You never know who you might run into at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
"I remember in the stacks one day stumbling over Cecilia Bartoli, on her knees looking at a score,'' assistant director Kevin Winkler says. The great Italian mezzo-soprano opera singer was doing research for an album.
The library's Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, which has thousands of videos of stage productions available for viewing, is a favorite spot for actors, directors and designers.
"Artists come here because, say, they're starring in Gypsy and so they want to look at the tapes of all the former Gypsies,'' executive director Jacqueline Davis says. "I remember when Mike Nichols and his entire team were here because they were doing Angels in America for HBO. We had taped the Broadway production, and they were able to look at everything from lighting to sets to the acting in order to determine how they were going to address all those issues for the movie.''
Treasures without fee
The Library for the Performing Arts is a treasure trove of 9-million items related to every kind of performance. There are plenty of books, of course, but also audio and video recordings, manuscripts, sheet music, stage design models, press clippings, programs, posters, photographs and letters. It's the largest collection devoted to music, dance, theater, recorded sound and other performing arts that is free and open to the public.
For writers and researchers all roads lead to the library, nestled between the Metropolitan Opera and the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, but it is also well worth a look by anyone with an interest in show business. Davis encourages visitors to New York to take advantage of the library.
"There are many pathways into this building,'' she says. "You can do everything from just check your e-mail at the front door because there's a bank of computers to do that, to using the more interesting pathway, which is to look at whatever exhibits are going on. If you're browsing through the circulating section, you can sit down and read a book about music, dance, theater, recorded sound. You can listen to recordings.''
Spotlight on displays
The library's exhibition program mainly draws from its collection in displays in the Oenslager and Astor galleries. Right now there's a show by Kenn Duncan, a New York portrait and fashion photographer who worked for After Dark, Dance and other magazines. This retrospective of Duncan's career focuses on the 1970s and has 528 photographs that include iconic images of Eartha Kitt, Bette Midler, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the cast of Hair, Angela Lansbury, Al Pacino and many more.
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game: 100 Years of Music, Musicians and the National Pastime,'' also currently on view, has 300 baseball-related artifacts on display, including the original 1908 sheet music for Take Me Out to the Ball Game; the Yankee jersey worn by opera star and baseball fan Robert Merrill; and a legendary Honus Wagner baseball card.
"Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Outstanding Women Designers for Live Performance,'' an exhibit that opens Nov. 17 and runs through May 2, surveys female designers in theater, dance and opera from the 1890s to the present.
Programs and papers
The library also presents an impressive lineup of free music and dance performances, lectures, play readings and films in the 203-seat Bruno Walter Auditorium. One feature in 2008-09 will be a series of programs related to a bequest to the library of the papers of Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, the couple who ran the influential HB Studio for actors. Friends, colleagues and students of Hagen and Berghof, including Barbara Barrie, Hal Prince, Victor Slezak and Fritz Weaver, will participate in the series, which begins Sept. 18.
The acquisition of the papers of important figures is a major role for the library, whose holdings include archives related to performing arts giants such as David Belasco, Jerome Robbins, Lillian Gish, Joseph Papp, Arturo Toscanini and countless others. Last year, the library announced that it had acquired the Katharine Hepburn papers, some 30 feet of boxes of the actor's journals, scrapbooks, photographs, letters, notes and scripts.
There is lots of competition for such noteworthy collections from universities and other libraries. For example, Stephen Sondheim's papers are committed to the Library of Congress in Washington, although many of his shows are on tape at the New York Library for the Performing Arts.
"What it usually comes down to is to be in New York,'' Davis says. "This is where the performing arts community is and where someone's collection would be most visible and most used. Often that's the decision that gets made over going to a university, where certainly there will be performing arts students, but it's not going to be as vast as the 25,000 people who walk through the doors here every month.''
Library users are surrounded by images and artifacts from the performing arts. On the third floor, busts of Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Beethoven, Verdi and other composers stand on the vocal music card catalog. A table holds models of Boris Aronson's set design for the original Company and a production of Peer Gynt designed by Ming Cho Lee.
Glass cases have constantly changing, smartly conceived mini-exhibits that ranged from music scores used by the Big Apple Circus to press clips of reviews by dance critic John Martin when I visited last November. In a reading room, there were pictures from the library's collection of recently deceased notables, such as Norman Mailer, Robert Goulet, Deborah Kerr and Bobby Mauch (of Hollywood's Mauch Twins).
And there are some nice perks to being a librarian. One wall of Winkler's office is covered by a poster of Judy Garland seemingly floating in the clouds and singing Get Happy in the 1950 movie Summer Stock.
"It would be hard for me to part with that image of Judy,'' says Winkler, a Broadway dancer before he got his training in information science. "It makes me feel good to look at it.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.