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An Expanded Federal Theatre Project Website Guarantees Hours of Entertainment

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Byrne, Robert. Circus: Burton Lancaster & Nicholas Luccia red vest cape with blue cummerbund and hat. White shirt and tights. New York, 1935. New York. Costume Design.

Who was this caped costume designed for? The answer may surprise you!

The Music Division has greatly expanded the amount of materials available online from the Federal Theatre Project Collection. A selection from this popular collection was first put online over 20 years ago, and this updated version contains more than 6,500 digital items, including costume designs, posters, playbills, programs, playscripts, administrative papers, and photographs.

The Federal Theatre Project was the largest and most ambitious effort mounted by the Federal Government to organize and produce theater events. The administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the program to provide work for unemployed professionals in the theater during the Great Depression, following the stock market crash of October 1929.  While the primary aim of the FTP was the reemployment of theater workers, including actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, and stage technicians, it was also hoped that the project would result in the establishment of theater so vital to community life that it would continue to function after the FTP program was completed.

That didn’t exactly happen, but some of the creative figures who participated in the program went on to greater fame. That caped costume design  above? It was made for Burt Lancaster, who long before he became a Hollywood star was an athletic circus performer.

One of 62 photographs in the collection from Horse Eats Hat, Federal Theatre Project Collection Box 1217.

What about this unusual photograph? This comes from a 1936 production co-written and directed by Orson Welles, who was just 21 at the time. The Federal Theatre Project collection includes items from Welles’ productions of Macbeth and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.

The FTP was administered from Washington, D. C., but its many companies stretched the full breadth of the nation. It functioned from 1935 to 1939, when its funding was terminated. In that brief period, it was responsible for some of the most innovative staging of its time. The finding aid for the collection is available at // This rich and vast collection provides hours of research material that’s fascinating and highly entertaining, such as the vivid and perhaps nightmare-inducing graphic below.


From a 1939 production in Boston.

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