Historic Hollywood backdrop paintings to go on view at Bass Concert Hall

From the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, the enormous hand-painted scenic backdrops have not been publicly exhibited before


In another clever move to use the currently empty Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas, the vast stage will turn into an exhibition space for 12 historic — and enormous — hand-painted film backdrops.

“Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” goes on view Feb. 11 and continues through March 21. Reservations for timed admission tickets are available beginning 10 a.m. Jan. 30 at texasperformingarts.org.

Like other theaters, the 3000-seat Bass Concert Hall has remained closed since last March because of the pandemic.

“This exhibition continues our commitment to offering new creative experiences during the pandemic,” said Bob Bursey, executive director of Texas Performing Arts, UT’s presenting program. In August, Bursey announced a unique residency program, in collaboration with Austin arts organization Fusebox, that granted selected theater artists access to Texas Performing Arts vacant venues as studio and production space.

“This show (of historic backdrops) is an opportunity for a change of scene — something I think we could all use right now,” Bursey said.

The mid-century film backdrops come from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio and have not been on public exhibit before.

Two Loves
A painted backdrop showing an exterior view of a trailer park in Pennsylvania in 1961 from the movie “Two Loves “(MGM 1961). It measures 41’ x 30’ Courtesy of Texas Performing Arts

Texas Performing Arts actually has 50 MGM backdrops. They were donated to the UT performing arts center by the Art Director’s Guild Archives as part of its Backdrop Recovery Project, an effort to preserve the legacy of Hollywood’s motion picture scenic artists. In all, the guild saved 207 backdrops, donating them to museums, motion picture archives, and academic institutions like UT.

The show is curated by Karen L. Maness, Scenic Art Supervisor at Texas Performing Arts and UT faculty member in Theater & Dance and Arts & Entertainment Technology.

“UT Austin now owns the largest educational collection of Hollywood Motion Picture backdrops in the world,” Maness said in press materials. “Created in the guarded secrecy of MGM’s studio system and designed to transport audiences to far off locations while filming on soundstages in Culver City, these backdrops have never been accessible for public viewing.”

National Velvet
This late 1920s exterior views of the small town of Sewels in Sussex, England comes from the movie “National Velvet” (1944). Courtesy of Texas Performing Arts

For those unable to visit in-person, a video tour of the exhibition led by Karen Maness will be available on-demand beginning in mid-February.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts and culture journalist who has covered visual art, performance, film, literature, architecture, and just about any combination thereof. She was the staff arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman for 17 years. Her commendations include the First Place Arts & Culture Criticism Award from the Society for Features Journalism. Additionally, Jeanne Claire has been awarded professional fellowships at USC’s Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and NEA/Columbia University Arts Journalism Institute. In 2022, she was awarded the Rabkin Prize in visual art journalism. Jeanne Claire founded and led Sightlines, a non-profit online arts and culture magazine that reached an annual readership of 600,000. And for two years, she taught arts journalism at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art Papers, and ICON design magazine, among other publications.

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