Friday, June 22, 2018

Miles White: A Kaleidoscope of Color

Miles White designed costumes for Broadway shows like Oklahoma and There's No Business Like Show Business, garnering five Tony Award nominations and two wins. Two Academy Awards grace his mantel. But here's a little-known fact that's been relegated to a footnote in his Wikipedia entry. White also designed costumes for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 12 years.  The Kaleidoscope of Color exhibit at the Ringling Museum celebrates the designer's work for the greatest show on earth.

For the first 20 or so years of the circus's existence, each act was responsible for its own wardrobe. The circus itself only provided the costumes for the parades.

Not surprisingly, there was no unity in the visuals. When John Ringling North took over management of Ringling Bros. in 1937, he decided to change this approach.

North hired industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to work on the update. His first big change was to the format. Historically, going to the circus was a three hour affair, with a menagerie tent, parade and 20+ acts followed by a concert and chariot racing. Bel Geddes envisioned a more coherent experience, with "specs" (spectacles) supplemented by production numbers.

Each year featured a different theme, with the nostalgia of "Mother Goose" being used in the team's inaugural year.  Bel Geddes turned to the talented Miles White to bring his vision to life.

White's creativity seemed to have no limits. He is quoted as having said, "If they can imagine it, we will figure out a way to do it."

Over the years, he developed ideas like making the elephants a part of the set. In this drawing, the elephant became the Alps which, of course, Hannibal would cross. In other years, the elephants became Christmas trees or train cars with life-size puppets hanging out the windows.

White was popular with the performers for combining form and function. He considered the ways they would have to move when designing their costumes.

The exhibit includes three costumes from the 1955 Rainbow Round the World Show -- one for a clown and two for the mermaids. I appreciated the fact the women's costumes were designed with their actual bodies in mind. The suit on the right provides a bit more coverage for what we can assume was a slightly more endowed showgirl.

While White's drawings were always impeccable, he kicked them up a notch in 1951. These costumes would be used for the upcoming year's circus and the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. White was well aware his work would have to be approved by both circus management and Mr. Cecil B. DeMille and his team.

White's drawings for the joint project are more precise and the descriptions more fulsome than those for prior years. He also added washes and color to the background.

The costumes for The Greatest Show on Earth were brought to life by Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins and White, who collectively received an Academy Award nomination for their work. The movie won Best Picture, beating out High Noon and Singin' in the Rain. It is considered by many to be the worst movie ever to win the top prize. Time magazine's review called it "a mammoth merger of two masters of malarkey for the masses -- P.T. Barnum and Cecil B. DeMille."

Each item in the small exhibit is fun, but I particularly took a fancy to the Pierrot and Pierrette Big Heads. Pierrot was a stock character of pantomime and comedia dell'arte and Pierette was, of course, his partner. I'm not sure what theme the characters were employed to interpret, but I would have loved to have seen the performers wearing these paper-mache creations. (In fact, I had to resist the urge to try them on myself.)

Kudos to the Ringling both for putting together this exhibit and for displaying it in the Museum proper rather than the Circus Museum. Its location will surely mean more people will have the chance to enjoy White's work.

"A Kaleidoscope of Color" runs through August 5.

The exhibit runs through August 5th.

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