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 companys own building, shown here, is now on the U.S. National Register of Historical Places.)
In 1927, when Heinsbergen worked on the Orpheums 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 Orpheums 1976 restoration, Vancouvers Paul Merrick, says Heinsbergens work is a good example of the Beaux Arts school. Its 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.
Heinsbergens 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 its estimated 200 still survive. His Orpheum mural was his 751st project.
Its 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 theatres original architect, Marcus Priteca. The Seattle firm told Merrick that the man who had embellished Pritecas 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. Hed arranged to put me up in a lah-di-dah LA hotel, and told me hed 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 Heinsbergens 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 studiodeveloping 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 auditoriums ceiling.
Heinsbergen and Frank Bouman, his 61-year-old cousin and longtime (45 years!) associatewryly referred to as his apprenticewere 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 Suns 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 wouldnt 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 formulaused many times over the years by Heinsbergenwas applied to the Orpheums 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 kidsphotographed by their father to aid Heinsbergen in his workare up there, too: Natasha, Nika, Maya and Kim. Maya is the angel. Theyre 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 hes conducting is Brahms Lullaby. The tiger in the mural represents Heinsbergens Nova Scotia-born wife, Nedith, whom he called his little tiger.
The budget hadnt 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 cant do without it. We said no, we dont have any money! He finally made us an offer we couldnt 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 Provinces Aileen Campbell, in a May 5, 1976 story. Im painting the mural now, he told her by phone from Los Angeles. Well put it up in sections, 20 altogether . . . Its like hanging a mural on the inside of an egg. Im covering the whole surface with a one-inch brush. Yes, Im 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. Its impossible to paint a mural lying on your back. You try it. You could only reach about 24 inches around.
The Orpheum was not Heinsbergens 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 didnt 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 Vancouvers 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.