Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts is currently host to a small, gem of an exhibition featuring the art/design of nonagenarian artist, Hilary Knight. Those of you aware only of Knight’s most iconic creation, the irrepressible Eloise (authored by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Knight) should treat yourselves to this glimpse into his utterly stylish and inventive world. Meticulously designed and constructed by the honoree himself, the show unfortunately lacks documentation. I recommend the two recordings offered through earphones for illumination.
“What’s amazing to me is that I still do it. Most people my age are playing golf or under ground.”
Hilary Knight’s parents, Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges, were successful illustrators/designers across diverse fields. Surrounded by taste, talent, and pleasure in craft, he never thought of doing anything else. A sampling of the couple’s work includes Sturge’s charming circus murals painted in the boy’s childhood room. “At four or five,” Knight drew over his mother’s own circus drawings in one of her sketchbooks. A lifelong enchantment with the big top ensued. Pristine, accomplished silhouettes in his oeuvre are inspired by her work for Oneida Silver. (Second floor)
The Circus is Coming by Hilary Knight
Movies – especially musicals and theater – enthralled him. “I never paid attention to the plots, just the sets and costumes.” The elaborate production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo at The Hippodrome, Adrian’s costumes for The Great Ziegfeld, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark – “The dream sequence was so beautiful I can see it now” – and Sabu films were particular favorites. “…This kid my age who was riding almost naked on an elephant – I thought, that’s a good idea…” (A fantasy achieved later in life.)
The young man studied with Reginald Marsh at The Art Students League then enlisted in the navy, preferring its uniform to that of the army. Irreverence showed itself with his painted mural of naked Geishas in an officer’s Okinowa Quonset hut.
Prestigious theater designer Jo Mielziner facilitated a season as assistant at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. Knight found scenic design “too big.” He’s always striven for control. “With books I could do exactly what I wanted.” The New York School of Interior Design added to multifaceted awareness and skill. He painted murals, built packaging maquettes and illustrated. No aptitude went to waste.
Two Vitrines – Vanity Fair Drawings; Portraits – Note Julie Wilson, upper right
Knight credits watercolor drawings of misbehaving children in Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s 1887 book of children’s manners La Civilité as very early inspiration. (He pored over it as a child.) Later, he was taken with Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s girls in British satirical magazines. (St. Trinian’s was a popular series featuring uncontrollable boarding school inhabitants.) Other influences include Lautrec, Mucha, Erte, Rockwell, and Hirschfeld.
In 1952, inspired by Searle’s pen and ink art, Knight drew “a strange little girl” with her mother for an article on bad little children in Mademoiselle Magazine. Its caption was “I think I’ll throw a tantrum.” (First floor). Eloise by any other name.
The artist lived in a bohemian brownstone filled with people “on their way to becoming important in their fields.” DD Dixon, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland occupied the top floor. While doing a photo shoot with MGM vocal coach and nightclub performer Kay Thompson, Dixon overheard and was addressed in what Knight calls Thompson’s “funny little girl voice,” conjuring a character in the third person. This, the editor thought, should be a book…and I know just the right illustrator. Kismet. “DD is completely responsible for Eloise.”
The original Eloise book
Eloise’s appearance was based, in part, on Knight family friend, Eloise Davison, food writer for the Herald Tribune. “…a funny, pudgy little woman with messy hair I pictured as a child.” Thompson had definite ideas about her charge’s life. Like the author, she would live at The Plaza Hotel. There would be no interfering father (she had hated her own) or even a male dog (Weenie has no weenie). “With all her brilliance and sophistication, Kay was curiously prudish…”
Thompson also insisted the girl’s mother should be perpetually absent, therefore never aging. The only drawing of mother and child and Knight’s favorite Eloise art is an unpublished depiction of our favorite mischievous girl choosing her puppy at “an elegant pugery.” Her elegant mother sits, legs crossed, wearing an enormous Audrey Hepburn chapeau and classic sheath. She watches the proceedings with, of course, her back to us. Knight says her body represents that of Uma Thurman.
Three sequels followed before Kay Thompson lost interest and pulled everything but the original book from print. “She wanted to do it all herself and couldn’t.” The incalculable loss to Knight is compounded by ours.
Hilary Knight’s silhouette self portrait with theater posters
“I was going to the theater a great deal.” Knight started designing theater posters with Harry Rigby’s production of Half a Sixpence in 1965. Some of those that followed were No, No Nanette, Good News, I Love My Wife, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Makin’ Whoopee, Mame and Sugar Babies. These and more are on display. Many were tailored to a particular, always identifiable star. Julie Wilson looks as if she might step out of the page, Ray Bolger as if he’ll dance off it.
