Saturday, May 05, 2012

Chuck Arnett - 1970s costume designer

A ballet costume designer who also worked in gay leather bars and helped create an iconic gay visual identity? Now I'm interested!

I recently read the book Stonewall by Martin Duberman, an account of gay life and activism up to the 1969 Stonewall riots, which sparked awareness for the gay liberation movement that had been developing well before then. It got me researching 1960s and 70s gay visuals: at the first Gay Pride march, in 1970, (it was then called the Christopher Street Liberation March and celebrated the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots), a banner read 'BETTER BLATANT THAN LATENT', which made me laugh and want to find out what else witty protesters had written or chanted.

I came across subdued magazine covers which included the art of Chuck Arnett, an artist famous for his murals in and adverts for gay leather bars in the San Francisco area. His iconic black and white mural for the bar The Tool Box, featuring masculine, tough-looking men, was pictured in a 1964 Life magazine article about 'Homosexuality in America', a watershed moment in American gay history. Also check out this ad for a bar called The Balcony.

Delving further, I found out that Arnett was originally a ballet dancer, who performed for National Ballet of Canada, and originally arrived in San Francisco after being a lead dancer in a touring production of the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Later on, his career in design would see him create costumes for San Francisco Ballet. Here is more info about his dance background, via the GLBT Historical Society. (I love how the Hades costume design above has a direct link to Arnett's more daring art and his depiction of men's wilder fantasies.)

"Arnett was always an artist, but his first love was dancing, not painting. In the late 1940s and early 50s he danced ballet for several companies in New Orleans, near his hometown of Bogalusa. By the late 1950s he was touring with the National Ballet of Canada, which took him to cities through North America, including to San Francisco for the first time in 1958. At 30 years old, however, Arnett was past his prime as a ballet dancer and soon took up with several touring musical theater productions. When a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in which he was dancing ended its tour in Las Vegas in 1962, Arnett returned to San Francisco where he already had established a few friendships.

Ballet must have seemed part of his distant past until 1967 when he teamed up with a remarkable young choreographer and native San Franciscan, Carlos Carvajal. Carvajal was a rising star at the San Francisco Ballet when Arnett joined him to design costumes for an innovative series of dance productions that for the first time brought the San Francisco Sixties in all its psychedelic glory to the War Memorial Opera House. After designing costumes for seven SF Ballet productions, including “Kromatika” (1967), Arnett followed Carvajal into a new creative venture that would be unfettered by the conservative leadership at SF Ballet. The new endeavor would be called Dance Spectrum. For this company, Arnett designed the costumes for another five shows, including the remarkable “Fa├žade” (1975), which not only featured gender bending performances but also marked a return by Arnett to imagery similar to what he used in the Tool Box mural – only now to be realized in dance."

Arnett was also a hippie in his time, which is reflected in the psychedelic costumes for Kromatika (colours, peace sign) and Hurrah!, a 1976 piece celebrating the US's bicentenary, with stars and stripes on the tutus. 

Chuck Arnett - costume designs for Kormatika


Facades - image James Armstrong

I would love to find out more about his work for ballet and his time working with a major company, especially considering the clashes that must have arisen with the 'conservative leadership' mentioned above. Unfortunately the internet is failing me on that front - I could only find the titles of the other productions he was involved in: New Flower, Giocoso and La Peri

Maybe San Francisco Ballet could get some designs out from their archives?

GLBT Historical Society on Flickr [link]
Chuck Arnett: His Life and Art, Mike Caffee [link, presentation, some images NSFW]
Chuck Arnett: His Life/Our Times, Jack Fristscher [link, pdf]
Lautrec in Leather: Chuck Arnett and the San Francisco scene, exhibition review in San Francisco Bay Guardian [link]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey There
For more info on Chuck Arnett look for Robert Prager in San Francisco - he owns several Original paintings and original drawings by Chuck Arnett - an incredible collection which he obtained from the estate of Tom Gunn - I believe he is currently writing a biography of Arnett -