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Photos: The Golden Age of Broadway is celebrated in a new online exhibit

Study of the 1931 Josephine Baker poster by Jean Chassaing.
Study of the 1931 Josephine Baker poster by Jean Chassaing.

A new virtual art exhibition celebrates theater, movies and television with original sketches by Broadway set and costume designers, and paintings and drawings of shows and theaters.

Helicline Fine Art's exhibition You'll Be Swell! You'll Be Great! — after the famous lyrics from the musical Gypsy — is the brainchild of theater publicist Keith Sherman, who collects art with his husband Roy Goldberg. Most of the works come from what's considered Broadway's Golden Age, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

"Because I'd been working in the arts and entertainment for so long, I'm attracted to images of the theater and film and television and music and dance," Sherman said. "And I only buy things that I love."

This sketch of a costume for Carol Channing in <em>Hello, Dolly!</em> is from the original 1964 production.
/ Helicline Fine Art
This sketch of a costume for Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! is from the original 1964 production.

Sherman, standing in his office above Sardi's restaurant in the theater district, picked up a costume sketch of an iconic Broadway look.

"In my hands now is a drawing created by Freddie Wittop of the red dress, the red dress that Carol Channing wore in the original production of Hello, Dolly!" he said.

It's the frilly, beaded gown, complete with a feathered hat, that Dolly wears to the Harmonia Gardens, where she's serenaded by waiters with the title song.

"You look at Freddy Wittop's costume design for Carol Channing and Hello Dolly! and remember it as an age when great original musicals were made for big stars," said theater historian Laurence Maslon, who co-produced the PBS series Broadway. He viewed the exhibition online.

"You look at these exhibits and these drawings through what you know of today. And you just marvel at the personal skill of the artistry in pen and ink and watercolor and pencil that these titans of the mid-20th century had."

Coney Island, as seen in a curtain in the musical <em>On the Town, </em>by set designer Oliver Smith.
/ Helicline Fine Art
Coney Island, as seen in a curtain in the musical On the Town, by set designer Oliver Smith.

Maslon was particularly taken by a pen-and-ink drawing by set designer Oliver Smith. It's the curtain for Coney Island Ballet in the 1944 musical On the Town, which was the Broadway debut for songwriters Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The sketch is a fantasy of roller coasters and twinkling seaside attractions in blues and browns. Maslon said, "You're transported to this most magical place simply by the skill of his rendering and his vivid imagination."

The exhibition is filled with treasures like this – a drawing of Jo Mielziner's set for Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, caricatures by the great Al Hirschfeld, and paintings of theater interiors and actors who filled their stages.

Keith Sherman showed me a colorful cubist portrait from 1931. "If you recognize this image, it's an iconic poster of Josephine Baker,"said Sherman. "This is the original drawing. This is a gouache from which the poster was made by an artist named Jean Chassaing."

Richard Whorf's painting of the 'Til the Clouds Go By film set, from 1945.
/ Helicline Fine Art
Richard Whorf's painting of the 'Til the Clouds Go By film set, from 1945.

We looked at a painting of a movie set from the 1940s; a New York scene on a street with brownstones, it was owned by Frank Sinatra. "This is the film set of a movie called Till the Clouds Roll By," which was a biography of composer Jerome Kern, Sherman said. "The movie was directed by a guy named Richard Whorf who painted this painting and we think gifted it to the Sinatras. Frank Sinatra and June Allyson are depicted in the painting... It is a beautiful slice of Hollywood in an old-fashioned movie set with the klieg lights shining on the actors."

Keith Sherman said this online exhibition gives him an opportunity "to let others share in the love that we've been feeling for a long time. And I'm just having a great time with it."

You'll Be Swell! You'll Be Great!will be available online through Aug. 31.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.