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Theater programs collection

Collection MS-2011-024: Theater programs collection


  • Creation: 1850 - 2005

Scope and Contents

This collection documents theaters, theater companies, and performances through programs and playbills, primarily in Boston and its surrounding areas, the greater New England region, and London, England. It also contains small amounts of materials from theaters in other parts of the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, the Netherlands, and Taiwan.

Programs make up the bulk of the collection. Other materials include scrapbooks, bound volumes of handbills, clippings and writings, photographs, ticket stubs, movie programs, correspondence, and postcards. The collection contains a limited amount of personal information about collectors, including notes about performances, clippings, and writings on theater. Some programs are souvenir programs that include pictures of the performances, and in some cases tickets, advertisements, and notices about actor substitutions are tucked in with theater booklets. Many programs have a year or location note on the cover, which may not be accurate. A few series hold playbills in fragile bound or disbound volumes. Clippings related to the theater season or specific performances may be included with the relevant theater. Materials in individual series that fall outside this scope are noted in series-level notes. A small number of items have been annotated, or signed by performers including Ethel Merman and writer H.D. (Dennis) Bradley.

In addition to documenting the theater scene, programs and playbills also feature advertisements for local businesses, national brands, and alcohol and cigarette companies. Program design features include fonts popular at the time, renderings of theaters, theater companies, and city landmarks. Some programs showcase tourist information about the relevant city, critical essays, and columns on prominent audience members and fashions for the theater-goer.

Theaters and companies strongly represented in the materials include: American Repertory Theatre (Cambridge, Mass.); Boston Lyric Opera (Boston, Mass.); Charles Playhouse (Boston, Mass.); Colonial Theatre (Boston, Mass.); Daly's Theatre (New York, N.Y.); Huntington Theatre Company (Boston, Mass.); Shubert Theatre (Boston, Mass.); Wang Center for the Performing Arts (Boston, Mass.); and Wilbur Theatre (Boston, Mass.).

Some playbills and bound volumes are in fragile condition and should be used carefully.


Language of Materials

Predominantly English, with small amounts of Dutch, French, Spanish, and Welsh.

Restrictions on access

Collection is open for research.

Restrictions on use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Historical note

In 1750, the General Court of Massachusetts prohibited “stage plays and theatrical entertainments of any kind.” This anti-theater sentiment sprang from the area's religious roots. Nonetheless, plays were sometimes performed in private homes, even though a “puritanical uproar” occasionally followed. When Boston was occupied by British solders during the Revolutionary War, Faneuil Hall served as a theater for military productions. After the war, Boston’s first official playhouse, Boston Theatre, opened in February 1794 and a second playhouse, the Haymarket, opened in 1796.

By 1853, theater had a long enough history in Boston and enough popular interest for writer William Warland Cooke to write about local theater history in the newspaper Boston Evening Gazette and compile those entries into a book, A Record of the Boston Stage. Interest continued to grow, with additional theaters built (and rebuilt, after fires destroyed a few) throughout the nineteenth century. The late 1800s brought famed theater owner and former circus member Benjamin Franklin Keith to Boston, where he opened the New York Museum. Initially the museum starred a "three headed songstress," but shortly after opening, Keith began advertising a "theatorium." Museums like these introduced vaudeville to Boston, and B.F. Keith and various partners moved into ownership of Boston’s Bijou Theatre and others.

Theater owners frequently owned multiple properties. Augustin Daly owned Daly’s Theaters in New York and London, and the Shubert organization owned a number of New York theaters in addition to those in Boston and Chicago. Theaters frequently underwent name changes, depending on ownership; today, many of Broadway’s theaters have been renamed in honor of well-known performers. In Boston, many of the theaters constructed around the turn of the century have been demolished or repurposed. The Wang Center for the Performing Arts, for example, was formerly known as Metropolitan Theatre. The reverse is also true; Horticultural Hall has existed in name since 1845, but has moved on several occasions. Very few theaters have retained their original name and location over the decades.

Popular nineteenth century performance halls included the Boston Museum, Tremont Theatre, and a variety of opera halls. Notable twentieth century Boston theaters include Bijou Theater, B.F. Keith's Theatre, Colonial Theatre, Hollis Street Theatre, Majestic Theatre, Plymouth Theatre, Shubert Theatre, Wilbur Theatre, and performance halls at local colleges like Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Wellesley College. This collection also reflects Boston theater-goers' excursions to performances in nearby New York, N.Y., New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, as well as their further ventures into other areas of the United States, Europe, and Asia.


“Boston Athenaeum Theater History.” Boston Athenaeum. 2012. (accessed October 19, 2012).

Clapp, William Warland. A Record of the Boston Stage. Boston and Cambridge: J. Munroe and Company, 1853.

King, Donald C. The Theatres of Boston: A Stage and Screen History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005.


37.75 Linear Feet (64 containers )


This collection contains theater playbills, programs, and scrapbooks, primarily for theaters in Boston and New England but also for other regions of the United States, Europe, and Asia. Programs make up the bulk of the collection. Also included are scrapbooks, bound volumes of handbills, clippings and writings, photographs, ticket stubs, movie programs, correspondence, and postcards. A small number of items have been annotated, or signed by performers. Scrapbooks often include information about the compilers' favorite actors in addition to recording performances seen. Many of the playbills and bound volumes are fragile and should be handled with care. Materials date from 1850 to 2005.


This collection is arranged in thirteen series. The first twelve are collections of theater materials, organized chronologically. The last comprises individual playbills and photographs added to the collection after the original processing. I. Robert M. Dell collection; II. F. A. Searle Boston theater handbills; III. Boston playbills; IV. W. W. Todd scrapbooks; V. Augustine Daly theater playbills; VI. Julia M. Fairbanks theater scrapbook; VII. Bruce J. Browning scrapbooks; VIII. John P. Barry theater programs; IX. Allen E. Beckwith theater programs; X. J. Robert Barth collection; XI. Phyllis Penn Turin theater programs; XII. J. Paul Marcoux theater programs; and XIII. Other playbills and photographs.

Within series programs are generally arranged by region and alphabetically by theater name. Theaters and production companies that do not have a location associated with their name may reflect touring groups or multiple theaters associated with the company. Dates may be approximated using production information if dates are not available on the item itself.


This collection consists of thirteen separate accessions, not all of which have provenance information. Because the current accessioning system was not used until January 1986, it is not possible to know exactly the dates of acquisition of materials received before that time.

The John P. Barry collection was donated by Henry F. Barry in 1990. The Robert M. Dell collection was donated by the collector in 1992. Mr. and Mrs. Bruce F. Browning donated the Bruce J. Browning scrapbooks in 1995. Phyllis Penn Turin donated her materials in 2003. Two programs were a gift of Dottie Brush in 2020.

Related Materials

American Theater Program Collection, Brandeis University.

Boston Athenaeum Theater Collection, Boston Athenaeum.

Boston Theatre Archives, Rare Books & Manuscripts, Boston Public Library.

Ellerton J. Brehaut Bostoniana collection, MS.2008.016, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Jackson-Dowd Theater Collection, Emerson College Archives, Emerson College.

  • Removed two books.
  • Removed Nature Magazine, 1923 April
Theater Programs Collection
Stephanie Bennett
October 2012
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2023 January: Maude Adams photographs added

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States