Thursday, June 3, 2010

Silent Film Star Monte Blue

I lived in Hollywood through most of the 1980's. While I was in LA for a conference last week, I visited my old neighborhood. One of the things I most wanted to see again was my Uncle Monte Blue's (1887-1963) star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He married Betty Jean Munson, my father's oldest sister in 1959. My parents said I was introduced to him while I was a baby, although I don't remember. I took a few cell snaps of his star at 6286 Hollywood Blvd (Hollywood & Vine), where he was enshrined on February 8, 1960.

1920's era postcard found at Paradise Leased.
Uncle Monte had an all American rags-to-riches story.  Half French, half Cherokee, his birthname was Gerard Montgomery Bluefeather.  Born in Indianapolis, he was placed in an orphanage as a child, yet he persevered, making it through Purdue University and excelling at all sports and physical activities. According to a story in the Blue Book of the Screen (1923), Blue was discovered by director D.W. Griffith while working as a day labor on the set of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith observed him one day, up on a soapbox giving a heated speech about capital and labor.  Later, when another actor playing the part of a stump speaker wasn't sufficiently inspiring, Griffith remembered Blue and gave him a chance.  He continued on in supporting roles until his breakthrough role as the hero Danton in Griffith's French Revolution era epic Orphans of the Storm (1921) opposite the Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy. He was the romantic lead in a long string of silent films through the 1920's.  He successfully made the transition into "talkies" and continued to work as a character actor for film and television. One of his best remembered roles was as the sheriff in Key Largo, the 1948 film noir film directed by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore. He retired from acting in 1954. He suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting Wisconsin on business in 1963 (Filmography).

My Aunt Betty Munson Blue, his widow, taught oil painting, and owned an art school in Beverly Hills on Wilshire near Doheny, a block from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences building at 8949 Wilshire. She relocated to Florida in her later years.

I have recently discovered that the house he lived in on N. Roxbury in Beverly Hills was sold to George Gershwin, who lived there for a year, during which he composed Rhapsody in Blue. It was later sold to the singer Rosemary Clooney, she kept it for 50 years and was demolished. Story/photos at this link

Wiki | Golden Silents | Walk of Fame | Silent Gents Photo Gallery | imbd profile

Conference Report - AAM 2010 LA

I've just returned from the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums, held this year at the Los Angeles convention center from May 23-26.  I had never been to this conference, and wasn't sure what to expect, especially since I was there representing CAPE (Comic Art Productions and Exhibits), and comics were, I thought, still an obscure genre in the eyes of museum people.

As is the case with most of these things, it's yes or no. Talking to people about underground comix, I got responses that ranged from "wow, that's a hot topic" from someone from the Cooper-Hewitt to a museum director from Houston that practically ran away. The conference started with a well-attended panel on pop culture and how it works in museums, which was fascinating (more about this in a minute).  I was also surprised to see (maybe unconcious) approval of comics/pop culture from the AAM itself when I walked onto the exhibit floor.  The first thing I saw, looking straight ahead at the AAM's own display, was a big banner featuring Green Lantern hanging above it (cell snap to the left). This well known Alex Ross painting was featured on the cover of Museum magazine in 2008 (included an interview with Michael Chabon).

Can't Stop It! Putting Popular Culture to Work for Your Museum wasn't the only panel that dealt with Hollywood and pop culture at the conference, but it was the one that provided the most useful information.  The panelists were from the Experience Music Project (Seattle), the Skirball Center (LA), the V&A (London) and the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame (Cleveland). Victoria Broackes, who had curated a show about the fashions worn by Kylie Minogue for the V&A, and Howard Kramer, curatorial director for the Hall of Fame, both had good advice about how to build a compelling narrative using pop culture material.  They also talked about the public vs critical response (popular with public, some negative criticism) and how to deal with adult material in the context of the display.  Robert Kirschner talked about a comic art show presented at the Skirball last year. Learning from Hollywood was another panel about using interaction and technology to tell a narrative, as explained by a very lively group of panelists representing Disney, ILM and WET Design (great web site, check it out).

There were other great panels on practical matters like strategic thinking, domestic couriers, and the importance of editing in narrative.Overall, I'd say the main thread that ran through the conference is that everyone is aware that things are changing rapidly, and they are scrambling to adapt. At one committee breakfast I attended, every presentation was about how their particular institution was using social media to build relationships with their audience, members and market.

