The Orpheum (photo: Vancouver Civic Theatres)
The Orpheum [Photo: Vancouver Civic Theatres]

Tony Heinsbergen

When you admire the ornate ornamentation of the Orpheum—particularly the huge, airy, colorful and, as you’ll discover, surprising mural surrounding the central chandelier—you pay a compliment to Anthony T. Heinsbergen. He’s among the most interesting of the cast of characters in this book, partly because he greatly influenced the theatre’s “look” in two sessions 50 years apart

Tony Heinsbergen was among the busiest and most prolific of American decorative artists and muralists. He was born Antoon Heinsbergen in Haarlem in the Netherlands, December 13, 1894, and quit school at age 11 to apprentice to an artist-restorer. His father moved to the United States that same year, and Tony and the rest of the family followed two years later. Heinsbergen told Scott Macrae of the Sun (June 25, 1976) that they arrived in Los Angeles on his 13th birthday. He was immediately hired on as an apprentice with a decorative painting contractor.

He was pretty good at what he did. At 15 he was supervising interior decoration in homes of the wealthy, and calling the foreman to act as supervisor if the owners dropped by. “Nobody would like to see a 15-year-old boy in charge.”

  Anthony Heinsbrgen's Los Angeles Studio
  Anthony Heinsbrgen's Los Angeles Studio

In 1922, after travelling and working throughout the U.S. and Canada to gain practical experience, Heinsbergen founded the A.T. Heinsbergen Decorating Company in Los Angeles. He was 27. At its peak, the company employed more than 100 artists and craftsmen, and its artisans decorated the interiors of many hundreds of buildings, including the famous Los Angeles City Hall. (The company’s own building, shown here, is now on the U.S. National Register of Historical Places.)

In 1927, when Heinsbergen worked on the Orpheum’s decor and color, he was in his early 30s and already a much-seasoned designer. He chose as the four main colors ivory, moss green, gold and burgundy.

The design architect for the Orpheum’s 1976 restoration, Vancouver’s Paul Merrick, says Heinsbergen’s work is a good example of the Beaux Arts school. It’s a style of design that, in its day, was extremely popular. “Combining ancient Greek and Roman forms with Renaissance ideas,” says researcher Jackie Craven, “Beaux Arts is an eclectic neoclassical style. Colossal masonry buildings are highly ornamented with garlands, flowers or shields. Often you'll find a profusion of columns, pilasters, balustrades and window balconies. Because of the size and grandiosity of these buildings, Beaux Arts became the favored style for court houses, museums, railroad terminals and government buildings.” And, she might have added, vaudeville theatres.

Heinsbergen’s reputation as a peerless decorator of theatres was established in 1924 when theatrical entrepreneur Alexander Pantages selected him to design the interiors of his vaudeville houses. During his very long career, Tony Heinsbergen decorated the interiors of hundreds of theatres for Pantages and others throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico, and it’s estimated 200 still survive. His Orpheum mural was his 751st project.

It’s for his decorative work in vaudeville and movie theatres that Tony Heinsbergen is most well known today.

How his 1977 Orpheum commission came about is a nice tale. Paul Merrick had gone down to Seattle to talk to the architects whose company had been founded by the theatre’s original architect, Marcus Priteca. The Seattle firm told Merrick that the man who had embellished Priteca’s architecture with such exotic decorative touches in 1927 was still, 50 years later, professionally active and living in Los Angeles.

“So,” says Merrick, “I went down to California to see Tony. He’d arranged to put me up in a lah-di-dah LA hotel, and told me he’d left his car there for me to use to get to his place. The car was a Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn! So here I am driving through southern California in a Rolls-Royce!” He arrived at Heinsbergen’s place, and talked to the artist in his L.A. studio. “It was the size of a three-car garage and twice as high.” Merrick talked about the Orpheum project, and not long after Heinsbergen set about developing ideas in rough form in his studio—developing a “decorating thesis,” Merrick explains.

The Orpheum was to be the home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and, happily, Orpheus was associated with music, so Heinsbergen conceived of a large mural that would celebrate music. Oval in shape, it would surround the massive chandelier in the centre of the auditorium’s ceiling.

