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From the Outside In: Model of "Motorcar No. 9," Norman Bel Geddes, ca. 1932

Model of "Motorcar No. 9." Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Model of "Motorcar No. 9." Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This image of a streamlined car is the product of designer Norman Bel Geddes, who gained fame during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for a broad range of designs. He received his start in New York designing theatrical sets in which he emphasized the use of lighting to set mood as well as provide illumination. He also designed film sets in Hollywood, including some for director Cecil B. DeMille.

Bel Geddes’s design ideas embraced all of modern life. Motorcar Number 9 provides an example of his interest in streamlining. In many ways this car is different from any built at that time or later. It offered excellent visibility through the use of curved glass for the windshield and windows. The steering wheel and single headlight were in the center. The car featured a vertical stabilizer, or rudder, in its tail, like an airplane. The front and rear bumpers were made of chrome, and the rear bumper was attached by three hydraulic shock absorbers. This design offered good use of interior space, providing seating for eight.

This image comes from a time when streamlining was thought to be the wave of the future. In 1931 Bel Geddes described a “House of Tomorrow” that set the stage for architectural streamlining focused on clean and uncluttered lines. He then incorporated the same concept in his design for a “City of Tomorrow,” which became the basis for the hugely popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Bel Geddes’s ideas have made great contributions to modern design, particularly in the field of transportation. He designed trains, ocean liners, airplanes, cars, and even a flying car. On the exterior, they achieved streamlining by means of a teardrop shape. In the interior, equal attention was given to the use of space, designed to provide large capacities and unique functions. His airliner, for instance, had decks that featured a gymnasium, a solarium, and even areas for deck games. He also designed the interior of the Pan American China Clipper airliner, which featured a central lounge wider than a Pullman club car and was fitted with broad armchairs. These ideas are still visible today—just look at the streamlined vehicles on the animated show Futurama, which borrowed its name from Bel Geddes.

The Ransom Center’s extensive Norman Bel Geddes archive includes a model of Motorcar Number 9, along with other designs, models, and papers that span over 50 years.

Ransom Center volunteer Ray McLeod wrote this post.

The ballet performance that sparked a riot

Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947.  Hat and robe from the original production of "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), 1913
Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947. Hat and robe from the original production of "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), 1913

It is 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the audience is screaming, cat-calling, and fist-fighting. It’s the most famous riot in classical music history at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and premiered by the Ballets Russes.

Accustomed to more “palatable” ballets such as Swan Lake, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was shocked by the dissonant and jarring music, the violent and unnatural choreography, and the depiction of a Russian pagan tribe celebrating the arrival of spring by choosing a sacrificial virgin to dance herself to death. Upon hearing the opening bassoon solo played in an unrecognizably high register, French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens is said to have fumed: “if that is a bassoon then I am a baboon!” He then stormed out of the theater.

The Ransom Center holds one of the costumes that no doubt helped to spark the legendary riot. The costumes were designed by archeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich.

The University of Texas Symphony Orchestra joins the world famous Joffrey Ballet for a performance of The Rite of Spring tomorrow and Wednesday, March 6, to celebrate the centennial of the work’s world premiere in Paris in 1913. The Joffrey Ballet’s Rite of Spring explores Stravinsky’s revolutionary score and Nijinsky’s radical choreography with a reconstruction of the 1913 production with original costumes, choreography, and design.

This blog text was adapted from an earlier version of this post from 2009.

Stella Adler scholar explores acting master's interpretation of great American playwrights

Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris
Cover of "Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights" (Knopf) by Barry Paris

“Mommy, is that God?” a little girl once whispered to her mother as Stella Adler swept into a party in New York City. The girl’s mistake was understandable: Adler was known as a presence of divine proportions, a tall, glamorous woman whose grand gestures and dramatic one-liners captivated audiences both large and small. Adler began acting at age four in the “Independent Yiddish Art Company,” run by her parents, and continued her acting career until 1961. In 1931, Adler joined the Group Theatre, where she worked closely with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.

In 1934, she went with Clurman to Paris to study with Constantin Stanislavski, an acting great famous for developing the Stanislavski System, a set of acting techniques that was tweaked by Strasberg and is known today as Method acting. Adler believed strongly that actors should use their imagination to synthesize characters, whereas Strasberg relied on emotional memory exercises, and the two eventually split over their differences. Adler left the Group Theatre and later opened her own acting school, The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, in 1949 in New York City, where she taught famous actors such as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. She opened another school, The Stella Adler Academy of Acting, in Los Angeles in 1985 with her friend and protégé Joanne Linville, who continues to run the school today.

The Ransom Center hold Adler’s papers, which were used extensively by Barry Paris in his book Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights (Knopf). The volume peeks into Adler’s classroom and explores the acting master’s take on American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, and others.

