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Touring West: 19th-century Performing Artists on the Overland Trails

This online exhibition celebrates the creators, promoters, and performers of professional theater, music, and dance who toured the American continent. The time frame is defined at one end by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which brought the West into the realm of possibility for America, and at the other by the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, just before the twin inventions of cinema and recorded sound changed forever the relationship between performer and audience.

Performances are documented here through promotional ephemera such as broadsides, programs, flyers, handbills, souvenirs, postcards, and, after 1848, photographs. Through scores and prompt scripts, annotated by musicians and stage managers, we can learn what the audience experienced at the events. Business records, ship or train schedules and shipping manifestos speak to the realities of the tour.

Throughout the online exhibition, the performers' lives on the road are described. Childhood shipwrecks and wagon train disasters live in the memoirs of veteran performers. Letters to loved ones and business managers reveal the perils of performing Shakespeare. We can read Edwin Booth being philosophical about presenting Julius Caesar in a half-built theater. While composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk's diary vividly records world events, such as his learning of Lincoln's assassination while sailing from Panama to California, it is notable in detailing the sheer exhaustion of ship and train travel.

In addition, there were nonprofessional actors and singers in every encampment. As towns grew, amateur theater and operetta groups presented Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan. Chorales and orchestras developed in the touring centers. Schools of music, dance, acting, and elocution grew so that audience members, inspired by the touring greats, could study for their own future careers in the performing arts. Although we look here at professional theater, music, and dance only, we know that the audiences carried their experiences on their travels as well. A song heard in concert in St. Louis would be whistled all the way to Portland. An Othello seen in Los Angeles would live in the memories of gold rushers as they dispersed across the Sierras.

The material in this online exhibition is drawn from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, Music Division, and Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Maps from the Map Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences Library provide geographic and political information pertinent to the touring experience.

Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg Curator of Exhibitions, Shelby Cullom Davis Museum, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

  This website is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III and The Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc. in memory of Ruth and Seymour Klein. Additional support was provided by The Mercator Society of The New York Public Library.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts gratefully acknowledges the leadership support of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman. Additional support for programs and exhibitions has been provided by Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg and the Miriam and Harold Steinberg Foundation.

Support for the Exhibitions Program at The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library has been provided by Pinewood Foundation and by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

Romeo and Juliet, 1767
Announcement for Romeo and Juliet, 1767
LPA, Billy Rose Theatre Collection

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