The Archives Center collections come to life in "Sophisticated Ladies"


As a film archivist at the museum’s Archives Center, I have seen our collections used in many ways. Of course, the most traditional use is by scholars researching “historical topics” producing academic articles, papers, dissertations, and books. Archives Center materials have also been used in exhibits, coffee table books, Web sites, radio and television broadcasts, documentary films, and even as designs for furniture and decorative objects. Our “brag shelves,” as we affectionately call them, are filled with projects based on and/or including our collections.

AC0300-0000221 Sheet music with cover illustration from the 1981 Broadway production of Sophisticated Ladies. Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Recently Archives Center materials were seen in a whole new venue–on stage at Washington, D.C.’s historic historic Lincoln Theater. The Arena Stage production of Sophisticated Ladies is a musical theater review based on the life and music of Duke Ellington. The production, at the Lincoln Theatre from April 9 through June 27, 2010, features motion picture film from our collections. Now that I’ve seen the show, I believe that our collections inspired some of the choreography and costumes.

We became involved with this production last fall when we were contacted by line producer Amrita Mangus of Arena Stage. She explained that well-known performer Maurice Hines and director Charles Randolph-Wright were interested in reviving Sophisticated Ladies. Both Maurice Hines and his late brother Gregory Hines had starred in the original version of the show in 1981. This time, Mr. Hines wanted to re-work the show so it better told the story of Duke Ellington’s life through his music. Ms. Mangus wanted to bring Hines and Randolph-Wright to see the Duke Ellington Collection to help them get a feel for the real Duke.

The team, including Maurice Hines, arrived for a research visit on a Friday in December 2009, just as the local weather reports were predicting the first of three major snowstorms that became the “Snowmaggedon” winter of 2009/2010. I was lucky enough to work closely with the team talking about our collections and helping them conduct research. We moved quickly that day because of the impending storm, but the team found working with the collections both exciting and inspiring.

03030104 Iconic publicity photograph of Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. Hines, Mr. Randolph-Wright, set-designer Alexander Nichols, costume designer Reggie Ray, and several others involved with the production came for a longer research visit once the snow was gone. During that visit, they screened footage, examined photos of Ellington and his sheet music manuscripts, as well as delved into “Ellington’s Washington” from the Scurlock Studio Collection. This visit allowed for more intense research which included Maurice Hines dancing and Reggie Ray sketching possible costumes based on the films and photos they were seeing.

It wasn’t until I finally saw the show that I discovered just how “inspirational” our collections were. In addition to seeing our footage projected as part of the stage set, I could tell that researching the collections influenced costumes and dance steps as well. During the visit Reggie Ray fell in love with a suit Duke was wearing in a photo. In the show, Maurice Hines sang and danced wearing a similar suit. While watching Ellington’s 1929 film Black and Tan Hines commented on an amazing bit of synchronized dance. The show contained a short dance that was similar in feel and execution.

Sophisticated Ladies brought Archives Center collections to life. It provided this film archivist and musical theater fan a rare and memorable opportunity to see our collections used in a creative and exciting way.

Wendy Shay is the audiovisual archivist in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.