Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Film backdrops from Hollywood's golden age get first public display at UT

Eric Webb
Austin 360
A painted backdrop from MGM's "Two Loves" is one of the pieces on display at a new exhibit at Bass Concert Hall.

Ever wanted to live inside an Elizabeth Taylor movie? Soon, you'll be able to really picture yourself there.

From Feb. 11 to March 21, the Bass Concert Hall stage will turn into a gallery of historic film backdrops from the golden age of Hollywood. The show, "Behind the Scenes: The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop," is the first time that 12 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio assets will be available to view by the public.

The hand-painted pieces, which once transported screen stars to far-off vistas through the magic of illusion, were donated to the University of Texas through the Art Director’s Guild Archives and their Backdrop Recovery Project, which is "an effort to preserve the legacy of Hollywood’s motion picture scenic artists," according to a news release. The project is touted as creating "the most comprehensive archive of Hollywood scenic art history." UT's Texas Performing Arts holds 50 MGM backdrops, which are used for educational purposes.

More:'The Blazing World,' shot in Dripping Springs in pandemic summer, hits Sundance in Austin

These backdrops will be on view as part of the exhibit:

• Exterior of a small cottage from "National Velvet" (1944)

• Exterior of the small town of Sewels in Sussex, England, from "National Velvet" (1944) 

• Exterior view of Westminster Abbey from "Young Bess" (1953)

• Exterior of Hampton Court from "Young Bess" (1953)

• Interior of a German cathedral in fictional Karlsburg from "The Student Prince" (1954)

• A view of a pagan idol inside a temple in Damascus from "The Prodigal" (1955)

• Exterior temple courtyard and tents in the Gardens of Pleasure of Damascus from "The Prodigal" (1955)

Transport yourself to ancient Damascus with backdrops from 1955 MGM film "The Prodigal."

• Madrid rooftop panorama from "Tip on a Dead Jockey" (1957)

• Interior of a hotel lobby in Rome from "Two Weeks in Another Town" (1962)

• Exterior view of a trailer park in Pennsylvania from "Two Loves" (1961)

• A view of the Sonoran Desert in the Southwest from "The Outrage" (1964)

• A view of Avalon, a city on Santa Catalina Island, from "Glass Bottom Boat" (1966)

They're big, too; the "Two Loves" piece is 41 feet by 30 feet, for example. The exhibit also includes recreations of other backdrops in the collection that were painted by UT scenic art students, according to the release.

The "Behind the Scenes" show at Bass Concert Hall contains two backdrops from the film "National Velvet."

"Behind the Scenes" is curated by Karen L. Maness, scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts and a UT faculty member. "UT Austin now owns the largest educational collection of Hollywood motion picture backdrops in the world," Maness said in a statement. “Created in the guarded secrecy of MGM's studio system and designed to transport audiences to far-off locations while filming on soundstages in Culver City, these backdrops have never been accessible for public viewing." 

Bass Concert Hall, which typically hosts big performances like Broadway in Austin touring shows, has been largely closed during the coronavirus pandemic. A touring production of "Aladdin" was one of the early casualties of the pandemic in March.

More Austin arts:4 Austin arts workers on how they push through a pandemic

The exhibit will be open by reservation for hourlong visits Thursday-Sunday during its run, as well as on Feb. 15. Slots will be available at 2:30 and 4 p.m. for Thursday and Friday reservations and 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. for Saturday and Sunday reservations, as well as on Feb. 15.

Safety protocols will be in place, including required masks and limited capacity. A video tour led by Maness will be available on demand beginning in mid-February. Timed-admission tickets will be available starting at 10 a.m. on Jan. 30 at texasperformingarts.org.

A painted backdrop from "The Glass Bottom Boat."