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MODERN MULTIPLEX theaters have choices, but little glamor compared with movie theaters of the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t just the times that made movies all the more glamorous. For a long time, indeed, into the 1970s, movie theaters of the first class accompanied their films with live presentations. And not just “Thursday Silverware Night,” but major stage productions.
Anthony Nellé designed many of these spectaculars. And, wouldn’t you know, there’s a book in my collection that celebrates his Art Deco mastery.
From the Introduction of Nellé: “It is ironic that a man trained in Poland in classical ballet and at one time a partner to the legendary Pavlova could, within just a few short years, find himself in Detroit, Michigan, grinding out elaborate hour-long stage shows….”
However, Zdislaw Antoni Nellé, 1894 – 1977, saw it in a different light when he wrote, “In America I knew I had found a new era and a new field in which to work—from ballet to the review, from the individualism of dancing to the precise movements of a whole troupe of girls. These two poles of dance are also the poles of my life…”
Nellé’s Art Deco set designs were generally rendered on 16 x 20-in. paper, his media typically watercolor and gouche. More than 200 of his designs ended up in a Buffalo, New York, antique shop after Nellé’s death. As noted in Nellé, they add significantly to the history of 20th-century theater art: “Prior to the 1900s, stage sets were generally flat, painted backdrops. Even the best theater artists generally represented the ‘theme’ of the play in a narrow literal manner.” By contrast, Nellé and others in the 1920s explored new means of expressing theatrical action.
Nellé’s background in ballet gave precision to his stage renderings, even to the correct positioning of the dancer’s hands. The sets themselves were often constructed of unconventional materials, for example, tinfoil, velvet and wood.
A San Francisco newspaper describes Nellé’s theatricality in his production of Jewels of the Madonna: When the jewels are stolen from the statue of the Madonna, this production had a “clash of thunder, a bolt of lightning, and the crumbling of a huge stone pillar. The effect was startling and spectacular.”
Productions often followed topical themes, as exhibited with the emergence of transatlantic aviation. I like the mechanistic surroundings of the biplane transport.
Another Nellé production celebrating world mechanization was The Foundry. Termed a Coliseum Vaudeville, this London stage presentation was set to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, with segments including Mechanical Man, Depression and Blast Furnace.
During World War II, Nellé worked for a time as a draftsman and illustrator at Bell Aircraft. While there, his method of color-coding parts helped speed up the aircraft production process.
He also composed anti-Axis posters. Homemakers were urged to take rendered kitchen fat to butchers who, in turn, donated it to the production of explosives. As was noted, fats make glycerin, and glycerin makes things blow up.
Nellé celebrated WWII’s victory with a production recognizing the United Nations’ role, this organization’s charter signed on June 26, 1945. Between 1946 and 1966, he choreographed summer theater productions in Pittsburgh and St. Louis. From Nellé: “Friends and associates from those years remember that Nellé maintained discipline with a green whistle around his neck—he was affectionately known as The Green Hornet.”
One of his dancers recalls his directive: “Rush in slowly, girls!”
And, of course, do it with style. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016