June 6, 2013
American swimming champion-turned-movie star Esther Williams died today. She was 91, and passed away this morning in her sleep, according to her family and publicist.
Williams grew up outside of Los Angeles, where she competed for a city swim team and won numerous titles and set national records as a teenager, including a 100-meter freestyle victory at the Women’s Outdoor National Championship in 1939. The next year, she was selected for the Olympic team, but the Games were cancelled when World War II broke out.
Williams left competition in 1940 to make a living, selling clothes in a department store for a few months until she was invited by showman Billy Rose to work a bathing beauty job in his Aquacade show at the World’s Fair. While performing, she was spotted by MGM scouts and given a contract with the film studio in 1941. She became a film sensation over the next decade by starring in the studio’s hugely popular “aqua-musicals,” including Bathing Beauty, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid.
She swam more than 1,250 miles in 25 aqua-musicals throughout her film career.
In 2008, Williams donated to the National Museum of American History two giant scrapbooks that MGM kept of her time with the studio, each multiple feet-tall and made of wood. The books are filled with both professional and personal mementos. Williams was recognized throughout her career for her beauty and athleticism, so she appeared in numerous pin up posters and advertisements, as well as magazine and newspaper articles.
The scrapbooks are currently held by Williams’ publicist, but now should be on their way to the museum soon, says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. They will likely go on display in a 2016 exhibition on American culture (currently the museum’s popular culture hall is closed for renovations).
Bowers thinks Williams will be remembered not only for putting swimming on the map in film, but also for the genuine star power she brought to the screen as a singer and actress. “You do not remember her just for the swimming sequences,” he says. “She matched her swimming ability with her ability to have a strong presence on the screen. She was a movie star. She was vibrant on screen.”
For more of Bowers’ thoughts on Williams, read the museum’s blog post on her here.
June 3, 2013
The housewife that Jean Stapleton portrayed on “All in the Family,” was, by her own words, “very naïve, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.” The actress, who died Friday at the age of 90, offered the show a moral compass. Where her on-screen husband Archie, played by Carroll O’Connor, was known for his small-minded bigotry, Stapelton’s Edith represented a more enlightened view on the show, known for breaking with television tradition, showing social strife, marital discord and the growing generation gap.
Bruce Weber wrote in her obituary for the New York Times:
Edith was none too bright, not intellectually, anyway, which, in the dynamic of the show was the one thing about her that invited Archie’s outward scorn. Ms. Stapleton gave Edith a high-pitched nasal delivery, a frequently baffled expression and a hustling, servile gait that was almost a canter, especially when she was in a panic to get dinner on the table or to bring Archie a beer.
But in Edith, Ms. Stapleton also found vast wells of compassion and kindness, a natural delight in the company of other people, and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame.
In a 1978 ceremony, the American History Museum acquired both Edith and Archie’s set chairs. The objects are among the most visited and beloved in the collections.
“They are the equivalent of the Appomattox chairs in many ways because Archie’s chair and Edith’s chair are the point of debate in the conversation that goes on,” says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. He cites the show’s comedic bickering that connected to a larger social context as one of the reasons it did so well and remains relevant today.
“They’re very, very popular with all ages, I’m surprised,” he says, “even kids, because of television syndication, which keeps the show on the air and in the public eye.”
Of the actress, he says, “Jean Stapleton’s legacy embraces her appearances on Broadway – in such shows as Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing, her recreations of those roles in those shows film versions, but uppermost her legacy is as Edith Bunker – a ditzy voice of reason and temperance that constantly balanced her husband’s prejudicial point of view.”
Note: Currently, only Archie Bunker’s chair is on display in the American History Museum’s “American Stories.”
March 11, 2013
What do Batman’s batarang, Charlie’s golden ticket and a gremlin have in common? They’re all from famous Warner Bros. films and they’re all part of the American History Museum’s entertainment collection, as of March 8 when the studio’s chairman, Barry Meyer signed over the deed for 30 items from 13 different films. Highlights from the donation, which represents films spanning 63 years, include: stop-action puppets from Tim Burton’s 2005 film, The Corpse Bride, Halle Berry’s Catwoman suit from her 2004 movie, and prop candy bars and a golden ticket from the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp.
“All of these artifacts,” says curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, “will allow us to tell stories about Hollywood film, . . .one of America’s great industries.”
Joining objects like the Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Kermit the Frog, the items represent everything from Hollywood classics like Bette Davis’ 1942 film, Now, Voyager to the wizardry of sci-fi flicks like Gremlins 2: The New Batch from 1990.
“I think all of the items have a unique kind of perspective and a unique kind of position in this,” says Meyer, “but in a way the most beautiful and the most intricate items up there are those models from the Corpse Bride.” Calling the puppets, individual pieces of art that resonant as much off the screen as on, he adds, “but I love them all, including the gremlin!”
His studio marks its 90th anniversary this April and he says, in many ways, its “own story mirrors that of the entertainment industry with a number of firsts in the areas of film and television and home entertainment.” From early ventures merging sound and moving picture to pioneering days in the television industry, and even its patents in the development of DVD and other digital technologies, Warner Bros. has seen phenomenal changes to the film industry.
