R. H. Burnside collection

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Collection Data

Showman R.H. Burnside (1870-1952) was born in Glasgow to a theatrical family. His career began at London's Savoy Theatre in the 1880's where he worked backstage for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on its original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. After moving to America, Burnside staged over 200 shows during his career, including many musicals for which he wrote music, libretti and lyrics. He was most closely identified with his direction of the popular musical extravaganzas at N.Y.'s Hippodrome Theatre between 1908-1923.
Burnside, R. H. (Robert Hubberthorne), 1873-1952 (Creator)
Barnes, Will R., -1939 (Costume designer)
Cook, Marie (Costume designer)
Dillingham, C. B. (Charles Bancroft), 1868-1934 (Producer)
Frohman, Charles, 1860-1915 (Producer)
Lawson, Mark (Set designer)
MacGeachy, Cora (Costume designer)
Matthews, William Henry, 1873-1946 (Costume designer)
McQuinn, Robert (Costume designer)
Monkhouse, Gladys (Costume designer)
O'Kane, H. M. (Helen Marguerite), 1879- (Costume designer)
Wilhelm, Carl (Set designer)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1905 - 1952 (Approximate)
Library locations
Billy Rose Theatre Division
Shelf locator: *T-Mss 1952-002
Theater -- New York (State) -- New York
Theater -- Production and direction
Lambs (Theatrical club : New York, N.Y.)
Keith-Albee's New York Hippodrome
Costume design drawings
Set design drawings
Biographical/historical: Showman Robert Hubber Thorne Burnside (1870-1952), known as 'Burney' and 'Zipp', was born in an apartment over the Gaiety Theatre in Glasgow, where his father was manager. His mother, the actress Marguerite Thorne, brought two year old Robert to the U.S., where she played a role holding her son onstage. After they returned to England, he was educated in Brighton and Yarmouth, and by the age of twelve had twice run away from home to join the circus. Burnside soon followed the Edward Terry theatre company to London. There he found work as a call boy at the Savoy Theatre when the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was making history with their original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas. In 1894, serving as producer and director for Lillian Russell, he relocated to the U.S., continued his directing career, and began writing musicals. Sergeant Kitty(1903) and The Tourists(1906) were the first scripts that he wrote. In 1908, after directing 19 shows at various Broadway venues, Mr. Burnside began his long association with the Hippodrome Theatre, where he was to enjoy his greatest success. Located on the east side of Sixth Avenue, where it occupied the entire block from 43rd to 44th Street, the Hippodrome was a "national treasure," and was advertised as the largest playhouse in the world. Lee Shubert, who was then managing the Hippodrome, hired Mr. Burnside to experiment with an entertainment formula that would fit the huge playhouse, which had a seating capacity of 5,300. Burnside mounted circus-sized spectacles, his success due in large part to his choreographic imagination, and the precision and order he brought to directing an immense cast and staff. There were 525 staff members working offstage, and up to 500 cast members working onstage -- they were trained like a "well disciplined army." The wide stage accommodated two circus rings, a water tank and hydraulic lifts; the backstage area housed an ice rink and barns for livestock that appeared in the spectacles. Chorus tableaux, pageants, ice skating scenes and ballets (including one choreographed by Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine) were included in the shows. Aquatic numbers featured diving girls who magically disappeared into the water tank at the shows' finale. There were specialty acts by Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, and vaudevillians DeWolf Hopper and Fred Stone. Powers Performing Elephants were a favorite and frequent attraction, and John Philip Sousa was often on hand to arrange the music. Burnside's colleague Charles Dillingham assumed control of the Hippodrome arena in 1915; Burnside and Dillingham worked successfully as associates for a total of 16 years, both at the Hippodrome and the Globe Theatres. After the Hippodrome's heydey ended in 1923, Burnside acquired all of the theatre's costumes and equipment to start a theatrical rental business called R.H. Burnside Productions. The shop on W. 47th Street supplied complete scores, orchestra arrangements, costumes, props, technical equipment, and various accessories for operas, ballets, revues, parades, historical pageants, fashion shows, minstrel shows, exhibitions and more. The slogan was "We Furnish Everything" and the brochure stated: "Can supply 1-10,000 costumes within 24 hours." Resident designers for the enterprise