This post was written in collaboration with Kelsey Noel.
“This is the lesson of the penny.
Some have too many,
Some have too few,
But share with those who haven’t any.”
– Yasha Frank
Broadway. December 23, 1938; the Ritz Theatre in Manhattan. This was opening night for Yasha Frank’s Pinocchio – a children’s play written and produced by Frank as part of the Work’s Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Over the next six months until it closed on June 30, 1939, the theatrical presentation – well received and widely adored – would be performed in New York 197 times and work it’s way west to be performed across the country.
Established by executive order in 1935, the WPA assumed a dominant role in work relief activities during the Great Depression. It was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and sponsored the FTP as one of the five arts-related Federal Project Number One projects. The Federal Theatre Project was intended to improve unemployment in the entertainment industry. Actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, stage technicians, and other skilled craftspeople in the theater field benefited from the program.
But in addition to providing jobs for employable people on the relief rolls, the FTP offered many Americans their first opportunity to see live theater. Many FTP productions were classical dramas, vaudeville, or light comedy, including a variety of children’s plays like Treasure Island, Hansel and Gretel and – of course – Pinocchio.
Yasha Frank, who became the Director of the Federal Theatre Children’s Unit in Los Angeles and later became National Consultant to the Children’s Theatre, made many changes to the theme and characters from Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. His play received widespread audience exposure across the United States, reaching many during its run on Broadway and subsequently on the west coast. One particularly interesting viewer, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Walt Disney. Inspired by Collodi and Frank’s Pinocchio, Disney released his classic animated movie in February of 1940, not long after the FTP had been dissolved and less than a year after Frank’s Pinocchio made its last appearance on Broadway.
The graphite and watercolor sketches seen throughout this post can be found in 69-PIN. Created by the Technical Department of the WPA’s National Service Bureau for a New York production, each sketch displays the original sketch number, date, and name of the character. Soon, the entire set of 32 sketches will be made digitally available for download and use from the The National Archives Catalog.