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Al Hirschfeld and a Century of Show Business History

When you approach the double door entrance to The Hirschfeld Century: the Art of Al Hirschfeld exhibit below a neon lit Hollywood style theater marquee at the New York Historical Society, you think you are going to a movie. Marquees filled with blinking yellow lights and splashy, colorful movie and play posters flood the exhibit and remind you that Al Hirschfeld’s exquisite caricatures were a large part of American show business history.

You’re wondering if you know Hirschfeld, right? Of course you do. He’s the guy that drew all those unbelievably unique black and white line caricature sketches of theater and movie stars that appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere for decades. The guy with the flowing white beard. Yes, that guy.

Dozens of his original art works, from New York Times drawings to Hollywood movie posters to television personalities are on display in The Hirschfeld Century exhibit at the New York Historical Society, W. 77th Street and Central Park West, New York. The exhibit is both a tribute to Hollywood and New York theater history and to Hirschfeld himself, who, with his unique drawing style, “the line King,” as he was called, was the American Picasso.

He started doing color posters for silent movie studios in normal art form, with slight twists, in the 1920s. Then, In the 1930s, he started doing more ‘line’ drawings and they were more successful. He soon had a special ‘line’ style all his own and people liked it. He worked for studios and independently. His unique, never to be duplicated style of line portrait work quickly made him an American art icon.

He spent years in Hollywood and the moguls there gave him complete freedom to draw whatever he wanted. “They told me they were constantly making movies, so if I liked a film or an actor I could do as many drawings as I wanted,” he said, quoted by David Leopold in his book The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age. “I did not have to worry about the design of the poster, the lettering, copy and so forth.”

That freedom, plus the artist’s speed at finishing works, opened up a new world for Hirschfeld, who worked mainly at MGM Studios (he drew some of the posters for The Wizard of Oz in 1939). He vacationed in Bali in 1932, with other artists, and his time there convened him that he should draw for living.

The wonderfully organized and popular exhibit (it was packed with people when I went a week ago) shows his early work as soon as you walk in and go face to face with his enormous lush, color poster for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the 1940 film Strike Up the Band. It is surrounded by movie portraits for other films along with several marvelous sketches of Charlie Chaplin.

Hirschfeld did a lot of magazine covers, such as Milton Berle and Edward R, Murrow for TV Guide and Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle for The American Mercury. He drew the stars of 1920s movies, 1950s plays and even Beatle Ringo Starr. The exhibit contains an almost innumerable amount of celebrities drawn by Hirschfeld: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Ruby Keeler in No, No Nanette, Jerry Orbach in 42d Street, He dew one of the very first sketches of Laurel and Hardy, under a bed quilt together, in 1928. His pen sketched the likenesses of Whoopi Goldberg, Carol Channing, Ella Fitzgerald, and Laurence Olivier. He drew wise old men, gorgeous young women, movie casts and Broadway divas. His work ranged from silent movies to Broadway plays to backstage rehearsals. At one point, he was drawing three portraits of theater plays and performers a week for the New York Times; he is remembered best for those works.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a well-produced video that includes interviews with Hirschfeld and half a dozen show biz stars that he sketched.

The video shows Hirschfeld as a surprisingly ordinary man, with no moody artist syndromes at all. He chats amiably with interviewers and explains what he does simply. “I just show people what I see,” he said.

He shrugs when asked how he became an artist and why he stumbled into show business. “I draw because I could not do anything else,” said the artist, who was easy to recognize with his thick, flowing white beard.

Some stars of stage and screen were easy to draw and others very, very difficult. He never knew how they would be until he started the work. “Sometimes it is quick and sometimes (it) brought an ulcer,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

In the video, too, is the delightful story of how Hirschfeld began drawing the name of his daughter, Nina, shortly after her birth in 1945, in his portraits, cleverly hiding it among the lines and challenging newspaper readers to find it. The artist had married German actress Dolly Haas, who fled the Holocaust, in 1943 and they remained married for 50 years.

The stars that he worked with enjoyed his sketches. Actress Colleen Dewhurst thought he captured her at her best. Katherine Hepburn noted that her memorable face gave an artist like him a lot to work with in caricature. Joe Papp, the theater producer, slumped in a chair, said that “he makes you interesting.”

The most fascinating part of the exhibit is the recreation of the artist’s workspace. Where do artists complete their work, anyway? Some had cottages, some had household studios and some worked in outdoor meadows. Hirschfeld? He bought himself a barber shop chair, one that moved from a straight up to a completely horizontal positon, and alternately drew on an easel in front of it or napped on top of it. Visitors to the museum are welcomed to sit in the barber chair (a replica) and feel what it is like to be an artist. I tried it and I felt very much like…a writer.

The exhibit explains how Hirschfeld worked. He went to dress rehearsals of Broadway plays or movies and brought along his trusty 8” x 11” sketchbook, into which he put dozens of sketches per day. At home, luxuriating in his barber chair, he picked the ones he liked and finished them. The sketchbooks to some of the plays, such as Long Day’s Journey into Night, are on display.

The one weakness of this otherwise marvelous exhibit on show biz history is the lack of explanation about why Hirschfeld never retired and how he managed to live to within a shadow of a century and at 99 produced work just as good as he did at 29. His career lasted through two world wars, Vietnam and the Great Depression.

“AL Hirschfeld’s work was ubiquitous for 82 years – in Hollywood, the New York Times, Broadway, film studios and TV Guide covers,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New York Historical Society. “We are thrilled to feature these iconic drawings that capture popular culture of the 20th century.”

The exhibit was organized by Louise Kerz Hirschfeld and curated by David Leopold. The curator also wrote a handsome, well-written coffee table book about the exhibit, The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age. It is jammed full of color and black and white drawings and stories about the artist (the museum shop sells it along with Hirschfeld bags, coffee mugs and tee shirts).

The Hirschfeld Century exhibit will be on display through October 12.