The AAM's Center for the Future of Museums had an all day session brainstorming about the future of museums in California (get their report here).According to a recent mailing, some of the issues discussed included:

  • Pop consumerism is driving the oversimplification of real messages—we are becoming a society informed by sound bites
  • The withdrawal of the government from many functions promotes “social entrepreneurship” as hybrid profit/nonprofit/governmental collaboratives step to fill the gaps in social services. (education and public schools were a hot topic in this catagory).
  • Might we be on the cusp of a potential disruptive moment in nonprofit history—could the government rethink the nature and number of tax exempt institutions?
Many of the participants in the all day workshop also attended a wrap up panel the next day, where it was agreed that these issues will be taken up actively.  What would happen, for example, if public education lost most of its funding and students were only in school a third of the day? How would museums and other educational institutions fill that gap?  What if there was a major earthquake? etc...  

On the exhibit floor, most exhibitors wished for a bigger turnout, and at times looked a little lonely. Still, there were autotronic dinosaurs and lots of displays where I stood in front of them and said "oh, that's who actually does that." I was happy to see that Cinnabar Design and Lexington Design and Fabrication were there.  They started as small non-union scenery shops in the Hollywood area, and I worked for both of them back in the 1980's.  Both companies have moved into exhibit design, in fact Cinnabar designed and built a large section of the California Academy of Sciences.

There were great museum events every night. One of the best was at the Getty Museum, which was lovely because we arrived in Malibu right around sunset.  They had a fabulous exhibition of da Vinci drawings related to his sculptures.  I was particularly thrilled to see his sketches for his (never built in his lifetime) grand equestrian monument, which he intended to be a horse and rider cast in bronze 24 feet high! At the entrance to the gallery, they installed a 24 foot photo of one of his models. It was positioned so you could look at it coming down one of the sweeping stairways from the upstairs galleries and it was an overwhelming sight. Leonardo actually did build a 24 foot clay model, that he presented to his patron, the Duke of Milan, in November 1493.  I can only imagine what they thought!

The Best American Comics CriticismOutside of this, I joined Michael Dooley for an event celebrating the publication of Fantagraphic's Best American Comics Criticism at Skylight Books. There was a panel moderated by the editor, Ben Schwartz which included critics Brian Doherty & Bob Fiore, and artists Sammy Harkham, and Joe Matt.  It was interesting to hear the wide range of opinion expressed about criticism and it's worth, and the bookstore itself was amazing. I'm surprised I didn't need an extra suitcase!

Kosmic Trip at the Grammy Museum

Finally made it to the Grammy Museum at LA Live.  Strange Kozmic Experience, a special exhibit they had featuring material related to The Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix was definitely worth a look.  Aside from video, clothes and all the memorabilia you would expect in an exhibition like this, there were some nice surprises.  Somehow, the fact escaped me that Janis Joplin thought of herself as a painter as much as a musician. The exhibit included a wall of large canvases painted by her featuring stylized, angular figures. It was great to see R. Crumb's sketches of her along with the Cheap Thrills album cover. Also on display were several letters Joplin had written to her mother and I was shocked to recognize that I had the exact same boxed stationary back in high school (ivory with a multi-colored filigree in the corner).  As I looked at her wild, loopy handwriting, this odd connection humanized her for me, and I ruminated on how young Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison were when we lost them (all 3 died at 27).  Standing before a wall of Fillmore posters, I couldn't help thinking about all the years I worked for Winterland Productions (the licensed rock t-shirt manufacturer) and how, decades after their deaths, the legacy (and merchandise) of these artists is still such a source of fascination and nostalgia.

Many photographers were included: David Gahr, Elliott Landy, Lisa Law, the late (and great) Jim Marshall and Bob Seidemann. The photos that helped establish the identities of the Doors (the Morrison Hotel) by Henry Diltz and the "young lion" portraits of Jim Morrison by Joel Brodsky were of particular interest to me, because I had seen such perfect prints of them in sequence before.   

In general I thought the rest of the museum was well done, aside from a bit of a sound bleed problem.  There were displays exploring the roots of most of the major genres of music, along with a nifty interactive time-line that allowed a fun and easy exploration of the interrelationships of the music of different eras and the key artists.  I was happy to see displays about songwriters and their methods, and about studio musicians and recording studios.  People that play the Rock Band video game would probably love the interactive Roland Live exhibit. The museum also featured a large touring exhibit about the legacy of Michael Jackson. I was fascinated to see the gloves and costumes in real life, trying to get an idea of who he really was under all those sequins. Again, I found myself drawn to his handwritten lyric sheets, contemplating the evidence of his personality and inspiration left behind on these documents, which were probably the most directly personal things there.

Of course, the Grammys and the telecasts got a lot of real estate.  You could hear about production logistics, see costumes and lists of winners, and watch outstanding performances.  As a past president of the SF chapter (1992-3), I attended a few of those shows in LA at the Shrine and at Radio City in NY.  In those days, I don't think NARAS was organized enough to support an institution like this, and I was glad to see this change for the better.