Black and white photo showing actors on the stage during a 1930 performance of Cleveland Play House's "The Importance of Being Earnest"
Actors, including Margaret Hamilton, perform onstage during a production of Cleveland Play House's "The Importance of Being Earnest" during the 1929-30 season.

Kelvin Smith Library digitizes thousands of historical Cleveland Play House photos

For more than 100 years, Cleveland Play House has served as a cultural staple in the community. The venue has a storied history of productions starring actors such as Margaret Hamilton, who starred as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, and Paul Newman, who was involved with the Play House Children’s Theater and went on to the silver screen. Now, members of the community can relive that history through more than 6,000 photographs available through Digital Case, an online Open Access platform.

In 2012, Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library acquired the photos, in addition to playbills, program booklets, posters, scripts, set designs and more dating from 1915, filling more than 1,000 boxes in all. When combing through the materials, the library’s archivists made many notable discoveries, including images of Hamilton from her early career, such as a portrait of her as the character Prudence in Fashion (1927-28 season) and in The Importance of Being Earnest (1930 Cleveland Play House summer season at the Chautauqua Institute). There are also some from years later, when she returned to the Cleveland Play House stage in a benefit performance of Night Must Fall (1978-79 season). 

“When one surveys the existing and available archival record of professional theater, it would be hard to find a comparable collection,” said Arnold Hirshon, vice provost and university librarian. “The Cleveland Play House archives are an unparalleled resource for researchers studying the emergence and development of the American regional theater movement, as well as a treasure trove of information about the general and cultural history of Cleveland.”

Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland community members are encouraged to make their own discoveries by looking through the photos available through Digital Case. Users can browse, search, view and download the images, which are organized by season date. Additionally, each photograph has a persistent identifier to ensure long-term access to the materials. As the staff wrapped up efforts to make these production photographs available online, their attention was already shifting to other materials, such as playbills and program booklets. 

“Given the inherent scholarly value and local interest of this collection, we wanted to ensure long-term preservation and access to the digitized materials,” said Stephanie Becker, digital collections manager for the Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship.

Some essential pieces of information, called descriptive metadata, have been recorded about each photograph, including the title of the production, its season year, subject keywords and, in many cases, the names of actors pictured. The descriptive metadata of this collection allows it to be easily discovered by people searching on multiple platforms, not just the library’s website, increases visibility to CWRU’s virtual and physical library collections, and facilitates scholarly collaboration. 

The contents of the archive are described in the library’s online database, ArchivesSpace, where users can find detailed descriptions of all the records. Questions about the archive and requests to see the physical materials in the library can be directed to the Special Collections reference service via email at or telephone at 216.368.0189.