The Rotunda Room at the Vets Building was filled to capacity on Wednesday, July 17 for the meeting of the Culver City Historical Society, and a presentation of some newly donated historical artifacts so generous, they took all the walls and most of the window space to display. Backdrop paintings, the subject of a new book by Karen L. Maness, “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” were there unfurled. Rescued from decades in storage, the backdrops made the evening’s presentation a unique kind of time travel.
The almost lost art of backdrop painting, now made anachronistic by computer graphics, was a part of the craft of movie making at big studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Author Maness and cinematographer Mark Morris were introduced by Society President Hope Parrish to present the pieces present on the walls, hauled into town by Parrish and Morris from a storage space at JC Backings, in Canyon Country.
JC Backings was a company created by backdrop artists who, in light of fluctuating employment status at studios, decided to invest in the finished artwork, renting it out for film and television production. It turned out to be a very smart move.
The collection and the company are still in business; with the cost of rented backdrop paintings more economical that CGI, the sun has not yet fully set on the muslin-based artworks.
Maness presented many candid photos of the artists at work in the forties and fifties, during the studio’s glory days. At one point, she noted, the windows on the building were papered over so that they could have three shifts working around the clock – it was needed so that the light on the artworks was consistent.
The challenge of identifying individual artists’ work in the multiplicity of the jobs, and the vast stretches of backdrop that were painted, was one of the issues Maness dealt with in researching the volume. Finding a few that were clearly the style of a particular individual gave her a great satisfaction.
The crowd asked questions until the end of the meeting, with an eye to the rich legacy and amazing perspective of the backdrops. Not surprisingly, the books were quickly sold out, and Maness offered her signature for the collectors.
Ryan Vincent of the Historical Society also offered the audience to view the new costume display at the ARC in the back of the Vets Building, with acrobat costumes once worn by Martha Raye and Doris Day, and Jimmy Durante’s clown costume from “Billy Rose’s Jumbo” – a film that used several of the backdrops featured in Maness’ presentation.