By ERIN ALLEN
Oliver Smith’s creative touch was at the heart of some of America’s most notable and beloved theater productions, including “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” “Camelot” and “Hello, Dolly!”
A master of colors and styles, his vivid watercolor paintings and imaginative renderings literally set the stage for these historic musicals. The Library has acquired his theatrical design collection, and a selection of gems was put on show recently in the Whittall Pavilion.
“The acquisition of the Oliver Smith Collection of Theatrical Design constitutes a major expansion of the Library’s holdings in theatrical design,” said Walter Zvonchenko of the Music Division. “It’s a major building block in structuring the Library as an institution with a full spectrum of formats for theatrical research.”
Items in the collection include watercolors of stage backdrops and sets, ground plans, ink sketches and elevations for both realized productions and those that never saw the spotlight.
“The material provides a historical background to the development of design for a given production, as well as the final scheme,” said Zvonchenko. “Some of the ground plans provide an opportunity to compare scenic presentation for the same production in different theaters.
“A few years ago, a researcher came in with a question about ‘My Fair Lady’—specifically the location of a staircase in Henry Higgins’ home,” he recalled. “He was concerned how the placement would affect his theatrical production.” Now, thanks to the Oliver Smith Collection, researchers can study Smith’s blueprints and renderings to better inform their own stage design.
Perusing the paintings and sketches, recognizable titles immediately pop out—“Gigi,” “Guys and Dolls” and “West Side Story”—along with lesser-known productions and failures like “Flahooley,” a satire targeting big business and conformity; “Jimmy,” based on the book “Beau James” by Gene Fowler; and “Dear World,” based on the Jean Giraudoux play “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”
“ ‘Flahooley’ is an oddity in that Smith signed the designs but listed credit is given to Howard Bay,” said Zvonchenko.
According to Zvonchenko, the collection is vast, with thousands of pieces, and much is still waiting to be processed at the Library’s storage facilities in Landover. Some of the items are not identified, which is rare, he said. He’s hoping that as the collection is being used, researchers will be able to shed some light on such materials.
“Even with the well-known pieces, it’s wonderful to have researchers come in and relate some information,” said Zvonchenko.
Smith was one of the most highly regarded and sought-after stage designers of the 20th century. His professional circles included the likes of Aaron Copland, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman and Irving Berlin—all of whose papers are in the custody of the Library.
One of the Library’s larger collections in musical theater is the Leonard Bernstein Collection. Smith worked with Bernstein on many occasions—for both dance and musical productions—and on “Mass,” a piece commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy that premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center in 1971.
Not only did Smith design for musicals, but he also contributed rich artful conceptions for plays, opera and dance. Among Smith’s contributions for plays were sets for “Auntie Mame,” “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple.” His design work in opera included “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera and “Don Giovanni” for the San Francisco Opera. In dance, he conceived sets for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was co-director of what became the American Ballet Theatre from 1945 to 1980 and again after 1990.
One of the most iconic productions staged by the American Ballet Theatre was Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” with music by Copland.
“It was originally staged for the Ballet Russe in 1942,” said Elizabeth Aldrich, also of the Music Division. “It was moved to the Ballet Theatre in 1950.”
In 1944, Smith collaborated with Bernstein and Jerome Robbins in creating “Fancy Free” for the Ballet Theatre, providing the inspiration for one of the landmark musicals of the 1940s, “On the Town,” for which Smith also did the set design.
Smith was also no stranger to Hollywood, having designed the sets for film adaptations of “Guys and Dolls,” “Oklahoma!” and “Porgy and Bess,” to name a few.
“Encompassing more than 400 productions, it is no exaggeration to say that the collection’s research potential for scholars is enormous,” said Zvonchenko.
Calling Smith a “sort of surrogate director,” Zvonchenko noted that an important function of scenic design is its ability to determine locational focus by informing actors’ movement, their entrances and exits and the space they are going to have onstage.
“The thing about Smith was how responsive he was to the specific piece and how he was able to define the production,” added Zvonchenko.
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications.