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One-Man Show

Miles Kreuger orchestrated his own career as caretaker of America's musical theater. Will he ever take a bow and part with the cultural gems under his L.A. roof?

February 13, 2005|Rachel Shteir | Rachel Shteir is the author of "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show."

After fleeing New York for Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Miles Kreuger unloaded two trucks into the bottom floor of a 17-room white stucco duplex that would one day hold the world's largest private collection of musical theater and musical film memorabilia.

The Library of Congress values the Kreuger archives, known as the Institute of the American Musical, at more than $1 million. State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr describes the stash--visitors gain access by appointment only--as a "cultural resource of international importance." Yet Kreuger, who lives among the floor-to-ceiling artifacts with his ancient dog, Molly, depends on the kindness of benefactors for financial support. Over the years, several of these friends have gently urged him to transfer the collection out of his darkly furnished duplex near the Fairfax district to a more secure and accessible site. But Kreuger resists every effort to pry away his things, showing the same tenacity he has deployed during the more than 50 years it took to acquire them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 08, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Musical theater -- A Feb. 13 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on Miles Kreuger and his musical theater archive said a payment to settle a lawsuit involving Kreuger was made to the heirs of "Kiss Me, Kate" collaborator Bella Spewack. The payment was made to Spewack's estate, not her heirs.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 03, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on Miles Kreuger and his musical theater archive ("One-Man Show," Feb. 13) incorrectly stated that a payment to settle a lawsuit involving Kreuger was made to the heirs of "Kiss Me, Kate" collaborator Bella Spewack. The payment was made to Spewack's estate, not her heirs.

"The institute is Miles. He is it," explains Robert Kimball, a musical theater historian and longtime member of the institute's board.

The number and variety of items stuffed into two floors is stunning: thousands of books; movie and stage ephemera; movie stills; 75,000 disc, cylinder and tape recordings and laser discs; donations from composers Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen, acting teacher Bobby Lewis and MGM. Also residing here en masse are tangible artifacts such as posters, autograph books and even chunks of the long-gone theaters of the vaudeville and silent film eras.

It's an exhaustive list.

"We don't have time to deal with teeny, tiny bits of history the way Miles does," says Betty Auman, donor relations specialist at the Library of Congress.

The stories of how Kreuger managed to amass these far-flung bits make up an oral volume of Kreugerology that circulates among historians, librarians, composers and show business people. Composer/lyricist Sheldon Harnick tells a tale in which Kreuger smuggled a camera into a New York performance of Peter Weiss' play "Marat/Sade" and the actors chased him down the street. Kreuger also snatched up shards of the Paramount Theater in New York left by demolition crews.

Among these lesser treasures are real gems that lyricists and composers or their heirs bestowed on Kreuger. "Seeing Miles' copy of the original script for 'Show Boat' moved me enormously," says Sam Brylawski, who until recently headed the recorded sound section at the Library of Congress.

That precious script resides in Kreuger's home, but where exactly? Perhaps only its 70-year-old keeper and his one loyal volunteer, associate director Eric Davis, know. Though the institute claims nonprofit status and has won numerous grants--Rockefeller, National Endowment for the Humanities, California Arts Council, to name a few--it lacks the sort of administrative support found in other archives of comparable historical value. Twenty years ago, when the collection outgrew the duplex's first level, Kreuger just started dragging stuff upstairs. "He is the most disorganized organized person I've ever known," Davis says.

From the outside, the institute resembles the house in the TV series "The Munsters." A giant rubber tree obscures the facade. Plywood covers a small window near the door. Inside, laser discs cover tables. Wood cabinets bulge with phonograph records. The few gaps between towering bookshelves are filled with photographs and lithographs and posters from plays. It smells like musty dog because, Kreuger says, Molly needs a bath.

Glasses dangling from a tether around his neck, Kreuger stoops slightly as he escorts a visitor through the collection. When the tour reaches his bedroom, Kreuger rummages inside a cabinet drawer and withdraws director Rouben Mamoulian's trademark round spectacles and then a weighty silver hand mirror that actress Anna Held, Florenz Ziegfeld's common-law wife, used onstage in the 1890s. Among the few non-theatrical files in the house is one devoted to assorted clippings about the foibles of President Bush. Kreuger shares it with a smile.

Kreuger is a raconteur of considerable charm. He serves tea and biscuits at a dining room table cluttered with postcards of historic theaters and heavy books as he holds forth on people who now exist only as Al Hirschfeld caricatures (several of which he owns), on film and in his memories. On one wall hangs an oil portrait of Kreuger with pouty lips and wavy black hair.

He says he prefers everything old to anything new and cites as an example his use of the old-fashioned alphabet locution for telephone exchanges. "Don't you think it's more elegant?"

He drops names and places.

"I remember Charlestoning with Dorothy and Lillian Gish in the 1950s. Lillian had no personality and Dorothy was a live wire."

And, he says, "Adele Astaire told me I was a better social dancer than Fred."

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