A Q&A with Leonard Jacobs, author of the new title, the Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theatre 1850-1970:
When did you get involved in theatre?
The theatre bug bit me early. I did plays in school, but as far as professional theatre, I did internships with Off Broadway companies, and even at one point being a “Stage Door Johnny,” waiting at the back by the door trying to get autographs.
But my break came in 1990 when I got an internship with Theater Week, a publication no longer in existence. I was the listings editor but also was given a chance to review. I was once an undergrad at NYU and interested in criticism. I had an editor and he’d send me to anything, and I’d gladly go to see anything.
Concurrent with that, I graduated in 1991 from NYU with a degree in theatre. I’d been writing plays and started a non-profit theatre company. I wrote and directed plays, learned to raise money (which I realized I never wanted to do again,) and I was a part-time critic for a number of publications. I also had some sort of wacky day job to support myself.
In 1992, I got a chance to review for a magazine, and before I knew it the magazine was swallowed up by another, and it was Theatremania.com It was the first outlet to use quality content to promote plays. I became the editor of that website. When the dot com bust came I went to Backstage magazine and since then have become the National Theatre Editor. Backstage magazine is a print and online publication and the magazine has east and west coast versions. We publish actor profiles, how-tos, casting notices (local to the area), and reviews. We mainly review Broadway, and to a lesser extent, Off- and Off-Off Broadway.
I also had the opportunity to work as an assistant to Don Wilmeth on the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. It’s a 1500 page volume you might find in schools and universities.
What did you get out of working on this project?
Just seeing Broadway as the way it was. There are eight million photographs in that archive and I got the opportunity to go in and play. Out of 240 photographs, 40 or 50 have never been published, and 40 or 50 more have rarely been published. Being able to tell the Broadway story was a challenge and a real thrill. But there is the challenge of figuring out how to tell a story largely through photographs.
There wasn’t a theme going into this, there was no spine to it. One of the things I was challenged to do was working this into a title that your grandmother might walk into Barnes & Noble and buy. That becomes a challenge because you can’t cover Broadway in 240 images. There were moments when I’d request a file, take the images out, and the photos would take my breath away.
How did you become interested in history?
I’ve always been interested in history. I dedicated the book to my grandfather – he was a lay historian. He gave me a great love of history. I was surrounded by a lot of older people, 60, 70, 80-year-olds as a kid and I was interested in everything they knew. After seeing Roots on tv, I did interviews with my grandparents and great-grandparents who were still alive. That came long before my theatre interest. It makes sense that the two dovetailed together.
Why do you love nineteenth century theatre and study it specifically?
I love nineteenth century theatre because I knew people who lived in the 19th century. I inherited a scrapbook of my great-grandmother who had a photograph of her grandmother in it. There are a lot of kids who didn’t give a damn about that sort of thing, but I loved my grandfather and he loved history. There’s something very Romantic about that. In looking through the images, I saw theatres that aren’t there anymore, and my ancestors could have gone there. I see streets they could have walked down. I think in some way I was trying to capture that.
I came from a family of strong women. They’ve been in New York for 150 years. I remember my grandmother, older and in some old apartment, probably in Washington Heights, and we went to visit her. I remember not understanding some of what she said, but I’ve got it on tape. I pull it out to listen every now and then. She meanders, but there is some incredible stuff on there.
How is this book relevant to modern day?
Most of the people in the photographs are dead and long forgotten to the general audience. But if this book can bring knowledge of any of those people or events, it’s not all for naught. It’s important for people to understand that the world didn’t start with Phantom of the Opera. You can’t blame people for what they don’t know, but there was a day when there wasn’t radio or television, and people only went to performances.
What do you hope readers will get out of this book?
I think the ultimate function of a critic is to teach not to criticize. The function of this book was first to teach myself and then to teach others.