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Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains

By Ady Wetegrove

Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.
Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.

Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.

Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.

Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.

Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”

Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

Remembering Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

By Edgar Walters

Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit, dedicated to “building the world of tomorrow,” proved to be a step into Bob Hesdorfer’s future before he’d even arrived.

“I was probably 14,” says Hesdorfer, referring to the spring day in 1939 that he and a classmate spent at the New York World’s Fair. The exhibit, which took place at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, marked one of his first ventures into adulthood. Hesdorfer recalls, “For the very first time, I was allowed to take the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway on my own.” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, he still remembers it fondly.

Upon arriving, Hesdorfer recounts, “We hit many of the pavilions, but we couldn’t begin to cover the whole fair in one day. I think the General Motors [Futurama exhibit] was the one we headed for first.” They weren’t alone in their eager enthusiasm. “As I recall, there were long lines waiting to get in.” When asked whether he thought the other guests were as excited as he was, Hesdorfer responded, “Oh, you could just tell.”

Simply entering Futurama proved arresting: “We were overwhelmed. It was really something that I had never seen before… We were curious about what it was all about,” says Hesdorfer. More than just a collection of sleek predictions, the exhibit represented an entirely new way of viewing a world shaped by humans. It allowed viewers a departure from temporal technological constraints, offering a tangible example of a delightful but elusive concept: the potential of the future. For Hesdorfer, who grew up to be a graphic designer, the experience was particularly inspiring. “Everything was smooth and clean and rounded and pristine… I appreciated the concept and the design work that went into it… I thought I could have been an automobile designer… I would have liked to have been an industrial designer as Bel Geddes was.”

Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Hesdorfer describes the experience: “When we got to the Futurama model, they had these chairs on a conveyor belt, and we got in a couple chairs and rode around the whole thing. The model was in the middle below us and we could look down on it.”

“There was a voice describing what we were seeing, and it was just mindboggling… The traffic was below ground, or at least below the sidewalk level, and the sidewalks were above and around. There was no direct contact with the traffic, so it was safer and easier. You didn’t have to wait to cross the street or for the light to change.”

Some of Bel Geddes’s predictions, nearly inconceivable at the time, now seem believable. Hesdorfer recalls, “One of the things that they predicted was keeping automatic distance between vehicles on the highway, and now I guess it’s just about ready for use in the cars.”

The fair made a lasting impression on the boys. When asked whether Hesdorfer knew at that age who Norman Bel Geddes was, he responded, “Probably not before [Futurama].” He’s certainly known about him ever since.

In The Galleries: Bel Geddes’s Modular Homes

By Ady Wetegrove

"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

By the end of the 1930s, Depression-weary Americans were confronted with a housing shortage and skyrocketing prices. Norman Bel Geddes, perpetually optimistic, viewed the precarious geopolitical climate as a ripe opportunity to reshape domestic architecture. With a housing crisis, economic depression, and looming entrance into a world war, Bel Geddes believed Americans faced a defining moment in which they could forge “new beginnings.”

In 1939, Bel Geddes was commissioned by the Housing Corporation of America (HCA) to design and develop an affordable, prefabricated single–family dwelling. By the time of completion in 1941, Bel Geddes’s mass–produced house model included 27 separate building modules complete with doors, windows, utility units, and the kitchen and bathroom, “ready for connection to service lines.” The low–cost prefabricated panel system provided an economic alternative to traditional domestic building techniques.

To meet the needs of low–income families, each four–room home was to be erected for a cost of $2,500 under a “controlled co-operative” system. Licensed by the HCA, the co-operative system would provide former Works Progress Administration laborers with salaries and shares, thus keeping thousands of Americans off of government assistance. Bel Geddes sought to modernize the assembly and marketing of houses in anticipation of a postwar housing crisis.

Although the modular home project was never realized, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated dwelling system displays his ingenuity not only in building techniques but also in his promotional strategies. As a part of Revere Copper and Brass’s “Better Living Campaign” of 1941, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated home occupied full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1945 the Revere Copper and Brass Company had distributed more than 800,000 copies of a 12-page booklet describing Bel Geddes’s plan for “tomorrow’s homes for the many.”

Bel Geddes had explored ways to effectively configure space into cost-effective designs since the late 1930s. Ultimately, his interest in prefabrication waned after a proposed prefabricated “Expand-a-House” franchise in the mid-1950s failed to launch.

“Unassembled Model of Bel Geddes’s Prefabricated House” is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6.

Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.
Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.

The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).

For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for  the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.

Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.

Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.

The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.

Preview "Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" book

By Jennifer Tisdale

Scheduled for release on November 1, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams) is the first book to explore the entire scope of American stage and industrial designer, urban planner, and futurist Norman Bel Geddes’s life, career, and projects. Edited by Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America reveals the astonishing breadth of Bel Geddes’s work.

