It’s hard to believe that, having spent over 17 years in the New Haven area, I had never been inside the New Haven Museum until Thursday. I had often run past its grand columns and its “From Clocks to Lollipops” sign, but was still shocked when I stepped into the ornate foyer and heard dozens of echoing voices from the balcony above.
The greeter directed me up an intimidating marble staircase and I grabbed a pamphlet on the way up: “The Nation’s Greatest Hits: 100 Years of New Haven’s Shubert Theatre.” I hadn’t expected many people to attend, but there were at least 100 signatures before mine on the sign-up sheet.
The free food at the top of the staircase gave me the energy to forge into the crowd of mingling locals. As soon as I turned towards the exhibition, I noticed parallels between its curation and the theater itself. The doorway was clearly marked by a red carpet and bright bulbs (even some flashing ones from a real photographer) — I felt like a celebrity. I chuckled at the doorways leading to other rooms, labeled “Stage Left” and “Stage Right,” before heading towards the various displays.
Plaques marked each section of the exhibit; the first one described the “Early History” of the Shubert. I was astounded to learn that since its founding in 1914, the Shubert had staged twice the number of pre-Broadway shows as any theater in New York City – I guess New Haven is cool after all! An old black and white photo of the theater accompanied the information, and I felt nostalgia even though I hadn’t even been alive when photos were black-and-white. The authentic red usher uniforms, though intriguing, looked like they wouldn’t be fun to wear – especially the women’s one, which had the waist size of my arm.
An extensive array of photos from Shubert productions, including a performance of “A Raisin in the Sun,” was displayed alongside the plaques. I sincerely had no idea that so many famous plays, including “My Fair Lady” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” had been put on so close to Old Campus. Each new photograph — including a giant one of Julie Andrews in her debut performance — changed my perception of the city. The arrangement of the black-and-white photos combined with the lights and red carpeting brought such an “old Hollywood” feel to the room that I began to imagine performing at the Shubert (until I realized a few seconds later that I can’t act).
The display tables held brightly-colored, though slightly yellowed, original playbills from the 1950s and 60s that made me wish I had been at the theater myself to collect them. Even the secretary’s index files of the productions looked interesting (mostly because they were clearly written on a typewriter). In the next room, curators had recreated murals from the Shubert’s basement. The contrast between the colorful paint and the purely black-and-white photographs lent a more modern ambience to this side room.
After I enjoyed a well-done architectural sketch of the Shubert, the mood of the night suddenly changed. A plaque mentioned that the Shubert closed in 1976 due to declining attendance, and I was sent into a panic. (Don’t worry: it’s been reopened.) Looking around me, I realized I was the youngest person at the exhibition by at least 30 years, if not 50. I could suddenly see museums like this one suffering the same fate as the Shubert — if the younger generation stops going, they’ll shut down. Though many of us raised in the digital age normally can’t pay attention long enough to enjoy a museum, I found the opening exciting. So many people — including the exhibition organizer, Jason Bischoff-Wurstle — had put time and effort into the event and their celebration was a long time coming. As many glasses of wine clinked together, I wondered where all my peers were. No one had thought to attend an opening at a museum dedicated to the history of our home, New Haven. Though classes, clubs, and sports take up so much of our time these days, it’s worth it to head down to the New Haven Museum for an hour — not just to enjoy the elegant Shubert Theater exhibition, but to keep the art of the museum alive.