By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin July 21, 2014 at 12:00AM
What a perfect marriage: posters celebrating Hollywood musicals at the summertime mecca for dance, Jacob’s Pillow, in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. And who better to serve as guest of honor than Marge Champion, still vital at age 95? If, like me, you won’t have a chance to visit the Gotta Dance! exhibit in person, curator and collector Mike Kaplan has put together a souvenir book.
As Mike tells it, “The book was realized after having received requests for one at each of the previous five Gotta Dance! exhibits. As the audience at Jacob's Pillow is so dance-oriented and attracts nearly 100,000 visitors, this was a now or never opportunity. Waiting for a publisher (there is interest) would take at least a year. So it's self-published for the time being (Lagoon Press) and can be backordered online at The Pillow Store at online at Jacob's Pillow or through email@example.com (310) 927-4860.
“All of the exhibits have been satisfying,” he reports, “but this one is the most special as it came about because of Marge Champion, who is a patron of the Pillow. Their key exhibit space, Blake's Barn, was donated by Marge to the Pillow from her property and is named for her son, Blake, who was a fine dancer and Pillow student who died in a tragic car accident when he was 25. This is also Marge's 95th birthday year, so the Pillow, spearheaded by Norton Owen, their amazing director of preservation and archivist, wanted to celebrate her. He had seen the exhibit at Lincoln Center and asked if I had more than just one poster with Marge & Gower Champion (which I had) and knew more should be available. So it began. Sixty posters are included (103 are in the book), with six of the Champions, the best being the artful Swedish poster of Everything I Have is Yours, which took a great deal of sleuthing to locate. It provides a striking contrast to MGM's pedestrian version, also on view; this enabled me to blast the mediocre movie posters produced here in the 50s.
“I tried to include every major star dancer in the book and almost all in the exhibit as well as examples of how dance images were used to sell dramatic and comedic films. Between the exhibit and the book, Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Laurel & Hardy, Loretta Young, Laurence Olivier, Bob Hope,
Hedy Lamarr, Claudette Colbert, Lee Tracy, etc. are also seen in dance mode. Though there were more posters (81) in the California Heritage Museum show, this one has the most feeling, maybe because of Marge, the Pillow, and a two-story effect. People want to move and dance when they go through it. (If there are more exhibits, I want to have a prop bin with top hats, straw hats, canes, umbrellas, etc.) I missed getting a picture of a couple who were celebrating their anniversary and posed in front of the Astaire-Hayworth French poster for You’ll Never Get Rich, joined at the hip.
The Champions: Marge and Gower.“Response so far has been gratifying. The first shipment of the book sold out and some have already sold from the second shipment which arrived Monday. The books thus far have all been spiral bound, which people seem to prefer as they open flat. The problem in doing a limited number at a time is that the price is $65 but I guess that's in the art book range.”
“Besides being able to see the posters displayed and enjoyed, my mission is to have the movie poster, at its most creative, appreciated as a legitimate art form.”
Mike Kaplan was ahead of the curve in that area. While dilettante collectors like me despaired at the rising price of vintage Hollywood posters, years ago, this movie marketing executive took a different route. He pursued foreign-language posters, which were still affordable, and developed a keen eye for the most striking designs. In recent years he has curated a number of gallery exhibits; when I saw Gotta Dance! at the California Heritage Museum a year or so back, I was blown away.
But he’s not finished yet. “In future exhibits, I intend to have posters of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Blue Fairy reissue of Pinocchio, and the dancing hippos in Fantasia, as Marge was the model for all, which I had forgotten. Marge's father, Ernest Belcher, was the dean of dance directors in the 20's-40s and taught Crawford, John Gilbert, Shirley Temple, Cyd Charisse, etc. The oldest poster in the exhibit (also in the book) is The Spanish Dancer (1926), which became a Pola Negri vehicle after Valentino refused to do it when he was in a fight with Paramount. The Spanish Dancer was among Belcher's credits, though ‘choreographers’ didn't receive screen credits. I had no idea. [It’s all] serendipity, like how much of Gotta Dance! has evolved.”