Heinsbergen and Frank Bouman, his 61-year-old cousin and longtime (45 years!) associate—wryly referred to as his ‘apprentice’—were retained to oversee the painting and decorating. The architects toured other projects Heinsbergen had worked on and the artist proposed a number of color and content schemes from which the final mural was developed. It was painted during the winter of 1975/76 on 24 large canvas panels in his Los Angeles studio. Heinsbergen told the Sun’s Scott Macrae of one tricky technical aspect: “Before I came to the U.S. in 1907 I asked my master for the formula he used to make the canvas flexible enough to stick to domes. He told me that he wouldn’t give it to me, that it was a secret that had been in his family for four generations. But the day we left from Rotterdam, he handed me an envelope at the dock and told me not to open it until we were at sea. Of course, it was the formula.”

Nearly 70 years later that formula—used many times over the years by Heinsbergen—was applied to the Orpheum’s mural panels. The panels were shipped to Vancouver and attached to the dome. Heinsbergen and Bauman and their assistants added final details and background on the site.

And although the mural is peopled with mythical and fanciful figures, many of them are based on real persons. The bearded man serenading the muse is Paul Merrick (who is beardless today), and the Merrick kids—photographed by their father to aid Heinsbergen in his work—are up there, too: Natasha, Nika, Maya and Kim. Maya is the angel. “They’re all in their thirties today,” Merrick says. The man conducting the orchestra is project architect Ron Nelson, not, as is sometimes heard, former conductor Kaziyoshi Akiyama. The music he’s conducting is Brahms’ Lullaby. The tiger in the mural represents Heinsbergen’s Nova Scotia-born wife, Nedith, whom he called his “little tiger.”

The budget hadn’t allowed for a mural. “Tony kept saying we had to have a mural,” Paul Merrick recalls, “and we kept saying no. He said it would be the crowning glory of the Orpheum, you can’t do without it. We said no, we don’t have any money! He finally made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, and we told him to go ahead.” The architects paid for the work out of their own pockets. “Eventually, we were able to find someone to pay for it.” The “someone” was the Vancouver Foundation.

The dimensions of the mural are, in round numbers, 75 feet by 50, Heinsbergen told The Province’s Aileen Campbell, in a May 5, 1976 story. “I’m painting the mural now,” he told her by phone from Los Angeles. “We’ll put it up in sections, 20 altogether . . . It’s like hanging a mural on the inside of an egg. I’m covering the whole surface with a one-inch brush. Yes, I’m doing it all myself.” He mentioned that the original decoration of the Orpheum centre ceiling had been covered over with felt and replastered “destroying what I had up there.” Heinsbergen also told Campbell he wanted to put to rest a myth about mural painting. “Michelangelo never laid down on his back to paint a mural. You spread your feet apart, reach up overhead and paint. That way you can take a sweep of brush. It’s impossible to paint a mural lying on your back. You try it. You could only reach about 24 inches around.”

The Orpheum was not Heinsbergen’s first Vancouver project. He had been here about 1918 working on an earlier Orpheum and had also come here three times between 1916 and 1924 to work on the now-demolished Pantages Theatre, then at 20 West Hastings.

He told Aileen Campbell a funny story about working on some decorative detail in the Seattle Pantages while a performance of the Sextet from Lucia was occurring on stage. “The ensemble finished, I went on singing, breaking up the audience. The manager was furious. He said he didn’t care if I did sing better than the people on stage, cut it out!”

Of all the work he did, Heinsbergen told a Los Angeles interviewer not long before he died, he was most proud of his mural for Vancouver’s Orpheum. He had celebrated his 82nd birthday while working on it.

Tony Heinsbergen died June 14, 1981 at age 86. His admiring obituary in the L.A. Times said he is largely remembered for his “delightful mish-mash of byzantine sumptuousness, Art Deco cubism and pure kitsch, perfect for the timeless and vulgar opulence of movie-going.”

» B. Marcus Priteca

Ivan Ackery »