were Will R. Barnes for costume design and Mark Lawson for scene design. Burnside's stint in Hollywood was limited to one film: in 1924, working with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (part of Paramount Publix), he directed Manhattanstarring Richard Dix and Jacqueline Logan. Having clearly established his reputation as a creator of popular large-sized projects, he landed a job in 1926 writing and staging a huge history pageant at the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia. Entitled Freedomthe pageant boasted a cast of 2,700. In 1933, he again worked with the Paramount Publix film company, this time directing stage presentations at the N.Y. Paramount Theatre; these played between the newsreels and the screen presentations. In 1936, a super-spectacle film glamorizing the association of Dillingham and Burnside was planned by Universal Studios, to be titled Hippodrome. Spencer Tracy was to play Burnside, with Fredric March as Dillingham; sadly the project fell through. In 1939, Burnside served as technical advisor to the entertainment division of the New York World's Fair. In the 1940's, he returned to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, in hopes of developing a permanent G. and S. repertory company. He organized the Boston Comic Opera group for that purpose, and the company toured major cities in the Northeast. In 1944, The Gilbert and Sullivan productions arrived in N.Y., playing in repertory at the St. James and Ambassador Theatres. The G. and S. revivals were deemed "historically correct," but received mixed reviews, and the project was abandoned. Burnside was a charter member of ASCAP and wrote the popular song "You Can't Beat the Luck of the Irish." He became a member of the Lambs Club in 1897, was shepherd of the Lambs from 1918 to 1921, and staged many of the Lambs' public and private Gambols between 1921 and 1941. Burnside's wife, Kittie, the former Kathryne Hyland, served occasionally as his co-writer and assistant stage director. The couple were married for thirty years, had three daughters, and owned a home in Ridgewood, N.J. After Kittie's death in 1940, Mr. Burnside left his home in Ridgewood to live at the Lambs Club on W. 48th Street. (The collection continued to be stored at the Ridgewood house.) Three months before his death, he moved to the Middlesex nursing home in Metuchen, N.J. where he died at age 82.
Content: Burnside possessed a treasure trove of memorabilia from the Hippodrome: full color designs and production files from the musical spectacles highlight and comprise the bulk of the collection. The designers whose artistry is featured are Will R. Barnes, Marguerite O'Kane Conwell, Marie Cook, Mark Lawson, Katharine Lovell, Cora MacGeachy, Robert McQuinn, William Henry Matthews, Gladys Monkhouse and Carl Wilhelm. The collection includes choreographic notes and diagrams, promptbooks, production files and portions of Burnside's dramatic writings. Also, Lambs Club papers, rental business records, theatre administration files and scrapbooks. The collection also contains a portion of producer Charles Dillingham's office correspondence, as Dillingham was Burnside's business partner for 16 years. A few of producer Charles Frohman's files are also included here. (The Frohman's files were in Dillingham's possession at the time of Frohman's death in 1915.) Burnside's correspondence makes it clear that he had an accumulation of materials given to him by Dillingham for safekeeping and that some of these materials were from the Charles Frohman offices. Note: An essay dated October 1971, entitled "The Burnside Mystery: The R.H. Burnside collection and the New York Public Library" may be found here in box 1 folder 1. It details the inclusion of the Frohman material in the Burnside collection and Dillingham's role in assembling the material. Approximately 100 plays by Burnside as sole or co-author are cataloged separately in the Library's online catalog. Search R. H. Burnside as "author." See also: the Burnside Tally Sheets in the Music Division, call number JPB 83-49; Burnside's correspondence in the Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division, call number W89-A377; and a separate Charles Dillingham collection, call number W92-A179.
Content: Approximately 100 plays by Burnside as sole or co-author donated with the Burnside papers may be found as bound typescripts in the Theatre Division. Search The New York Public Library Catalog using Burnside, R. H. as author
Physical Description
Extent: 34.4 linear ft. (76 boxes)
Type of Resource
Still image
Other local Identifier: *T-Mss 1952-002
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b18358405
MSS Unit ID: 21994
Archives collections id: archives_collections_21994
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 5b410320-79b7-0137-7e3f-008f16b5d7de
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