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Hope Abelson papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Abelson

Scope and Content of the Collection

Materials related to Hope Abelson's theater career, philanthropy, and personal life.

Theater materials include scripts, playbills, posters, and other mementos, as well as Abelson's personal notes and diaries. The philanthropy series is comprised of correspondence, publicity, and administrative documents, and personal items include correspondence with family and friends, research, materials related to awards and speaking engagements, travel mementos and a variety of biographical writings and clippings, including Abelson's contribution to the Jews of Chicago oral history project. A scrapbook compiles mementos and letters of congratulation from "Much Ado About Something," the Chicago Associates of Stratford Festival's 1999 tribute to Hope Abelson's 50 years in theatre, and other highlights of Abelson's theater career.

The collection also includes photographs of Abelson with family and friends and at various events, and on her many travels. There is a small series of audiovisual items, primarily comprised of interviews with Abelson, as well as awards and honorary events. Audiovisual materials have been digitized and are available online.


  • Creation: 1914-2008
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1949-2006


Language of Materials

Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Hope Abelson 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 aonline. Access to the original audiovisual items is restricted.

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Hope Abelson 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 Hope Abelson

Chicago-based theater producer and arts activist.

Hope Abelson was born Hope Altman on September 21, 1910, and grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. As a child she expressed a strong interest in the arts, studying dance as a teenager and then theater as a student at Northwestern University. She also worked in radio drama, playing an occasional soap opera role as well as acting in other national programs originating in Chicago.

She met Chicago businessman Lester Abelson through family friends and married him in 1933. The couple had two children, son Stuart and daughter Katherine. During World War II, Abelson served as director of the Red Cross Speaker's Bureau, urging the community to donate blood and contribute to the war effort. During this time she was also involved in booking local and touring entertainment acts for area military hospitals. After the war, Abelson became involved in Chicago's suburban summer stock theater, first helping to establish Wheeling's Chevy Chase Theatre in 1949, then working with the Music Theater in Highland Park from 1950-1952. In 1952 she met New York producer Cheryl Crawford, founder of the Actors' Studio, who offered her a job as a production assistant on the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real. Charged with handling script revisions, Abelson was responsible for inserting Williams' handwritten addendums into the script before director Elia Kazan arrived for the day.

Dividing her time between New York City and Glencoe, IL, Abelson worked with New York productions for the next fifteen years, both as staff and as independent producer, in Broadway and off-Broadway theater. Her producer credits include N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker in 1954, Molly Kazan's The Egghead in 1957, and Peter Shaffer's Royal Hunt of the Sun in 1965. She also worked off-Broadway with the Phoenix Theatre and helped director Robert Whitehead establish Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Returning permanently to Chicago in the late 1960s, Abelson again put her energies toward local theater, particularly the emerging off-Loop scene, providing both financial support and advice to young companies such as Victory Gardens Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre. She was also instrumental in bringing the American Conservatory Theater to Chicago's Ravinia Festival in 1966, and helped bring the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada to Chicago for their initial 1969 visit. In addition, Abelson and her husband Lester provided generous support for the construction of Court Theatre's new building at the University of Chicago, Lester Abelson's alma mater. The Lester and Hope Abelson Auditorium opened in 1981.

Abelson was most interested in creating professional and educational opportunities for artists. She endowed and helped develop a variety of programs for this purpose, including the Lester and Hope Abelson Fund for Artistic Development at the Goodman Theatre, the Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence at Northwestern University, and the Hope Abelson Artistic Initiative Fund at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was also instrumental in developing the Chicago Associates of the Stratford Festival, which continues to underwrite one or two young Chicago actors each year, allowing them to participate in the Stratford Festival's training program and full repertory season in Stratford, Ontario. Other arts organizations receiving her support included the Art Institute of Chicago, the Lyric Opera, the Ravinia Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Cultural Center Foundation, and the Chicago Humanities Festival. She was the recipient of numerous citations and awards, including a Red Cross service award (1946), Rosary College's Bravo Award (1988), an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Lincoln College (1992), and the Illinois Art Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). In addition, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed Thursday, December 3, 1988, to be Hope Abelson Day. She was honored by the Chicago Associates of the Stratford Festival in 1999 with the gala event Much Ado About Something, and by the League of Chicago Theatres in 2001 during the event Showtime 2001: A Salute to Hope Abelson.

Hope Abelson died in 2006, a few weeks before her ninety-sixth birthday. After her death, the Lester and Hope Abelson Fund for the Performing Arts she established earlier became fully funded, enabling two monetary awards, known as "Hopies," for emerging arts groups each year. The first awards, in 2007, were given to Chicago's Congo Square Theatre Company and Silk Road Theatre Project. The 2008 recipients were Luna Negra Dance Theatre and the off-Loop theater company Collaboraction.


14 Linear Feet (25 boxes and 1 oversize box)

0.5 Linear Feet (3 VHS tapes, 1 reel to reel, 2 audiocassettes, 5 cds)


Materials related to the theater career, business, and personal life of Chicago theater producer and philanthropist Hope Abelson, including scripts, theater mementos, correspondence, financial documents, photographs, audio recordings, and video recordings.


Papers are organized in the following series:

Series 1: Theater Career, 1949-2004
Boxes 1-5
Series 2: Philanthropy,1946-2007
Boxes 6-9
Series 3: Personal, 1956-2008
Boxes 10-15a
Series 4: Photographs, 1914-2005
Boxes 16-23
Series 5: Scrapbooks, 1999
Box 24
Series 6: Audiovisual, approximately 1950s-2006
Audiovisual boxes (restricted)

Collection Stack Location

1 2 1-2; 1 16 1


Gift of Katherine A. Abelson, 2008.

Processed by

Kelly Kress, 2008.

Inventory of the Hope Abelson papers, 1914-2008, bulk 1949-2006
Kelly Kress
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2011-07-27: Revisions, additions, and updates were made.
  • 2023-03-01: Audiovisual materials have been permanently removed from the collection for preservation. Access to the original audiovisual items is rstricted.

Repository Details

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

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States