Enjoy a preview of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America through Albrecht’s introduction to the volume, which includes images of Bel Geddes’s varied work, from construction of the stage set for The Eternal Road to his design for an all-weather, all-purpose never-built stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Essays by more than 15 leading scholars explore Bel Geddes’s work in theater, housing, graphic design, and workplaces, as well as his famous Futurama installation and his working process. More than 400 illustrations from the Bel Geddes archive at the Harry Ransom Center reveal and showcase Bel Geddes’s extensive interests and talents. Essay contributors include Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Christina Cogdell, Christin Essin, Christopher Innes, Sandy Isenstadt, Christopher Long, Jeffrey L. Meikle, Lawrence Speck, and others.

Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is available for purchase at the Ransom Center’s visitor desk during gallery hours, with members receiving a discount.

Complementing the book is the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes's diagram for 'Highways and Horizons'

By Ady Wetegrove

Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

Forecasting the automobile’s ability to transform society, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes planned his Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair around vehicular transportation systems. The Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” provided an international stage for Bel Geddes to showcase his optimistic and auto-centric vision of the future American landscape. Bel Geddes, along with other modernist pioneers, crafted models, dioramas, and multimedia displays to provide Depression-era Americans with a brighter vision of the future.

Eager to shape national consciousness, Bel Geddes provided attendees of Futurama at the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” pavilion with a choreographed experience on the curvilinear thoroughfares of an imagined 1960 America. One of the World Fair’s most popular attractions, Futurama led exhibit-goers on model highways through a massive model city, complete with miniature buildings, trees, and streamlined automobiles. The holistic urban plan of Futurama borrowed from Bel Geddes’s earlier theater work, in which he created a dynamic and participatory environment for audience members.

Shown here is a 1938 “diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit.” Tear-drop shaped highways bisect the model city and converge at the General Motors Exhibition Buildings, which housed Futurama. Proposing ways to alleviate traffic congestion and increase efficiency, Bel Geddes created imaginative traffic plans to route through-traffic around the city center.

Recognizing the growing importance of automobiles in American society, Bel Geddes modeled his Futurama around an intricate network of streamlined motorways. Futurama’s elevated pedestrian walks and interconnected highway systems would not only accommodate fast and more efficient modes of transportation but would also foster American egalitarianism through the linkage of rural and urban areas. Bel Geddes even fought “to keep large super-billboards off the highways in Futurama.”

With Futurama’s success, Bel Geddes pursued avenues to alter America’s fledgling car culture. Bel Geddes alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Futurama’s “enormous popularity. . . as indicated by the nation-wide press use of the subject matter, and the consequent editorial comment.” In response, Roosevelt appointed Bel Geddes to work on preliminary plans for the National Motorway Planning Authority, which influenced the interstate highway system of the 1950s.

This diagram of a city-traffic plan for 1960 is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s Costume Designs for "The Miracle"

By Ady Wetegrove

Perhaps best known as the innovative designer of the Futurama exhibition in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes was also a noted theater designer, fabricating costumes, sets, lighting, and theaters.

After beginning his career in Los Angeles, Bel Geddes moved to New York City in 1917 where his creative ambitions manifested in producing dynamic theater experiences. Using principles of the European New Stagecraft movement, Bel Geddes brought German director Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle to the American stage. The New Stagecraft movement, which divorced theater from the structures of bourgeois realism, aligned with Bel Geddes’s vision of simplified details and abstract settings and costumes.

Bel Geddes’s work on the 1924 production of The Miracle reveals his talents as a theatrical polymath. The play, a medieval legend about a nun, relied on Bel Geddes’s mechanized scenery and single switchboard. The technical modifications allowed a single electrician to control the focus, direction, and color of the lighting. Audience members sat on pews to watch the play, as Bel Geddes transformed the interior of the theater into a Gothic cathedral, complete with light trickling through stained glass windows and incense wafting through the air. The Miracle fused theater and architecture, creating a participatory environment that immersed audience members in the drama that surrounded them.

Highlighted here is a series of four costume designs for The Miracle, including “Oriental Gentleman,” “Chief Gypsy or Jester,” “Noble Gentleman,” and “Gypsy Woman.” The watercolors showcase Bel Geddes’s dexterity as an artist.

The innovations of Bel Geddes’s early theatrical career inform his later work as an industrial designer. Indeed, the same mechanical track system used to move scenery in The Miracle also guided model cars along the highway system of Futurama.

Materials from The Miracle and other theatrical works by Bel Geddes are on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Please click on the thumbnails to view larger images.