The W.C. Fields Exhibit at NYPL

Lest there be any doubt of my devotion to a certain old school juggler/comedian/movie star, let it be known that I braved the 100-degree heat on Saturday to see that exhibition about his life, The Peregrinations and Pettifoggery of W.C. Fields.

W.C. Fields is a subject near and dear to my heart, and one about whom I have some knowledge, so you can believe me when I say the exhibition is thorough, entertaining, and full of fascinating material. The exhibition was curated and organized by staff members of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, from their own collections. It’s a wonderful resource; the folks there were very helpful to me when I was researching my book No Applause.

Ensconced in the Vincent Astor Gallery of the Performing Arts branch of the NYPL (that’s the one in the lower level, in the back), the exhibition takes you, mostly through photos, video, documents and ephemera, from Fields’ early beginnings in Philadelphia to his sad death from alcohol-related causes in 1946.

Some of the cool stuff on view:

* A photo of his mother, who bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland (in short, she looked like W.C. himself did in later years)

* Vaudeville programs from as early as 1898 (on one ad, he shares a bill with the Three Keatons)

* Photos of him in his early tramp juggler guise (see above)

* many of his personal papers and scrapbooks

* his personal letterhead from his vaudeville days, designed by himself (he was an avid — and very good — cartoonist in his early days)

* two video screens, one with scenes from his many silent films, one with scenes from his talkies and a Fields documentary (including hilarious, rare out-takes from Tales of Manhattan, one of his last performances)

* posters from his juggling performances all over the world (from as far away as South Africa), as well as his Broadway shows and movies

* personal correspondence concerning the principle heartbreak of his life, his estrangement from his wife Hattie and son Claude (testament to the fact that there was a heart beneath the crusty facade)

* correspondence with famous folks like H.L. Mencken, D.W. Griffith, William Saroyan, et al.

* a photo of him with Dorothy Parker which, for some reason, brought tears to my eyes

* pages of scripts and memos from flummoxed studio executives frustratedly trying to work with the difficult Fields on the pictures he was writing

* an old fashioned radio cabinet, playing audio samples of Fields on various radio shows

* quotes about Fields by others, and from his own autobiography

This is already a lot of course. What else could you include? Well….

I might have liked to have seen some artifacts (I can think of many possible ones: costumes, juggling materials, steamer trunk, type-writer, golf clubs, portable bar) but then one understands the added difficulty and expense in traveling such objects.

And I think the exhibition skirts rather superficially over the issue of Fields’ alcoholism, which was not only his main source of comedy, but his main source of tragedy, as well. It began to affect his health seriously in 1936, and made his life painful for another decade before killing him. It’s ugly stuff, but I think something is lost by sweeping it under the rug.

At any rate, you have another month to catch this otherwise terrific exhibition. For full info about when, where and how, go here.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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