Retired news anchor Howard Caldwell credits his grandmother and parents for instilling in him a love of movies and the theater, but the English Theatre holds a special place in his heart. “It was Broadway in Indianapolis,” he says.
“My father loved a comic named Fred Stone who came to Indianapolis every year, and that was the first time I saw live theater at the English – I had to take a nap because it was in the evening,” Mr. Caldwell says. “That’s really the first memory I have of the English Theatre.”
A longtime IHS friend, Mr. Caldwell donated 500 photographs of performers and playbills from shows appearing at the English Theatre from approximately 1903 to 1948. Located on Monument Circle’s northwest quadrant, the English Theatre was part of the grand English Hotel built by William English in 1880 and the setting for numerous plays, operas and movies. Renowned performers who graced the stage include William Gillette, Clara Bow and the Barrymores. It was demolished in 1948. “They built a J.C. Penney, which is now gone,” Mr. Caldwell remembers.
Mr. Caldwell received the extraordinary collection on an ordinary day. “It was probably the late ’60s or into the ’70s,” he says. “I was at Channel 6 doing news, and a man showed up at the station and said, ‘I understand you’re interested in theater and theater history.’ Somehow he knew. He was a former usher at the English Theatre and had this box that had come from Vincent Burke, who was manager of the theater for many years and deceased. He just wanted to make sure they were OK. I couldn’t turn it down. I just tucked it away. I never saw him again.” Mr. Caldwell wanted to find a permanent home for them, and recently turned over most of the items to IHS.
“The playbills are interesting because of the ads with things going on in the city at the time,” Mr. Caldwell says. “I like the ad for the Marmon car calling it ‘the easiest car in the world.’ I find these things intriguing because I grew up here.”
Under the supervision of IHS Director of Manuscript and Visual Collections Paul Brockman, IUPUI Collections Intern Mary Osborne surveyed the collection and noted any photographs needing conservation. Then she considered the best way to arrange them.
Dating the photographs has been challenging. Mary used several theater databases and looked to the performers’ clothing for clues. The information gained from the collection itself plus other research helped Mary write the collection guide’s historical sketch. Writing this was one of Mary’s favorite parts of the process. The completed collection guide will be placed online in the Collections and Library Online Catalog.
“I saw a Mae West show on that stage – it was one of the best theaters in the area,” Mr. Caldwell says. “The who’s who of theater came – so many of them were going to be or had been in the movies. The English Theatre was a very special place.”