Posted by Susan Doll on April 25, 2011
These American artists, who so excelled at their crafts that their names can be found in the history books, lived or trained in the artists’ colony that existed for over 100 years in the two towers above Carnegie Hall. The towers contained 160 artist studios where painters, musicians, actors, photographers, dancers, and teachers lived, worked, or taught. Prior to seeing the documentary Lost Bohemia at the Sarasota Film Festival, I didn’t realize that this magical world—where art was the center of the residents’ lives—had ever existed. “Had existed” is the operative phrase as the artists were evicted and their uniquely designed studios destroyed or reconfigured by the Carnegie Hall Corporation. Why would they destroy a 100-year-old artists’ colony that was a living history of the popular arts in America? Well, the operative word there is “Corporation.”
Lost Bohemia was directed by photographer Josef Astor, a former resident of the Carnegie Hall Studio Towers. He moved to one of the studios in 1985, making him one of the newest residents to the colony. I envy Astor his time in an artists’ colony. One of the reasons I was attracted to his documentary was because it chronicled daily life in a community of nonconformists who defy convention and routine. Artists have always tended to live or congregate in certain neighborhoods, feeding off the collective creativity, but the plan to establish specific artists’ colonies is a 19th-century European phenomenon. The original idea was to establish creative communities in rural areas or small villages for musicians, artists, and writers to live, learn, and work without distraction. It was hoped that museums, government programs, or wealthy patrons would provide financial resources for the artists. The artists’ colony movement, which peaked in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, inspired visiting American artists to return to the U.S. to create their own communities. The first American artists’ colony was likely established in 1877, when painter William Morris Hunt opened an outdoor, or pleinair, painting school in Magnolia, Massachusetts. The largest, most renowned colonies were Charles Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Art Students League Summer School in Woodstock, New York, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos, New Mexico.
Artists colonies proliferated in the U.S. between 1890 and the end of World War I. When Andrew Carnegie decided to add the towers to his grand music hall so that artists had studios where they could live, work, and thrive, the idea was a reflection of the times. The key difference was that the Carnegie colony was not isolated in a rural area or part of a small town; it was a vertically based community in midtown Manhattan. The studios resulted from a plan submitted by the Arts Student League in collaboration with Carnegie, who maintained an office in the colony for a while. Mindful of the sense of individuality so important to artists, no two studios were built alike. And, the ones designed for painters had large skylights to allow the light in.
Josef Astor began filming his artistic neighbors around 2001, several years before they were served eviction notices by the Carnegie Hall Corporation. He realized he lived in a special world where he and his neighbors were surrounded by music, dance, and art on a daily basis. He wanted to capture on film the special atmosphere and intense energy that defines such a creative environment before it was too late. Unfortunately, that atmosphere is elusive and hard to duplicate. Like quicksilver, it cannot be captured. . .or even adequately described. Astor shot several of his artistic neighbors in their unique studios, which were like museums devoted to their long careers. Most of them were seniors who had lived in the Carnegie Hall Studio Towers for 40, 50, and even 60 years. Instead of capturing the rarefied atmosphere of la vie boheme, the film’s collection of elderly eccentrics inadvertently suggested that this artists’ colony was long past its time, because none of the tenants were young, up-and-coming artists. This is not the impression that Astor intended to leave with the viewers.
Yet, this impression is not entirely the director’s fault. While the film hints that the Carnegie Hall Corporation’s plan to dispense with the studios was in the works for a long time, it does not offer the whole story, partly because Astor could not say anything disparaging about the Corporation, or he would not receive any money for moving expenses. It seems the Corporation began to warehouse some of the studios in 1991 instead of leasing out the spaces to younger artists. By 2007, only 55 of the towers’ 160 studios were left occupied. Though young students took lessons in acting, painting, dance, and music from some of the tenants still teaching, the tenants themselves were getting older and older. In addition, the Corporation let the building fall in decline. Based on articles I read about the demise of the Tower Studios, it seems the Carnegie Hall Corporation had had an agenda for awhile.
Though in the twilight of their lives, Astor’s fellow tenants are a collection of eccentrics, nonconformists, and lifelong bohemians whose pursuit of the arts made them young at heart. Some were living out their final years after astonishing careers; others were still working. Photographer Editta Sherman, who inherited from her father the enormous Kodak camera seen in the middle of her studio, showed off beautiful photos of major stars—Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley—taken either by her father or herself. It seems Cecil B. DeMille tracked down Sherman early in her career to make a photographic portrait of him, which opened a lot of doors for her. Editta’s unique sense of style combined with her age earned her the nickname “the Duchess of Carnegie Hall,” a persona captured in a selection of images by another photographer in the building, Bill Cunningham, who worked for decades for The New York Times. A concert pianist named Donald Shirley, who played with everyone from Duke Ellington to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had lived in a strikingly beautiful studio with extremely high ceilings since 1956. His concert piano and his enormous collection of photographs and memorabilia could not possibly fit into a regular sized apartment. One of saddest images in the film occurs near the end as movers try to get Shirley’s priceless piano out of his 13th-story window with a pulley. It dangles precariously in the air—like the lives of these artists who are being shuffled off to cracker-box high-rise condos.
