by Jessica Miller, PortalWisconsin.org
Tucked away in a stately building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is a pop culture-lover's paradise. An internationally known film, theater and television archive documents decades of popular entertainment, from prints of classic movies to a vast array of related material.
The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) boasts a complete collection of Warner Brothers films from 1931 to 1949, including 300 cartoons from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series, and offers a variety of resources for anyone interested in the fields. Housed inside the Wisconsin Historical Society building, the WCFTR comprises an extensive collection of reels and documents from theater, film and popular television produced between the 1930s and 1970s.
According to archivist Maxine Ducey, Wisconsin developed its recognition in the theater industry after the famed acting couple of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne established their summer home, dubbed Ten Chimneys, in Genesee Depot. The two would invite friends like Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier and Robert Sherwood to relax with them at their vacation spot. Ducey said, "This Wisconsin connection made it easier for archivists to begin establishing what began as the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research in 1960." Wisconsin was one of the first states to collect materials on the performing arts. By 1974, the Center began including film.
In addition to the valuable Warner Brothers films, the collection also includes scripts and drafts that outline the Warner Brothers production process. Press books also show how these films were publicized at the time of release.
While the WCFTR contains materials generated throughout the United States, Taiwan and the Soviet Union, Ducey said, "The collection is important for anyone interested in 20th-century film and television. Film and television are mass media, and it doesn't matter where a person lives, or where they are from, both can be viewed from anywhere." The collection features films from University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus Frederic March, who received an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1932 film "Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Producer Walter Mirisch of "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Pink Panther" is also a UW alumnus, and his collection can be viewed at WCFTR.
The Center also features early stills and business records from Waukesha's Harry and Roy Aitken, who produced America's first feature length film, "Birth of a Nation," in 1915. Other rare scripts and photos of films produced between 1915 and 1920 have been retrieved although the films no longer exist. WCFTR has the only evidence of these films, as many before 1930 have been lost.
Along with films and manuscripts, the WCFTR offers a unique collection from costume designer Edith Head. Over 1700 original drawings with notes and swatches from the Academy Award-winning designer are housed at the WCFTR.
WCFTR does not require UW affiliation to access to its collection. While WCFTR is primarily used for research, the Center occasionally offers screenings from its collection to honor a particular actor, director or theme in film history. WCFTR will show "A Farewell to Arms" on May 2, 2004, as part of its Classic Book and Movie Club.
WCFTR also shares its films with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque, which offers free screenings of films that would not otherwise be shown in Madison. More information of WCFTR's collection is available on its Web site.