Movie backdrops fill Boca Raton Museum

 

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Singing in the Rain backdrop scene. (Photo courtesy of Boca Raton Musuem)
Singing in the Rain backdrop scene. (Photo courtesy of Boca Raton Musuem)

Imagine taking a selfie against the scenery in “American in Paris,” Singing in the Rain,” “North by Northwest” or “Sound of Music.”

The Boca Raton Museum of Art is making these movie moments possible with its new exhibit, Art of the Hollywood Backdrop.

Second in a travel series that makes art destinations the reason to go, the Boca Raton exhibit is an amazing, immersive experience.

Opening April 20, 2022 and continuing through Jan. 23, 2023, Art of the Hollywood Backdrop brings 22 large-scale scenic backdrops made for the movies between 1938 and 1967 to South Florida so what has pretty-much become a lost art can be enjoyed and their artists, appreciated.

After attempting a selfie, visitors will see and understand that backdrops were created for the camera view of a scene.

To achieve an immersive ambiance that recaptures the classic scenes for the show, interactive videos have been done by digital designers and sound engineers. (Watch two videos at youtu.be/8Z1bi3P1Luc and  youtu.be/qvVc2i4euQY.

At the Boca Raton Museum, Karen L. Maness works on repairing the scenic backdrop from the 1959 MGM film North by Northwest. (Photo courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum)
At the Boca Raton Museum, Karen L. Maness works on repairing the scenic backdrop from the 1959 MGM film North by Northwest. (Photo courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum)

The exhibit is co-curated by two people who were instrumental in salvaging the backdrops from the studios: Assistant Professor of (Art) Practice at the University of Texas at Austin Karen L. Maness who co-author The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop and is Director of the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection and multi-award winning  production designer Thomas A. Walsh.

The backstory is that Lynne Coakley, head of J.C. Backings Corporation picked up more than 2,000 backdrops from MGM storage in the 1970s. Coakley then partnered on backdrop protection and education with the Art Directors Guild Archives in 2012 directed by Walsh, then the Guild’s president.

“This show is about the joy of re-living something you grew up with, that you always thought was real. It’s about getting as close to that magical moment in time as you can,” said Walsh in a statement about the show.

He thought visitors will be astonished by the backdrops’ sizes.  “Being in the same space with that giant, familiar scene. It is difficult for people to get their minds around the awesome size of these magical spaces, until they see them in person. People are often shocked and surprised by the scale and visual impact of these massive creations,” he said.

American in Paris backdrop. (Photo courtesy of Boca Raton Art Musuem)
American in Paris backdrop. (Photo courtesy of Boca Raton Art Musuem)

With the aim of preserving the backdrops and making them available for study, Coakley and Walsh launched the Backdrop Recovery Project partnership with J.C. Backings.  A major recipient was the University of Texas’ art department and Maness. About 20 of the backdrops in the exhibit are from the UT collection.

Referring to the North by Northwest backdrop, Maness said, “This is the grandaddy, the Babe Ruth of all Hollywood backdrops…Especially because it was such a key player in the telling of this story.”

According to Maness, just as important as the stories the backdrops tell, is that the exhibit honors the artists who created them. Visitors will be able to see their brush strokes. “This has become my passion project, to tell their stories. I will be their champion in this lifetime” she said.

Warner Brothers scenic artists (ca. 1930). (L-to- R) Verne Strang, Bill McConnell, Frankie Cohen, Charley Wallace, Jack Brooks, James McCann, Emmett Alexander (Ed Strang Collection, from the book The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, by Karen L. Maness and Richard Isackes. (IPhoto courtesy of Maness)
Warner Brothers scenic artists (ca. 1930). (L-to- R) Verne Strang, Bill McConnell, Frankie Cohen, Charley Wallace, Jack Brooks, James McCann, Emmett Alexander (Ed Strang Collection, from the book The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, by Karen L. Maness and Richard Isackes. (IPhoto courtesy of Maness)

Maness who had conducted extensive interviews with the last surviving artists and their families, said in a statement about the exhibit’s importance, “It was essential to capture these artist’s stories before they disappeared.”

In addition to the UT backdrops, “Singin’ in the Rain” and the 1938 tapestry backdrop for “Marie Antoinette” are loaned by the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles.

The exhibit will have an educational component and presentations. For more information visit at bocamuseum.org/visit/events.

Author: Jodie

Longtime Chicago Tribune contributor for news and features. Travel writer for What's Happening, Lakeland Boating and A&E for CBS

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