Lights, Camera, Archives!

Today’s post comes from Joseph Gillette, an archivist at the National Archives in College Park.  

For many people, the National Archives’ media presence begins and ends with the movie National Treasure. But the Archives has been a centerpiece to many media productions in its history. This was certainly the case during the Golden Age of television—the 1950s and 1960s.

A Mouse in the House (well, almost . . .)

In 1958, Walt Disney Productions contacted the National Archives with a request. Disney was producing an hour-long show called “The Liberty Story,” during which the Revolutionary War story of Johnny Tremain would be told, interspersed with narrative from Walt Disney himself. This narrative would be spoken over images of the Declaration of Independence, including its transfer from the Library of Congress to the National Archives in 1952.



Archivist Wayne Grover himself responded to this request. Needless to say, the National Archives would be more than happy to contribute to Mr. Disney’s vision:


As it happened, no footage was shown from the Archives collection, although Disney does briefly refer to a facsimile of the Bill of Rights during the filming of his television show.

4 on the 4th

Today Show broadcast, July 4, 1956. From left to right: Guard Randolph Thomas; NBC commentator Joe Michaels; Karl Trever (NEP); Director of Advertising Lang Littlehale, Mosler Safe Co.; NBC director Charles Jones; unidentified cameraman, WRC-TV Channel 4. (Records of the National Archives)

On July 4, 1956, NBC television’s Today Show broadcast from the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. The purpose was to showcase the Charters of Freedom on Independence Day. NBC commentator Joe Michaels narrated.


The broadcast went off without incident. Public relations firm Harshe-Rotman Inc. sent a photograph and thank-you letter to the National Archives after the broadcast.

Letter from Harshe-Rotman Inc.’s Jack Bernstein to Karl Trever, Chief of Exhibits and Publications, July 9, 1956. (Records of the National Archives)

Karl Trever, Chief of the Exhibits and Publications Section, responded in agreement and added a kind-hearted request for one of the broadcast participants.

Letter from Karl Trever, Chief of Exhibits and Publications, to Harshe-Rotman Inc.’s Jack Bernstein, July 12, 1956. (Records of the National Archives)

A few days later, Trever got his response. And Mr. Thomas got his photo.

One Wit’s Take on Another

In September 1966, the television anthology series ABC Stage 67 filmed the documentary “The Kennedy Wit” at the National Archives Building. Hosted by television legend and former Tonight Show host Jack Paar, “The Kennedy Wit” showcased the humor of President John F. Kennedy.

Jack Paar and daughter Randy in the Rotunda of the National Archives during a production pause in the filming of “The Kennedy Wit,” 1966. (Records of the National Archives)
Photograph of Jack Paar inspecting John F. Kennedy documents in the stacks at the National Archives, 1966. (Records of the National Archives)

“The Kennedy Wit” was one of the series’ better rated episodes. Bob Carman, associate producer of the show, wrote hopefully of a continuing, mutually beneficial relationship between ABC and the National Archives. Unfortunately, ABC Stage 67 was canceled after only one season.

Legends and Locals

In 1953, journalistic icon Eric Sevareid produced a short documentary series for CBS to introduce the country to members of newly inaugurated President Eisenhower’s cabinet. The first installment showcased Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, followed by Arthur Summerfield, the new Postmaster General. As happens frequently among stakeholders and customers, the State Department, Sevareid, and CBS were surprised at just how valuable our holdings could be:

Memo on Eric Sevareid’s “State of the Union” program, 1953. (Records of the National Archives)

The national news media weren’t the only ones the Archives could assist. Local broadcasters, too, found our holdings to be invaluable to their productions. KCRA-TV in Sacramento, CA, initially contacted the Library of Congress for assistance with a program they were producing about Alexander Hamilton. Their request for materials was forwarded to the National Archives, which responded by providing copies of Hamilton’s papers. Producer Merle Hussong was ultimately very pleased with the assistance, to the extent that he hoped for an ongoing productive relationship with the National Archives:

Letter from Merle Hussong, producer and moderator of Under the Capitol Dome, KCRA-TV, Sacramento, CA, 1957. (Records of the National Archives)

These examples just scratch the surface of the National Archives’ valuable role in contributing to the history of American media. Radio, film, and television have benefited greatly by the use of the National Archive’s unique collections. There is no doubt the National Archives’ ongoing contributions will prove valuable in telling the story of our government—and our country—to future generations.

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