The idea for the American Variety Stage collection came about through the advocacy of an ad hoc group of dedicated Library of Congress employees who shared a big secret: the Library is home to significant and, in some cases, unique, resources for the study of American popular entertainment; materials that have been largely unknown and underutilized. This enthusiastic group, harnessed into an advisory committee, identified much exciting material for the current digital collection, including:
All of these collections have been shaped in whole or in part by the Library's unique role as the copyright deposit institution for the United States. Many of the items submitted for copyright registration were certainly published and distributed, as in the case of the sound recordings and theater posters. Other materials, however, such as many of the Yiddish plays, largely handwritten in bound notebooks, were probably never published and, perhaps, were never performed on the big stage. In both cases, however, the Library's role as custodian has preserved these and other resources that provide an important glimpse into the history of one of this nation's most successful and influential industries: popular entertainment.SELECTION FOR THE DIGITAL COLLECTION
The original guidelines for selecting materials for this digital collection were based on theatrical genres. It was thought that the strengths of the Library's collections would lend themselves to ample illustration of vaudeville, and musical revue. There had been hope that musical comedy might also be included, but this genre was so well represented in some collections that it was feared that there would be no room, time, or budget to include anything else if it comprised a full component. After the initial research period, the advisory committee agreed that it would be best to cover vaudeville in all its permutations than to cobble together small bits of musical comedy that could not possibly provide the full story of the genre's development or its representation in Library collections. The most important element in this decision, however, was that it minimized the necessity for Library staff to assume the roles of critic and editor. Ultimately, therefore, the decision was made to include all materials relevant to vaudeville and musical revue from the chosen source collections in the digital collection. At the beginning of the selection process, when the English-language playscripts and theater playbills and programs were being researched, the only exceptions to this rule were those materials whose physical condition prohibited digitization. These materials were selected by National Digital Library Program (NDLP) staff members LeeEllen Friedland and Jurretta Jordan Heckscher.
As work on this project continued, complementary selection methods allowed staff to take advantage of other tantalizing source collections. For example, reference librarian Joan Higbee, from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, selected photographs and memorabilia from the McManus-Young collection to illustrate the story of Houdini's life and career. The advantage of providing improved access to the theater posters through digital reproductions was deemed so beneficial that poster curator Elena Millie, and her colleagues in the Prints and Photographs Division, decided to digitize all the theater posters dating from 1870-1920, regardless of theatrical genre.
The paper-print films and sound recordings presented not only an embarrassment of riches, but also technical challenges that forced the selection of representative samples of the major vaudeville genres. In both cases, staff strove to select examples that were in the best physical condition; regrettably, therefore, intriguing but frustratingly short film clips were omitted, as were overly scratchy disk recordings, even if they contained the most well-known performers singing the hit songs of the day. LeeEllen Friedland and Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound reference librarian Gene DeAnna selected these materials, with the helpful advice of theater historian Don Wilmeth (Brown University) and Music Division specialist Walter Zvonchenko. Finally, the Yiddish plays presented different challenges, especially because after the initial research, it was discovered that there seemed to be virtually no vaudeville-related scripts in the source collection. Though vaudeville was certainly a vibrant genre in the Yiddish theater, it would appear that either most vaudevillian authors did not submit their scripts for copyright, or those scripts have not survived. Faced with this dilemma, project consultant Bertha (Bonnie) Sohn, with the assistance of LeeEllen Friedland, tried to select the short, light-hearted works among the collection that would be closest to vaudeville in content. While vaudeville scripts would have been ideal, the playscripts selected nevertheless convey the irrepressible spirit of the Yiddish theater.