The book was put together using transcripts from Adler’s script analysis classes, where lively discussions of American culture, socioeconomics, and history fleshed out the context of the plays—a practice on which Adler placed the utmost importance. Adler once said of the great artists featured in the book: “these playwrights all saw what was wrong.” She believed it was imperative for the actor not only to bring personal experience to the role, but to truly understand the beliefs, prejudices, and lives of the playwrights who crafted the plays she taught. Peter Bogdanovich, one of Adler’s former students, praised the book for “bring[ing] back the sound of Stella’s unique voice and thought processes, as well as her own particular vision.”

Paris, the book’s editor, did extensive research in the Ransom Center’s holdings on Stella Adler and Harold Clurman.

Sueltas feature cartoons by Spanish caricaturist Manuel Tovar

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Everybody loves cartoons. They proliferate in modern newspapers and on the Internet. From Peanuts to Doonesbury, cartoons provide commentary and amusement for the reader. The sueltas collection at the Harry Ransom Center, currently being cataloged under a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, also features its own first-rate cartoons. Created by Manuel Tovar, a famous twentieth-century caricaturist, these unique “monos,” as caricatures are known in Spanish, present unusual and interesting depictions of actors and actresses.

Born in Granada in 1875, Tovar illustrated postcards and painted fans and parasols as a young man. When he moved to Madrid, he fulfilled his life-long dream of working as a caricaturist and cartoonist, publishing his first cartoon in 1901 in the magazine Nuevo Mundo. Subsequently, he created cartoons in many well-known magazines and newspapers such as Blanco y Negro, La Correspondencia, El Gráfico, El Liberal, El Heraldo de Madrid, and El Cuento Semanal, whose cover he illustrated regularly for three years. For 15 years, Tovar created a popular daily cartoon for La Voz. He passed away suddenly in 1935, just after completing his daily entry.

Known for his sagacious wit and unique style, Tovar is widely considered one of the greatest caricaturists of his age. The sueltas collection contains a number of items from the “Novela Teatral” series, produced under the direction of José de Urquía from 1916 to 1925. This series is typical of the caricature work done by Tovar, which often depicted real figures in Madrid society. The “Novela Teatral” caricatures portrayed actors and actresses, but Tovar was perhaps most famous for his drawings of political figures and writers. In an interview, he once lamented that political cartoons had caused him a great deal of trouble, as many of his subjects found their representations less than flattering. His artistic style did not change in response to the criticism. He had one confrontation regarding a caricature of a government minister, Juan de la Cierva, who was illustrated wearing unattractive plaid pants. Embarrassed by the portrayal, the minister invited Tovar to inspect his wardrobe and note the lack of plaid pants. Another incident had Tovar hiding in the salon at a theater from an umbrella-brandishing disgruntled authoress who wished to punish the artist for his unflattering caricature of her.

Tovar is credited with having a profound and perfect knowledge of contemporary life in Madrid, and these delightful illustrations provide a fascinating look into the atmosphere of Madrid during the early twentieth century. The sueltas collection continues to provide us with opportunities for remarkable and thought-provoking study.

Related content:

Stories from the Sueltas: Cataloger sheds light on gems in the Spanish comedias sueltas collection

Illustrating the Sueltas

Actress Trinidad Rosales by Manuel Tovar.
Actress Trinidad Rosales by Manuel Tovar.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s 1931 film of "Hamlet" production

By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.

Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.

Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”

Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.

Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.

Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.

Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Learn more about Bel Geddes in the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, on display through today.

Before and After: A set of Sicilian marionettes

The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes before custom housing was built.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes before custom housing was built.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes in their custom-built housing.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes in their custom-built housing.

The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes, constructed between 1850 and 1960, consists of 60 marionettes and a backdrop curtain. The marionettes, which were originally purchased by entrepreneur Stanley Marcus in 1960, form a troupe of characters from the religious allegorical poem “Orlando Furioso.”

The figures, which are made of painted wood and metal components, stand about four feet tall and are dressed in fur, leather, cloth, and metal armor. The human marionettes have wooden heads, torsos, hands, and legs. Their arms are made out of folded cloth. A few figures have glass eyes, and some even have human hair adhered to their heads. Protecting the marionettes posed a particular challenge for the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation team. Read the full article about the preservation efforts relating to the marionettes.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s Costume Designs for "The Miracle"

Perhaps best known as the innovative designer of the Futurama exhibition in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes was also a noted theater designer, fabricating costumes, sets, lighting, and theaters.

After beginning his career in Los Angeles, Bel Geddes moved to New York City in 1917 where his creative ambitions manifested in producing dynamic theater experiences. Using principles of the European New Stagecraft movement, Bel Geddes brought German director Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle to the American stage. The New Stagecraft movement, which divorced theater from the structures of bourgeois realism, aligned with Bel Geddes’s vision of simplified details and abstract settings and costumes.

