Scenes from the Golden Era star in a new museum exhibit – The Hollywood Reporter
Production designer Thomas Walsh cites a saying well known to stage artists and designers: “If you really pay attention to the setting, it’s a failed setting.”
Mammoth paintings meant to depict everything from Mount Rushmore to an office corridor or an Austrian mountain range may have been created to trick the eye and literally fade into the background in a movie, but now they take center stage new museum exhibit just unveiled in South Florida. Art of the Hollywood Set: The Creative Legacy of Cinema opened April 20 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art and features 22 hand-painted sets from classic films, including North for Northwest, sing in the rain and The sound of musicas well as a handful that have yet to be attributed to specific films.
The exhibit is the brainchild of museum director Irvin Lippman, who was watching CBS Sunday morning in February 2020 and caught a story that explores a renewed appreciation for the once forgotten scenes from many films of Hollywood’s golden era. The segment included interviews with Walsh and with Karen Maness, assistant professor of scenic design and figurative painting at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of a seminal book on the subject, 2016 The art of the Hollywood backdrop. Lippman, a UT Austin graduate, decided that he would try to get in touch with Maness and see if the sets could work as a theme for her own museum display. “When I spoke to Karen it was obvious [that] enough to create an exhibition,” notes Lippman.
Like many objects from classic films, most of the sets in the exhibit were rescued years ago from forgotten nooks and basements in studio buildings, many by JC Backings, a Culver City company that specializes in creating sets for film and television distribution (while they still produce hand-painted backgrounds, many of today’s backgrounds are produced on vinyl or as digital art). The firm was founded in 1962 by John Harold Coakley and John Gary Coakley, a father and son team with deep ties to the industry: several of their endorsements can be seen in the 1965s The sound of musicwhile John Harold’s father, John Coakley, worked as a set designer under the legendary George Gibson, who headed MGM’s scenic design department from 1938 to 1968 (Gibson’s first film for the studio was in 1939 The Wizard of Oz, although its Technicolor-friendly sets are sadly believed to have been lost for this film). Over the years, JC Backings bought discarded sets from MGM, Disney, 20th Century Fox and other studios saving them from dumpster fate in some cases. “I’m not sure many of these would have survived without JC backings,” says Lippman.
Walsh agrees. When John Gary Coakley’s daughter and current company president, Lynne Coakley, knew they would have to edit about 200 backgrounds from their collection when they moved to the new headquarters, she called Walsh in New Mexico, where he was working on Netflix Longmireto ask if he knew who might be interested in acquiring them. That conversation prompted Walsh to start the Art Directors Guild Backdrop Recovery Project, a project in which he, Maness, and Coakley photographed and cataloged the discarded backdrops in hopes of finding new homes for each. “They realized there were 207 sets that they wouldn’t take, pieces from the bottom that weren’t rented,” explains Walsh. He spent about two years scouting around the world for locations for the backings, at various venues ranging from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to UT Austin and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, the thankful five Scots by birth accepted backdrops painted by Gibson. The set designer, whose credits also include An American in Paris and brigadedied in 2001.
Fast forward to 2020, when Lippman was able to reach Maness and offer his museum’s space for an exhibition. She immediately invited Walsh to help curate the event. “We knew there was treasure beyond UT Austin’s collection, so we approached JC Backings with a request to borrow 17 of their backing boards, including iconic paintings by Ben-Hur, north by north-westand The sound of music‘ Maness adds, noting that Lynne Coakley’s company was quick to agree — and went one step further. “Amazingly, they advised that they would prefer the loan to be donated to UT Austin’s Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection as a teaching resource for future generations under my care and guidance.”
Indeed, strolling through the galleries of the Boca Raton Museum feels like touring the Hollywood sound stages, from a trompe l’oeil painted tapestry prominently used in the 1938s Marie Antoinette to a New York City skyline seen in both 1949s The source head and television The Jeffersons and a huge cityscape of ancient Rome originally painted for the 1959s Ben Hur and later rented out for reuse in the 2016 Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar!
Rope posts prevent visitors from getting too close, but this exhibition is also the first time audiences have been able to see such an extensive collection of hand-painted backdrops in person. “We want people to appreciate these works for the artistry,” says Lippman. “We invite you to take a close look and appreciate the details and brushstrokes.”
Between the scenes are video screens telling behind-the-scenes production design stories, with interviews including Gibson, who was featured in the 1992 Turner Classic Movies documentary MGM: When the lion roars. Alongside a backdrop of a grand sweeping staircase — among the “Unknown Film” pieces sure to make classic film fans’ heads swoon — a wall lists about 100 stage artists who were responsible for the hand-painted sets in Hollywood’s golden era. Not surprisingly, male names dominate the list, although a few female names are scattered throughout. “One of the reasons we wanted to do this was to give recognition to those who have never received recognition for their work,” Lippman said. “Back then, the studios didn’t recognize everyone who worked on a film on screen, but it was talented artists who made a real contribution.”
According to Lippman, one of the most popular photo backdrops for museum visitors is a scene by the water The sound of music and the depiction of an office hallway featured in Donald O’Connor’s 1952 number Make ‘Em Laugh sing in the rain. A green fringed couch and the rag doll that O’Connor used in the scene were also reproduced for selfie moments. “People like to pretend to lean against the stone railing The sound of music background, or they’re sitting on the couch pretending to be Donald O’Connor,” says Lippman. “It’s been fun watching people enjoy memories of their favorite movies in this way.”
In a late move, Lippman realized that an ideal location existed for one of the largest sets included in the exhibit: a side view of Mount Rushmore, measuring 30 feet high by 91 feet by 9 inches wide North for Northwest and painted by Gibson and his team. “As we were developing the exhibit, we realized that a perfect location for this setting was right in front of us the whole time,” says Lippman, gesturing around the museum’s huge, two-story lobby. “Obviously we had to tuck it in at the sides to fit it here, but it was really a highlight to see it go up.” (A smaller Mount Rushmore setting from a different angle, also from the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller , currently at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.)
What is Lippman ultimately hoping for from the exhibition? “A lot of us grew up watching these movies, and those memories can be really strong,” he says. “You see people recognize those moments in their favorite movies, and that impact is very special. I also hope that younger generations will see something that speaks to them, and it might inspire an appreciation for these films in audiences that haven’t experienced them.”
Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy runs through January 22, 2023; an adjacent exhibition, “Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood” features the Palm Beach-based artist’s pairings of film stills with iconic artworks released in the same year and runs through August 21, 2022. Visit for more information bocamuseum.org.