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It may come as a surprise to learn that Madison, Wisconsin, far from the bright lights of Hollywood and New York, is the home of the one of the largest and most significant collections of media history in the world. In the early 1950s radio news commentator Hans V. Kaltenborn, born and raised in Merrill, WI, donated the papers and memorabilia of his long and influential career to the Wisconsin Historical Society, located since 1900 on the UW-Madison campus. Other news figures of the era followed his example, and in 1955 the Society formed the Mass Communications History Center to develop holdings in this area.

One of the Wisconsin Historical Society's biggest coups in this collecting area was the deposit of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) papers in 1958. That collection, the only accessible archive of a major network in the US (though NBC did eventually donate other records to the Library of Congress), currently holds over 600 boxes of papers and more than 3,000 recordings, tracing the development of broadcasting from the early 1920s into the late 1960s. Other broadcast holdings, out of hundreds, include the collection of the National Association of Broadcasters, the papers of "the mother of soap opera" Irna Phillips (creator of The Guiding Light, and many others), and scripts and papers of Paul Rhymer, creator of the long-running radio program Vic and Sade.

In 1960, the UW's Speech and Theater department formed the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in order to expand the archives into other areas of media culture, with the mission to collect papers and other materials documenting twentieth-century performing arts. With an initial focus on American theater, the WCFTR quickly expanded its collecting priorities to include film and television. This approach to collecting provided scholars a unique opportunity to view production records along with the finished film or television program. 

In film, hundreds of individual artists and production companies donated their historical records, including the enormous United Artists collection, containing virtually every film, including features, shorts, and cartoons, released by Warner Bros., RKO, and Monogram studios between 1930 and 1950, and much more. More than a thousand boxes of paper records support the visual materials with business, legal, and creative documentation spanning four decades. Many individual stars, writers, directors, and producers are represented as well, such as Kirk Douglas, Agnes Moorehead, John Frankenheimer, and Edna Ferber, along with a cluster of holdings from the Red-scare era Hollywood Ten. 

In television, the WCFTR acquired, among others, the program archive of Ziv Productions, a syndicated program producer of the 50s and 60s, the papers and works of David Susskind, and MTM Enterprises, producers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its many spin-offs, along with many collections of individual artists.

In theater, significant WCFTR collections include those of Melvyn Douglas, Hal Holbrook, Moss Hart, and George S. Kaufman, just to name a few. In addition, the Wisconsin Historical Society holds the collection of internationally acclaimed theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The WCFTR archive also contains over two million photographs and promotional graphics, focusing on US motion pictures, broadcasters, and film and television stars.

The WCFTR is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Communication Arts Department. The WCFTR works closely with the Wisconsin Historical Society in carrying out its mission. In addition to housing the Center’s collections, the Historical Society holds extensive complementary documentation in its own historically significant collections.