The Lost Art of Souvenir Movie Programs

Collections of film memorabilia are always fun and interesting because posters and paraphernalia are essentially advertisements that are attractive and eye-catching, as well as informative. And because advertising styles change every year, a poster or press book from the 1940s is enormously different from one from the 1990s. But no matter the decade, the tie-in is often a fond reminder of the movie it promotes.

 

I’ve always appreciated movie posters, but there is another type of film memorabilia I’ve enjoyed even more—the souvenir movie program. This is definitely a long-lost art from the past. In fact, it’s not even well known that these even existed.

 

From 1915 to about 1995, many films wanted to be taken seriously as theatrical-type “events.” These films sold elaborate color programs, just 

like the ones sold at theatrical shows and concerts. In the 1960s when reserved-seat road-show engagements were popular, films were marketed like a Broadway show. (Indeed, many of these films were adaptations of Broadway hits.) The film companies would print up hundreds of booklets to be sold at the initial engagements.

 

In the 1960s, they sold for about a dollar each. Often, they were displayed and sold at the concession counter. You felt they were a very special souvenir because they could only be purchased at the movie palace where the film was playing. Nowhere else. When the film went into general distribution to “neighborhood theaters,” the programs could no longer be found.

 

What made these programs important to film lovers at the time was that they were a lovely reminder ergo “souvenir” of the film they just saw, as it might be a very long time before they viewed the film again.

 

In the first part of the 20th Century, there was no video you could buy a few months after the film’s release. It could be many years until a movie would be broadcast on TV. Or if it was a true blockbuster, like Gone with the Wind or The Ten Commandments, the studio would hold it from view or re-issue for seven years until a new generation was born.

 

Likewise, movie posters were never for sale or available to the public since distributors would save the used posters and store them for secondary distribution or future use. Even up to the 1970s, if you wanted a movie poster of a favorite film, you had to steal it. Remember Francois Truffaut’s childhood memory in Day for Night, where he steals the Citizen Kane lobby cards?

So, the only item a film fan might have to remind them of the film was a souvenir program.

 

I first started collecting them in the 1960s. I always brought an extra dollar along with me to a road-show film so I could buy the program to the likes of My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, or Oliver!. As my collection grew, I realized from research and sometimes inserts in the programs that they had been printing up souvenir programs for many years.

 

In thrift shops and out-of-print book stores, I found the likes of the hardcover Ben-Hur (1959) souvenir book. From the back page, I found the address of the original publishers. (Remember, there was no internet then.) I began writing directly to the 

publishers and found they were more than wiling to sell me older programs for a dollar. I was able to add How the West Was Won and many other of the 1960s epics.

 

As I collected what I could find from the past, I continued to collect newer ones from road-show movies I attended, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and The Godfather. As the road-show era subsided, so did the production and sale of souvenir programs. However, about that same time in the 1970s, I found out that in Britain the idea of the color program was still popular. The British have a love and knowledge of theatergoing, and understood and enjoyed their value. I was soon sending to London for programs like The Boy Friend and The Battle of Britain.

THERE’S LOTS MORE TO SEE!

Gerard’s collection of movie programs is so extensive that we didn’t even have enough room for all the highlights. So if you’d like to see some more rare treasures—like a look inside the original Singin’ in the Rain program, the industry-only booklet for the original Star Wars film, and even the program for the infamous mega-flop Star!, signed by Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise—check out our image gallery for “The Lost Art of the Souvenir Movie Program.”

Here in America, the rise of the science-fiction blockbuster helped keep the tradition of the souvenir program barely alive. Star Wars had a modest souvenir program for the general public to buy at the candy counter. For the audiences attending the premiere, however, a more spectacular program for the “upper class” movie industry was distributed. The Star Wars special edition was larger, more colorful, and glossier. To acquire a special-edition program like that you had to know somebody in the industry. As a young man that was a challenge!

 

But I think I enjoyed expanding my collection because movie souvenir programs were so hard to find.

 

When I grew up, I would take business trips to Hollywood, where I found various film bookstores like Larry Edmunds where they had large selections of classic Hollywood programs. I began to collect souvenir programs back to the 1920s, such as 

The Lost Art of the Souvenir Movie Program

Noah’s Ark, and even much earlier D.W. Griffith films like Intolerance and Birth of a Nation. Even these were elaborate booklets with many color pages.

 

After the LA earthquake of 1994, a big bookcase fell over at Larry Edmunds’ bookstore, and behind it lay a well-preserved collection of 1930s souvenir programs. They were kind enough to sell me this lost treasure trove, which included an elaborate die-cut program from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

 

As I added to my collection, I found it easier to locate programs from the 1920s and ’30s than the 1940s and ’50s. But many of my favorite films are from that later era. I wondered, “Were there souvenir programs for The Best Years of Our Lives or An American in Paris?” Through private collectors, I found out. Indeed, there were! The reason for the scarcity of programs from that time was the paper shortage caused by World War II and the subsequent Korean War.

 

After years of searching, I eventually found very rare souvenir programs to Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, and even All About Eve.

 

Since the country was still recuperating from the paper shortage, these are mostly in two-color monotone, but in this way, they match the films. Only the American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain seem to want for more, although they have a certain two-color charm of their own. What they lack in Technicolor punch they make up with in stylish collage design.

 

As the movies became more spectacular in the 1950s, so did the programs. Hardcover editions for Around the World in 80 Days, Spartacus, and El Cid were created. They are loaded not only with color stills but profuse information about the making of the epics and “backstage” behind-the-scenes pictures.

 

For that reason, they are still helpful and very fun to thumb through today. Sometimes they are even fun to pull out when you’re watching a classic David Lean film like Dr. Zhivago in your high-end home theater.

 

Today you can’t buy a program at a theater’s concession counter. Instead, blockbuster and fantasy films have complete film books that are sold to the public in stores such as Barnes & Noble. They are spectacular and often of the coffee-table variety. But that’s a different kind of film-book collecting.

 

One of the last programs sold in a movie was Dreamgirls (2006). I remember buying a gorgeous oversized program 

for the movie at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Even then, I suspected it was not a return to the golden age of souvenir programs but part of the marketing choices to give a 1960s retro feel to the film.

 

Gone is the era of seeing a film and leaving with a little piece of a movie by taking home a souvenir program. But if you search the internet enough you can still find a few. They are a vivid reminder of the golden age of Hollywood hype!

 

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

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