Friday, December 22, 2023

Finding the Finding Aids


In searching for background information on personal family stories, delving into the social history of our ancestor's lifetime can bolster our research success. In the case of one report—or perhaps we should say, family legend—about my paternal grandfather, that search leads us to the history of American vaudeville. And because the vaudeville touring circuit involved so many people in a wide variety of locations, seeking  a resource like a finding aid is our best tactic.

With the many resources available now online, I was delighted to discover there was an entity known as the American Vaudeville Museum. If you haven't heard of it, no surprise there, as it was located in Edgewood, New Mexico. For ten years—from 1998 to 2008—the museum shared its resources by publishing a quarterly magazine, Vaudeville Times, which featured four to ten profiles of vaudevillians in each edition. Copies of those journals can still be found for sale today in locations from eBay to Amazon.

Better yet, after the museum's doors closed, founders Frank Cullen and Donald McNeilly made arrangements to donate significant portions of the museum's holdings to the Special Collections division of the library at the University of Arizona, some of which is available to search online. Articles explaining the essence of vaudeville through its history, key originators, and notable performers, combined with a searchable list of vaudeville names and topics, all made the transition to the library's website, but somehow, that wasn't enough for the founders, as judging by a note posted on the museum's original website. Instead, the museum's founders recommended researchers look to the archives of the Shubert Foundation, home of the records of the Shubert brothers, theater entrepreneurs well known for their efforts in the entertainment industry, first in upstate New York and extending into Manhattan and beyond.

Though the Shubert Archive is open to "qualified researchers" by application and appointment, there are other resources online which can help start the research process. While I look for clues as to my grandfather's involvement in vaudeville, I found simple lists of performers at Wikipedia to be a first step. True, that edges on needle-in-haystack status, but it's a start.

Still, the more I explore the history of the vaudeville entertainment genre, the more I tend to doubt this family legend. It's not so much the timeline, or even the enormity of the scope—thousands of performers in multiple circuits across America and into Europe—but one simple detail cited by my brother which just doesn't line up with history. We'll pop that family legend bubble tomorrow.


  1. Replies
    1. ...and you can be sure I'm filing away those resources for future consultation, too!


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