Sunday, October 23, 2011

Federal Theatre broke the barriers between so-called high art and low, by producing slapstick comedy and modern dance, musicals and vaudeville (more than 2,000 performances), and even circuses (one employing the young Burt Lancaster.)

There was puppet and marionette theatre, and the Project introduced the concept of adults performing children’s theatre to America. One of its most popular productions was Pinocchio, a favorite of adults as well as children. Walt Disney and his technical staff saw it eight times in Los Angeles, shortly before Disney made Pinocchio his next animated feature, and copied aspects of the set. (There’s no record however, of Disney attending another Federal Theatre play called The Ballad of Davy Crockett.)

Many productions played for months, and some 45 major productions toured through cities and small towns. 65% of all FTP productions were given free in parks, hospitals, transient shelters, schools and CCC camps.

The total cost of the Federal Theatre Project was estimated at $22 million, or as actor Burgess Meredith said, half the cost of a battleship. Playwright Arthur Miller—who worked in the playwriting unit-- estimated that four or five FTP actors who went on to lucrative careers probably paid back the cost of the entire program in income taxes over the next 15 years. “I’m not exaggerating,” he said. “Their income tax probably paid for the whole damn thing.”

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