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Iannelli (and Wright) out of the Storeroom






 -by Lynn Becker

[March 14, 2008] - A series of vaudeville posters inspires a review of the career of artist and sculptor Alfonso Iannelli and his brief, stormy collaboration with Frank Lloyd Wright.


The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


An associate of mine where I work was cleaning out our storage rooms when he came across the stylish artwork you see here. Looking it over, we were struck by the name on the stylized signature, "Iannelli", with three dots over the "i", and I Alfonso Iannelli signatureimmediately thought of Alfonso Iannelli, the sculptor who collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright at Midway Gardens. (A study for one of the iconic sprites Iannelli created for that project can be seen in the northwest corner of the fragment gallery at the top of the Art Institute's grand staircase.)

From an excellent biography by David Jameson, written to accompany the 2001 Alfonso Iannelli, Orpheum Theater lobby card with Sadie Burt and George Whiting exhibition on Iannelli's work, Driven to Design, at Jameson's ArchiTech Gallery, we confirmed that the posters were, indeed, the work of the same Alfonso Iannelli, and uncovered the fascinating backstory of the posters and the artist.

The Orpheum vaudeville circuit built theaters all across the country, including no less than four in Los Angeles. The third, 2200-seat L.A. Orpheum, one of nearly a dozen grand downtown theaters that still line Broadway, was built in 1911, and Iannelli was hired to design posters for the various acts appearing at the theater. You can see the lobby where those posters were displayed here.

When a new Orpheum was built up the street in 1926, the old Orpheum became the Palace, and converted to showing movies, which continued until the theater closed in the 1990's. In 2006, the "Palace" on the theater's marquee was replaced with "Detroit", as it became a location for the film version of the musical Dreamgirls. Afterwards, the theater underwent a major renovation as part of still another conversion, this time to a concert venue. You can see photos of the restored Alfonso Iannelli, Orpheum Theater Lobby Posters, Three Beautiful Typestheater here.

Iannelli was twenty-three years old when he began creating "show cards" for the Orpheum. They're a striking synthesis of art nouveau and cubism, highly abstracted, with a stress on saturated primary colors. According to Jameson, he created over one hundred posters over the next five years. Iannelli's refusal to publish the art work, however, - he feared being typecast as a "poster man" - kept it from receiving wider recognition.

The Performers Behind the Posters

Although the acts appearing at the Orpheum included the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Harry Houdini - even Sarah Bernhardt, the Iannelli posters we see here were for acts that, while in many cases just as famous in their time, are all but forgotten today. Gus Edwards was a composer whose wildly popular song School Days became the inspiration for a sequence of acts he created using talented children, often set in classrooms. A sixteen-year-old Groucho Marx was a singer in one of the revues. Matinee Girls was one of Edwards' occasional forays into acts featuring older performers.

According to vaudeville historian Frank Cullen, British import Alice Lloyd, along Alfsonso Iannelli, Orpheum Theater Lobby Posters, Alice Lloydwith her sister Marie, was a major "headliner in the U.S. from 1907 until 1921" Cullen writes that "Alice took her cues from her American audiences and added sentimental songs to her repertoire . . . Neither Marie nor Alice was a great singer. They were storytellers in song . . . Alice donned a tight, abbreviated (for the time) bathing suit that showed her buxom figure strikingly for 'Won't You Come and Splash Me in the Ocean Blue.'"

Cullen recounts that George Whiting met Sadie Burt in San Francisco in 191, forming a duo act and apparently falling in love with her, starting an affair as his wife remained in Chicago. Cullen describes their act as a "vaudeville favorite, a mixed song and dance double act. They blended singing with a bit of hoofing and jocular patter." Whiting was also a songwriter; "My Blue Heaven" his most enduring hit.


Alfonso Iannelli and Frank Lloyd Wright at Midway Gardens

According to Jameson, Frank Lloyd Wright's son John Lloyd Wright was a regular patron at the Orpheum, and was so impressed by the lobby cards that he researched Iannelli. Finding that he was also a sculptor who had apprenticed with Gutzon Borglum, young Wright sent him a wire inviting him to collaborate with FLW on Midway Gardens, a beer garden and music pavilion on Chicago's South Side.

In his autobiography, Wright talked about designing Midway Gardens in 1913 at a time when Art Nouveau "was dying in France," overtaken by experiments in abstraction "exciting the esthetic vanguard by insulting the rank and file." Wright, as always in his mind, knew he alone had done it first and done it (W)right: "But the straight line, itself an Alfonso Iannelli, Orpheum Theater Lobby Posters, Big City Fourabstraction, and the flat plane for its own sake, had characterized my buildings from the first hour on my own account I had become building-conscious."

