Let Bygones be Restored
In the golden age of film, when cinemas were the vehicles of choice for transporting us to universes unknown, every city in the United States had at least one brilliant theater at its center. Though many have since been demolished, repurposed, or redecorated, over 700 of these shared in being designed by Anthony Heinsbergen, a Dutch-born painter and designer. This post looks at Heinsbergen’s life and a collection of six design sketches that he donated to the Bowers Museum back in 1975.
Paid to Study
Antoon Heinsbergen was born in the Netherlands on December 13, 1894. His father kindled a love of art in him by regularly taking him to see Dutch masters like Rembrandt in museums and apprenticing him to a restoration painter at the age of 10. The young Heinsbergen was so talented even at that age that his master paid him rather than accepting to be paid by the family as was standard practice. In 1906 the Heinsbergens, father and son, immigrated to the United States, ending up in Los Angeles. His second day in America his father again set him to work as an apprentice, this time working in decoration. His earliest jobs had him painting murals around the growing City of Angels. In addition to his hands-on work, Heinsbergen—who now went by Anthony—was one of the first students to study with Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard at the new Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. This same school would become a mecca for Californian watercolorists in the 1920s and ’30s.
One for the (Pant)ages
If the formula for success can be boiled down to equal parts talent and luck, then Heinsergen found the latter in a chance relationship with a theater mogul. Earning a reputation for his work around Los Angeles, in 1924, Heinsbergen was commissioned by Alexander Pantages to decorate the interiors of 22 theaters. Though allegedly a slimy individual, Pantages at one point owned or operated 84 cinemas across the United States. The scale of this commission allowed Heinsbergen to build an entire business with his designs at the center. In its prime, the Heinsbergen Decorating Company, headquartered in an iconic building on Beverly Boulevard, employed over 180 decorative painters working across North America. By the time he retired Heinsbergen had decorated almost 750 theaters alone, in addition to other iconic landmarks like the Biltmore, Los Angeles City Hall, private mansions, cathedrals, and more.
Methodically Processing the Process Method
The goal of the movie palace was to create a space that existed outside of the daily life of the moviegoer. Heinsbergen’s unique and opulent style was primarily rooted in Art Deco and Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture. Like temples to the silver screen, his novel spaces brought viewers to a glitzy modern enlightenment. Heinsbergen also pioneered several techniques that he regularly included in his interiors. The first is an incised metal technique he developed and patented as the "process method." This was widely adopted and used extensively at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. He was also one of the first people to work with specialized paints that glow under blacklight.
Movie Palace Modern
The movie palace died long before Heinsbergen passed away on June 14, 1981. An exodus from city centers to newly created suburbs and cheaply made mall theaters meant that Heinsbergen came to be largely forgotten. In 1975 the Smithsonian Museum recognized the artist’s prolific work by organizing a traveling exhibition of his work titled Movie Palace Modern. The Bowers Museum was one venue on the tour and after it closed Heinsbergen graciously donated six framed schematics and details of interiors he designed in the 1920s. Some of these were used to show clients potential schemes or options for beams and ceilings and others are specific to buildings such as the rendering shown here of a ceiling detail of the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Not widely known is that in his personal time Heinsbergen was just as prolific an artist as in his professional work. He painted regularly as a form of relaxation and described his style as an “impressionistic realism.” In contrast to his professional work, he painted mostly outdoors emphasizing movement and color. His personal paintings almost always show wide open expanses, and many are painted from a perspective that gives the viewer a bird's eye view. The Bowers Museum recently deaccessioned a large collection of his hobby paintings, donating them to Santiago Canyon College.
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