February 15, 1918 – Oliver Smith:
After you’ve done more than 400 productions, you’ve almost said all you’ve had to say.
My 1976-77 era New York City boyfriend, a native, took me on tours of noted literary spots around the city. One of my favorites was February House in Brooklyn. This building was home to gay figures Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis, writers Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, singer Peter Pears, and strip tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee in the 1940s. It’s also where set designer, 22-year-old Oliver Smith met Leonard Bernstein.
Tall, lanky, handsome Smith was friends, collaborators, and sometimes lovers of Bernstein and Jerome Robbins.
At February House, Smith tended the furnace, washed the dishes, and soothed the tempers of residents and visitors. His career was launched with his designs for Léonide Massine‘s ballet Saratoga in 1941 and Agnes de Mille‘s Rodeo in 1942.
Smith designed over 250 plays, musicals, films, and operas. His close association with the American Ballet Theatre began in 1944, when he collaborated with Robbins and Bernstein on Fancy Free, which served as the inspiration for On The Town (1945). He became Co-Director of ABT with Lucia Chase in 1945, a position he held until 1980. He designed the sets for ABT’s complete 1967 production of Swan Lake, the first full-length version mounted by an American company.
Smith was nominated for 25 Tony Awards, often multiple times in the same year, and won 10. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his work on Guys And Dolls (1955). His other film designs include The Band Wagon (1953) and the screen adaptations of Oklahoma!(1955), Porgy And Bess (1959), The Sound Of Music (1965) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). He also did the sets and served as artistic consultant for The Turning Point, a film about life in a large ballet company that resembled ABT.
The Broadway productions he designed include High-Button Shoes (1947), Brigadoon (1947), Miss Liberty (1949) Paint Your Wagon (1951) Candide (1956), Auntie Mame (1956), Hello, Dolly! (1964), West Side Story (1957), Flower Drum Song (1958), The Sound Of Music (1959), Camelot (1960), Cactus Flower(1965), Plaza Suite (1968), and The Odd Couple (1965).
Smith also designed productions of La Traviata and Martha for the Metropolitan Opera and Naughty Marietta and The Most Important Man, a 1971 work by gay compower Gian Carlo Menotti, for New York City Opera.
Smith was occasionally a co-producer of plays and musicals, starting with On The Town (1944).
In 1957, Smith told The New York Times:
“There are only two reasons that make a man seek out the agony of economics, hurly-burly and temperament of producing in the theatre. First, to make money. Second, the love of ideas. I’ve done both. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was for money. A Clearing In The Woods I liked for idealistic reasons.”
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) made a star of Carol Channing. A Clearing In The Woods (1957) is Arthur Laurents‘s moody 1957 drama about mental illness. It was a flop. Among the other serious works co-produced by Smith were Jean-Paul Sartre‘s No Exit (1946); In The Summer House (1957) by Jane Bowles; Stephen D. (1968), based on the writings of James Joyce; Peter S. Feiblman‘s Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright (1962), about a black family in New Orleans, where choreographer Alvin Ailey took an acting role; and Arthur Kopit‘s controversial Indians (1969), which took on the treatment of Native-Americans Indians by white people.
Smith was also a painter, and an influential teacher of design at New York University for 22 years until his death from emphysema in 1994 (Smith was a heavy smoker). His last design credit is Joffrey Ballet‘s production of The Nutcracker (1987), set in 19th-century America.
That mid-1970s boyfriend also showed me a Brooklyn Heights residence on Willow Street that Smith purchased in 1953 and lived until his death. From around 1955 to 1965, he rented the garden apartment to Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast At Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood during this time.