I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970.
Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

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President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2015

When it comes to rock & roll music, I can’t claim much familiarity. I grew up with the music of Israeli folk dancing, which still moves my heart (and my feet!). The world of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana was known to me only through my children. I was well aware that this music had become a worldwide phenomenon, but I knew very little about how it happened.

Photo From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938, Gelatin silver print.

From the collection of Bill’s sons, David and Alex Graham, this treasured photo depicts a young Bill, when he was Wolfgang Grajonca, with his mother and sisters. Berlin, ca. 1938.

Now, with the Skirball’s presentation of the exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, I am finding out. I am learning of the life and legacy of a remarkable Jewish immigrant, orphaned by the Holocaust, who did as much as anyone to launch that revolution and transform it into a communal experience and a social force.

Born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, Bill was in many ways a classic example of the American success story: a young boy with no advantages, rising from obscurity to the pinnacle of success solely on the strength of unstoppable personality, drive, and determination. Continue reading

Billboards, Covered

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.  © Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

Marvin Gaye billboard on the Sunset Strip, circa 1977. Photo by Robert Landau.
© Robert Landau/Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip/Angel City Press.

The Skirball’s upcoming exhibition Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, opening March 24, highlights a unique era in rock & roll advertising when record companies took over the Sunset Strip with one-of-a-kind hand-painted billboards to promote their artists’ new albums. These rock advertising billboards, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, were elaborate works of art. They were also highly ephemeral, residing on Sunset Boulevard for just a month or two at a time before being dismantled and whitewashed in anticipation of the next record release. With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, billboard ads for music disappeared from the local landscape. Robert Landau’s photographs, featured in the exhibition, remain to document this brief moment when the biggest names in the music business—from Bowie to Bruce to the Beatles—clamored to be seen on billboards.

Of course, the music also remains. I revisited my days as a college radio DJ and made a mix that includes a few of the legendary musicians whose billboards appear in the exhibition—as covered by other musicians. Continue reading

Exploring Light and Shadow: Film Noir and Photography

 ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists


ROUSE & JONES, Dead End, 2009, courtesy of the artists

The Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, now on view through March 1, explores how European exiles and émigrés helped create some of the most classic Hollywood films during and immediately after World War II. Film noir is one of the genres from that era that was heavily shaped by these film artists. Noir films present thrilling stories involving intrigue, suspense, disillusionment, and corruption. Characters are often immersed in dark worlds full of tension and uncertainty. As a companion to Light & Noir, the exhibition The Noir Effect looks at a range of contemporary fine art, film, graphic novels, and games that have taken noir in a new direction and redefined it for audiences today. A large section of the exhibition includes contemporary photography by a diverse group of artists who embrace and experiment with the aesthetics of film noir.

Among these artists is the Los Angeles–based photography duo ROUSE & JONES. Partners in life as well as art, writer/director Mitchell Rouse and photographer/producer Brittany Jones began collaborating in 2009, and soon developed a photography series called NOIR based on their love of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The pair’s work combines several elements of film, photography, performance, and storytelling.

Rather than re-creating films that already exist, ROUSE & JONES create a new story in the film noir style using a distinct sequence of techniques. First, they write an original, noir-inspired script that includes setting, action, and dialogue. Then, they ask actors to perform the story, directing the actors’ lines and gestures as they photograph the unfolding scene. Several “takes” of each scene are photographed, shot from different angles and using multiple lighting setups. The actors are encouraged to improvise so that the tension and realism of each scene are heightened.

ROUSE & JONES believe in nurturing the noir genre for future generations; on February 26, as part of the “Light & Noir in Los Angeles” high school residency at the Skirball, the pair will meet with students to discuss their work and share techniques. But before they do, I thought I’d check in with them on SkirBlog and see if they could provide a few more insights into their fascinating way of working:

 

What is it about film noir that you are so drawn to? Why do you think this type of work that draws from noir themes is still so relevant and compelling today?
We love film noir because it’s all about “painting with light,” as the great noir cinematographer John Alton would say. Obviously that’s true of every image ever created, but the noir aesthetic is probably the most dramatic example of how light can be used to tell stories and create emotions. Light and shadow are always “characters” in noir imagery.

