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Posts Tagged ‘1940s’

Panties Inferno: An Interview with Peter Larkin

January 15, 2015 | by

Making a pop-up book about burlesque.

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Peter Larkin

My mother Racelle, a painter, met the production designer Peter Larkin in the midsixties when she went to work for him as a scenic artist. After my parents divorced, Peter and Racelle became an item, eventually marrying. Peter had a long, Tony Award–winning Broadway career and then moved into film, designing pictures like Tootsie and Get Shorty. He’s a brilliant illustrator, as well—Ralph Allen, who’d conceived the musical Sugar Babies, collaborated with Peter on his book The Best Burlesque.

Burlesque, it turns out, is one of Peter’s great obsessions. Over the past twenty years, he’s created a mass of drawings, mock-ups, and maquettes for Panties Inferno, a pop-up book on the subject. Now eighty-eight, he continues to refine the work, though publishers have told him the book is too expensive to manufacture and publish—something about the glue points. But his pop-ups and drawings are wonderful, a testament to his comprehensive knowledge of the old burlesque scene. I called him to talk about his process and the basis of his fascination with burlesque as well as its history, which he feels has been mischaracterized since burlesque began to die out in the late fifties and early sixties.

Where does burlesque begin, for you?

The word burla is some kind of antique Italian. It means “joke,” and the first burlesque was imitations of what went on uptown. It was a family affair. People brought their lunches and stuff. Florenz Ziegfeld had The Ziegfeld Follies, which probably cost a lot of money—that show had nude ladies in tableaux, but they were forbidden to move. The curtain opened on Aladdin’s cave, say, or an artist’s studio, and all the ladies were still.

But in the early twentieth century, forward-thinking people like the Minsky brothers, of Minsky’s Burlesque, made it so that for a lot less money you could go and see the women moving. It changed tremendously through the years. These acts started out with a preponderance of acts and comics and maybe one or two strippers, and as it went on, more and more time was given over to strippers. The comics were furious. They started to use bluer material, to get even. Read More »

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The Whys and Wherefores

June 18, 2014 | by

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Jeanette MacDonald in an Argentinean Magazine, February 1934

I remember the moment clearly: it was a late winter afternoon, and I was sitting on the radiator in my bedroom, reading Michelle Phillips’s memoir California Dreamin instead of doing my ninth-grade English homework. The author described moving into the mansion where the 1930s movie star Jeanette MacDonald had once lived. The Mamas and the Papas—then at the height of their fame—gutted the place, in the process ripping out the built-in wardrobes, whose enormous drawers had been designed to hold entire gowns, laid flat. And I made the conscious decision not to tell my grandmother about it. I thought it would distress her.

Back when the world was simpler and videotapes were physical objects, my grandmother and I used to set aside an afternoon when we’d settle ourselves on the couch with the milk shakes she made from homemade ice cream and gorge on Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy films. Why my grandparents had them all on cassette I don’t know; maybe my grandpa had picked up the lot at a tag sale. Those operettas became the soundtrack to my summers; to this day, I can’t hear the “Indian Love Call” without a Proustian rush of nostalgia. Of course, since one never hears the “Indian Love Call,” said rush has yet to happen.

There was a time when everyone knew MacDonald and Eddy. Films like Rose-Marie and Maytime made the handsome singers household names, and made hits of their scores. The films were corny and soapy, and even eighty years ago the music was nostalgic. Eddy’s acting—especially in their early collaborations—was wooden. (Check out the clinch in Naughty Marietta for proof.) But my grandmother loved them when she was a little girl, and at the same age, I adored them. A few plot synopses will illustrate why. Read More »

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Ida Kar

April 27, 2011 | by

Ida Kar, self-portrait with a painting by John Christoforou and an assemblage by Heinrich Heidersberger, 1962.

After moving from Tambov, Russia, to Egypt with her Armenian parents in 1921, Ida Kar spent five years in Paris. She had been educated at the prestigious Lycée Français in Alexandra, but her stint on the Left Bank, at age twenty, formed the foundation of her education as an artist. André Breton had written the first Surrealist manifesto there four years earlier, and the city was a hotbed of artistic experimentation. In the studio of a young German photographer named Heinrich Heidersberger, Kar made her first foray into photography. She returned to Egypt in 1933, just as that nation’s artists began developing their own iteration of surrealism (André Breton famously wrote to poet Georges Henelin, in 1936, “The imp of the perverse, as he deigns to appear to me, seems to have one wing here, the other in Egypt”), and dedicated herself to the medium.

When the newly married Kar moved to London in 1945, she wasted little time in initiating her photographic career and cultivating the kind of artistic community she had known in Cairo. She began making high-contrast, tightly cropped commercial portraits of theater actors in 1947; by the end of fifties, her roster of sitters had come to include many of the era’s most significant painters, sculptors, authors, poets, playwrights, and composers, among them T. S. Eliot, Noël Coward, L. S. Lowry, and Somerset Maugham in London; Le Corbusier, Man Ray, Marie Laurencin, and Alberto Giacometti in Paris; and Dmitry Shostakovich, Leonid Leonov, Ernst Neizvestny, and Ilya Ehrenberg in the Soviet Union.

In 1960, Kar mounted a groundbreaking solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; hers was the first retrospective show of a photographer at a London gallery. Of it, she boasted, “We are going to make this show the most exciting photographic event since ‘The Family of Man.’” The comparison with Edward Steichen’s thorough 1955 survey of documentary photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was apt. The Whitechapel show solidified Kar’s reputation as documentarian of cultural life, while rousing critics to debate photography’s aspirations to the level of high art. “I don’t think it is an art,” insisted David Sylvester, a fan of Kar’s work, “because the essence of art is that the artist creates his forms and does not select them: photography reproduces the form.”

Kar proved unmoved by the debate. Until her death in 1974, she continued her work, making sensitive portraits of the St. Ives artistic community, of Fidel Castro and Cuban writers, and of any number of intrepid, purposeful women artists.

Click on the images below to open a gallery of Kar’s photography.

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908–1974” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through June 19.

All images © National Portrait Gallery, London

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