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Marie Burke in “The Great Waltz” Charcoal on paper, 22 x 18 in., 1935

When producer Max Gordon came to John D. Rockefeller about investing in a musical based on Johann Strauss’ relationship with his father, set to Strauss’s most popular melodies with new lyrics, and a book by Moss Hart, he had no idea that Rockefeller would not only say yes, but offer the brand new Center Theatre, part of the brand new Rockefeller Center. The Great Waltz, as the show would be called, was the first production in the 3,000 seat theater. Directed by Hassard Short and designed by Albert Johnson, the show had a cast of 180, over 500 costumes and massive sets that moved by an innovative hydraulic system. The “Blue Danube” finale brought a 53-piece orchestra up from the depths, eight crystal chandeliers down from above, and the entire cast waltzing on in lavish period attire. It was the biggest spectacle Broadway had ever seen. Most critics like but were not bedazzled by the spectacle, but ticket buyers packed the theater (now the site of Rockefeller Center’s parking garage) for months, making the show a profitable hit.

Marie Burke, an English actress had trained as an operatic singer, but found more success in stage musicals. She had been playing on Broadway since 1910. In The Great Waltz as Countess Olga Baranskaja, she effects the reconciliation between father and son Strauss leading to the panoramic finale. Ben drew her from life and his work appeared in thejust before the show took a summer hiatus. It was her final appearance on Broadway, but she continued in the West End, as well as in films, and eventually television.

Chic Sale in “Hello Paris” Charcoal on paper, 22 x 18 in., 1930

Charles “Chic” Sale was a vaudevillian whose specialty was playing “rural parts’ or what we would call country bumpkins. He was successful enough at it that the Shuberts put him in their annual Passing Show revues, and even Ziegfeld put him into one of his Midnight Frolics.

He found fame in 1929 writing The Specialist, a play about “Lem Putt,” an outhouse builder he claimed to have met in Urbana, Illinois. It was a huge hit in vaudeville, and in order to copyright it, he wrote a book of the same name, which sold, according to Time magazine, 650,000 copies, and earned him a celebrity endorsement deal for Ex-Lax, then a relatively new “purgative.”

The Shuberts thought enough of it to make him the star of a new revue, Hello Paris, which opened on Broadway on November 15, 1930, six days after Ben’s drawing of the actor appeared in the Herald Tribune. Unfortunately for the producers, both critics and crowds mildly enjoyed (and endured) Sale’s bathroom humor, but thought it was the high point of the musical revue, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the show. The show only ran 33 performances, and proved to be Sale’s last Broadway appearance.

When the show closed, Sale returned to Hollywood where he had been carving out a career playing backwoods characters in silent shorts. He continued making shorts, performing his most distinguished role as Abraham Lincoln in The Perfect Tribute. Sale’s Lincoln is disappointed by the lackluster reaction to the Gettysburg Address until he meets a dying soldier, who not knowing he’s talking to the President, tells Lincoln how inspiring the speech was. Sale died less than a year after the film was released, although short films he appeared in continued to be released through 1937.

Ethel Merman in “Girl Crazy,” 1930

The Cole Porter musical Anything Goes cemented Ethel Merman’s status as a star. While she had made a hit in the Gershwin’s Girl Crazy three seasons before, Anything Goes, filled with a hit laden score that includes “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and the title tune, showed new dimensions of Merman’s talent, which helped it run 420 performances on Broadway from 1934 to 1935, one of the longest runs for a musical comedy at the time.

In the summer of 1935, Ethel Merman, who typically stayed on until the end of the run of her shows, decided to leave for Hollywood, after Samuel Goldwyn dangled a juicy part in a new film with Eddie Cantor. She had conquered Broadway and now wanted to do the same in Hollywood.