Bel Geddes’s work on the 1924 production of The Miracle reveals his talents as a theatrical polymath. The play, a medieval legend about a nun, relied on Bel Geddes’s mechanized scenery and single switchboard. The technical modifications allowed a single electrician to control the focus, direction, and color of the lighting. Audience members sat on pews to watch the play, as Bel Geddes transformed the interior of the theater into a Gothic cathedral, complete with light trickling through stained glass windows and incense wafting through the air. The Miracle fused theater and architecture, creating a participatory environment that immersed audience members in the drama that surrounded them.

Highlighted here is a series of four costume designs for The Miracle, including “Oriental Gentleman,” “Chief Gypsy or Jester,” “Noble Gentleman,” and “Gypsy Woman.” The watercolors showcase Bel Geddes’s dexterity as an artist.

The innovations of Bel Geddes’s early theatrical career inform his later work as an industrial designer. Indeed, the same mechanical track system used to move scenery in The Miracle also guided model cars along the highway system of Futurama.

Materials from The Miracle and other theatrical works by Bel Geddes are on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Please click on the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Illustrating the Sueltas

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The Texas collection of comedias sueltas at the Ransom Center contains over 14,000 titles that provide valuable insight into Spanish literature from the second half of the seventeenth century through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thanks to a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, the cataloging work on this collection continues and is expected to be completed by February 2014. The cataloging of these items has revealed numerous interesting titles and phenomena, including illustrated sueltas.

There are several categories of illustrations found in the sueltas: scene illustrations, character and author portraits, and stage diagrams. These illustrations can help scholars better visualize a performance and improve the scholar’s understanding of the appearance and character of Spanish theater. Most sueltas were not illustrated. Because the sueltas were primarily intended for performance and not general reading, illustrations may have been an extraneous expense for publishers. Furthermore, the cost of paper dictated that as many words as possible be squeezed into available space. This makes the items that do have illustrations all the rarer and more interesting.

Scene illustrations:

A scene illustration is often an engraving of the characters in a moment of action. The actors are shown in costume, and the viewer can see the emotions on the faces of the actors. These illustrations are perhaps the most informative about the actual conception of a play. They are also, however, the rarest type of illustration. Images of the following scene illustrations can be seen in the slideshow.

The earliest illustrated suelta dates from 1775. The sueltas at this time generally consisted of text alone. One illustrated suelta includes a fairly crude scene illustration of a child being bathed and a woman ironing. The suelta, titled Letra a la tonadilla de la planchadora, was bound with a manuscript suelta called Sacristan y la viuda. Both items have received significant conservation work to separate and repair them. Ransom Center conservators also removed a sheet of tissue mounted onto the illustration.

The suelta Misantropía y arreptentimiento features a scene illustration unique for a number of reasons. First, the item is dated 1800, which is early in the suelta publishing phenomenon and even earlier in terms of suelta illustration. Furthermore, it pictures an artist’s elegant conceptualization of a dramatic moment in the play outside the confines of the theater. This engraving shows the moment taking place in “real life,” rather than on the stage.  This illustration is far more artistic in nature than typical scene illustrations.

The illustration in Roberto el Diablo is more typical in style of the scene illustrations found in the sueltas. For instance, note the stylized, almost cartoonish, faces and bodies of the characters and their exaggerated body language. The action is being emphasized, while the scenery lacks detail.  The presence of illustrations printed on the wrapper is also uncommon. It was not until later in the century that illustrated wrappers and the use of colored ink became more wide spread.

Character portraits:

Character portraits are among the most visually interesting illustrations. They are often reproduced from photographs, so the details are generally easier to make out than those of scene illustrations. One can see what the actor looked like in full costume. Some character portraits are produced as engravings that offer artistic representations, but still provide insight into the costumery of a main character. Character portraits tend to be of particularly interesting characters, such as the portraits of Boquerón and Nina featured in the slideshow.

Boquerón and Nina are both exceedingly flamboyant characters and the namesakes of the respective plays in which they are featured. Boquerón is a female actress dressed as a ridiculous male character. Note also that an enterprising reader has added a mustache and beard to Boquerón’s face. Nina is a scantily clad woman warrior. She is later featured in a sequel called Seña Manuela in which her costumery may be noted to be equally spectacular, but certainly less risqué.

Stage diagrams:

Stage diagrams are particularly illustrative of the mechanics of the Spanish theater.  A diagram shows how the stage was designed and where certain important props or scenery were placed. In an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s last novel Ninety-three, the stage diagram shows how a stage is altered after a set change. Particularly interesting is the presence of the “puerta secreta,” or secret door. Furthermore, this diagram helps the reader understand how the stage blocking would have looked to a theatergoer.

Related content:

Stories from the Sueltas: Cataloger sheds light on gems in the Spanish comedias sueltas collection

Unusual scene illustrations from the publisher’s wrapper from "Roberto el diablo," 1865.
Unusual scene illustrations from the publisher’s wrapper from "Roberto el diablo," 1865.

Norman Bel Geddes: From the Nutshell Jockey Club to War Game to Futurama

Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.
Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.

From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.

Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.

Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.

Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.

“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”

“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”