Those inclined – impelled? -- to a life of research tend to geek out in libraries. Gems of forgotten history bubble up from back rooms. Intellectual encounters with voices of the past arise from quaint, hand-written letters. And photographs open a deep connection with the humanity of a subject or the revealing details of a place. So it was on a recent behind-the-scenes tour of the Library for the Performing Arts, the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library. The library contains vast quantities of archives, and the back rooms seem like one of those English garden mazes, lined by file cabinets, shelved boxes, and old-school card catalogues.
I was among a small group of writers who was led around the place by three of the departmental curators, archivists responsible for music, theater and dance. Imagine getting a glimpse and a curatorial opinion of the ballet shoes worn by Anna Pavlova more than a century ago (photo). Or seeing what the curator described as the oldest known document of choreography in the West, a dance notebook from the court of the Medicis, circa 1453 (photo). The library includes the principal archives of Jerome Robbins, and we caught a glimpse of a rather rare slice of his memorabilia – one of 24 accordion-fold diaries that Robbins crafted out of text and cultural imagery (no photos allowed of that). The library is planning on putting the diaries on display in an exhibit beginning in September 2018.
We saw Salvador Dali’s unrealized stage design for a production of “Romeo and Juliet” (photo). And another dance revelation occurred as we passed the model of a stage set for a George Balanchine production of “The Nutcracker” from 1964 (photo). The proscenium arch décor included floral bouquets that the designer, Rouben Ter-Arutunian, reportedly snipped out of Mother’s Day cards from Hallmark. When the stage set was finally realized, the painters meticulously reproduced those flowered images, and, it was suggested, Hallmark probably never received a dime of royalties.
The foundation of the library’s musical collection is classical – I mean, where else can you fawn over a lock of Beethoven’s hair (photo)? But its jazz collection is constantly growing, too. One quirky document: A feature interview of the jazz aficionado George Avakian from the Horace Mann School newspaper under the byline of ... Jack Kerouac (photo). After leaving Lowell, Mass., in 1939, Kerouac spent a year at the New York school before beginning his college education at Columbia. Kerouac was not exactly at his peak. Here’s a little exchange with Avakian, who apparently also once attended Horace Mann and wrote for the newspaper:
“Knowing that you were once editor-in-chief of the Horace Mann RECORD,” we told him, “we were wondering whether or not you would supply us with some jazz information.” This, with a sense of uneasiness.
“Are you from the Record?” he asked, with a broad and disarming smile.
“Yes,” we replied, very much relieved.
“Well that’s fine,” he ejaculated with a smile. “Sit down.”
Offered here, with a smile.
Find the whole Kerouac article at the library’s online archive: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5ddc5f60-bbbf-0133-e670-00505686d14e