Benay Venuta in “Anything Goes” Charcoal on paper, 22 x 18 in., 1935

How does a one replace a force of nature like Merman? Producer Vinton Freedley went with a relatively unknown actress and singer, Benay Venuta. Venuta had begun her career in show business a dancer in vaudeville, but her “brassy, all out style that showed more than a little Merman influence” attracted Freedley’s attention and he hired her. She learned the part in three weeks, by rehearsing at Cole Porter’s apartment for her Broadway debut. Merman and Venuta would end up becoming close friends for the rest of their lives, even playing together in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1966 at Merman’s suggestion. Venuta had also been in the film version of the musical in the 1950s.

Venuta went on to star in both comedies and musicals on Broadway, including Rodgers and Hart’s last new show, By Jupiter in 1942, where she introduced “Ev’rything I’ve Got” which the songwriting team had written in rehearsal to showcase her voice (and it became one of the hits of the show). She later starred in the original production of Jule Styne’s Hazel Flagg and she made her final Broadway appearance in Romantic Comedy in 1980.

Enjoy this footage of Karen Gross “misbehavin'” from her June 2018 appearance at the Solowey Studio

Ben as the figurehead of a boat he and his friends had.

In this undated photo (c. 1920 – 24), Ben is caught in a rural landscape that maybe in Fairmount Park or Chester Springs.

Sherlock Jr.
Starring Buster Keaton
with live musical accompaniment by theater organist Brett Miller

June 16, 2018
Doors open 7:30 pm; Film at 8:00 pm

Did you ever wish to know what it was like in the 1920s? Time travel may still be far off, but for one night we hope to transport you back to that golden age when movies were silent and musicians made the noise.

In conjunction with our new exhibition, “Portrait of the Artist as Young Man: The Early Work of Ben Solowey,” we are bringing back the “boy wonder” of the theater organ, Brett Miller, to accompany Buster Keaton’s silent classic, Sherlock Jr. This 1924 comedy is one of Keaton’s best-loved films, equally embraced by long-time aficionados as well as newcomers to silent comedy. In fact, modern audiences easily take to the fast pace and complex film-within-a-film motif. Set mostly in a dream, Pauline Kael called it “a piece of native American surrealism.”

Buster is the projectionist and janitor of a small-town movie theatre. The projectionist’s real ambition is to become a master detective. He would also like to win the heart of a local girl, though he is short of funds and must also compete with a conniving rival suitor, who sets up Buster to take the fall for his crime. When Buster returns to the projection room, he falls asleep and it is during his “dream” that real hijinks ensue.

Seating is limited to 40, and if past screenings are any indication, tickets will go fast. This is a benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and tickets are $20. To reserve a ticket contact us with your credit card and we will save your seats. You can call 215-795-0228 or email us at RSVP@solowey.com.

Cast in Charcoal

The Earliest Solowey Drawings from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cast Drawing, 24 x 16 in., c. 1919-20

 

 

The earliest works of Ben Solowey that remain today are those from his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Ben enrolled in classes in 1919, beginning his formal study of art that would lead to his lifelong career/passion. The Academy was founded in 1805 and is the first and oldest art museum and school in the United States, and at the time that Ben attended it offered a classical approach to making art.

Before PAFA students were able to draw live models, they were required to complete “Cast Drawing” class, in which students drew from casts of ancient sculptures. Beginning in the 19th century, art schools began to amass casts of sculptures for their students to learn anatomy and form. Many museums also began to have halls full of casts. One well known collection is that of the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Opening in 1873, the Museum has one of the most comprehensive collection of casts and its hall is a visitor favorite. These casts were treated as works of art, rather than teaching tools or mere reproductions of statues of antiquity.
In 1805, PAFA founder Charles Willson Peale requested casts from Paris museums to be sent to the yet-to-be-built Academy. Seventeen statues, twenty-five busts, and six of feet and hands were sent to Philadelphia. Among the included were the Belvedere Torso, the Venus de Medici, and Jean Antoine Hudson’s L’Eorché (The Flayed Man). The casts were used in “Antique Class” (to be renamed “Cast Drawing” at a later date). The ability for students to work from these casts made the experience of “drawing from life” more accessible. Once students became proficient in drawing the cast sculptures, they moved on to drawing from live models.
Former PAFA archivist Cheryl Leibold gives an accounting of the collection: “An Academy property catalogue of 1889 lists 280 casts of statues, busts, reliefs or anatomical fragments in the collection probably the highest total ever.” New casts continued to be added to the collection up until 1920, just as Ben entered the Academy.
In 1880, the casts were moved to the studios to be used exclusively by students, no longer on view for the public. Once the casts were in the studios, their educational value also shifted from that of anatomy to also include expression. Late 19th century Academy teacher Thomas Anshutz favored charcoal and relied heavily on high contrasts of light and dark. This contrast of light and dark can be seen in Ben’s casts drawings that will be on view for the upcoming exhibition. We are very lucky that Ben, for whatever reason, decided to keep these earliest drawings.
Looking through Ben’s morgue (an artist’s collection of reference material), there are a many reproductions from Europe and museums featuring sculpture that he admired or drew inspiration from. He never gave up studying art from the past and present. In the 1940 United States Census, Ben lists that he did not attend college, as the Academy did not begin to issue BFA’s until 1929, and the degrees were issued in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to this, the Academy was well-known for their 4 year certificates. Yet his time at PAFA gave him a rich education to help him create his own signature work.
-Katherine Eastman

