Identifying Movie Stars of Yesteryear: Historical Photos of Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theatre

The work station in the Library and Archives includes with needle nose pliers, which help to remove the nails from the picture frames. The gloves protect from the dirt that has accrued over the years since the theater's closing. The deframed photographs are separated into two piles: those that are fused to the glass and those that are not.


Identifying Movie Stars of Yesteryear: Historical Photos of Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theatre

Museum Studies Intern at the Thomas & Katherine Detre Library & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History – Spring 2018

When the Nixon Theatre, a “Gilded Age” theater in downtown Pittsburgh, closed in 1950, Katharine Hepburn requested some brackets from the building’s marble columns so that she could remember her fond times at the theater. The manager sent Hepburn the hooks she wanted, as indicated in a telegram that came to the Detre Library & Archive, at the Senator John Heinz History Center. It came with a collection of photographs of musical and comedy stars, c. 1900s-1950s. The photographs were contained in their original frames, which is why about half of the pictures have fused to the glass of the frames. Additionally, a collection of autographed photographs that used to hang in the front lobby of the Nixon, were donated to the Heinz History Center by the family of the last electrician who worked there.

In my internship role, my job has been to not only remove the photographs from their frames, but to rehouse them into acid-free folders and boxes, as well as figure out who the celebrities in the photos are. At one time, these celebrities were well known to the public, and it was probably unimaginable that they would not be recognizable in the future. If today we had a Taylor Swift picture, it would not need a label to be identified. However, many of these pictures are not of people whose legacies hold up throughout time, like Katharine Hepburn’s. With a lack of identifying labels for celebrities in the photographs, the newspapers of Pittsburgh have been extremely helpful in identifying the years, productions, and people who graced the stage and screen of the Nixon Theatre.

This project not only enabled me to learn the general aspects of archival processing, but it also has also made me privy to conversations about what purpose libraries and archives serve. The Senator John Heinz History Center and its Detre Library and Archives hold documents and photographs pertaining to the history of Western Pennsylvania and the lives of its residents. Because the Nixon Theatre was located in downtown Pittsburgh, the theater itself is a part of Western Pennsylvania history. Many of the actors and actresses in the pictures, however, were not from the area and only spent a few nights in Pittsburgh while performing. Due to this and the fact that the collection is mostly headshots, there were several debates among staff about how much research value the collection holds, and whether the material falls into the Library and Archives’ collecting scope (i.e. Western PA history and the lives of the residents). Sometimes, if a donation does not fall into the collecting scope, it will be referred to another repository with a mission that the documents are more aligned with.

However, the Nixon Theatre Photographs were ultimately accepted into the collection. As I learned through my internship, while these celebrities from the past may not be memorable or recognizable to everyone, many of the photographs are one of a kind, and, therefore, hold quite a bit of artefactual value.

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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