Noir themes are still relevant today because they are universal. Noir explores the dark side of man (and world), and those are things that every person faces in their lives. There’s an interesting balance between light and dark within every person, Continue reading

A Trans Am and a Mystery Woman: Noirscape Photo Contest Winner

For many filmmakers, writers, and artists, Los Angeles is the quintessential noir setting. As part of The Noir Effect exhibition, we challenged people to use the noir city as inspiration and submit their own noir-style photographs for a “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” contest.

We received more than eighty entries that captured all corners of Los Angeles, from famous landmarks to dramatic shadow-filled streets to moody urban landscapes. People experimented with angles, light sources, blur effects, shadows, colors, and filters. Some even incorporated noir characters into mysterious urban scenes to trigger unsettling narratives. The eclectic range of submissions reinforced just how much noir is part of today’s culture and is constantly being redefined. Noir extends beyond the film genre and becomes a lens for seeing the world. It’s a language, an art form, a style and sensibility that can be applied to so many spaces and environments.

We handed over nineteen compelling entries from our finalists (you can see them all in the slideshow below) to Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and producer and host of the NOIR CITY film festival, who made the final selection. And we are pleased to announce that the winner is…Eric Canale! Eric wins a nice dinner at the old Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank Grill, and his photograph will be displayed in The Noir Effect gallery for the month of February, so be sure to look for it!

Pennsylvania Avenue at Stewart Street, Santa Monica by Eric Canale

Pennsylvania Avenue at Stewart Street, Santa Monica by Eric Canale

Eric Canale describes his work: Continue reading

Light & Noir: Through the Curator’s Lens

Red Carpet Season is well underway, and if you watched the Golden Globes last night, wasn’t it nice to glimpse a bit of classic Hollywood glamour?

Here at the Skirball, we’re approaching the halfway mark of our own homage to the Golden Age of American filmmaking, Light & Noir: Exiles and Emigres in Hollywood, 1933-1950. As KCRW’s Edward Goldman says, “From the get-go, it’s a winner.” With only about seven weeks to go until the proverbial credits roll on the show, I sat down with curator Doris Berger, who conceived of the exhibition and worked tirelessly on it for more than two years before its October “premiere.”

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light and Noir.

Curator Doris Berger in a vintage dress for the opening of Light & Noir.

 

Is there one particular object in the exhibition that moves you especially deeply?
There are so many objects that move me in this exhibition. It was really hard to decide sometimes what to include and what to leave out. The correspondence of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, to his extended family in 1938 is incredibly affecting—full of humility and conviction to help others. In a letter to his nephew William Wyler, Laemmle pleads for him to do everything he possibly can to help other refugees. Here’s a quote from that letter: “The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way. … If you want to do something really big—something that will give you an immense amount of pleasure—issue one or more affidavits, as many as your means permit. … I feel that every person in America, Jew or non-Jew, with a heart, should do his bit, and thereby get an immense amount of satisfaction and possibly save one or more lives.”

Laemmle also wrote a simple Christmas card to other family members on which he writes, Continue reading

The Shadow of Harvey

The design I created for the VHS release of Harvey is now being used on the DVD covers. Harvey is one of the many Golden Age of Hollywood films explored in the Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés, 1933–1950.

The design I created for the VHS release of Harvey is now being used on the DVD covers. Harvey is one of the many Golden Age of Hollywood films explored in the Skirball exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés, 1933–1950.

 

It was a dark rainy night in 1989. Tanks were rolling into Tiananmen Square. I dodged flaming cars returning to our residence from the hotel near the airport to rescue my design portfolio. I figured I was going to need it. I was right. In two weeks I was working in L.A.

I got a job with a design firm in the old Helms building on Venice Boulevard. An old friend scooped me up right away. In those days I really had chops.

