About That Cannon in My Basement —

A few years ago – around 2001, 2002 – I had a cannon in my basement in Rockville, Maryland. You could see it through the front windows, where it was aimed. I wondered if the mailman would report us to Homeland Security.

It wasn’t a real one, but it was incredibly realistic and man-o’war-size (about five feet long). It was made out of scrap wood and styrofoam and was one of the most ingenious set-design pieces I’d seen in several years knocking around in community theater. We put it in our basement because the theater company couldn’t afford storage space, and the only other option in the short term was to put it in a dumpster. It didn’t seem right to get only one show’s worth of use out of such a great piece.

From the Federal Theater Project

From the Federal Theater Project

Scenic design – the sets, costumes, and lighting — are an essential part of theater, as important as the acting or the singing or the orchestra. They can evoke joy, or controversy. The Library of Congress on Feb. 12 will open an exhibition in its Music Division foyer in the James Madison Building titled “Grand Illusion: The Art of Theatrical Design,” featuring set designs of famous productions and famous designers from its vast theatrical collections, to include opera, ballet, vaudeville and musical theater.

The exhibition includes the work of 21 designers for 28 productions, including Nicholas Roerich, Robert Edmond Jones, Boris Aronson, Oliver Smith, Florence Klotz and Tony Walton. It represents a tiny portion of what the Library offers in this area, and it’s noteworthy that many separate collections here “speak to each other” in that so many luminary figures of the stage — from the musical, production, book or dance cadres — interacted with each other on myriad shows.

Productions highlighted will include the Ballets Russes, the Ziegfeld Follies and the musicals “My Fair Lady,” “Grand Hotel,” “Show Boat” and “Chicago”; also included will be holograph music manuscripts from George Gershwin and Frederick Loewe, not to mention letters and scripts by Ira Gershwin, Freddy Wittop and John Kander. The exhibition closes July 25, and then will travel to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for display in its Library of Congress Ira Gershwin Gallery from this coming August through February, 2016.

I’m out of theater now, but fondly recall activities onstage and off. I produced two shows for the Washington Savoyards — backstage management, from renting rehearsal space and the set build to directing the stage crew and paying the cast.

Pete, William and Cayetano built sets that were clever, beautiful and–this is important–safe. Pete was responsible for that very lifelike cannon.

The cannon was in the basement for, oh, two years, but finally the day came when we wanted to put our house on the market. So I called William, and asked if he could help me get the cannon over to the storage bay for the Victorian Lyric Opera Company. They thought it might be usable for one of their productions of “HMS Pinafore.” I assumed somebody had a truck.

William and Cayetano showed up with a subcompact Toyota. They pulled the cannon into its two sections, stuffed the muzzle in the back seat and somehow tied the heavy caisson section with ropes onto the roof, and off they went.

There were interesting squash-marks in the carpet, but we got the house sold.

A Jefferson Book, Rediscovered in Law Library

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.) A tiny, handwritten “T” at the bottom of page 113 offered a clue that this book – long part of the Law Library collections – needed a new home: the permanent exhibition of Thomas Jefferson’s library. […]

Buying a Library

Two hundred years ago today, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,590 for the purchase of a large collection of books belonging to Thomas Jefferson in order to reestablish the Library of Congress. Under Madison’s leadership, the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812. After capturing Washington, D.C. in […]

American Ballet Theatre Exhibit Closes Saturday

The Library of Congress exhibition, “American Ballet Theatre: Touring the Globe for 75 Years,”¬†closes this Saturday, so if you’re in town, make sure to visit. American Ballet Theatre (ABT), which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014, donated its archives of more than 50,000 items of visual and written documentation to the Library. The exhibition features […]

Sensationalism! Yellow Journalism! More, More, More!

It’s the day after Christmas, ho-ho-ho-hum. The presents are already open, your elbows are getting rubbed a little raw with all these relatives around, and you’re sick of holiday cookies and candy and fruitcake. It’s all too tempting to jump on the old cellphone and see what snarky things are being said on social media, […]

The Big Lebowski Abides

My condition is in fantastic condition today – I’m pleased that “The Big Lebowski” made this year’s list of 25 films selected for placement on the Library of Congress National Film Registry. These movies are judged to have special cultural, historic or aesthetic value and to be worthy of preservation for posterity. Other noteworthy films […]

The Warrior Poet (a.k.a. Fellow Traveler No. 1)

Many larger-than-life figures have served as the Librarian of Congress.¬† As the Library once again plays host to that seminal document affirming the rule of law, Magna Carta, today we shine a spotlight on the man who was Librarian of Congress when the great charter first visited the Library – Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish, before his […]

Chasing Sadie

My remembrances of Sadie Hawkins Day don’t stem from reading the well-known “Li’l Abner” comic strip by Al Capp, although it was his imagination that created the pseudo-holiday. Growing up in the early 90s, participating was a sort of rite of passage for the girls at my school, both junior high and high school. The […]

Veterans History Project in the News

As has been the case every year since its inception, the Veterans History Project receives an increased amount of media coverage during the Veterans Day season, both prior to and after the holiday. This year’s coverage included a segment on Washington’s NBC affiliate, NBC4, which aired on Nov. 8. The segment featured VHP Director Bob […]

A-B-C … Easy as One, Two, Three

On Oct. 16, 1758, Noah Webster, the “Father of American Scholarship and Education” was born. Lexicographers everywhere celebrate his contributions on his birthday, also known as “Dictionary Day.” As a young, rural Connecticut teacher, he used his own money to publish his first speller in 1783. Reissued throughout the 19th century, the 1829 “Blue Back […]