Federal Theater in Los Angeles and Across America

This post was written by guest blogger Carrie Goeringer.

The Federal Theater Project of the New Deal era ran from 1935 to 1939. Its task was to employ the talents of people in the theater business, as well as the skilled craftspeople the theater required to function, as it entertained Americans throughout the country while they suffered through the Great Depression.

Actors, directors, playwrights, stage and costume designers, vaudeville performers, stage technicians, marionette craftspeople, dancers, and performers of nearly every kind found employment with the Federal Theater Project. Over a four year period more than 2,700 stage productions, of both classics and newly written plays and productions, were produced and performed by more than 12,000 theater professionals and enjoyed by an audience of over 30 million people in a majority of cities, towns, and states across America.

The film “Federal Theater in Los Angeles, 1936” (National Archives Identifier #12377/Local Identifier 69.64) shows the variety of talent and productions offered to the public and the benefit of the relief the project provided to unemployed Americans. In an age before television Americans were particularly drawn to the glamour of the stage and the escape it provided from hard times.

Portable or caravan theaters were organized to go to the people in more remote sections of cities like New York. Special efforts were made to provide entertainment for children and also children confined to hospitals and orphanages. Portable theater was made available to veterans in hospitals and elderly folks. It was hoped the newly formed casts and theaters would continue after the Federal Theater lost its funding in 1939.

The Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives has many series about the Federal Theater Project, including the new series, “State Photographic Files Documenting Theater Productions, Facilities, Performers and Other Personnel, 1935-1939” (National Archives Identifier #7420069/Local Identifier 69-TSA). Pictorial coverage includes a young director, Orson Welles,  and a modernist dancer, Ruth Page. This photograph is from the “Brother Mose” production in New Jersey, 1936:

From: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, compiled 1882 - 1962 Collection FDR-PHOCO: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 - 1962
WPA: Federal Theater Project: Actors rehearsing scenes from the production”Brother Mose” in Newark, New Jersey, 04/08/1936