A Role of a Lifetime: Dallas Summer Musicals Archivist

As patrons pick up tickets in the lobby of the Music Hall at Fair Park to see one of Dallas Summer Musicals' modern shows, they do not realize Sally Soldo, Dallas Summer Musicals' archivist, is steadily working to uncover, catalog and digitally preserve an extensive collection of Dallas' theatrical history.

Soldo's job, unlike the show business going on just above her, is not glamorous. In a section of a basement that is noisy due to mechanical equipment, stifling hot in the summer, frigid in the winter and constantly covered in dust, Soldo sorts through file drawers, boxes, and cabinets and comes face-to-face with history that is both professional and personal.

Soldo began performing with the Dallas Summer Musicals in 1955 at the age nine in a production of South Pacific. By the time she was sixteen years old and officially joined the dance ensemble, she had performed in thirty shows.

"Every day was a learning opportunity. It was the best education. I was working with the best directors, choreographers, and actors," Soldo said.

In a photo of the stage shortly after the company moved from Fair Park’s Band Shell to the Music Hall at Fair Park in 1951, Sally points out five small microphones evenly spaced out on the edge of the stage and comments on her own singing.

"That's why I'm so loud. I grew up here and those were the only microphones we had here. There were no body mikes or booms. I had to learn how to project," she said.

Her experience at Dallas Summer Musicals helped her develop a career as an award-winning actress and she treasures the lessons she learned and the friendships she made at the beginning of her career. Her personal scrapbooks are filled with photos and playbills signed by celebrity cast members.

Sally Soldo
Sally Soldo age 11 in Show Boat

Soldo appeared in Calamity Jane with Carol Burnett playing the title role. At the time, Burnett was four months pregnant and the cast hosted a baby shower for her. Soldo still has the handwritten thank you note from Burnett, expressing gratitude for the "cute Texas outfit" Soldo's mother selected for the legendary performer's baby.

The archives in the Dallas Summer Musicals' basement mirror Soldo's personal collection, but on a larger scale.

Dallas Summer Musicals archives
Starlight Operetta playbill cover

The organization began in 1941 as Opera Under The Stars with a production of Blossom Time. There were no performances in 1942 because of World War II.

A new season was launched in 1943 under the name of Starlight Operetta. Ten shows were presented over ten weeks in the summer and ticket prices during the first season ranged from $.30 to $1.10.

The archives date back to the first season in 1941 and include promotional photos, production photos, playbills, souvenir programs, and scrapbooks filled with advertisements, postcards, subscription brochures, reviews, and articles.

Boxes and shelves are filled paperwork, Kodachrome slides, hand-typed scripts and performers’ contracts.

Soldo particularly loves the contracts. She can see how much the celebrity actors like Judy Garland, Carol Channing, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Joel Grey, and Rock Hudson were paid for specific roles over the years.

"Sometimes I find something glorious. I've found telegrams from Cole Porter and a script of Porgy and Bess," Soldo boasted. She is still looking for her first contract at the Dallas Summer Musicals.

Soldo appreciates the photos of window displays at Neiman Marcus and Sanger Bros department stores. The displays advertises a specific show and a mannequin is dressed in an outfit suggested for theatre-going.

A news article from 1951 shows off the organization's usherettes and their new uniforms.

Patrons often donate their vintage playbills and Soldo is charmed to discover they taped their ticket stubs and reviews of the show within the pages. Many patrons have also written notes about which actors they liked and which they did not. With those donated playbills, the audience becomes part of Dallas theatrical history.

The tape used to enclose the ticket stubs and reviews in donated playbills is one of Soldo's archiving challenges. Often the glue from the tape stains the documents. As Soldo opens one scrapbook, the glue fails and documents slide to the spine of the book, leaving a stain mark on a blank page. When Soldo started this archiving project seven years ago, she gravitated towards the massive collection of photos. She discovered she needed to erase crop marks, wax penciled numbers and the artistic outlining intended to improve contrast in the photos before she can scan it into a digital archive.

Flooding is a constant concern and Soldo is often surprised to discover how vibrant the colors of the publications have remained despite being exposed to extreme temperatures. She often needs to physically take apart the scrapbooks to successfully scan its contents and sometimes maintenance staff are called upon to grind the brads. After she scans the photos, she seals them in a plastic bag.

At a glance, Soldo can identify which photos she scanned and which she has not. Soldo admits deciding what to keep is challenging. "It sounded easy until I got down there and started trying to prioritize what I thought needed to be preserved," she said. "It's more than scanning a scrapbook."

Dallas Summer Musicals does not intend these archives to remain hidden in a basement. For their 75th anniversary in 2015, many of the pictures of the shows and Fair Park were used in a souvenir book about its history. The non-profit organization plans to create a lobby display of archival materials, hoping to educate patrons about its place in Dallas' vibrant history.

Sally Soldo knows this archiving project will outlive her, but she is proud to help preserve the history of a place where she found her artistic calling.

Chris Jose, NBC 5 News
Five crosses at the Dallas police memorial represent the five officers killed on July 7. They were made by a Fort Worth artist.

Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.

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