Some of Knight’s theater poster designs
The artist apparently created endless designs for Timbuktu and La Cage aux Folles securing neither commission. His interpretation of La Cage, however, was rejected by Alan Carr “for showing drag queens instead of a relationship.” (Ironically the final choice, by another illustrator, emulated Knight’s viewpoint.) Knight also enjoyed working with dance companies. The array of styles, each befitting its vehicle is marvelous.
Portraits are showcased in carefully arranged vitrines: Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn as Dr. Ferway de la Fer and Her Assistant Sweepa Truehorn stand in frame. (Horne played de la Fer in the film Broadway Rhythm.) Knight purchased some beaded, French Victorian leaves at a Doyle auction of the vocalist’s possessions. The two figures are bead leaf hunters. She holds a tiny trowel. Like many of the portraits, the piece is a contained diorama, part photography, part collage, part assemblage.
Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne
We see Sabu; Martha Raye (on an ersatz bootleg album cover); Kaye Ballard;, a 5’ Kay Thompson; full page appreciation of Liliane Montevecchi; Isabella Blow; Barry Humphries, with whom Knight collaborated on years of priceless Etiquette Pages in Vanity Fair Magazine; and Ann Miller with Stephen Sondheim. “Ann was doing Follies and couldn’t get the lyric …An imitation Hitler/But with littler charm… so Stephen was in the booth helping her.” (“Can That Boy Foxtrot!”) Knight can’t wait to start a portrait of his friend, Gloria Vanderbilt.
Feathers, Fur Fins and Fans: Isabella Blow “Birds” portrait under glass – wearing Philip Treacy’s Andy Warhol feather hat; above her, the original drawing for a MAC LIPSTICK carton; top right- 1946 oil painting ”the SEA NYMPH”; Righthand photo includes a costume for the film Frog and Nymph worn by Knight’s assistant Wilson Lopez. Performance artist Phoebe Legere played the sprite. (A frog falls in love with a water nymph).
Upstairs, there are costume sketches for one of the artist’s significant dreams Tail’s : An “Exotic, Erotic Revue” inspired by The Crazy Horse and Sugar Babies. He’s even designed a theater for it. (Music, he tells me, would be that of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.)
Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 50 books and authored nine. He’s designed theater posters, costumes and sets, makes props, furniture and décor, illustrates for magazines and special projects, and is a collage/assemblage portrait artist. I’m sure I’ve left something out. He rises between four and five a.m., feeds his guppies (no kidding), and works almost every day. Energy, enthusiasm, and warmth are palpable.
Barry Humphries ‘A Moon Bed for Dame Edna’
“To me the most interesting thing is what I’m working on now.”
All exhibition photos and those of Hilary Knight courtesy of Hilary Knight All quotes are Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts – First and Second Floor 40 Lincoln Plaza (between 64 and 65 Streets) Through September 1. 2017 WATCH FOR: Eloise at The Museum at The New York Historical Society June 30-October 9, 2017
Hilary Knight with his niece, Lily Knight
Publishers are slated for: Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life, a Memoir and Olive and Olivier, a graphic novel about eccentric twins separated at birth – Olive will be written by Hilary Knight’s twin nieces, Olivier by Knight.
Lena Dunham’s appreciative 2015 documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise is available online.
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, closes out its season on a sky-high note, with an exuberant La Cage aux Folles, directed and choreographed by the uber-talented Matthew Gardiner. An exceptional cast and a skilled production team more than do justice to Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics. Chances are you will exit the theater humming the musical’s anthem, “The Best of Times.” (Truly, this is the best time you will have in musical theater this summer, so get your tickets now for this limited run through July 10.)
Lee Savage’s scenic design transforms Signature’s stage into a St. Tropez nightclub. (Jason Lyons’ lighting design alternates between bright lights and muted tones, signaling when we are actually watching the show or witnessing action backstage.) To the right and left of the stage are the wings where the drag queens who make up the nightclub’s chorus line busy themselves applying makeup, donning wigs, pulling on skin-tight garments, and sliding into stilettos. The club’s owner and MC, Georges (an excellent Brent Barrett), wearing the first of many dazzling blazers, welcomes the audience and introduces Les Cagelles singing “We Are What We Are,” setting the tone for what follows. As with all the numbers, the dancing is energetic and athletic, while the colorful, flamboyant costumes are a feast for the eyes. Also note that this production called for 45 wigs to complement those costumes. (Costume design, Frank Labovitz, wig design Anne Nesmith.) The team of male dancers has mastered the art of kicking and leaping on high heels with nary a wobble or misstep. Impressive.
