Monday, May 16, 2011

Arts Advocates

Vincent Price

At one time, there was a distinct breed of celebrity who harnessed their popular appeal to engage in arts advocacy.  They were ubiquitous, and it was almost impossible to tune into radio or television without the likes of Vincent Price or Tony Randall or Kitty Carlisle touting an appreciation of Fine Arts.   Though many today may find this type of advocacy silly or hopelessly ‘middle brow,’ these champions of the arts, and others like them, were an important stepping stone for many into a deeper, more fulfilling world.  The accomplishments of figures like Price, Randall and Carlisle are not to be underestimated. 

Kitty Carlisle (1910-2007) was primarily an actress.  Movie buffs remember her turn in A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers, but she was also a staple on television, regularly appearing on such quiz shows as To Tell The Truth.  (She was also married to producer/playwright Moss Hart.)  Once her acting career slowed down, Carlisle worked for over 20 years as member and later chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts.  Carlisle’s greatest role was as a highly-visible advocate of the arts, lobbying the New York State Legislature and the United States Congress for funding. She crisscrossed the state to support rural string quartets, small theater groups and inner-city dance troupes.

In this role, Carlisle saw herself as a “Johnny Appleseed for culture,” especially in rural parts of New York State. “Wherever we go, the arts flourish,” she said. “It’s a cliché now that people say they want to make a difference, but I’d like to think that I somehow made a difference.”

Tony Randall (1920-2004), of course, is familiar around the world as fussbudget Felix Unger on television’s The Odd Couple (1970-1975).  But Randall was also a tireless advocate on behalf of opera, ballet, and in support of the American National Actors Theater.

Like many actors of his generation, Randall started on radio (he played Reggie York, the English detective on I Love a Mystery), but soon found supporting and starring roles in a string of now-classic 1950s film comedies, such as Pillow Talk (1959).  He transitioned easily into television, supporting Wally Cox on Mr. Peepers (1952-1955) before starring in three different television series of his own.

Randall’s devotion to the arts was broad and engaging.  He hosted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts in Central Park, sang in a Metropolitan Opera production of Die Fledermaus, and in 1991, he founded the National Actors Theater, floating the project with millions of dollars of his own money because he fervently believed that the United States needed its own national theater.  He was chairman of the National Actors Theater until his death in 2004.

Few celebrities were more beloved than actor Vincent Price (1911-1993).  Star of films, television, quiz show staple and TV pitchman, Price worked with everyone from Orson Welles to Alice Cooper, and appeared in everything from the film classic Laura (1944) to The Brady Bunch.  On stage, Price spent several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s starring in Diversions and Delights, a one-man show by John Gay about Oscar Wilde, patron saint of this blog.  It is considered by many to be Price’s finest performance.

But Price was more than an actor; he was an avid devotee of the arts.  He was a noted collector, with a taste for paintings, Early American crafts and jade pieces.  He toured schools regularly, preaching the gospel of art, and offered his expertise to a variety of public projects.

Price donated some 90 pieces from his collection to the East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, California, to establish America’s first teaching art collection in 1951. Today, the Vincent Price Art Gallery continues to present world-class exhibitions, and remains one of Price’s enduring legacies. The collection contains over 2,000 pieces and has been valued in excess of $5 million.

Price also worked to bring art to the people.  In 1962, Sears stores believed that, outside of major cities, fine art was not available (or affordable) to the general public.  The store approached Vincent Price to lead the program to change that. Sears selected Price not only for his fame, but also for his reputation in the international art world as a collector, lecturer, former gallery-owner and connoisseur who studied art at Yale and the University of London.

Sears gave Price complete authority to select the works for this daring initiative.  He canvassed the world for fine art to offer through Sears.  He bought collections, commissioned artists (including Dali) and applied his own innate sense of taste and quality.

The project was a great success.  The first show opened in Denver, Colorado, and included original works by the great masters, including Whistler, Rembrandt and Chagall.  Items ranged in price from $10 to $3,000, putting them within the reach of all Americans.  (Many of these pieces are still available, sometimes on EBay, with the legend The Vincent Price Collection stamped on the back.) 

In 1966, the Sears Vincent Price Gallery of Fine Art opened in Chicago, Illinois, featuring the works of talented, but lesser-known artists at affordable prices.  Price was involved with Sears until 1971, and was responsible for more than 50,000 pieces of fine art finding a way into American homes.
And who today has taken the place of Kitty Carlisle, Tony Randall and Vincent Price?  The public intellectual has not yet completely faded from the scene (one thinks of Harold Bloom or Christopher Hitchens), but the Arts Advocate is rare indeed.  Are celebrities leery of aligning themselves to an artistic cause due to possible charges of ‘elitism?’  Or are the Fine Arts now too alienating to the public-at-large?
It is time that some of our more public figures became advocates for the arts.  The cultural losses we could sustain without that passion and dedication are too terrible to contemplate.

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