Through it all, Meyer says, “as these experiences move further into the digital realm. . .it’s really important to remember that every movie, every television show at its heart, at its core, tells a story.” And critical to bringing that story to life, he adds, are “the sets and the props that dress the sets, the costumes worn by the actors and the models used in pre-production and many other non-digital, very tangible items that help us tell the story that is the core of the movie.”
Talking about the ongoing relationship with the American History Museum, Meyer says, “Our partnership is a great way of reminding people that movies and televisions shows are an important part of our shared culture.”
August 20, 2012
Phyllis Diller, the much-loved comedic star of zany wigs, painful gag lines and an inimitable blast of a laugh, died this morning at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.
Last fall, the National Museum of American History debuted a collection of highlights from Diller’s multifaceted career. The show, entitled “Have You Heard the One . . ?” included a relic from the star’s life that might be among the most unique artifacts in the history of the performing arts—Diller’s joke file. The 48-drawer, steel file cabinet, which the star called “my life in one-liners,” contains 50,000 jokes, each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”
Diller’s famous one liners took self-deprecation to new limits. “When I first got into this business, I thought a punchline was organized drinking.” One can almost hear the ensuing blast of her famous laugh. And of course her relationship with her husband Fang was without exception, always good fodder. “Fang has some very strange ideas about housework. He thinks I should do it.”
“The [joke] file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”
Diller, it turns out was not only the boisterous comic of late night television. She was a multifaceted artist who besides stand-up comedy enjoyed painting and sculpture and was a classical pianist. According to American History’s curator of the performing arts, Dwight Blocker Bowers, she also harbored tendencies toward museum curation. Bowers remembers arriving at Diller’s home in 2006 to arrange for the donation. “She was the most organized donor I’d ever met.”
“She had a rack of her costumes that she wished to donate. Each costume came with a plastic bag attached to it and inside the bag, she had carefully included not only the props—her cigarette holder, the head-dress, the gloves, the shoes—but also a photograph of her wearing the entire ensemble. She was better at curation than I was,” Bowers jokes.
The museum is now home to an impressive Diller collection that includes ten of her costumes, a wig, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller’s signature props. (The cigarette was wooden: “I’ve never smoked,” Bowers says she always insisted.) The cache also includes a number of photographs—including one of her wearing the green and gold lame gown from her Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967—three of her comedy albums, and the scripts from two of her 1960s television shows. She also donated several of her sculptures including a self-portrait bust and one made of her hands. A curious relic of her artistic talents includes the painting she called “The Phyllis Fuge.” It depicts the notes of a musical score that she wrote.
“She was an artist,” Bowers says. “She was an accomplished pianist, she painted, she sculpted and she did stand-up comedy.”
“We even received two recordings of her singing,” Bowers added.
But did she have a good voice? “Well, she was not the recording industry’s best singer,” Bowers demurs, “but she was the best comedian.”
“I think the most important thing I can say about Phyllis Diller,” says Bowers, “is that she was like Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Just like Friedan, Phyllis Diller chronicled the daily lives of woman. But she did it with laughs.”
September 27, 2011
Diosa Costello was the first Latina on Broadway. She was a pioneering night club performer. As a producer and club owner, she set trends in entertainment; as a film star and popular musician, she personified them. “I was the original J. Lo.,” Costello says. Last week, as part of an on-stage program and conversation with curators, she donated a set of 11 stage costumes from her storied career to the American History Museum.
The 94-year-0ld Costello grew up in Puerto Rico, performing for her father sick in bed and soldiers on the street . “I was born dancing,” she says. “All my life I danced.” After moving to New York with her family as a teenager, she worked her way up the ranks, catching a major break when she was cast in the Broadway musical Too Many Girls.
During her long and diverse career, she would record music, appear in Hollywood films, perform alongside Rodney Dangerfield in Catskills comedy clubs and launch Desi Arnaz to fame. In an era when racial diversity was nonexistent on stage, she performed as everything from Latina stereotypes to a Pacific islander, as “Bloody Mary” in South Pacific.
Her routines, in particular, were remarkably racy for the time. “I would stick my behind out, and I put a glass of water on top of it. When I was dancing all over the place, and I didn’t spill one drop,” Costello says. “I’m very uninhibited. If I think something, I do it.”
“She is a pioneering performer and a significant figure in American entertainment,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, a curator of the American History Museum’s entertainment collection. He hopes that, after renovations that will create a larger exhibition space for the popular culture artifacts, the museum will be able to put Costello’s costumes on display.
Despite her longevity and popularity, Costello never expected for her work to be honored in the Smithsonian. “I’ll tell you, I didn’t even know. I had never been to a museum, I didn’t even know what the heck it was all about,” she says. But Bowers feels the honor is fitting for a career of Costello’s magnitude. “You’re a legend,” he says, “to us and to the American people.”
In the upcoming November issue of Smithsonian, don’t miss Around the Mall’s Q&A with Diosa Costello.