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LAIR for the DRAMATIC

from the Los Angeles Times, 26 February 1997 
By DENNIS McLELLAN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
 
 
 
"I heard a voice when I went
to the theater for the first time. 
It was an adult voice. I heard 
it In my head, and it just said, 
'You must remember everything.'
I just sat transfixed. So I then
began to beg to be taken to the 
show and to watch and see how 
the curtains and lights worked."
Theater designer Joseph Musil is used to strangers knocking on his door.

When they look through the window of his studio in the Santora Building - the historic downtown Santa Ana office complex on Broadway that has been transformed into a warren of artists' studios and galleries - few can resist asking to take a closer look.

But the view through the window - of lavish scale-model copies of 19th century European toy theaters - provides only an inkling of Musil's domain.  Entering the 1,500-square-foot studio is like stepping into an ornate movie palace from the 1920s, complete with vintage pipe organ music in the background.  Musil calls it the Salon of the Theatres.

Weekdays he keeps his door locked - he has to, he says, or he'd never get any work done. But Saturday afternoons, the Salon of the Theatres is open to the public, free of charge.

The lobby portion of the salon features a 12-foot-tall ceremonial Roman arch designed by Musil, who lives in a nearby apartment.  Its centerpiece is a sculpted panel bearing the face of Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine and revelry, presiding over a theatrically lighted Roman urn holding a large, star-covered sphere.

Along the wall to the left is a display of European toy theaters. Each includes miniature footlights and is dramatically illuminated by small colored lightbulbs. The curtains, counterweighted with fish weights, are all operable.

Passing under a 12-foot-tall proscenium arch - a replica of the one found in the long-gone Strand Theatre in Long Beach, a movie palace that figures prominently in his life - Musil leads the way into the salon's theater space.

Along the left wall are more theater models - built by Musil to depict different styles of theater architecture - from the rococo French style of the Rialto Theatre in Chicago to the Art Deco style of the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City.  On the right wall are some of the many Art Deco theater lobby items - light fixtures, urn, statue, painting - that Musil has collected over the past 40 years.

"The mode of operation for the big theater chains that had the movie palaces was lavishness and theatrics. It's a forgotten art," says Musil, 60, sitting on a rose-colored velour sofa reminiscent of those once found in theater lobbies.  The sofa faces a stage framed by a proscenium arch designed by Musil:  It's a combination of those found in the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.  Musil borrowed elements from each to design the Crest Theatre in Westwood for the Disney Co. in 1986.

As were the grand movie theaters of the past, Musil's Salon of the Theatres is bathed in low-wattage mood lighting: The sides of the stage are awash in ruby red light; the lobby display is lit in deep purple, with deep green spotlighting.

Disappearing into the wings, Musil opens first a black velvet curtain, then a silver lamé curtain stenciled in black and bedecked with red jewels. Then he rolls down a painted vaudeville backdrop illuminated by black light,depicting a Spanish villa at night.

Unlike the work of his fellow tenants in the Santora Building, none of Musil's theatrical objets d'art are for sale.  He built the Salon of the Theatres strictly for himself.  "For a designer, it's extremely important to be psychologically in the mood, and this is my personal space to inspire myself for the work I do," says Musil, whose work and storage space take up less than a third of the studio.

Musil was art director and theater consultant for Disney and Pacific Theatres' award-winning restoration and updating of the historic El Capitan Theatre, which reopened on Hollywood Boulevard in 1991. He's working with the design team for Ruby's restaurants to create a new Ruby's in the Mission Valley Mall in San Diego, which will resemble a pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.

Musil moved his design studio into the Santora Building about 18 months ago.  He had been living in Long Beach, in a century-old Victorian house where he rented two apartments - one to live in and one to work in. But after 30 years, the house was put up for sale and he had to move. A friend who lives in Santa Ana knew about the art development in the privately owned Santora Building and urged Musil to take a look.

The large, second-floor studio, with its 14-foot ceiling, was ideal for both his work space and his theater collection.

"What happened was when I got this all built the way I wanted it, I realized I had something for the public too, so I share it," he says.

Visitors trickle in on Saturday afternoons, but most people discover the Salon of the Theatres when the Santora Building's artists and gallery owners hold open houses every six weeks. (The next is Saturday.)

Musil receives calls from high school and college art and theater arts teachers who make appointments to bring in groups of students to view the collection and listen to Musil discuss his career.  "He's a great storyteller and very passionate about what he does," says Larry Le Brane, an Orange Coast College professor of art who has taken his honors drawing classes to visit.  The students, he says, "get hyped up" listening to Musil.  "They see him as an example of someone who can go after their dreams, and also that you can make a living in art. So they're always impressed with him."

Born in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, Musil grew up in nearby South Gate and as a teenager lived in Long Beach. In 1941, when he was 4, his grandmother took him to the ornate Strand Theatre in Long Beach.  For Musil, it was a defining moment in his life.

"She wanted me to see the theater and to see the stage show," he recalls. "There was a stage show with an orchestra, singers and dancers ahead of the movie, and it went on three times a day.  So for me it was an awakening of my awareness."

"I'll never forget it. It was a mystical happening in my life. I never talked about this because I didn't know how to put it into words, but I heard a voice when I went to the theater for the first time. It was an adult voice. I heard it in my head, and it just said, 'You must remember everything.' I just sat transfixed. So I then began to beg to be taken to the show and to watch and see how the curtains and lights worked."

Just before the movies would begin, he recalls, the lights shining on the curtain would change colors, and there would be a musical fanfare. Then the curtain would open to reveal . . . a second curtain.

"These are sort of like innocent things, but it was theatricality that they were adding to the film," he says. "They were presenting the film to you."  Much of the magic in a movie theater, he says, is in the proscenium.

"The proscenium is the doorway to the soul, I always say, because when you sit in front of a proscenium, it gives you license to forget about all the stuff that's in your head all day long and to step into another world."

"And literally now when you go to the movies there is no proscenium anymore.  It's the black frame - they just put a screen up, and you're lucky if they have a curtain - but it is the black frame around the screen that the eye perceives as the portal to the fantasy.  You mentally move through that portal into the fantasy and become part of it."

Nowadays, he says, moviegoers don't get much help going through the portal: They have to sit through advertisements and get buried "in eight coming attractions before the picture."  There's no sense of anticipation. There's no sense of mystery. There's no sense of you feeling you're really going someplace or like you're a special person when you go there."

Near the entrance of his Salon of the Theatres, Musil has a written tribute to Ruth Burdick, his stage arts class instructor at Wilson High in Long Beach, in which he explains how Burdick encouraged him and "imparted all her magic to me when I was in high school."

"I had this burning desire to produce stage shows in the high school auditorium and to do beautiful work that nobody in a high school had ever seen before.  I ended up with the keys to the auditorium and the ability to go in there and work and create any time I wanted to," he says.

Musil, who graduated from Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, did advanced studies in interior design and set design for grand opera at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, Italy.  He also spent time in his early years working in movie theaters, moving up from usher to manager.  He even worked as a projectionist.

"I wanted to actually run the machinery and push the buttons and make the curtains move and all that," he says.  For Musil, the "magic" he felt sitting in the Strand as an awestruck 4-year-old is still palpable.  "It never went away, the feel of it, the emotion," he says. "And when you stop and think about it, all we have is emotion, really."
 

Joseph Musil's   Salon of the Theatres   is open from  1:00  to  4:30 p.m. Saturdays.  Second floor of the Santora Building, 207 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.   Free.

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