With more than two million photographs, posters and promotional graphics as well as 20,000 films and TV shows, the archives within the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research offer historical insights to visitors as one of the world’s major archives of the entertainment industry.
Founded in 1960, the WCFTR is part of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Communication Arts. The center partners with the Wisconsin Historical Society to provide and store the collections, but WCFTR Assistant Director Mary Huelsbeck said all collections are owned by the university.
Anyone is able to access the archives, which Communication Arts Professor Jeff Smith said also consists of collections on American theater from the 1940s through 1950s and American television from the 1940s through 1970s.
Huelsbeck said visitors can study everything from what it took to produce a TV show to costume and design, as well as how a production may have been financed.
“[The archives’ collections] gives you a really wonderful insight into how things were done,” Huelsbeck said. “And in many instances we have the finished product here so you can study how it all got put together and see the end result.”
In addition to being a resource for students, the WCFTR also has helped movie producers for the new Bryan Cranston Film “Trumbo.” While she didn’t meet the “Breaking Bad” or”Malcolm in the Middle” stars, Huelsbeck said the WCFTR sent images of letters the blacklisted Trumbo sent while in jail, as well as other documents, to the screenwriter.
Some notable files the WCFTR holds includes Stephen Sondheim’s original, handwritten lyrics for “West Side Story” and papers from “Cleopatra” producer Walter Wanger as well as the United Artists, a studio formed by Charlie Chaplain, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Smith said.
“[Obtaining Dalton Trumbo’s collection] was an occasion where we wrote him a letter,” Huelsbeck said. “We wrote him a letter proposing he establish a collection, and a week later he wrote back and said ‘That’d be great, now I won’t have to worry about storing this stuff anymore.’”
In addition to Trumbo’s papers, Smith said the center contains documents from other blacklisted entertainment figures such as Alvah Bessie and Herbert Biberman.
Huelsbeck added the WCFTR also has collections from Russian and Soviet films as well as Hong Kong and Taiwanese films in addition to some from independent filmmakers. The WCFTR also recently received papers from Ted Hope, who produced films such as “American Splendor” and, more notably, “The Laramie Project.”
In the 60s and early 70s, long before email, Huelsbeck said the WCFTR obtained collections during their large-scale collecting process by writing letters and making follow-up visits to connections in the entertainment industry on the East and West Coasts. Now, the WCTFR does collecting through their own personal contacts or contacts of professors in the communication arts department.
Smith said when it comes to Hollywood’s history, people often make assumptions about certain intuitions they may have, but that a visit to the WCFTR can bring truth.
“If you’re doing serious historical research trying to explain how Hollywood as an industry and institution has changed over the years, the only way to verify what might be your own hypotheses is to look at the evidence from the documents themselves,” Smith said
Huelsbeck said the WCFTR is important because it houses film and other documentations that don’t exist anywhere else.
Currently, the WCFTR’s collective focus is on independent filmmakers as well as filmmakers who are women or from underrepresented backgrounds.