Revealed: The Secret Sauce of Hollywood’s Original Blockbusters

by Julie Tereshchuk on October 26, 2020 in Entertainment, Film, Theatre, Living Texas, San Antonio,
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Just how did the great Hollywood studios make doorbusting blockbuster movies back before CGI, drones and other modern day techno wizardry?

All is revealed in a first-time collaboration between San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum and Texas Performing Arts as they debut six rare hand-painted, sound-stage backdrops from one of Hollywood’s legendary filmmakers, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios. 

Displayed alongside artworks from The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. Hollywood’s Sistine Chapel: Sacred Sets for Stage & Screen, the McNay’s latest exhibition, is on view now through April 4, 2021.

Prepping the massive Hollywood sound-stage backdrops for the McNay Art Museum exhibition.
Photo courtesy Texas Performing Arts

We learned more about the art and artists behind these money-making backdrops, and what a great achievement it is to have this exhibit in Texas, from UT Austin’s Karen Maness and Theatre Arts curator Scott Blackshire from the McNay.

In a nutshell, what is this new exhibition, and what is its significance? 

Karen Maness: This exhibition offers a view into Hollywood’s Golden Age of film making, creating conversations about design and storytelling across the centuries for the stage, screen and the sacred.  

Scott Blackshire: The backdrops in the exhibition – replicas of Italian Renaissance frescoes from the Vatican in Rome – were saved from destruction through the Art Directors Guild’s Backdrop Recovery Project. The backdrops are exhibited with Renaissance-inspired theatre designs from The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, alongside both Renaissance and contemporary artworks from the McNay’s permanent collection.

Karen L. Maness, UT Lecturer and Texas Performing Arts Scenic Art Supervisor. Maness is the co-author of The Art of The Hollywood Backdrop, the definitive behind-the-scenes history of Hollywood’s cinematic backdrops and the scenic artists who brought them to the big screen. Photo courtesy Art Directors Guild

Who should visit the exhibition? 

KM: Film, art and theatre history enthusiasts. Lovers of monumental works and sacred iconography. Even restless travelers who wish to visit (a version) of the Sistine Chapel.

Walking into the McNay’s Brown Gallery and Tobin Library offers the viewer a glimpse into the scale of Hollywood’s Golden Age of film production. The Sistine Chapel set for “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” a 1968 papal drama starring Anthony Quinn, included 24 painted backdrops to create the scene. 

In fact, MGM’s scenic artists painted the frescoes so convincingly that a scandal erupted. Clergy invited to the premiere were scandalized when they thought the film crew had photographed inside the Sistine Chapel.

Some of the massive backdrops from the Golden Age of Hollywood in storage. Photo courtesy Sony Entertainment

Will there be online resources for those that are unable to visit in person?

SB: Yes, there will be video content of the exhibition available, as well as curator interviews, digital workshops, and more. For details, visit

How did you choose the backdrops?

SB: The six immense were chosen to show how 20th century artists captured and faithfully replicated evolving styles of Italian painting that span 100 years, beginning in the 1470s of the Early Renaissance, to the High Renaissance around 1535, to 1580 in the Late Renaissance.

R. Scott Blackshire, Ph.D., Curator, The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio.
Photo courtesy McNay Art Museum

Were the backdrop artists specialists, or did they also ply their art in other media?

KM: Like their Renaissance predecessors, Hollywood’s finest scenic artists passed their secrets and traditions from master to apprentice over generations.  Specializations amongst the artists included architecture, landscapes, skies and figurative painting. 

They all understood how to tackle vast stretches of unprimed canvas and bend them into a convincing setting designed to be unseen and blend perfectly in support of the mise-en-scène.  Scenic Artists were among the highest-paid studio workers for their expertise yet remained anonymous and uncredited in the history of Hollywood film making. Many had simultaneous studio art careers. Others took their knowledge to the themed attraction world.

20th century backdrops being prepared for a 21st century exhibition. Photo courtesy Texas Performing Arts

Do you have a favorite, and if so, why?

SB: My favorite backdrop is the bottom half of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. The 46’ wide by 24’ tall canvas is installed so you can see all of the figures up close – unlike the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where the original fresco lives. It’s my favorite because it shows the eerie self-portrait Michelangelo painted into the fresco. I’m also quite taken with the exhibition audioscape—organ music by Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, recorded as played on the last working Renaissance organ on earth, located in northern Italy. Sublime!

How did you determine which artworks to display the backdrops with?

SB: I chose maquettes – or small-scale stage models – designed for performances of stories set in the Renaissance. One in particular, a stage design by artist Jaroslav Malina for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, is a stunning example of Renaissance architecture deconstructed into what looks like ancient ruins. A variety of costume designs for priests and ministers represent ways religious characters are dressed for stage.

“Hollywood’s Sistine Chapel: Sacred Sets for Stage & Screen” is at San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum through April 4, 2021.

Cover: The Last Judgement backdrop. Photo courtesy Texas Performing Arts

Julie Tereshchuk is the Editor-in-Chief of Texas Lifestyle Magazine