The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Calling Marie Kondo! The archives at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre are a mess.

Programs from past performances are among the archived material at the National Theatre. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Washington’s National Theatre has been in business since 1835, yet its archives are largely stuffed into a single small dressing room on the fourth floor. The collection, with playbills and photographs that in some cases are more than a century old, looks like family junk piled in an extra bedroom.

Always close at hand, because they illustrate the proximity of the Pennsylvania Avenue stage to the levers of federal power, are glamorous photos of presidents and stars — JFK and Jackie exiting after attending the musical “Mr. President,” FDR with George M. Cohan for a 1940 performance of the satire “I’d Rather Be Right.”

“Many of us believe these materials are going to be a bonanza for scholars and students of American theater,” says Sandy Wilkes, president of the National’s board.

The disorganization is more grandiose at the Kennedy Center, with everything from memos, contracts and letters to original building plans and backstage photos stashed in halls, offices and closets throughout the arts complex. Most dramatic is the cold concrete room in the underground parking garage, where the largest batch of material languishes (aside from the 4,800 boxes that have been toted to off-site storage). Behind a locked steel door sits row after long row of shelved cartons. It’s the Kennedy Center’s version of the final shot in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“Our archives is basically what we as hoarders have collected,” Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter says in her sunny office upstairs.

At the National, Director of Institutional Advancement Stacy Shaw looks at a heavy stack of posters piled haphazardly in a corner. The former dressing room had plumbing once upon a time; behind one door, to Shaw’s surprise, is a tiny bathroom. It’s just big enough for a short file cabinet and a defunct toilet.

“I don’t sleep well at all,” Shaw says, gazing fretfully around the room.

Coincidentally, both the National and the Kennedy Center are pondering how to collect and protect the historical assets that tell their institutional stories, and how to connect them to the public. Looking ahead to its 50th anniversary season in 2021-22 prompted the Kennedy Center to get a grip on its stash. It takes a substantial walking tour to get a sense of the holdings, which amount to 9,000 cubic feet of files, images and who knows what else, according to Eileen Andrews, vice president for public relations, who has been tasked with shepherding the archives out of darkness.

Edwin Fontánez, the arts center’s archival photo coordinator, tracks some of it. In his basement office, he pulls out photos of first lady Betty Ford with “Fiddler on the Roof” star Zero Mostel, among other artifacts. On the box tier lobby of the Opera House, near the water fountain, Andrews and Fontánez unlock the door to a room maybe 10 by 10 feet, with a ceiling 15 feet high.

“Oh, my gosh,” they say together, spotting two film cases — a celluloid print of the 1960s memorial documentary “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums.” You can get a copy of that movie on DVD, but other objects are singular, mysterious and worryingly delicate.

“You might only get one shot at hearing the audio,” Fontánez says, assessing stacks of often unlabeled cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes.

Recognizing the problem, the center just hired archivist Sofia Becerra-Licha, associate director of the archives at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, to start work at the end of the month. A five-year lease has been signed on 1,600 feet of office space in the Watergate complex next door, where Becerra-Licha and yet-to-be-hired assistants will have room to work.

“What do we want to prioritize? Who are our primary users? What is the best way to maximize what we have?” Becerra-Licha says by phone from Boston, ticking off the questions to be answered as she takes stock of the holdings.

Staff members often need basic information. Andrews cites a recent instance where no one could be sure whether a major composer was performing at the center for the first time. Rutter wants the history not only at the staff’s fingertips, but also displayed, as it is at the Chicago Symphony (where she was president for a decade).

“It was a way you were living the history of your organization,” Rutter says. “It infused how you think that you’re creating history today.”

The upside for the public may range from organized access for serious researchers to enhanced experiences for patrons. Will that mean exhibits in the halls and on the walls? Social media portholes? Bonus material on your mobile phone, connecting with tonight’s performance?

“All take different resources,” Becerra-Licha says. “All are valid, depending on who you’re trying to serve.”

Where the KC Jazz Club is now in the Terrace Gallery, the Kennedy Center once maintained a performing arts library — not to rival the one in the Library of Congress, but an organized catalogue nonetheless. That’s another idea on the table. “We need to figure out to what degree is it public facing, and what format do we provide,” Rutter says, “and to what degree is it just for our own resources.”

The National is asking the same questions, though at a far earlier stage. (The nonprofit side of the National, which is separate from the side that books shows, hopes to announce a new executive director this spring.) The storage room contains a collection of programs dating to 1835 that Shaw says is “pretty complete.” Photos are everywhere. Shelves slump with boxes of interviews on reel and cassette tapes. There’s a microfilm collection, contents unknown.

“Our goal is to have all 62,000 objects digitized, with original material preserved in a museum quality, climate-controlled space,” Wilkes says. That last bit is important: Issues with heating, cooling and condensation have been so dramatic that not so long ago, performances were nearly called off because the theater was colder than union contracts allowed.

Both organizations say they need to raise money to support their archiving efforts, and both are unsure exactly where their materials will end up. At the National, the hope is that at least more public displays can be made of the history. At the Kennedy Center, Rutter thinks that somehow, everything should be kept close at hand.

“I want us to live with this information,” she says. “And because we’re this size organization, we can do that. I think we would be crazy not to have it here.”

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