Wright saw painting and sculpture as an integral part of his Mayan-inspired design for the Gardens. "The human figure should be there but humbly, to heighten the whole effect." Iannelli created for him a sequence of geometric "sprites", forms that "might come into play and share in the general geometric gaiety."

"In the Midway Gardens there was to be no eroticism," Wright declared, but he writes about Iannelli working on the sculptures with the help of a female model who became "the mysterious object of continuous and extensive male curiosity. Although unable to read, she carried a volume of Ibsen's plays coming and going. Scientifically she had reduced her garments to one piece plus shoes, stockings, gloves in hand and hat so she could 'slip on' and 'slip off' easily. Her Mona Lisa smile is evident in the figure pieces of the Gardens (thanks to Ianelli)."

Paul Kruty, in his essential book Frank Lloyd Wright and Midway Gardens (unfortunately out of print at the moment), describes the terraces and outer walls of the Gardens as being graced by fifty-four Sally Rand, Bubble Danceconcrete castings of just four different figures. Four smiled as they cast sideways glances, four "contemplative" counterparts looked downward. Six of the figures "the Queen of the Garden", were winged, holding a cube overhead. There was also, Kruty writes, "a male figure whose short, outstretched arms appear to be offering us something, which was attached to a tall filial and referred to as the Totem Pole." The pole doubled as a mast for lighting. Even more sculptures were scattered throughout the interior of the Winter Garden, both male and female, handling geometric shapes: a sphere, a cube a tetrahedron, a dodecahedron. While most of the figures are geometric and austere, the nude female figure holding a large sphere high above her head seems to have escaped Wright's prohibition of the erotic. Tall, lithe and sensual, you almost wonder if she could have been the inspiration for Sally Rand's bubble dance.

Alfonso Iannelli and wife, 1916.
Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society
Alfonso Iannelli and wife

Wright was particularly pleased with the project. "The thing had simply shaken itself out of my sleeve," he said. But after the Gardens' completion, a major dispute erupted between Wright and Iannelli over assigning credit for the sculptures When a magazine published a photo of the sprites with the caption, “Sprites, Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Executed by A. Jannelli”, Inannelli protested.

Wright, who had an allergy to acknowledging his work having any previous influences before springing into the world like Minerva from the head of Zeus, ("I believe I have never yet “picked” another’s brains to my own advantage"), responded "I understand the nature of creative impulses, these works were certainly ‘designed’ by me - they were more than executed by you. I would have arrived at something just the same so far as ‘designs’ went had you remained in Los Angeles, but not so sympathetic in detail or so successful in expression. The ‘ideas’ I repeat are mine - their ‘expression’ yours. I think these are the facts. Beethoven wrote the piece we’ll say - Paderewski played it.”

Iannelli, appalled, writes back, "The one thing which is hard for me to understand, is that you above all others, should allow such a mistake or such a misunderstanding of the actual condition; and the part which hurts me the most is the terrible blow to my conception of you as a man, if this is true." He suggests a credit of “Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect - A. Iannelli, Sculpture.” Wright eventually agreed to Iannelli's proposal as "the nearest to a solution."

The correspondence can be found on-line in the Wright Library, a labor of love on Wright and his work on the website of the Steiner Agency, Inc. in Edmonds, Washington.

Midway Gardens was Alfonso Iannelli, Rock of Gibralter relief, Prudential Building, Chicagodemolished in 1929 - Prohibition had doomed the beer garden, and Wright took no small satisfaction that the building was so solidly constructing that tearing it down bankrupted the wrecking company. The Sprites were thought to be lost, but in the late 40's, survivors were found on a Wisconsin farm. For the next twenty years, three of restored sprites graced a Wright designed home in Stillwater, Minnesota. In 1985, Taliesen Associated Architects donated the sprites to the Biltmore Hotel and Spa in Phoenix, a project on which Wright consulted and which Albert McArthur executed in Wright's textile-concrete block style.

Iannelli would move to Illinois, eventually opening a studio in Park Ridge, where he designed the stunning interiors for the landmark Pickwick Theater. In partnership with architect Barry Byrne, he created sculptures for such buildings as Immaculata High School, at Irving Park and Marine Drive, the J.T. Kenna Apartments on 69th street, and the St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park. One of his last works was the Rock of Gibraltar relief on the 1955 Prudential Building.  Iannelli died in 1965. In 1960, he was still writing to John Lloyd Wright complaining about being slighted in an article on Midway Gardens in Horizon magazine. Today, reproductions of Iannelli's sprites have become a popular garden item on the web. They are marketed as "Frank Lloyd Wright garden sprites."

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© 2008 photos and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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