 

Terra Incognita

Early Solowey Landscapes of Chester Springs

Crisp Day, Chester Springs
Oil on canvas, 13 x 16 in., 1924

It is well known that Ben won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in a painting competition judged by Edward Redfield and Alice Kent Stoddard in 1919. His three plus years there were Ben’s only formal art education, although he studied art history and techniques for the rest of his life. Ben enjoyed every day at the Academy and learned a great deal about the classical approach to art from teachers, many of whom were the leading modernists in the region. In our new exhibition, Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: The Early Work of Ben Solowey opening June 9th, we will explore the effect the school, his teachers, and events at the Academy had on the young artist.
What we are just learning about as we research the exhibition is Ben’s time at the Academy Country School, commonly known as “Chester Springs.” When Ben started at the Academy, Chester Springs was relatively new, having been established by the Academy in 1917 as a summer school of open-air painting, an early-twentieth-century legacy of the impressionist movement. The Academy Country School’s emphasis was on plein air painting, but open-air figure study, still life, and animal painting were also offered. The site, where three historic natural springs emerge, occupied more than a hundred acres in Chester County, about six miles southwest of Phoenixville. It had been a medicinal spa before the American Revolution and served as a hospital during and after Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge. A former hotel on the site became a dormitory, while sheds and barns became studios. Tuition was low, and sessions generally lasted six weeks.
We know that Ben painted landscapes at Chester Springs, and perhaps other works as well. We intend on including all three extant Chester Springs landscapes in our new show. They are perhaps the earliest landscapes we have of Ben’s and the reveal a quickly maturing artist synthesizing his education and current art movements into his personal style.

Trees At Chester Springs Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in., c. 1925

Chester Springs’ solitude and its endless variety of nature may made a lasting impression on Ben, as the farm was similar in its colonial architecture, natural landscape, and relative solitude. For fellow painter and friend, Charles Ward, who studied at the Academy and Chester Springs just a few years after Ben, it certainly left a mark. “I remember the mud, the stillness, the light green of new leaves upon the willows along the creek,” wrote Ward to his fiancée in 1941. “I remember the thick trunked wet black barked willows. They were mostly trunk with their thick branches broken off with new lighter branches sprouting from the rugged trunks. One fellow said he’d be glad to get out of the place. A hell of a mud hole. But I thought the place was beautiful.”

See for yourself on June 9th, when we open our news show Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: The Early Work of Ben Solowey from 1 to 5 pm. We will be also opening the Solowey home and fill it with home made refreshments as usual.

-David Leopold

2017

2017 marks two special anniversaries for The Studio of Ben Solowey. 75 years ago, Ben and Rae Solowey moved permanently to Bucks County. 25 years ago, we began to present regular interpretive exhibitions at the Solowey studio of Ben’s work, his contemporaries, and occasionally a contemporary artist. Our plan is to celebrate both anniversaries this year with exhibitions in the summer and fall, along with special events and programming starting this spring.

