Hirschfeld, Do Re Mi, and Peacock Feet

 

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I’ve always loved Al Hirschfeld’s work. It seems so timeless and each image he created was always a treat to visually wander through—even without his playful “Ninas.” He had solidly established his style of designed caricature by the mid 1930′s and it changed little until he passed away in 2003. While browsing in the Gotham Book Mart (“Wise Men Fish Here”) years ago, I happened across a unique little 5″ X 7 1/2″ book from 1955, “Do Re Mi” by Garson Kanin. I also recognized Al Hirschfeld’s illustrations immediately. As I leafed through it, I became  intrigued by a fresh graphic color approach he’d taken with his artwork. I’d never seen him take a spin like this with his designs. It was playful, smart, and even theatrical . . . it escorted your eye in specific directions not unlike a spotlight does. I gobbled it up and hopped on the F train home to Brooklyn. The subway ride flew by as I devoured this fun little short-story (and I gasped when I realized I’d acquired an autographed copy signed by Kanin), but Hirschfeld’s artwork is what really held the thing together for me! It was only much later that I realized that this book served as the basis for a 1960 Broadway musical starring Phil “Sgt. Bilko” Silvers, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Garson Kanin directed. The song “Make Someone Happy” debuted in this show. . .

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Left to right – Phil Silvers, Betty Comden, Garson Kanin, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne at the piano. . .

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As an interesting side-note, in 1993 I was asked to animate three renditions of the NBC branding peacock. Two of them were original creations of mine, but the third was animating a peacock designed by Hirschfeld. Saying it was a thrill to actually work with him is putting it mildly. I received two huge Bristol Board pen and ink drawings by him to base our animation designs on. I sent a thumbnail storyboard to the network and him for approval. We soon received a go ahead, but it was killing me that here I was in New York and working on a project with him, yet it was looking like I would never get a chance to meet him. I soon devised a scheme that I was hoping would work. . .  I called NBC and said that we needed just a few more drawings/sketches from Al if possible. We would love to see how he would draw the feet of a peacock as it walked. A couple of days later I got a call saying he’d be fine doing some peacock feet for us and they’d be sent out to us ASAP. I said that putting them in the post wasn’t necessary because I’d be happy to stop by and pick them up myself.  Al’s representative said that would be great! (As Woody Allen said in “Play It Again, Sam,” “It worked !”) I showed up at his 122 E. 95th Street brownstone and was buzzed in. I walked up the four floors to his studio passing, among other gems, mementos he’d picked up in his travels with S.J. Perelman. The place was like a time-capsule dedicated to the entertainment world in New York from the 1930′s to the present. A museum! I arrived at his room and walked in. He was sitting in his barber-chair at his drawing pedestal. The surface of his desk had been cut upon so many times that it had vertical striations imbedded in it like some exotic wood grain. I was hypnotized at the thought that I was in the presence of greatness. He said “Hi,” handed me the sketch below, wished me luck, and I was on my way. . . whatta thrill!

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Al Hirschfeld’s peacock feet reference sheet. (He had a pad of paper with his own caricature already printed on it. . .)

And here’s the “Peacock” NBC spot. Gee, good thing I got those feet designs, huh ? By the way, his two huge pen & ink drawings were sent back to the network executive in charge of the production . . . lucky bastard.

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I’ve scanned the illustrated plates from “Do Re Mi” for your enjoyment. I’ve also tried to frame them as close to the composition used in the book to keep them in their original graphic context.

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The book’s hardbound board design.

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I had the outrageous pleasure of working with Hirschfeld on a project for NBC, animating a peacock design of his. I couldn’t wait to have him add his “signature” signature to Kanin’s. . .

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