Musical Theater Museum Struggles To Preserve Archives

The Institute of the American Musical in Los Angeles is home to footage collected by one of the earliest pirates —Ray Knight of Jacksonville, Fla. Between 1931 and 1973, Knight would make trips up to Broadway and sneak a 16 mm camera into theaters. He eventually collecting footage of over 175 musicals. Knight's family gifted the films — which, in many cases, are the only visual record of many of the earliest musicals — to the Institute of the American Musical when Knight died. But, there's a problem. The institute is a one-person operation that has been housed in a Los Angeles duplex for the past 30 years. The tiny nonprofit is having a hard time finding a way to preserve the Knight films — and the rest of its archives.

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One of the most important archives of Broadway history isn't in New York, it's in Los Angeles. Its treasures include original scripts and early recordings associated with the likes of Cole Porter, Steven Sondheim and Julie Andrews.

But as Alex Schmidt reports, many of these Broadway artifacts are deteriorating and could be lost forever.

ALEX SCHMIDT: From the outside, the hulking duplex with chipping white paint does not look like the home of The Institute of the American Musical.

Mr. MILES KREUGER (Founder, Institute of the American Musical): Hello. Did you ring the bell?

SCHMIDT: I thought you might hear the dog alarm.

Miles Kreuger, the founder of the Institute, lives here with his dog Jenny. Kreuger was obsessed with musicals as a young child and worked in and around Broadway in the '50s. He became friends with theater legends, and they just started giving him things.

Mr. KREUGER: I remember Zero Mostel gave me his whole playbill collection and followed it with a big juicy kiss on the lips. He was quite something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHMIDT: Miles Kreuger's collecting odyssey began when he lived in a New York an apartment with his mother and grandmother.

Mr. KREUGER: The doorbell rang, and it was Lincoln Storage bringing me box after box after box of recordings filled with Richard Rogers' treasures. And that's when I had to take my first apartment.

SCHMIDT: Over the years, he amassed this library that includes scripts, films, LPs and chunks of actual theaters. Possibly the most valuable thing in Kreuger's collection came from one of the earliest movie pirates, a Florida native named Ray Knight.

Mr. KREUGER: 1931, and his mother gave him a birthday party and said: You've been a good boy and here's your present, a 16mm, silent home movie camera and a round-trip ticket to New York. Go film the sights of New York.

SCHMIDT: So, Miles Kreuger says, Knight gets to New York, films the sights, and then he spends $1 on a ticket to The New Amsterdam Theater.

Mr. KREUGER: And he picks up his camera and shoots the only known footage in the world of Fred and Adele Astaire. The show was "The Band Wagon." He thought: Mama's going to like this. So I'm going to shoot another one.

SCHMIDT: Over 40 years, Ray Knight shot footage of 175 musicals, and Miles Kreuger has it all. Today, it's the only known footage of much of early Broadway, including Julie Andrews in "Camelot," Gwen Verdon in "Damn Yankees" and Ethel Merman in the original cast of "Gypsy."

The footage is snippets, and it's silent. But Miles Kreuger showed me some. He says you can hear it just by watching.

Mr. KREUGER: And there is Ethel Merman singing "Some People Ain't Me." And she puts the picture into her purse.

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) But some people ain't me.

SCHMIDT: Look at Merman. It's the greatest performance I ever saw by a woman in musical theater. Without Ray Knight, all of this would be lost.

SCHMIDT: Perhaps it may still be lost. Kreuger hasn't been able to raise the funds to preserve the rapidly deteriorating footage or properly care for the rest of the archive.

Mr. LORAS SCHISSEL (Senior Music Specialist, Library of Congress): It's unparalleled. It's one of the finest collections of its kind anywhere in the world.

SCHMIDT: Loras Schissel is senior music specialist at the Library of Congress. He's been out to view the institute, and calls Kreuger a walking encyclopedia of the American musical.

Mr. SCHISSEL: If I had my druthers, and I had a zillion dollars, I'd buy up Miles's collection, give it to the Library of Congress, and then I would pay Miles to just move to Washington here and sit in the Library of Congress and just answer questions.

SCHMIDT: But Miles Kreuger believes passionately that the American musical should have a professional, dedicated library building. He just doesn't have a concrete plan for how to get there.

Have you thought about what will happen to the collection if you don't achieve that goal?

Mr. KREUGER: No, I can't even think about that. No. It's not even an acceptable concept.

SCHMIDT: Kreuger teared up a little bit when I asked him that question. Perhaps that's because after so much time together, the institute has become Miles Kreuger, and Miles Kreuger has become the institute.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt in Los Angeles.

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