Bobby Smith as Albin
The star of the show is Albin, aka “Zaza,” the most famous drag queen on the riviera. Bobby Smith (is there anything this actor can’t do?) is phenomenal in the role. His Zaza persona is the perfect diva, showing a fondness for elegant gowns and expensive jewels, relying on a devoted and zany servant, Jacob (an amazing DJ Petrosino), and relishing all the attention from fans. Yet as Albin, he’s vulnerable and insecure, often needing to be coaxed onto the stage. Smith handles both sides of his character oftentimes with a grand stroke, and other times with such subtlety – the shift of an eyebrow, the flip of a hand – that he’s mesmerizing.
Brent Barrett and Bobby Smith
Georges and Albin have been a couple for 20 years and together raised a son, Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlon), the result of a one-night encounter between Georges and the long-gone Sybil. Jean-Michel arrives to tell Georges that he is engaged to Anne Lindon (Jessica Lauren Ball) whose father is head of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party, a group that has been working to close down the drag clubs. Anne’s parents are arriving to meet their daughter’s future in-laws. Fearful that Edouard Dindon (Mitchell Hebert) and his wife, Marie (Sherri L. Edelen), won’t approve the marriage, Jean-Michel lies about his family situation, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Georges to invite Sybil in place of Albin. Georges finally works up the courage to share with Albin Jean-Michel’s news and wishes. Rather than the angry outburst Georges expects from his longtime partner, Albin instead remains silent, a far more devastating reaction. Going on stage, Albin asks Les Cagelles to leave and alone sings the heartfelt, “I Am What I Am.” Smith makes Albin’s grief so palatable, we feel his pain. It’s an emotional end to the first act.
Albin, however, is willing to put aside his hurt feelings to help Jean-Michel. He agrees to dress like a man and attend the dinner as Uncle Al. Smith displays his enormous talents for physical comedy with his tentative attempts to walk like a man. Truly hilarious is the moment when he uncomfortably assumes the “man spread,” his legs placed wide apart. Jean-Michel, however, is unimpressed with Georges’ plan and unleashes a barrage, criticizing Albin’s lifestyle. Georges reacts angrily, reminding Jean-Michel with “Look Over There,” that Albin has been a good “mother.”
Albin (Bobby Smith, center) at Chez Jacqueline
When Sybil sends a telegram saying she can’t attend the dinner, Albin once again hopes to help, putting on a conservative dress, shoes, and jewelry, and appearing as Jean-Michel’s mother. Not only does Albin charm the Dindons, he manages to get a table for dinner at the popular Chez Jacqueline run by his friend (Nora Y. Payton). When Jacqueline asks Albin to perform he sings “The Best of Times,” impressing Anne’s parents until he finishes the song by tearing off his wig. Anne refuses to break off the engagement, while Jean-Michel apologizes, not to the Dindons, but to Albin. Georges and Albin agree to help the Dindons escape the paparazzi by dressing them in drag and taking them through the club.
While Smith is the standout, the rest of the cast is terrific. Barrett, whose Broadway credits include playing Billy Flynn in Chicago and Frank Butler opposite Reba McEntire in Anne Get Your Gun, also is familiar to D.C. audiences. His stage presence is perfect for the self-assured Georges and his tenor delights, particularly in “Song on the Sand,” and “Look Over There.”
DJ Petrofina and Paul Scanlon
Petrosino displays his versatility and comic timing as Albin’s servant, Jacob. Is it possible he last dazzled us in a much different role? As the macho Chino in Signature’s West Side Story? We are in awe.
Nora Y. Payton
It’s a tribute to the considerable talents of Payton, Edelen, and Hebert that even with less time on stage they have a major impact. As the club’s stage manager, Francis, Michael Bunce provides several comic moments. Kudos to Les Cagelles: Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isiah W. Young, and Phil Young.
Conductor Darius Smith, who also plays keyboard, directs an orchestra that sounds larger than it is and adds considerably to the enjoyment of this musical. Members are: Kelsey Mire and Ed Waters (reeds), Chris Walker (trumpet), Scott Ninmer (trombone), Bill Hones (bass) and Paul Keeling (drums).
