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Bessie Barnes papers

Identifier: Dance-MS-Barnes

Scope and Content of the Collection

Materials from Barnes's professional career as producer of nightclub shows in Chicago and Milwaukee, and from her later music teaching career and her personal life. Also many photographs, a black and white film, and a personal postcard collection.

Nightclub-related papers include production notes, programs, scrapbooks, and newspaper articles. Personal and teaching items include school transcripts, teaching credentials, materials relating to her Midwest Band Clinic and VanderCook School of Music employment, a family genealogy, and articles about Barnes upon her retirement. There are many photographs of nightclub performers, including showgirls in costume taken by H.A. Atwell of Chicago, as well as formal portraits and snapshots of family members and from vacations in Montana and elsewhere. There is also film footage of Bessie Barnes's show at the Kenosha County Fair in 1939. Of particular interest is an album of a 1938 Indian fair, probably in Montana.

Materials separated from the Barnes papers to the Newberry general collections include two super disc reference recordings made at radio station WGES (Federal Theater on the Air, May 11,1936 and Federal Theater Program, April 6, 1939), and Barnes's collection of song/music books, instrumental and popular sheet music, and a few other music-related items.


  • Creation: 1896-1992



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Bessie Barnes papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Audiovisual recordings in this collection have been digitized and are available online. Access to the original audiovisual items is restricted.

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Bessie Barnes papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of Bessie Barnes

Producer of nightclub theatrical revues in Chicago and Milwaukee during the 1920s and 1930s.

Bessie Barnes was born on January 28, 1905, in Hammond, Louisiana, and grew up in the Chicago area. She learned music from her mother, a pianist and music teacher, and graduated from Lake View High School where she was the orchestral and solo accompanist. While still in high school Barnes was the radio accompanist and soloist for station WJAZ, broadcast from the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Further musical training took place at the Chicago Music College and the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s Barnes produced elaborate stage shows at several well-known Chicago nightclubs, including The Frolics, Rainbow Gardens, Friar’s Inn and the Rendezvous Café. She worked with Fred and Adele Astaire and comedian Joe E. Louis, and gave Ginger Rogers her first dancing job.

From 1934 to 1936 Barnes produced the floorshows at Picks Club Madrid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was responsible for all aspects of the highly praised dance ensemble numbers from designing the shows and choreography to selecting the dancers, music and costumes. There were three shows a night, and the revue changed several times a year. Barnes was frequently involved in the entire show – singers, dance soloists, dance teams – besides staging the creative numbers.

In 1925 Barnes married Billy G. Rankin, a Chicago nightclub owner; the marriage ended in divorce. In 1931 Barnes married Elmer J. Baril, an executive at the Borden Company. He died in 1953.

Following her nightclub career Barnes turned to teaching. She took classes and taught at the VanderCook College of Music and received a Bachelor of Music Education degree in 1956. From the late 1930s into the 1970s Barnes was a band and choral director, dance teacher, vocal music instructor, and accompanist at several elementary and high schools in smaller communities in Illinois and Wisconsin. She also provided private musical instruction and was active in the Midwest Band Clinic. She moved to Poynette, Wisconsin, in 1978 at the invitation of a former student who wanted her to teach music to his children.

Barnes was an avid postcard collector. In her retirement she kept in touch with her students and enjoyed telling of her days at the clubs. She died in Poynette on May 29, 1996.


3.5 Linear Feet (6 boxes)

2 items (1 DVD and 1 open reel)


Photographs, newspaper reviews and miscellaneous personal items relating to Bessie Barnes, producer of nightclub theatrical reviews in Chicago and Milwaukee in the 1920s and 1930s.


Papers are organized in the following series:

Series 1: Nightclub Career, 1933-1937
Boxes 1-2
Series 2: Teaching Career and Personal, 1918-1989
Box 2
Series 3: Photographs and Film, 1880-1992
Boxes 3-5, Audiovisual boxes (restricted)
Series 4: Postcards, 1908-1986
Box 6

Collection Stack Location

3A 46 2


Gift of Jeffrey Smith, 2005; additions from Dallas Smith, 2015.

Processed by

Leslie James Osterberg, 2006.

Inventory of the Bessie Barnes papers, 1896-1992
Leslie James Osterberg
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2011-08-12: Revisions, additions, and updates were made.
  • 2023-01-17: Audiovisual materials have been permanently removed from the collection for preservation. Access to the original audiovisual items is restricted.

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States