Historic Theatre Postcards: Treasures From the THS Archives
Besides being fun and interesting to browse, the THS archives can help you document the architectural, social and cultural history of the theatres you love! Information and materials in the archives can be used to help gain historic landmark status, accurately restore buildings to their former splendor, and provide a look at the cultural and social history of an era. Here’s a peak at the postcard collection in the THS archives.
The Postcard selection is an important one, because it illuminates a few issues related to theatre history research and archiving. For most of the 20th century, the postcard was a popular tourist purchase. Postcards were both a quick way for a traveler to share news of their journey, and a handy way for localities to advertise their attractions. Many of these towns saw their theatres as memorable locations and used their images to promote and memorialize their towns.
Many, if not most, of our postcards are from the latest era of postcard production, known as photochrom-style postcards. Photochrom-style postcards are the color cards with photographic appearance that most of us are familiar with today. From 1939, when photochrom-style postcards were first sold in Western gas stations, to the 1990s, when the popularity of email led to an overall downturn in postal communication, these colorful postcards were one of the easiest and most popular ways for travelers to share the sights of their latest journeys, like these postcards showing Oakland, California’s Grand Lake Theater.
While postcards are often praised for their self-contained, single card design, they could also reach high levels of complexity. This postcard, with its self-closing printed envelope, accordion-folded images, and full text backing, is a small feat of postcard engineering.
One aspect of the Postcard Collection that separates it from many of our other collections has to do with the souvenir/promotional aspect of postcards. While the majority of our other collections focus heavily on the larger historic theatre chains and the grandest movie palaces, the Postcard Collection has an overall more eclectic range.
One theatre shown, the Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, is not the usual fare of the American Theatre Architecture Archives, but it is definitely a part of American theatre history. As the card says, this theatre is famous for “The Lost Colony,” which opened in 1937 and is currently the second longest running historical outdoor drama in the United States.
The Symphonic Outdoor Drama, a performance genre exemplified by “The Lost Colony,” was imagined by playwright Paul Green as a form of accessible folk-drama, or, people’s theatre that would provide a creative spectacle to bring pride to a region’s people.
Another theatre whose single-play-repertoire would not normally be represented in our collections is the Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee, N.C. The Mountainside Theatre also specializes in an outdoor historic drama, “Unto These Hills.” While “The Lost Colony” was based on the received histories of the Roanoke Island colonists, “Unto These Hills” is a retelling of Cherokee history and interaction with colonists from De Soto to the trauma of the Trail of Tears.
“Unto These Hills” has been performed since 1950. The outdoor drama was written by prolific playwright Kermit Hunter, who wrote over 40 historical outdoor dramas. The script for “Unto These Hills” has undergone numerous revisions in the last two decades, with the EBCI Tribal Government hiring producer and playwright Hanay Geiogamah in 2006. Geiogamah, who is Kiowa and Delaware, was hired to address a lack of tribal participation in the performance, and to fix historical inaccuracies in the original script. The changes were controversial, however, because some local Cherokee peoples felt the new version left out important aspects of their history.
You can see some of the earliest post cards in our collection on our website at http://www.historictheatres.org/theatre-postcards-treasures-ths-archives/
They bring up a unique period of postcard history. When we think of postcards, it’s generally a small heavy-stock rectangle with a photo image on the front, and space on the back for you to write “Hello Mom, Sorry I haven’t written. I’m too busy visiting all these historic theatres!”
In the earliest days of postcard production, it went against postal codes to write on the address side of a card. Private postcard manufacturers began designing their cards with blank spaces to allow for brief messages. This period is known amongst Deltiologists as the “Undivided Back Period.”
For more information about postcard collection in the THS archives you can search our collection online at http://www.historictheatres.org/archival-collections/catalog/. For more information about the history of postcards, you can visit the Smithsonian Institute Archive’s Postcard Page at http://siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/postcard/postcard-history.
Thanks for reading!
Theatre Historical Society of America