I loved hearing about the rich history of the colony, which is recounted mostly by the residents. Long-time tenant Jeanne Beauvais talks about Marlon Brando, who lived in the studio next to her while he was shooting On the Waterfront. And, during the 1950s, legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg rented a studio to give private lessons to his favorite students, including Brando and Marilyn Monroe. The studio where Isadora Duncan studied was briefly glimpsed, though little was extrapolated from this information. I wish Astor had done some research on the historically important artists who resided and worked there, because some of the residents’ memories of famous former tenants were lacking in historical detail and had that rehearsed quality of stories that have been told over and over.
It’s the colony’s colorful history of housing and fostering some of America’s best film actors that I knew would appeal to TCM viewers if they were fortunate enough to see this film. I dug around a bit and uncovered some of the performers who learned their craft here before they were stars. One of the colony’s first tenants was the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which leased a studio in 1898. The oldest ongoing acting school in the country, the AADA began in 1884. When it was headquartered in Carnegie Hall, a who’s who of Golden Age actors walked through its doors: Cecil B. DeMille, Pat O’Brien, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Gene Tierney, Grace Kelly, and Anne Bancroft. Some attended on scholarships, because they didn’t have the money for tuition. In the early 1910s, for example, Robinson won a scholarship to the AADA with his intense performance of the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar. The AADA moved out in 1954.
Other historically important studios included Studio 61 on the eighth floor, where most of the dance studios were located. The dance studios had sprung wooden floors to protect the legs and feet of the students. Studio 61 was a creative center for Isadora Duncan, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Nijinska. Studio 906 was an author’s club back in the day, where writers like Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt came to escape the outside world and concentrate on their work. Legendary tenor Enrico Caruso made his first recording in 1904 in Studio 836.
The heyday of the artists’ colony was during the 1930s and 1940s, when the halls vibrated with the music of composers, the sound of students practicing their instruments, and the tinkling of pianos accompanying the dancers. An energy and vitality permeated the atmosphere, inspiring creativity and encouraging historic collaborations. In the 1940s, composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins struck up a partnership that resulted in the musical On the Town. After I read about Bernstein and Robbins, I immediately recalled the scene from the film version of On the Town when Gene Kelly’s character finds Miss Turnstiles taking her dance lesson from Madame Dilyovska at Carnegie Hall. The depiction of the noisy studios and busy hallways filled with clamoring musicians, actors, and dancers was obviously in homage to the artists’ colony at the Carnegie Hall Towers Studios.
Lost Bohemia is at its best when it chronicles the tenants’ fight against the Carnegie Hall Corporation, though their struggle is in vain. John Turturro, who had studied with resident acing teacher Robert Modico, lent his celebrity to the cause. The film shows him speaking to the media during a street protest in front of Carnegie Hall, trying to raise the interest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is bitterly disappointed by city hall’s complete lack of concern for this 100-year-old artists’ colony, which serves as proof of the city’s contribution to American arts. But, Bloomberg’s administration has been more-than-friendly to real estate development. And, City Hall and the court system supported the Carnegie Hall Corporation’s assertion that Andrew Carnegie’s original intent was NOT to establish an artists’ colony in which the studios were to be rented to artists and teachers, despite having the spaces built to the necessities of artists (skylights for painters; sprung floors for dancers). According to the Corporation, Carnegie intended to make money with the studios; therefore, they were free to evict the artists and confiscate their studios to do the same.
The most damning footage is of the studios after the Carnegie Hall Corporation orders some of the empty residences to be destroyed and reconfigured. Shots of the once-beautiful classy-looking spaces reduced to rubble were disheartening to watch. Only footage of the renovations was worse, because the unique individuality of the studios was replaced by tiny, mundane-looking office cubicles. What were once beautiful and unique living spaces became endless rows of tiny office cubes, symbolizing the kind of “job” that was the exact opposite of those of the tenants. The film catches the director of the Carnegie Hall Corporation, Sir Clive Gillinson, in a bold-faced lie. Speaking to the picketers and press at a protest in front of Carnegie hall, Sir Clive swears in the snootiest of British accents that they are not going to turn any of the spaces into offices. Instead, the Carnegie Hall Corporation was supposedly reconfiguring the studios so there will be more space devoted to teaching music. The next shot shows a view of a newly renovated studio through the window in the door, revealing rows of bland office cubicles. Undoubtedly, some of the space will be devoted to music education, as Gillinson has repeatedly brayed to every news outlet in New York, but his assertion that the studios would not become office space was not true.
Lost Bohemia is currently making the rounds of film festivals and cinematheques; it’s scheduled for the IFC Center in Greenwich Village next month. If it doesn’t play in a theater or festival near you, pop On the Town into your DVD player and tip your hat to the artists of the Carnegie Hall Tower Studios, whose contributions to American culture are immeasurable.
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