 

Ben and Rae had bought the 34-acre farm on which the studio sits in 1936. Armed with real estate sections from the New York Times and Herald Tribune, they left their Fifth Avenue home and studio and came out to Pipersville, Pennsylvania in upper Bucks County where a local farmer, Reed Nash, who moonlighted as a real estate agent, took them to thirteen different properties before they stopped on the main road outside of the village of Bedminster, at the end of a quarter mile driveway to a small farm. It was April, and it had rained, and the horse and buggy tracks that served as the driveway were not sufficient to drive a car on, so the Soloweys got up and walked up the path. According to Rae, by the time Ben got to the barn, he had decided that this property would be the last they would visit that day. He had found a new home.

The barn before it became Ben’s studio, c. 1936

What Ben saw in it that day is hard to say. It was pretty run down, with Rae comparing it to the poor tenant farms of the novel Tobacco Road. It had no running water or electricity and it was miles from anywhere. It may have been precisely those reasons that attracted Ben, 41, for he had a vision of what it could become and looked forward to the effort to make it a reality.

Paul Muni, 1930

For the next six years the Soloweys went back and forth to New York, increasingly spending more time at the farm. That may have continued their trips, but with gas rationing at the start of World War II, they had to decide whether they were going to be city or country. It seems that everyone, including Rae thought they would remain in New York, where Ben had established himself a renowned painter and was acclaimed for his “Theater Portraits” that appeared regularly in the Sunday editions of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. They had a beautiful home and studio on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, and many friends and neighbors such as Arshile Gorky, Diego Rivera, Freda Kahlo, Ford Maddox Ford, along with a steady stream of theater people who regularly came to Ben’s studio to be drawn. Nevertheless, Ben decided to go to Bucks County, and the Soloweys moved in November 1942. Ben would remain on the farm until his death in 1978, and Rae would live here until her passing in 1990.

Rae in the studio, 1984

It was Rae’s wish that Ben’s studio be open for future generations to enjoy. She was not clear on exactly how that was to happen, as she did not want to dictate the course when she not be here to help. Although there was support from family, friends and collectors, almost all were sure that no one would come to a remote location to see the studio and the work in it, and if they came, they would not make the trip again. In 1992, we presented our first exhibition, “A Place for All Seasons.” Ben’s name and art, and the fact that this was the only intact artist studio from the Golden Age of Bucks County, attracted visitors. Exhibitions and positive reviews followed, and soon we decided to limit the number of people on our mailing list for the simple reason that we did not want to alter either the property or the community with larger crowds.

Early on, the Studio was described as “Bucks County Best Kept Secret” and that is still true today. Although the studio has been fortunate to receive press both in the region and in major publications around the country, it does no advertising. We have no real gift shop or tea room, and for years people had only a mowed field to park their cars, yet they still came, often bringing friends with them. Articles on the Studio also brought out new visitors, and the cycle continues today.

Over these last 25 years we have presented more than 40 exhibitions on different aspects of Ben’s career. Some of these shows have traveled to museums and galleries, and we regularly loan Solowey works to other exhibitions, both local and national. We feel that we not only have fulfilled Rae’s wish for the Studio, but also fill a need in the region as both a historic and arts venue.

It is remarkable that the studio and the farm have changed so little in the intervening years, as has the surrounding environment. The property is still farmed by the same fellow who farmed it in Ben’s time, although he is a grandfather now. The studio has remained intact not because we left everything in the same place, but as anyone who has visited knows, it is because we regularly move pieces around, much like Ben did when he was working. While one does not have to go far to see “progress,” when one stands at the Studio they are seeing virtually the same landscape Ben saw that April afternoon in 1936, save for the trees, many of which Ben planted.

Next month, we will announce our two new exhibitions this year and reveal some of our special programming to go with them. We will send monthly updates through our email newsletter. If you want to receive an invitation in the US mail, write to info@solowey.com with your address.

This is going to be a special year for the Studio of Ben Solowey and we hope to see you out here. As Rae was so fond of saying—

We’ll see you when we do….

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