Buildings and Blocks

Stage Sets

Cinema has long employed architects for set and production design. Jane Eyre, the 1944 film noir version of Charlotte Bronte's 19th century novel, credited its stark look to William Pereira, a young architect who later designed the original Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard (preserved under the recent expansion and remodeling by Renzo Piano) and the iconic airport affectionately known as LAX. On my first visit to LA in 1966, I spent a few hours at the home of a classmate whose dad worked as an architect for MGM. Edward Carfagno had recently completed The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, a difficult assignment where all the sets had to be designed with convex distortion to visually compensate for the concave shape of the curved Cinerama screen. The Oscars sitting on the fireplace mantel in his stunning home overlooking Hollywood rewarded Carfagno's work on Julius Caesar (the 1953 film version starring Marlon Brando and John Gielgud) and the color/widescreen remake of Ben-Hur.

Design is even more important on small screens that reach large audiences, the medium Marshall McLuhan considered the coolest and most ephemeral, live television. The digital converter box arrived just in time to watch the grand finale of the Beijing Olympics - the closing ceremony - which amounted to an hour-long spectacle of light, color, gymnastics and, to my sensibility, vulgarity. Staged in the Bird's Nest stadium, a structural tour de force designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and made possible by advanced computation technology, the set consisted of a steel tower in the shape of a flame, surrounded by a circular stage. The structure became the prop for an astonishing gymnastic ballet involving Chinese athletes scaling and descending, hanging and swinging, as much a display of national power and wealth as physical strength and precision.

With only a short weekend break, this televised spectacle was followed by two prime-time events that, if not as grand, were certainly as interesting to domestic viewers: the Democratic and Republican national conventions. They gave me a chance to reconsider design as propaganda, the selling of ideas through visual means. Hitler (and his chief architect Albert Speer) understood this well. The proposed use of the Greek revival style in Nazi-era public buildings was intended to reinforce the link between order, discipline, stability, classical beauty and political power. So when Barack Obama appeared before a cheering crowd in Denver on a stage adorned with Greek columns framing television screens, I winced. Was I the only person in the country to notice the irony?

Apparently not. At the Republican convention a week later, Sarah Palin joked about the set, referring to the "styrofoam Greek columns" that would be hauled away after the Democrats were off the scene. The style underscored the idea that, somehow, Obama was the "elitist" candidate who was out of touch with "ordinary" folks. And what did the Republicans themselves offer in stage design? Two giant planes, a horizontal and a vertical, at right angles to each other, the vertical being an IMAX-sized rear projection television screen, and the horizontal a black stage. It couldn't have been simpler, more dramatic, or in better taste. Functionalism overtook symbolism, a perfect metaphor for what any modern political party could or should aspire to, regardless of what it would actually do in office.

A friendlier, more personal event took place recently on the stage of the venerable Bijou Theatre. Tennessee Shines is a monthly show organized by AC Entertainment, local radio station WDVX and the Knoxville Americana Music Association to promote the rich musical heritage of East Tennessee and reestablish this city as a regional music center. Encompassing a diversity of styles once known as mountain, hillbilly, bluegrass, or simply country, this heritage and its contemporary derivatives have been reinvented as Americana or roots or alt(ernative) country. Whatever the term or category, the music provides a refreshing alternative to the commercial style that Nashville, official home of the country music industry, has become notorious for promoting. With WDVX heir to the WNOX tradition of disseminating these sounds over the airwaves, and an array of small clubs and bars (Barley's, The Pilot Light, Preservation Pub and The Valarium among them) serving as intimate, if noisy, live venues, Knoxville is resuming its historic role as center stage for this old/new music.

While the restored Tennessee Theatre, our grand movie palace, has hosted the bigger events, the honor of being the house of choice for music lovers goes to the Bijou. The theater opened its doors in 1909 and, over the years, served as a vaudeville hall, an opera house and movie theater. Its classical interior design was typical of the period, copying the elegant "legitimate" theaters on and near Broadway that were venues for vaudeville as well as dramatic plays and musical productions.

Attending a performance in this 700-seat gem is a visual and aural treat. Sight lines are near-perfect - wherever you sit, you never feel too far off to the side or distant from the stage. At the Shines show, I sat in the last row of the balcony, just in front of the gallery seats, and was astonished when, at the prompting of ON THE AIR and APPLAUSE signs, the curtain lifted upward to reveal the stage. It seemed like I was very close to the performers. Because of its size and configuration (it's practically a cube), the acoustic quality of the place is superb. String quartet or string band, Sweeney Todd or a rock group, everything sounds right, not too loud or soft. By design, the room itself is a fine musical instrument.

What I like most about the Bijou, though, is its mustiness, its not having been over-restored, just modestly renovated (by local architects Brewer Ingram Fuller between 1998 and 2005) to be functional, clean and comfortable. A new roof, fresh paint, clean carpet and upholstery can do wonders. A building whose age and quality is seen and felt, the skill and craftsmanship of its builders and thoughtful good taste and expertise of its unknown architects are embedded in every surface and space. That seemed intuitively understood by the appreciative standing-room-only audience at Tennessee Shines.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: An ad from 1938 reminds us of the Bijou Theatre's rhythm and roots heritage.