Behind the Effort to Save Hand-Painted Pieces of Hollywood Art From the Dumpster

They’re big, they’re beautiful and they have new homes.

Before green screens and high-tech digital magic, Hollywood studios relied on their artists to recreate worlds both familiar and foreign in the form of large-scale canvas backdrops. Many have been lost for decades, but over 200 were saved through the Art Directors Guild Backdrop Recovery Project, a two-year effort to preserve props, costumes and backdrops from cinema’s golden era.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “JC Backings is one of the best known of the now handful of rental companies with the most notable collection of historic backdrops in the business. A business that has increasingly shifted away from painted backings to photograph and digital versions. Over the years, JC Backings has regularly, and out of necessity, culled its collection. Even when rolled or folded, backdrops are big, difficult to move, and require temperature-controlled storage. Those not making money as rentals are literally just taking up space.

“Two years ago, President Lynne Coakley decided the company no longer needed 207 of its older backings. But this time, instead of filling up an oversize dumpster, she donated them to the Art Directors Guild, which unrolled, photographed and cataloged each one, and then set about finding each one a home.

“Most of the more famous images went quickly. The film academy took the backdrop from the ‘Fit as a Fiddle’ number in Singin’ in the Rain, the eerie landscape of Forbidden Planet, the tapes tried walls of Marie Antoinette, the office from Adam’s Rib. Others, like the Sistine Chapel from The Shoes of the Fisherman were given to colleges; the Autry Museum of the American West has eight (including two from the 1947 Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy Western The Sea of Grass)and a few went to the Royal Scottish Academy. (George Gibson, the legendary head of MGM’s scenic design department, where many of the backdrops were painted, was Scottish.)”

You can read more about these pieces of Hollywood history here.