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A Look Back: The 25th Anniversary of the Carnegie Hall Archives

Hello and greetings from the Carnegie Hall Archives. I am Gino Francesconi, Director of the Archives and Rose Museum. This is the first of a series of posts from the Archives written by me or my staff, Kathleen Sabogal and Rob Hudson. The timing of this post couldn’t be better: This season we opened a new permanent exhibition in the Rose Museum; Carnegie Hall launched a new website with expanded archives and history sections; and the first book in 25 years about Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall Treasures, went on sale in April. In addition, the Archives celebrates its 25th anniversary this August. Today, we have hundreds of thousands of items and nearly 50,000 events catalogued in a database that spans the Hall’s 120-year history. It might be surprising for some to learn that Carnegie Hall didn’t even have anything archived until 1986, and at that time most of its documented history was lost.

I became an usher at the Hall in 1974, then a backstage artist attendant, and in 1986 was asked to begin Carnegie Hall’s first archives—initially to find material for one retrospective exhibition at The New York Public Library during the Hall’s 1990–1991 centennial season. I had no archival training, nor was I a historian or even a collector; I came to New York to study piano and conducting. What I thought would be a fun job while studying music became somewhat bleak after searches throughout the building produced few items for an exhibit. Finding even less in local repositories and museums had me worried and afraid I would fail. Yet in less than four years, so many artifacts had been collected that 12 exhibitions were displayed around New York City during the Hall’s centennial year, culminating in the opening of the Rose Museum in the building.

And from where did all these thousands of artifacts come? This is the most wonderful part of the story because it shows what Carnegie Hall means to so many people all over the world. At first though, the biggest hurdle was the assumption by everyone that Carnegie Hall had warehouses full of treasures. We didn’t and we needed to get the word out. Before the internet, I made hundreds of phone calls, spoke to collectors at flea markets, explored antique shows, visited institutions (such as the Library of Congress), and placed advertisements in collection trade publications from Maine to California that literally said “Wanted.” The press featured stories about our search, broadening the scope. I soon began hearing from former employees and descendants of people related to the founders of the Hall. Even the man who owned Carnegie Hall from 1935 to 1960 called! Everyone had a Carnegie Hall story or an artifact. And most important, everyone wanted to help.

One moment in particular stands out because of its extraordinary results. A friend was sent an application to join the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). She was not yet close to 50, the minimum age required to join, so as a practical joke I began filling out the application using her name. I read that membership included the magazine Modern Maturity,which reached 27 million members—more people than all my advertisements combined. I immediately called their office in Washington, DC, and was frustrated when I heard the cost of placing an ad. But then the editor said, “You mean Carnegie Hall doesn’t have an archives and you are searching for its history? This isn’t an ad, it’s a story! I attended many wonderful concerts at Carnegie Hall and I will write a short article for you, no charge.”

I was thrilled and grateful, but that turned to disappointment when I received the next issue and no article. The following issue, the same. And the same for the next. I knew nothing of lead time for magazine publication. Then one day, I received a package that contained a dozen programs from the 1940s from a woman in Montana with a note that said she saw an article in Modern Maturity about Carnegie Hall’s search for its past! She had attended performances, saved the programs all her life, and was more than happy to help Carnegie Hall. The next day, 10 packages arrived, then dozens, then hundreds—not only the United States, but also from Europe, South America, and Japan. They included programs, photographs, tickets, recordings, posters, flyers, autographs, and more. If they didn’t have material, they had Carnegie Hall memories. “I met my husband at Carnegie Hall.” “I took a few minutes away from the Depression at Carnegie Hall.” “I heard Rachmaninoff there.” An average of six to 10 packages arrived each day for more than two years. In total, we received more than 16,000 items from that one article and almost all were donated. It still overwhelms me when I think about it. Not only did people cherish their memories and mementos of Carnegie Hall but they were so willing to share them with us.  

Archives 1987 Wanted Advertisement
One of the advertisements that started it all. 

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