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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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San Francisco comedy collection to be reunited in Boston

For over 60 years, an Episcopal priest collected comedy recordings and ephemera from America's greatest comedians and performers.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Comedy comes in threes, goes the rule. When telling a story — or a joke — they’re better when they contain three elements or characters or, well, anything actually. Three elements, like three bears or three little pigs, are more interesting to the audience. In Warren Debenham’s case, his American comedy collection, some 40,000 records and compact discs, tchotchkes, board games and other novelty items, is entering its third transition.

The Warren Debenham Comedy Recording Collection will soon move from the San Francisco Public Library to Boston’s Emerson College, where it will join the rest of Debenham’s collection. Collected over some 60 years, the collection spans from the 1930s to 2006 and contains recordings of the comedic performances of some of the genre’s biggest names from Abbot and Costello to Lenny Bruce recorded on LPs, 45s, 78s and CDs.

The collection includes a still-in-its-wrapper arrow-through-the-head, a schtick Boomers and Gen Xers might remember from Steve Martin's acts back in the late 1970s. It comes with helpful instructions: “1. Unwrap; 2. Can only be used between the hours of 10:04 p.m. and 3:47 a.m.; 3. Not to be taken internally; 4. To be used only to degrade and humiliate; 5. Can be used as kitty handcuffs when necessary (large cats only); 6. Not to be used on unauthorized parts of the body.”

And there are compilations of numerous old radio shows such as "Our Miss Brooks," "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," "Duffy's Tavern" and "The Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show,” originally broadcast from the 1930s to the 1950s.

From 1955 to 2006, Debenham, then a minister in the Episcopal church serving all around the Bay Area, built his collection which, over time, was spread across three locations (See? Comedy comes in threes). In 1994, the minister donated 8,908 records and 10,664 45s to the San Francisco library, worth a total of $96,745 at the time. In 2007, he donated more material to Emerson College, while the third chunk of his collection remained at his Berkeley home.

Now 90, Debenham is donating the rest of his collection still at home to Emerson while the San Francisco Public Library is preparing to donate its portion to the eastern college, as well. Debenham did not respond to requests for interviews.

According to Jenn Williams, 38, assistant director for archives and collections at Emerson, it’s a good fit.

Emerson, unlike the San Francisco Public Library, offers a major in comedy. It’s also already home to a substantial collection of humor and comedy dating back to the 19th century in the form of vaudeville recordings and a collection of material from Variety magazine which, in its earliest days before becoming known for its coverage of the film industry, also covered theater and vaudeville.

The Emerson collection includes more than 70 oral histories from the likes of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory and the recently departed — and much loved — Betty White. Emerson also houses the personal collections of other notables such as Dom DeLuise and Bill Dana, a stalwart of the Steve Allen Show in the 1950s and a major contributor to Emerson’s American Comedy Archives, audiovisual interviews with notables such as Phyllis Diller, Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart.

“You really get a comprehensive look at comedy over multiple decades. It’s a collection that will be used by the comedy community,” said Williams.

Her personal favorite is Debenham’s novelty collection. “We have dollhouses, action figures and board games. It’s so much fun to work with,” said Williams. Her particular favorite?

“There’s a Casper the Friendly Ghost board game. I liked watching the show as a kid so there’s a bit of nostalgia there,” she said.

Performers come by to see what their colleagues have done, she said, but the collection draws everyone from curious high school students to doctoral candidates, including one student who came from New Zealand to go through the video collections.

From left to right: "Lotus Land," a musical comedy about life in Southern California by Ian Whitcomb (1995); "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo" sung by Sophia Loren (Date unknown); and the Loose Nuts, a punk/ska/country band (1995).

Emerson is particularly well suited to housing the collection. “There’s a lot of different things that go into preservation and care,” Williams said, from special folders to having an appropriate HVAC system. Many of the films housed at Emerson are also preserved by freezing, which helps prevent the film from degrading. When the time comes to show a film, it’s slowly thawed by being placed in a cooler or refrigerator, a process that takes from eight to 10 hours.

“You have to be careful because condensation can cause damage,” Williams said.

It's not that San Francisco was a bad place to store Debenham’s collection but, as Susan Goldstein noted, it was also “a bit of an outlier.”

An archivist, Goldstein, 64, runs the library’s San Francisco History and Book Arts Special Collections which, as the name would imply, focuses on San Francisco.

“We’re doing what a number of institutions are doing, taking a look at what we have,” she said. And like those other institutions, they’re finding more appropriate homes for collections that don’t particularly fit within their bailiwicks.

“It's a good thing for organizations to stop and take stock of what they have and what will serve the public the best,” said Goldstein, who is moving on herself and retiring in a couple of months.

Stored in acid-free boxes in a temperature-controlled environment, the collection isn’t as readily accessible to viewers in San Francisco as it is at Emerson. And, in these increasingly expensive times, maintaining a collection that doesn’t really fit in with the library’s aims means it’s taking resources that are increasingly limited. The transfer of the Debenham collection will provide additional space for more locally focused materials, Goldstein said.

“It’s expensive to take care of a collection the right way,” she said. Staff, labor, supplies — it adds up.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has accepted a proposed resolution approving the donation of the collection to Emerson. Once final approval is granted, the collection is expected to head to Boston in May.

Categories / Arts, Entertainment, History

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