this year that Armbruster founded his scenic studio, which grew into a major national supplier of theatrical components, especially painted backdrops. By the turn of the...

  5. Chapter 2 “A Factory for Making Plays”: Broadway’s Industrial District
    (pp. 35-63)

    IN 1902, twelve years before Henry Ford introduced his revolutionary automobile assembly line in Michigan, the Broadway producer Henry W. Savage built a theatrical assembly line, of a sort, on the island of Manhattan. At West 27th Street and 10th Avenue, Savage hired carpenters, scenic painters, costumers, electricians, and property makers to work in a single building. As theNew York Timesnoted in its 1906 feature on the facility, entitled “A Factory for Making Plays,” “so complete is the factory in every detail that raw material is taken in through one door, while one month later the finished play,...

  6. Chapter 3 “Sing for Your Supper”: Theater-Related Craft Work in Radio, Film, and Television
    (pp. 64-99)

    AS THE DUST settled after the great crash of 1929, Broadway producers and proprietors struggled like most other Americans. Shrunken personal fortunes wreaked havoc on theatrical investments, while the number of shows per year dropped to new lows.¹ The industry’s leaders and craftspeople were flexible and dynamic, having weathered previous economic downturns, but the grim 1930s were unlike anything they had seen. Broadway insiders must have known that the straits were dire when the well-funded Theatre Guild, a pride of the industry for many, announced that it was finished for the season in mid-April 1931, two and a half months...

  7. Chapter 4 “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ”: Show Construction at Mid-Century
    (pp. 100-132)

    WHILE MANY THEATER-RELATED business proprietors and craftspeople heard the siren song of radio, film, and television production from the 1930s to the 1960s, others stayed the course, supplying and building only for Broadway. As the explosive growth of the 1920s gave way to the inertia of the 1930s and the restricted supplies of the 1940s, the working conditions for these individuals inevitably changed. What is most fascinating about the middle decades of the twentieth century is how seemingly positive developments became Trojan horses of unexpected, injurious consequences. This was especially true of the iconic 1943 showOklahoma!

    There was, of...

  8. Chapter 5 “Sunrise, Sunset”: The Decline of Broadway Craft and the Rise of Regional Theaters
    (pp. 133-161)

    ONE CAN HARDLY blame her. When she got the offer in 1963, Barbara Karinska was a seventy-seven-year-old veteran of the costume trade. No spring chicken, she had already gone through most of the highs and lows of her profession. The chance to have a more steady, predictable existence must have sounded appealing to one who had experienced almost all that an independent costume shop proprietor could. This “regal” craftswoman had won an Academy Award for her work on the 1948 filmJoan of Arc. She had collaborated with one of Broadway’s greatest composers, Leonard Bernstein, creating costumes for the critically...

  9. Chapter 6 “Every Day a Little Death”: Times Square After the Collapse of a Theatrical Production Center
    (pp. 162-200)

    ON TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 1980, as cold, blustery winds swept through midtown Manhattan, dozens of stagehands raised curtains around 8:08 p.m. to begin a slew of Broadway shows. This delayed start time, well-known to theater insiders, gave a small cushion to latecomers who hustled from subways or rushed from cabs to take their plush velvet seats at long-running hits such asEvita, at the Broadway Theatre on 53rd Street, orBent, starring Richard Gere on 42nd Street. Those with a taste for revivals may have been headed toWest Side Storyat the cavernous Minskoff Theatre on 46th orOklahoma!...

  10. Chapter 7 “When the Money Keeps Rolling in You Don’t Ask How”: Broadway Craft in a Globalized Industry
    (pp. 201-234)

    AT THE END of 1976, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicalEvitabegan to enthrall American theater enthusiasts, but only via vinyl. Though there would be no U.S. production until 1979, the storied “British invasion” of the American musical stage pressed on through a popular studio recording.¹ That the disembodied voices of singers such as Colm Wilkinson were the first components of the musical to arrive in America was entirely appropriate for an industry that was rapidly going global. The generation of performers who came of age during and afterEvitaroutinely slipped into costumes sewn half a world away, sang harmonies...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 235-264)
  12. Index
    (pp. 265-272)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 273-275)