The great thing about looking at vintage theater posters is that they not only show us the importance of theater in the time before television, but they also show us what captured the interests of people of the time. Of course, the wonderful artwork alone makes these worth a long look.
All images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
I don’t know what this 1876 stage show was about, but between the weeping mother and the woman lying in the snow, I’m sure it wasn’t a happy story.
On the other hand, despite the name, this 1879 ad for “Horrors” makes the show look like a blast.
If you like to rock out with your lute, then you no doubt would have loved this 1880 performance of The Celebrated Spanish Students with Abbey’s Humpty Dumpty Combination. That last band sounds like a terrible group of children’s party puppeteers, doesn’t it?
Ooh la la, just look at the cancan line in the ad for the famous Rentz Santley Novelty and Burlesque Co. I don’t know about you guys, but this is the kind of show I’d like to go back to 1890 to check out.
Now here’s an effective ad -- just look at all the drama packed into this one poster. “What does this mean?” I guess the only way to find the answer to that question was to go see “The Cotton King” at The London Adelphi Theatre in 1894.
If you can’t get enough Comedy Central these days, then you probably would have been at the front of the line to catch Selden’s funny farce “A Spring Chicken” back in 1896.
Personally, in 1886, I would have been much more excited to catch “La Dame Aux Camelias,” or The Lady of the Camellias, if only because I’m a sucker for the art nouveau used in this gorgeous poster.
Similarly, I would most likely have gone to see this show based on Percy Shelly’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy” in 1887 just for the fantastic artwork in the ad.
The best thing about this 1897 ad is that it focuses more on the fact the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York all went to see the show than it does on the play itself.
With an ad this charming, it’s hard not to want “The Turtle” to actually be a 1898 story about a cigar-smoking, monocled turtle. It most likely wasn’t, but we can dream, can’t we?
This 1899 ad looks like it could just as easily have come from the side of a traveling funhouse, and that’s exactly why it makes “Hotel Topsy Turvey” look so fun.
Talk about suspenseful. You can be sure the 1899 production of "The Great Ruby" was filled with action if this poster is any indication.
This poster might not be in the best condition, but the artwork and scale are fantastic. Plus, this show is notable, as it was huge. There were 300 people on stage at one point and the production cost $40,000 when it was put on in 1900; that’s the equivalent of a million dollar show today.
No matter how we feel about minstrel shows today, there’s no denying that they were once incredibly popular. In fact, Primrose & Dockstader's Huge Minstrel Company certainly lived up to their name when they built a tent theater that could seat 3,000 people back in 1900.
You’ve no doubt heard tales of how much went into making the film version of "Ben Hur," so just imagine how big a stage show that featured the famous chariot race must have been when it was performed back in 1901.
Americans were fascinated with the Wild West around the turn of the last century, so it’s no wonder that stage shows like “An Arizona Cowboy” found a way to cash in on the trend.
At the same time, more and more people were turning to Spiritualism in the hopes of reconnecting with their long-lost loved ones. Houdini was one of the biggest challengers to the movement, but he still knew his escape act was what would get people through the door -- so in 1909, he did magic, illusions and a bit of fraud-busting all in one great show.
While Houdini is the most famous illusionist from the last century, Thurston was actually the most famous magician during their lifetimes. His act was so big that he even required eight train cars to transport all the pieces of his road show.
Fans of Boardwalk Empire probably recognize the name Hardeen, as the characters discuss his show quite a bit, but for most people, the name of Houdini’s less famous brother probably doesn’t ring a bell. In fact, Hardeen often introduced himself to people as “Houdini’s brother.” Of course, after Houdini’s death, those who wanted to see the master’s act had to settle for Hardeen, and as this 1936 ad points out, he did inherit all of his brother’s props.
During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration strived to help employ people in their respective fields, which not only meant hiring photographers to capture the lives of those affected and workers to improve public parks, but also hiring actors to entertain the public and artists to make posters promoting their shows. While the artist who made this 1936 poster remains unknown, the artwork is simply amazing.
Similarly, the modernist style that Harry Herzog used in this “Injunction Granted” ad from 1937 is striking in its wonderful simplicity.
This 1937 “A Hero Is Born” poster looks like it belongs in a modernist version of Aladdin, except that the hero's clothes wouldn’t quite fit in.
The black inkwork on goldenrod and the clean style make this wonderful “The Cat and the Canary” poster from 1938 look like it would fit in just perfectly with a classic Monopoly set.
The use of simple, flowing lines and a soft color palette makes this 1939 poster for “Androcles and the Lion” incredibly powerful. Heck, I’d go see the show today if it used this artwork.
This “A Christmas Carol” might just be the least Christmasy artwork ever made to promote the story. Not that the artwork is bad by any means, it’s just not at all what most people think of when they remember the story line. One has to wonder if the 1940 production itself was this modernist as well.
Which of the shows would you go see? Was your opinion based on the artwork? And what is your favorite style of the many used here?