The Performing Arts Collection
Performing arts materials may be viewed in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. All researchers must have an appointment to view oversized works of art (including set and costume renderings), oversized playbills and posters, and objects such as set models and marionettes. Additional notice may be required depending on the kind of material, its size, condition, and storage location, the amount of material requested, and its cataloging status.
We encourage all scholars, but especially visitors from out of town, to contact performing arts staff in advance of their visit for information about holdings, finding aids, services, and accessibility.
Some materials may be restricted from Saturday viewing. Please consult the policy on access to costumes.
History of the Collections
The University of Texas's first major theater acquisition occurred a year before the founding of the Ransom Center. In February 1956, the Hoblitzelle Foundation of Dallas presented on loan to the University the Albert Davis collection of programs, photographs, posters, and other theatrical artifacts that had been diligently assembled by Davis in Brooklyn between 1874 and 1942. In June 1958, the Messmore Kendall collection, including those materials gathered by Harry Houdini and William Winter, became part of the theatre arts collection (then known as the Hoblitzelle theatre arts library), again on loan from the Hoblitzelle Foundation. Three months later the Edgar G. Tobin Foundation of San Antonio purchased and donated the Norman Bel Geddes collection of theatrical and industrial design.
Two important purchases in the 1960s gave major support to the research potential of the theatre arts collection. The Robert Downing collection, acquired in 1962, contained not only 5,000 books on the history and theory of the theater but also a large collection of photographs and typescripts of plays, as well as sketches and floor plans for productions for which Downing served as stage manager. In 1965, the University acquired the papers of the theater critic and historian John Gassner. In addition to Gassner's manuscripts, correspondence, and playscripts, the collection included his research sources. Along with the Davis, Kendall, and Bel Geddes materials, the Downing and Gassner collections formed the cornerstone of the biographical files, production photographs, and theatrical design holdings.
The collection continued to grow with specialized acquisitions such as the original promptbooks and memorabilia of Uncle Tom's Cabin collected by its producer, George C. Howard. From 1965 to 1998, the collection benefited from loans and gifts by W. H. Crain, whose acquisitions included the Wilson Barrett papers and a collection of promptbooks and actors' sides used by Ada Rehan and Augustin Daly. The records and designs of the London costumier B. J. Simmons & Co., purchased in the 1980s, constitute a major holding in the history of costume design. The papers of the actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit and the producer and theater manager Sir Donald Albery added depth and range to our British theater collections. With the purchase of the archives of the leading theatrical photographers Fred Fehl and Bob Golby in 1973 and 1980, and the gift of the papers of the renowned set designer Boris Aronson, the Ransom Center brought its coverage of the New York stage forward into the 1970s.
In 2001, the theatre arts collection was renamed the performing arts collection, reflecting the broad range of materials it contains. In 2015, the Ransom Center reorganized to emphasize the strengths of subject areas rather than specific collections. Following this reorganization, the performing arts curator assumed shared responsibility for the care and interpretation of other collections across the center including extensive holdings of playwrights' manuscripts and early printings of scripts.