Arts and Entertainment

Just like the man, Fred Waring collection is uniquely eclectic

"Fred Waring’s America" documents his years at Penn State, his long and successful career, and his life affiliation with Penn State. Credit: John Patishnock / Penn StateCreative Commons

Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Between a seemingly never-ending music career, a personalized cartoon collection and a patent on an electric blender, there are plenty of reasons Fred Waring remains uniquely eclectic. If you need further confirmation, then visit the third floor of the Pattee Library on the University Park campus, the location of "Fred Waring’s America," an expansive collection that Penn State University Libraries acquired 30 years ago.

Born in Tyrone, Pa., in 1900, Fred Waring lived a trailblazing life in which he became a nationally renowned musician and entertainer, and radio and television star. Waring was also a financial backer of the Waring Blendor, the first modern electric blender, spelled with an “o” instead of an “e” to differentiate itself in the market place. 

Now, the bulk of his life’s work is housed in "Fred Waring’s America," which documents his years at Penn State, his long and successful career, and his life affiliation with Penn State. It’s also one of Penn State University Libraries’ largest collections and is open from 2 to 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday during the fall and spring semesters, though appointments can also be scheduled for other times.

Walk into the exhibit and you’ll see a hodgepodge of items that represent Americana: cartoon drawings in frames and on table tops, colorful jackets Waring used to wear and 16-mm film reels and audiotapes. It’s Graceland meets higher education.

"What remains here is a really large collection of American popular culture,” said Tim Babcock, Class of 2003, the collection coordinator. "As far as I know, it's pretty unheard of to cover that many things. You could have business records, or a cartoonist collection or a recording collection, but this is an all-in-one collection."

Waring left Penn State before graduating to pursue an opportunity to make one of the first talking movies in Hollywood, though Penn State awarded him with an honorary degree and Waring received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 1957.

Waring, who died at age 84 shortly after performing a concert at Eisenhower Auditorium, stayed connected to Penn State for his entire life, teaching students at summer workshops and regularly conducting shows at Eisenhower.

Perhaps just as important as anything else, Waring was a copyright visionary. Even though there were usually sponsors accompanying his programs, Waring ensured that he kept and owned the rights for all of his shows, productions and writings. Basically, if he created something, it stayed his, and now that foresight makes it more manageable for Penn State Libraries to use, transfer and grant permission for the work.

Jackie Esposito, a University archivist, said the only other such large collection wherein the performer retained the rights was Bob Hope and the U.S. Organization (USO) Tour; between 1941 and 1991, Hope made 57 tours, entertaining military troops. Hope was the one who owned all the material, Esposito pointed out, not the organization. This isn’t a minor point, as "Fred Waring’s America" is a wholly owned subsidiary of Penn State Libraries’ University archives.

"From our perspective, from an access standpoint, it's great because we're the ones who control the rights now when people want to use it,” said Esposito, who’s been at Penn State for nearly 30 years and worked with Waring’s wife, Virginia, up until her death last year at age 97.

Virginia looked over the collection after Pete Kiefer, a long-time Waring associate, originally was in charge when Penn State acquired everything in 1984. Now, one of Fred and Virginia’s sons oversees the exhibit.

Esposito said it remains a very popular collection, attracting a few hundred requests a year, locally, regionally and nationally. Babcock mentioned California, Indiana, Montana and New York as four states from where they recently received inquiries.

Waring formed The Pennsylvanians, a traveling musical group that gave many well-known musicians either their start in the business or a bigger opportunity. Musical legends such as the husband-wife team of Mary Ford and Les Paul, Cole Porter and Robert Shaw all performed with Waring, who also was a radio, television and movie star.

Waring was wildly popular and enjoyed a good time. From 1943-74, he owned The Shawnee Inn and Country Club near Stroudsburg, on the eastern edge of Pennsylvania. Once a year, he’d invite members of the National Cartoonists Society to visit, and many cartoonists donated personalized cartoon drawings, many of which adorned tabletops and are part of the Penn State exhibit.

"What's unique about the collection is its scope and its breadth — it's not just radio and television, it's not just music,” Esposito said. “A part of what's unique is how expansive the collection is. The other thing that's unique about it is he was so multi-dimensional.”