Yeah, we had some accounts in the entertainment sector. Our specialty was creating airbrush illustrations for the front of video boxes, often using disparate scenes from the movie to create whole new scenes that do not even actually appear. But that was only part of our ruse. You see, even if the movie was B&W—as most classics are—the covers would always be in color. And if that wasn’t enough, the finished product would then be used in all subsequent advertising and promotion for the movie, all over the world. Okay, I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way it was back then.

We got the gig designing packaging for Harvey, a Henry Koster movie about a man (played by James Stewart) whose imaginary friend is a human-sized rabbit named Harvey.

Watch a scene from Harvey:

My task was to examine hundreds of stills from the movie and do several compositions. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2015

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections, University of Southern California Libraries. On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Ernst van Leyden, Portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, 1946, oil painting. Courtesy of Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, Special Collections,
University of Southern California Libraries.
On view now in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

 

I had the privilege of knowing Marta Feuchtwanger, pictured above with her beloved husband, Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958), the famed German Jewish writer. She and I were friends for two decades in her later years (we met in 1964; she died in 1987). From her I learned of Lion’s celebrated novels and plays, his outspoken opposition to the Nazi regime, his rescue from Nazi-occupied France, and his new life with her in Los Angeles. Their magnificent home in Pacific Palisades is now known as Villa Aurora, and stands as a memorial to the exiles and émigrés who found refuge from Nazi persecution in the United States.

Marta told me how Lion spoke out against Adolf Hitler as early as the 1920s. Continue reading

Light & Noir: A “True Hollywood Story”

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in <i>Light & Noir</i>

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in Light & Noir.

For the European exiles and émigrés featured in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Hollywood was much more than the glamorous place of fame and fortune we often think of now. During those years, in juxtaposition to the turmoil brewing in Nazi Europe, Hollywood was a place where these émigrés could take refuge and start their lives anew.

This clip from the PBS documentary Cinema’s Exiles gives some context about what émigrés were fleeing from. You can watch the full film on the big screen here at the Skirball on March 1.

But, as is still the case, immigrating to the United States was no simple task. In addition to the geographical distance they had to overcome, émigrés also had to comply with the United States’ strict immigration laws. Many of them came on visitor visas that would expire after a certain amount of time. If they wanted to legally extend their stay—and, unsurprisingly, many of them did—they needed to file a Declaration of Intention. Not unlike what is today called a “green card,” the Declaration granted permanent residency in the U.S. And while it wouldn’t automatically grant these émigrés citizenship, it was the first step they had to take if they wanted to acquire it.

On loan from the National Archives at Riverside, the original Declaration of Intention forms currently on display in Light & Noir reveal some lesser-known facts about people we know well by different names. For instance, actress Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express, A Foreign Affair) and director Henry Koster (It Started with Eve, Harvey) were actually born as Maria Magdalene Sieber and Hermann Julius Kosterlitz. Marlene_Dietrich_Declaration_of_Intention

Not every category could be answered as matter-of-factly as one’s name… Continue reading

When Bauhaus Meets Judaica: A Unique Hanukkah Lamp

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamps come in all styles and materials. Here at the Skirball, the permanent collection of lamps is as varied as the artists who crafted them, each piece a reflection of the generation and the community for which it was fashioned. For example, lamps from countries surrounding the Mediterranean were demonstrably influenced by Sephardic traditions and style. Others reveal inspiration from modernist innovations popular in early-twentieth-century Europe.

The lamp pictured above, currently on display in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, was designed by German sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. Born in Hildesheim, Germany, Wolpert began his artistic studies at the School for Arts and Crafts in Franfkfurt. He then worked as a sculptor, specializing in metalwork. Artistically, Wolpert was inspired by the Bauhaus slogan “form follows function,” and also by Leo Horovitz, a silversmith and designer of Judaica. Under Horovitz’s guidance, Wolpert became involved in creating modern Jewish ceremonial art. One of his signature practices was to incorporate an abstract of a Hebrew letter in his pieces. The design of this lamp recalls the Hebrew letter shin.  Continue reading