Biographical/historical: Photographer, filmmaker, publisher, performer, and gay activist, Avery Willard (a.k.a. Bruce King), was born Avery Willard Parsons, Jr.in Marion, Virginia on May 16, 1921. Growing up in Virginia as a child who loved movies and the theater, he wrote to film stars and collected autographs. During World War II, he worked in Washington, D.C. for the Veterans Administration.
Coming to New York after World War II, Willard began working as a performer in summer stock. He performed at the Bayonne Opera Company in productions such as Abie’s Irish Rose and Arsenic and Old Lace. Avery Willard also toured in the Shubert production of The Merry Widow in 1944, but did not wish to continue working as a touring actor.
Around this time, he began taking photographs when his mother, Mary King Willard Grissom, gave him a box camera. Willard enjoyed taking photographs of his fellow actors, and eventually found that his true calling was photography. In the 1940s, he photographed at his apartment/studio just off Fifth Avenue. Even after he began his work as a professional photographer, he occasionally worked as an assistant stage manager or performer in Off-Broadway productions. Avery Willard was most active as a photographer from the late 1940s through the 1960s.
His work included portraits of many aspiring and famous actors, actresses, musicians, and dancers, as well as photographs of theatrical productions, mostly Off-Broadway, but also for Broadway, and other productions. Many of Willard’s photographs of Off-Broadway productions appeared in the theater annual, Theater World.
Among Avery Willard’s subjects (numbering more than two thousand) are: Bea Arthur, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Burton, Carol Channing, Montgomery Clift, Maurice Evans, Hermione Gingold, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Charlton Heston, Louis Jourdan, Lotte Lenya, Butterfly McQueen, Jayne Mansfield, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Anthony Quinn, William Saroyan, Maureen Stapleton, Robert Sterling, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, and many others.
Photographs of some notable figures in music and dance are also included, such as Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein, Ruth Brown, Pablo Casals, Nat King Cole and Trio, Vernon Duke, Libby Holman, Helen Humes, Cissy Houston, Zizi Jeanmaire, Gian Carlo Menotti, Mabel Mercer, Marie Powers, Roland Petit, Pearl Primus, Ted Shawn, and Mary Lou Williams.
The hundreds of Off-Broadway productions photographed by Willard include a 1956 Joseph Papp production of Colleen Dewhurst in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler at Theatre Marquee with James Caan (1960), The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, with Montgomery Clift, Maureen Stapleton, Kevin McCarthy, and Sam Jaffe (Phoenix Theatre, 1954), and Another Evening with Harry Stoones, a revue by Jeff Harris, with Barbra Streisand, Diana Sands, and Dom DeLuise (Gramercy Arts Theatre, 1961).
Broadway productions photographed include Dial "M" for Murder by Frederick Knott, (1953 and 1955), Mid-Summer by Vina Delmar (1953) with Geraldine Page, and The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams (1951) with Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach.
Avery Willard also did assignments for a number of businesses and organizations. Most notable among his corporate clients was Emmons Jewelry, a costume jewelry company, whose products were sold at home parties. In the 1960s, Willard photographed numerous celebrities for Emmons, including Kaye Ballard, Vivian Blaine, James Caan, Merv Griffin, Guy Lombardo, Robert Morse, Cyril Ritchard, Tony Roberts, Luise Rainer, Janice Rule, Martha Scott, Dick Shawn, Jean Shepherd, Bobby Short, Elaine Stritch, Gwen Verdon, and many others.
As staff photographer for the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), Willard photographed over fifty of the acclaimed ANTA Matinee Series productions at the Theatre de Lys from 1957 to 1963, as well as parties, places, and events for the organization.
Avery Willard also photographed a number of productions for the APA (Association of Producing Artists) and accompanied the group when they performed in Bermuda in 1960. From 1957 to1971, he took photos of numerous student productions for the School of Performing Arts. He also photographed the 1962 ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, where then-First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, unveiled the model for the proposed National Cultural Center. Willard developed an interest in the art of montage, which he utilized extensively in his work, and wrote an article on this subject that was published in Photography Handbook #175 (Fawcett, 1953).
Sometime following the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village in 1968, under the name Bruce King, Willard began publishing a newspaper, Gay Scene, which he published until 1992. With the increase of other gay-oriented newspapers and publications, Gay Scene’s circulation decreased over the years and the newspaper became increasingly difficult for him to sustain. (Gay Scene is not represented in the collection.) Avery Willard also appears to have started a company called Ava-Graph that produced gay pornographic films.
In 1992, Avery Willard broke his hip and recuperated in the Fieldston Lodge Nursing Home in Riverdale, New York. While at Fieldston Lodge, Willard wrote profiles of the staff for the home’s newsletter and gave talks about his career as a photographer of the stars. He died in the Bronx on September 7, 1999.
Content: The Avery Willard Photographs consist primarily of prints, proofs, contact sheets, negatives, oversized prints, and slides, spanning Willard’s professional photography career. Most of the photos were taken from the late 1940s to the 1960s, and cover a range of subjects. Almost all of the images are in black and white, but a small number are in color. Negatives and contact sheets are more numerous than prints.
Studio portraits of both aspiring and famous actors and actresses constitute the bulk of the collection, although other performing arts personalities can also be found. Among the portraits are a number of nudes, mostly male. There are also numerous images of rehearsal and studio photos of theatrical productions, especially for Off-Broadway. Avery Willard’s commercial work is also represented, particularly his work for Emmons Jewelry and School of the Performing Arts.
Personal material contains some photos of family, many with friends, portraits of Willard, and a scrapbook of photos from the 1940s. Avery Willard’s numerous negatives of motion picture stills, as well as autographed celebrity photographs, are also included. A small representation of personal papers contains correspondence, writings by Willard, a few family papers, some miscellaneous papers, such as business cards, publicity materials, and ephemera.