Joseph J. Musil, a Life of Theatrical Magic

Joseph Musil at work in his Santa Ana studio. (Photo courtesy of Robert Musil.)

Joseph Musil at work in his Santa Ana studio. (Photo courtesy of Robert Musil.)

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010 | Joseph J. Musil was 4 years old when his grandmother first took him to see a film at the Strand Theatre in World War II-era Long Beach. The curtains opened, the musicians began to play and a young boy sat spellbound.

Musil spent his adult life recreating the enchantment he felt that day. And in the process he not only preserved a precious slice of his own childhood, but of Southern California history and a way of experiencing movie house art that has mostly been lost.

Musil became a world-renowned motion picture theater designer and counted the 1987 restoration of the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood among his many landmark projects. He died June 28 of heart and kidney ailments; he was 73.

Now, friends and family are trying to preserve his Studio of the Theatres in Santa Ana and its thousands of photographs, toy theaters, 19th century scale model theaters, elaborate stage curtains and designs that capture the Art Deco glamour of Hollywood’s golden age.

However, it’s been a struggle, and the family is worried that the studio will have to be shut down and its contents either sold or moved.

Musil was among the first to move into Santa Ana’s Artists Village in the mid-1990s. He turned his second-floor studio in the Santora building into a work space and exhibit center as grand and entertaining as the shows he loved.

He called theater design “making my magic.”

To understand Musil and his magic, said John Thomas, president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, imagine life in the 1930s and ’40s — the economic stresses of the Great Depression; the longing to escape, if just for a few hours, from harsh economic reality into the glory of carefree elegance.

Treated like royalty

Movie theaters then were nothing like today’s. They were designed to make everyone, even those who barely could scrape together the 25-cent price of admission, feel as if they were rich, even royal. They were an experience on their own, an “appetizer,” Thomas said, “for what you are about to enjoy.”

The sidewalk as you approached the entrance was made of special, unusual tiles or decorated to set it apart from common walkways “that made you feel like you were royalty arriving,” said Thomas.

Ticket booths were elaborate invitations to see what lay beyond, and the building exteriors were fabulously picturesque. Inside, style and elegance were the rule, and regality and sophistication extended even to the restrooms, where the women’s room, for example, often had a separate sitting room.

Moviegoers were truly away from the cares and troubles of home in this “beautiful architectural experience,” Thomas said.

And the entertainment wasn’t just the movie. The curtains themselves were a show. First one set of massive, maybe velvet curtains would be pulled aside to reveal a second of sequins, satin or some other rich or beautifully decorated material.

Movies often fit the theme, whether it was Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing against the backdrop of a sweeping staircase or Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in “Grand Hotel.” And before or after the main film, the extended show included a cartoon or newsreel or documentary.

In the bigger theaters, there could be a full orchestra in the pit below the stage, and the elaborate curtains would open to reveal comedians and vaudeville acts on stage.

“The theaters in the romantic period of our film history loved you, caressed you,” Musil said in a 2008 Los Angeles Times article about the Majestic Crest Theatre, which he helped restore, being declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.

He went on to tell the Times that when you go to a movie today, “there’s no sense of anticipation,” he said. “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.”

At his memorial service, Charlie Bell, movie cinema architect for Regal, Galaxy, Edwards Theaters told a reporter: “Joe basically nurtured the memory of cinema in the ’30’s and ’40’s.”

Musil was a strong booster of the Santa Ana Artists District and, according to local historian Tim Rush, was an equally enthusiastic customer of Polly’s Pies on North Main Street, where he had lunch almost every day.

The passion begins

Musil recalled that day in Long Beach and said he knew, even at a tender age, that he was experiencing a life-changing moment as the entertainment unfolded in front of him.

“I knew what I was all about at 4,” he said in a video interview about two years ago.

He told the Times: “It never went away, the feel of it, the emotion. And when you stop and think about it, all we have is emotion, really.”

Musil graduated from Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles (now CalArts) and studied interior design and set design for grand opera at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, Italy.

He also worked as a theater manager for the Fox Theater chain based in Long Beach.

And in the early 1960s, he staged military entertainment productions in the Army, said his brother Robert. His early work included set and stage designs for the Walt Disney Company as well as independent architectural and theatrical design.

Musil’s designs or restorations included the Majestic Crest Theatre in Westwood, the Maverick in Fullerton, the interiors of the 1940s-style Ruby’s Diners, and the work for Disney and Pacific Theatres restoring the El Capitan.

“We celebrate (Musil) with every ticket sold,” read the card on flowers from the El Capitan Theatre at his July 10 memorial service.

Preserving Musil’s legacy

Preserving those treasures is the challenge that now faces his brother and friends.

“I’m probably going to have to sell it,” Robert Musil said last week, noting the high studio rent. He lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., and isn’t nearly close enough to care for the studio. “It’s one of those things where we have to find another owner or another home for it.”

Thomas and several other historians and friends of Musil’s said they hoped the studio could be kept exactly where it’s always been and be available to researchers and the public.

They envision some sort of public-private partnership that would enable theater design students to study the intricate models and thousands of photographs of theaters that no longer exist. Thomas is hopeful “curtain shows” could be produced in the studio for the public to view, noting the curtains in Musil’s collection are “pieces of art in themselves.”

Musil’s friends are in the process of contacting theater groups and potential private donors to see if there is support for preserving the Studio of Theatres.

“We want to keep the collection and miniature models and the little jewel theaters in Santa Ana alive for others to experience,” said Thomas.

They want to make Joe Musil’s first day at the theater live forever.

Staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.

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