That Waring was named a Distinguished Alumnus played a major role in Penn State’s interest in acquiring the collection. Esposito said the University archives has a program in which Penn State will reach out to Distinguished Alumni and encourage them do donate their collections to the University.

Waring arranged to have all of his belongings donated to Penn State shortly before his death, and his family continues to be involved with the exhibit. 

"It's a major piece of the Distinguished Alumni collections,” Esposito said. “The reason we even looked at this collection was because the alum had distinguished himself and really gone out and made something. We have a lot of alums who do that, and we look at their collections and say, ‘This should be here.’”

In an interesting surprise, Waring didn’t major in music at Penn State. Instead, he studied mechanical engineering. He was a financial backer for the Waring Blendor and excelled as a salesman. Esposito shared the following story:

Waring traveled the country with his musical group, and it wasn’t uncommon for most of the group to head to a local bar after that night’s performance. Waring made sure to take along a model of his blender, demonstrating to bartenders how to use it to make mixed drinks.

"That’s amazing marketing, it's tying in both of his loves,” Esposito said. “Even with the productions, when he's on the road with The Pennsylvanians, it's precision. It's precision dance moves, it's precision singing and it’s choreographed. It's that kind of detail that you don't necessarily get unless you're thinking like a mechanical engineer."

Choral groups within Penn State heavily use parts of the collection for research and within class curriculum, said Esposito. One growth opportunity, she said, lies in the College of Communications taking advantage of everything available; many of Waring’s performances were some of the earliest television broadcasts recorded.

The collection is plenty visible, though, and the University archives work toward making it available to more groups. Each year, a handful of organizations are targeted for marketing opportunities, though the exhibit has come a long way in the 30 years Penn State has owned it.

At first, the collection was housed in a University building located a few miles from campus, closer to the University Park Airport than the library. Now, it’s not uncommon for students to wander into the exhibit when looking for a break from studying; the third floor of Pattee Library is a notoriously quiet area.

Once there, students will sometimes get confused. Babcock said he’s had to (more than once) explain that Fred Waring isn’t actually the person who drew Beetle Bailey (Mort Walker) or Family Circus (Bil Keane and Jeff Keane). Rather, he was a great friend with the guys who did.

It’s those types of questions and conversations that Waring continues to elicit more than 30 years after his death. For someone impossible to pigeonhole, Waring’s enormously diverse collection is an equal match.

“You think about Fred Waring and you immediately think about music, but that wasn't who he saw himself as,” Esposito said. “When I think of the collections that are unique to me, they’re from someone who was at Penn State, graduated from Penn State, and then went out into the real world and actually made a difference.”

Included among "Fred Waring’s America":

Music libraryThe entire music library used by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians (1917–84), featuring 6,500 titles, including scores and instrumental/choral parts. There is also a large collection of published sheet music.

Recordings10,000-plus recordings on disc, wire, tape, kinescopes and videotape, covering every radio and TV program (1933–60), commercial recordings (1923–79), recordings of the Fred Waring Music Workshop and more. Program listings, production notes and scripts are available for most broadcasts.

Scrapbooks66 books with 7,600 pages of clippings (1922–84) encompassing the entire career of Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians.

PhotographsMore than 30,000 photographs and slides (1919–84) consisting of posed and candid pictures of Fred Waring, his family, members of The Pennsylvanians, celebrities, and other associates at various special events and activities.

CartoonsMore than 650 pieces of original art by leading cartoonists from the 1940s to 1980s, including Rube Goldberg, Milton Caniff, Mort Walker, Chester Gould, Walt Kelly, Hal Foster, Bil Keane and Chic Young.

Business and personal correspondenceBusiness records and correspondence of the organization, Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians (1922–84), as well as personal correspondence between Fred Waring and family, friends and celebrities.

Historical memorabiliaAwards, musical instruments, costumes, stage props, Waring Blendors, golf paraphernalia and personal items.

Fred Warning acquired hundreds of pieces of work by his cartoonist friends. Credit: John Patishnock / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 18, 2014