Rex Bunnett’s hobby evolved into one of the country’s biggest private collections of original musical theatre posters, cast recordings and other memorabilia, and is now under the care of the V&A. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about his labour of love
There is a surprise in store for visitors to the West Acton home of retired banker Rex Bunnett. Much of it has been given over to one of the country’s most extensive private collections of original musical theatre posters, cast recordings and other memorabilia.
For the past three to four decades, Bunnett has been transferring the archive, which he started with his late partner John Muir in the 1960s, to the Performing Arts Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but much of it remains lovingly displayed in his home.
“It started off being just cast recordings,” Bunnett says. “My first Broadway show was Mame, starring Angela Lansbury, in 1966 and I went straight out and bought the cast album. Then I found the cast recording of Anyone Can Whistle, which Lansbury had done two years earlier. That’s what got me started on collecting.”
Bunnett worked as a currency exchange banker on Cunard cruises in the 1960s, hence the regular trips to New York. He recalls: “I used to trawl the city’s amazing second-hand record shops, looking for cast albums, as well as going to see shows.” In London, he and Muir would seek out dusty old record collections in electrical shops and ironmongers, as well as visiting Camden Market, a rich source of second-hand material. He adds: “I’ve only used dealers when it’s been stuff I’ve really wanted for the collection. I still buy one-off items, mainly from eBay these days. The earliest are 19th-century cylinders and piano rolls.”
Although he has never invested in whole collections, some have been donated, including the King’s Head Islington archive, given to him by the widow of founder-director Dan Crawford – “it turned up at my house one day in three separate vans” – and more recently the complete archive of John Pritchett. The former concert pianist, who turned to musical theatre and revue in the 1930s, became the pianist and musical arranger for the king of pre-war revue Herbert Farjeon, as well as writing the music for A Girl Called Jo, a 1956 musical adaptation of Little Women. Latterly he was the musical director at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
One find Bunnett was particularly pleased with was a hidden collection of large format theatre posters – the kind you see on the sides of buses – at the Palace Theatre, London. “I asked the manager if they were for sale and he said: ‘Take what you want. 50p each.’ That was an unexpected outcome.”
‘I still buy one-off items, mainly from eBay these days. The earliest are 19th-century cylinders and piano rolls’
He continues: “By the late 1970s, John and I decided we should safeguard the collection because it was growing at such a pace. We were both such enthusiasts. So the V&A sent about six curators round to my house to look at what we’d acquired and decided to take it all. I’ve had a terrific relationship with the V&A ever since, and their expansion to Stratford East in 2023 will make research easier and their archives more accessible.”
Having been amassing his collection for so long, Bunnett has met many of his musical theatre heroes, including Louis Armstrong, Millicent Martin, Julian Slade and Sandy Wilson. In the late 1970s he released recordings of one-man shows by Slade and Wilson on his own label, Overtures, which is also the name of the website for the Bunnett-Muir Archive.
Any musical theatre enthusiast will be rewarded by a visit to the Overtures website, founded in 2010, which Bunnett keeps up to date with musical historian Patrick Hayward, trustee of the collection, and online maestro.
Currently it contains anniversary features on the 1979 musical revue Songbook, the 1959 musical Lock Up Your Daughters, Noel Coward’s 1929 musical Bitter Sweet, and Kenneth Tynan’s 1969 sex revue Oh Calcutta! as well as profiles of Michael Ball, Irving Berlin, Jerry Herman and Howard Goodall. Each production feature is extensively illustrated with original photographs, programme notes, flyers and posters.
Bunnett appears to be as enthusiastic at 76 as he was when he started collecting half a century ago. “It keeps me engaged with what’s going on in the musical theatre world. I retired over 20 years ago and it’s been an all-consuming passion ever since.”
What have been the highlights of his musical theatre-going? “Gosh, so many. Man of La Mancha in New York in the 1960s, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, the original Oliver!, Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth.
“I’m so lucky to have seen so many original productions of these great shows. Oh, and I saw Judy Garland live three times.”
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