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Crafting Theatre, Part 3: Scrapbooks

I ended the last post with information about the online research I did about Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin.  I had worked hard at this, and honestly, I had enough information for a dozen possible shows.  But not quite enough for the sort of show that I wished to write.  Because for this show, I didn’t just plan to talk about Deanna Durbin, I wanted to play Deanna.  And I had learned a lot about her, but knowing and truly understanding were two different things.  Scrolling through websites – even good ones – just wasn’t enough, and wasn’t in keeping with the era of Old Hollywood. 


Reading book might have felt more authentic, but there have been only four books written about Deanna Durbin: One is a book listing academic facts, a sort of ‘Coles Notes’ about her life, recently put out by an academic publisher (which is odd, because Deanna has been essentially forgotten, it’s not as if she’s King Lear, to be studied in most freshman English classes…)  The second book was published about 10 years ago in the UK.  It is a sort of overview of Deanna’s films by a superfan, and contained over 200 pages of glowing praise and superlatives.  The other two books are Young Adult novels which were published in the 1930s, and were essentially fan fiction about Deanna and her adventures (they aren’t exactly factually accurate – they even renamed Deanna’s pet dog…)


I ordered one of the fan fiction books on Ebay, a clipping from an old magazine (possibly Variety), about Deanna Durbin and her rival, Judy Garland (Priceless to me, and it only cost $3.50!!)  I watched one of Deanna’s movies at the Performing Arts Library, and ordered 15 more, to watch back in Canada.


Then on to the newspaper archives, where a librarian was on duty who absolutely adored Deanna Durbin.  He told me about how much of an influence she had been in his life, and then directed me to an amazing find:  A stack of scrapbooks spanning Deanna Durbin’s entire career, lovingly put together by a forgotten fan, and eventually donated to the archives and stored away in the dark, far below the library.


I don’t think these scrapbooks had been opened in decades.  I was given a special foam piece to prop the sides of the scrapbooks, so as to reduce pressure on the spines.  I was given a special tool to turn pages.  There was a librarian assigned to oversee the area where I was sitting, to ensure that I didn’t break any of the (many) rules of the restricted room where I sat.


And…it was perfect.  Even the room was perfect, for reliving history.  The scrapbooks smelled like times gone by, and the yellowed flakes of newsprint which fell as I turned the pages made each page feel like a treasure.  And the clippings – there were movie ads and articles and cartoons and photographs, and I sat for hours in that room, while the holiday crowds in New York bustled through Midtown just outside, and felt as if I was living a time gone by.


For the next few days I was obsessed: Perform in the morning, grab a snack, hurry to the library, and get lost in scrapbooks until the library closed.  On the long subway rides back to Brooklyn, I thought about Judy and Deanna.  Walking through the Upper West Side, I imagined what it would have been like to live back then, what it would be like to be Deanna…to be Judy…  I copied down quotes from articles where Deanna expressed in her own words what she felt about her fame, about Hollywood.  I read over conversations which had been reprinted in gossip columns…


I was staying in an apartment with three other girls, and just before Christmas, they all left for the holidays.  That day I finished in the theatre, came back to the apartment, and was ready to organize the pages of notes and dozens of photos (cameras were allowed in the restricted room, but nothing else) into a first draft of the script…

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