La Cage aux Folles was on Broadway in 1983, decades ago when gay marriage was a future hope and gay couples were fighting to become parents, stressing that family could take many forms, as long as children had adults who loved and nurtured them. La Cage brings home that message once again.
Anne Nesmith often has to split hairs. The skilled wig designer has fashioned hair pieces for opera and theater productions in Washington, D.C. and around the world. Wigs have become an integral part of costume design, topping off, so to speak, what an actor wears to visually create a character. Anne’s wigs have been seen in numerous productions at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, including Sweeney Todd and The Threepenny Opera.
She is currently designing 45 wigs for Signature’s La Cage aux Folles which will run from May 31 through July 10. “This is a pretty big show, even for a musical,” Anne said about La Cage. “It’s not out of the ordinary to have this many wigs or more in an opera, say, but it is unusual to have so many in a straight play or musical.”
Image of the front lace of a wig showing how the hairs are tied in.
Designing a wig is painstaking work. “On average it takes me about 30 hours to build a wig start to finish. And I am pretty fast,” Anne explained. “You build a cap that fits an actor or singer’s head and then you tie knots of hair into it with a ventilating hook. The back of a wig can have three and four hairs but the front is tied with single hairs.” Tying a wig with hair that is very long or very kinky or curly, or with hair that is bad quality, can slow down the process, she said.
Anne’s wigs worn by Sherri L. Edelen and Ed Gero in Signature’s production of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Chris Mueller
What Annee really loves is to have the time to completely build a wig from front to back. “An entirely hand ventilated wig is beautiful,” she said. “There is not always time for that and, truly, it isn’t always the best solution. I also buy wigs from the wig store and cut them up so I have the stretch back and then I ventilate the top and front of the wig so it doesn’t have quite as much hair and has less bulk and is more natural looking.”
Anne said she mostly uses human hair wigs. “But for a show where the wigs really need to hold up (for a heavy dance show, for instance) I will use synthetic hair,” she said.
Bobby Smith is flanked by Donna Migliaccio (left) and Erin Driscoll wearing Anne’s wigs in Signature’s The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Photo by Margo Schulman
Anne has now been working in opera and theatre for more than 15 years. Besides her work for Signature, she has designed for John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Lyric Opera of Baltimore and the Washington Ballet, among others. She has also designed shows for the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan, Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya, Japan, Opera Boston, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Music Festival and Opera Delaware. Anne was the Resident Wig and Makeup Designer for the Baltimore Opera Company and has constructed wigs for the Scooby Doo Live! tour and the Asian tour of 42nd Street. Her work has also been seen in numerous Smithsonian National Portraits Gallery’s Cultures in Motion programs, Great Planeson the Military Channel, Ice Cold Killers for Investigation Discovery and the U.S. Army’s tour Spirit of America.
We asked Anne to answer our My Career Choice questions, to tell more about how she got started.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Honestly, I fell into my career. Out of college I started working at a small theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, and met the man who was the wig designer at the opera down the street. I started working with him and for the next number of years worked at opera companies around the country. I learned a lot on my feet and along the way discovered I had an aptitude for wig-making.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I have always appreciated the fluidity of this job. Each production exists for a very limited period of time so I begin my job fresh dozens of times a year. There is always turnover and always a new series of challenges.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
My degree was in design/technical theatre but I never worked with wigs when I was in school. When I got out of college I apprenticed and worked for a couple of very well-known wig designers. Under their mentorship I worked at a number of companies around the country until I began working as a designer myself.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I was very lucky; I was always encouraged.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I feel like I doubt my decision and consider a career change with every new project I undertake! While it is terrific to be continually working on something fresh and new you also restart everything with each new show. There is definitely a lot of pressure involved with continually reinventing and re-proving yourself creatively.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
When I went from being an assistant to designing for myself.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think it is tough for young women coming up in any profession. Through my 20’s and even into my 30’s I’m sure I was not always taken seriously.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I am, for the most part, a very good collaborator. In a profession that often has a lot of strong personalities I am able to put my ego aside. Almost everything about theatre is collaborative and as everyone involved works toward a common goal we all have to be willing to listen to one another.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am very pleased that as a free-lance artist I have been able to make this my full-time profession for my entire career.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
It served me very well to work with and for a lot of other designers. Everyone has a different aesthetic and set of strengths and you can learn something from everyone. It is best not to be too bound by what you think is the “right” way. I also think apprenticeships are lost in many professions and in this one in particular it is a great way to learn, work with a lot of other professionals and see your work immediately on stage.
Anne Nesmith’s top photo courtesy of Signature Theatre