Set designer Thomas Walsh quotes a well-known saying of scenic artists and designers: “If you really notice the backdrop, it’s a failed backdrop.”
Mammoth paintings designed to depict everything from Mount Rushmore to an office hallway or an Austrian mountain range may have been created to trick the eye and blend into the literal backdrop of a movie. , but now they take center stage in a new museum exhibit just unveiled in South Florida. The Art of Hollywood Backdrop: The creative legacy of cinema open April 20 at Boca Raton Art Museum and features 22 hand-painted backdrops from classic movies that include from north to northwest, Sing in the rain and The sound of musicas well as a handful that have yet to be assigned to specific films.
The exhibit is the brainchild of museum executive director Irvin Lippman, who watched CBS Sunday morning in February 2020 and caught a story that explored a renewed appreciation for the once forgotten backdrops of many films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The segment included interviews with Walsh and with Karen Maness, assistant professor of scenic design and figurative painting at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of a seminal book on the subject, 2016’s The Art of Hollywood Backdrop. A former student of UT Austin, Lippman decided he would try to get in touch with Maness and discern if the backdrops could work as the subject of their own museum exhibit. “Once I spoke with Karen, it was obvious [that] there was enough to create an exhibit,” notes Lippman.
Like many classic movie artifacts, much of the exhibit’s sets were salvaged years ago from forgotten studio corners and basements, many by JC Backings, a Culver City company specializing in creating from sets to film and television rentals (while still producing hand-painted backdrops, many of today’s mediums are produced on vinyl or as digital art). The company was founded in 1962 by John Harold Coakley and John Gary Coakley, a father-son team with deep ties to the industry: many of their backers can be seen in the 1965s. The sound of musicwhile John Harold’s father, John Coakley, worked as a scenic artist under the legendary George Gibsonwho led MGMfrom 1938 to 1968 (Gibson’s first film for the studio was in 1939 The Wizard of Oz, although his Technicolor-compatible backgrounds for this film are sadly lost). Over the years, JC Backings has purchased discarded sets from MGM, Disney, 20and Century Fox and other studios, in some cases saving them from the fate of dumpsters. “Without JC Backings, I’m not sure many of them would have survived,” Lippman says.
Walsh agrees. When John Gary Coakley’s daughter and current company president, Lynne Coakley, knew they would have to edit around 200 backdrops from their collection when they moved to a new headquarters, she called Walsh in New York. Mexico, where he worked on Netflix. Longmire, to ask him if he knew who might be interested in acquiring them. This conversation led Walsh to create the Art Directors Guild Backdrop Recovery Project, a project in which he, Maness and Coakley photographed and cataloged discarded backdrops, hoping to find new homes for each. “They determined there were 207 backdrops they weren’t going to take with them, pieces at the bottom of the pile that weren’t being rented,” Walsh says. He spent around two years seeking homes for the mounts around the world, various locations ranging from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at UT Austin and the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in Glasgow, which gratefully accepted five sets painted by Gibson, who was Scottish by birth. The scenographer, to whom we also owe An American in Paris and Brigadoondied in 2001.
Fast forward to 2020, when Lippman was able to join Maness and offer his museum space for an exhibition. She immediately invited Walsh to co-host the event. “We knew treasures existed beyond the UT Austin collection, so we contacted JC Backings with a request to borrow 17 of their media, including the iconic paintings of Ben HurFrom North to Northwestand The sound of musicManess adds, noting that Lynne Coakley’s company quickly agreed — and moved on. “Amazingly, they shared that they would prefer the loan be a donation to the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection at UT Austin as educational assets for future generations under my care and direction.”
Strolling through the galleries of the Boca Raton Museum is indeed like taking a tour through the sound stages of Hollywood, from a painted trompe-l’oeil tapestry widely used in the 1938s. Marie Antoinette to a skyline of New York seen in the two years 1949 Source and televisions The Jeffersons and a vast cityscape of ancient Rome, originally painted for the years 1959 Ben Hur and later rented for reuse in the 2016 Coen Brothers film Hello, Caesar!
Roped poles prevent visitors from getting too close, but this exhibition also represents the first time the public has been able to see such an extensive collection of hand-painted backdrops in person. “We want people to appreciate these works for their artistry,” Lippman says. “We invite you to take a close look and appreciate the details and brushstrokes.”
Among the backdrops are video screens that tell behind-the-scenes stories about the production design, with interviews that include Gibson, who was featured in the 1992 Turner Classic Movies documentary. MGM: When the lion roars. Next to a backdrop of a grand, curving staircase – among the “Unknown Film” pieces that are sure to thrill classic film fans’ brains about their origins – a wall lists around 100 scenic artists responsible for the sets. hand painted during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, men’s names dominate the list, although a few women’s names are scattered throughout. “One of the reasons we wanted to do this was to bring recognition to those who have never been recognized for the work they have done,” says Lippman. “At that time, studios didn’t recognize everyone on screen who worked on a film, but these were talented artists who made a real contribution.”
Among the most popular photo backdrops among museum visitors, according to Lippman, is a waterfront scene from The sound of music and the depiction of an office hallway, seen during Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in 1952 Sing in the rain. A green fringe sofa and the stuffed fabric mannequin O’Connor used in the scene were also replicated for selfie moments. “People like to pretend to lean against the stone railing The sound of music backdrop, or they sit on the couch and pretend they’re Donald O’Connor,” Lippman says. “It was fun to see people enjoying these memories of their favorite movies in this way.”
In a belated move, Lippman realized there was a perfect spot for one of the largest sets included in the exhibit: a side view of Mount Rushmore, measuring 30 feet tall by 91 feet, 9 inches wide, used in from north to northwest and painted by Gibson and his team. “As we developed the exhibit, we realized that a perfect place for this backdrop was right in front of us the entire time,” Lippman says, pointing to the museum’s expansive two-story lobby. “Of course we had to tuck him in to the sides to get him to fit in here, but it was definitely a highlight to see him step up.” (A smaller backdrop of Mount Rushmore from a different angle, also from 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, currently resides at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.)
Ultimately, what does Lippman hope visitors will feel about the exhibit? “A lot of us grew up with those movies, and those memories can be very powerful,” he says. “You see people recognizing those moments in their favorite movies, and that impact is pretty special. I also hope younger generations see something that resonates with them and that it inspires an appreciation for those movies in an audience that doesn’t has not experienced them yet.
“Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy” runs through January 22, 2023; an adjoining exhibition, “Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood”, features the Palm Beach-based artist’s pairings of film stills with iconic artwork released the same year and runs through August 21, 2022. For more information, visit bocamuseum.org.