While visiting Cincinnati, Ohio last week for a lecture I was fortunate enough to discover the American Sign Museum, thanks to local preservationist Paul Muller, who arranged for me to get a personal tour with managing director Brad Huberman. As an unabashed fan of vintage advertising signs, I was in hog heaven.
This impressive institution attracts visitors from near and far…and no wonder. It embraces the worlds of hand-painted signs, billboards, barns, wooden and porcelain pieces, neon and, yes, individually crafted movie posters. The collection includes books, photos and documents dealing with the art, craft, and history of sign making. You can learn more HERE.
According to the Museum’s website, “Tod Swormstedt, former editor and publisher of Signs of the Times magazine, wanted to capture these stories before they were lost forever, and so he founded the National Signs of the Times Museum in 1999 as his self-proclaimed mid-life crisis project.
With the help of a few early believers, the renamed American Sign Museum opened its doors in Spring, 2005. Soon after, Tod began looking for a permanent home that could accommodate the Museum’s collection – which was already outgrowing its rented space – and his vision for a more interactive experience. His search ended at a former women’s clothing and later parachute factory in Camp Washington, a historic and ready-to-bloom-again area of Cincinnati. With the continued help of our supporters, we opened the doors of our permanent home June 23, 2012!”
The new facility has 19,000+ square feet of exhibit space, with another 20,000 waiting for development, 28-foot ceilings, and a working neon shop. Many of its signs and memorabilia are displayed on a make-believe Main Street.
The neon pieces are irresistible, but of course I’m especially fond of the movie-related images. The Museum features several original painted pieces by the late Keith Knecht, who recreated posters for a pair of early John Wayne films in the 1990s, proving he hadn’t lost his touch.
Many theaters hired local artists to render original poster art instead of using the standard-issue one-sheets issued by the studios and National Screen Service. The best-known of these artists, Batiste Madalena, was “discovered” several decades ago when a number of the striking silk-screens he designed and executed for the George Eastman Theater in Rochester, New York, were rescued from a dumpster and revealed to the public for the first time since the 1920s. Although it is out of print, you can still find the beautiful, oversized book featuring his best work online.
The American Sign Museum is not alone in its admiration for this nearly-lost art. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences houses a separate Poster Painters Collection that includes more than 100 poster paintings by Madalena, Sid Smith, O. M. Wise, Edward Augustus Armstrong and R. J. Rogers. To quote the Academy website,
“The collection documents an American cottage industry that was popular from the 1910s until the 1950s and provided employment for hundreds of artists whose work graced the lobbies and frontages of both the great movie palaces and the small neighborhood theaters. Working both for individual houses and for major chains, these forgotten and generally unacknowledged artists created posters intended for local consumption only, ‘selling’ the film through advertising that emphasized what would appeal most to that community and designed to integrate fully within that particular theatrical setting. This was very much a transient, commercial art, discarded and forgotten as quickly as many of the films it promoted. Posters would routinely be painted over again and again. As a result, few original examples have survived.
“The majority of poster paintings in the collection were created by Batiste Madalena who is the most well-known of these artists. Madalena worked in Rochester, New York, in the mid-1920s. Almost forgotten, his work was discovered by filmmaker Steven Katten who donated one-third of Madalena’s poster paintings that are included in the collection. The other two-thirds came from Madalena’s family. These major contributions are supplemented by the work of Jane Powell, the wife of former Academy president Charles M. Powell. Powell is responsible for the library’s acquisition of much of the rest of the collection, particularly the manuscript component.
“In addition to the actual poster paintings there are 4.7 linear feet of documents including some correspondence, clippings, photographs, scrapbooks and copies of articles from the trade publication ‘Signs of the Times.’ Of special note is a photograph album that documents the work of Edwin “Ike” Checketts. Checketts was active in Utah from roughly 1915 until the mid-1920s.”
In my next post, I’ll discuss two films that tell the story of sign painters–one factual, one fanciful.