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John Wayne: Hand Painted

John Wayne: Hand Painted

              While
visiting Cincinnati, Ohio last week for a lecture I was fortunate enough to
discover the American Sign Museum, thanks to architect and preservationist Paul Muller,
who arranged for me to get a personal tour with managing director Brad
Huberman. As an unabashed fan of vintage advertising signs, I was in hog
heaven.

This impressive institution attracts visitors from near and far…and
no wonder. It embraces the worlds of hand-painted signs, billboards, barns,
wooden and porcelain pieces, neon and, yes, individually crafted movie posters.
The collection includes books, photos and documents dealing with the art,
craft, and history of sign making. You can learn more HERE.

              According
to the Museum’s website, “Tod Swormstedt, former editor and publisher of
Signs of the Times magazine, wanted to capture these stories before they were
lost forever, and so he founded the National Signs of the Times Museum in 1999
as his self-proclaimed mid-life crisis project.

With the help of a few early believers,
the renamed American Sign Museum opened its doors in Spring, 2005. Soon after,
Tod began looking for a permanent home that could accommodate the Museum’s
collection – which was already outgrowing its rented space – and his vision for
a more interactive experience. His search ended at a former women’s clothing
and later parachute factory in Camp Washington, a historic and
ready-to-bloom-again area of Cincinnati. With the continued help of our
supporters, we opened the doors of our permanent home June 23, 2012!” 

              The new
facility has 19,000+ square feet of exhibit space, with another 20,000 waiting
for development, 28-foot ceilings, and a working neon shop. Many of its signs
and memorabilia are displayed on a make-believe Main Street.

              The neon
pieces are irresistible, but of course I’m especially fond of the movie-related
images. The Museum features several original painted pieces by the late Keith
Knecht, who recreated posters for a pair of early John Wayne films in the
1990s, proving he hadn’t lost his touch.

              Many
theaters hired local artists to render original poster art instead of using the
standard-issue one-sheets issued by the studios and National Screen Service.
The best-known of these artists, Batiste Madalena, was “discovered”
several decades ago when a number of the striking silk-screens he designed and
executed for the George Eastman Theater in Rochester, New York, were rescued
from a dumpster and revealed to the public for the first time since the 1920s.
Although it is out of print, you can still find the beautiful, oversized book
featuring his best work online.

              The
American Sign Museum is not alone in its admiration for this nearly-lost art.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences houses a separate Poster
Painters Collection that  includes more
than 100 poster paintings by Madalena, Sid Smith, O. M. Wise, Edward Augustus
Armstrong and R. J. Rogers. To quote the Academy website,
“The collection
documents an American cottage industry that was popular from the 1910s until
the 1950s and provided employment for hundreds of artists whose work graced the
lobbies and frontages of both the great movie palaces and the small
neighborhood theaters. Working both for individual houses and for major chains,
these forgotten and generally unacknowledged artists created posters intended
for local consumption only, ‘selling’ the film through advertising that
emphasized what would appeal most to that community and designed to integrate
fully within that particular theatrical setting. This was very much a
transient, commercial art, discarded and forgotten as quickly as many of the
films it promoted. Posters would routinely be painted over again and again. As
a result, few original examples have survived.

              “The
majority of poster paintings in the collection were created by Batiste Madalena
who is the most well-known of these artists. Madalena worked in Rochester, New
York, in the mid-1920s. Almost forgotten, his work was discovered by filmmaker
Steven Katten who donated one-third of Madalena’s poster paintings that are
included in the collection. The other two-thirds came from Madalena’s family.
These major contributions are supplemented by the work of Jane Powell, the wife
of former Academy president Charles M. Powell. Powell is responsible for the
library’s acquisition of much of the rest of the collection, particularly the
manuscript component.

              “In
addition to the actual poster paintings there are 4.7 linear feet of documents
including some correspondence, clippings, photographs, scrapbooks and copies of
articles from the trade publication ‘Signs of the Times.’ Of special note is a
photograph album that documents the work of Edwin “Ike” Checketts.
Checketts was active in Utah from roughly 1915 until the mid-1920s.”

              In my
next post, I’ll discuss two films that tell the story of sign painters–one
factual, one fanciful.

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