Venues on the menu

From boxing to burlesque, year's period pix cook up historic peformance spaces

When production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski walked into London’s Windmill Theater, it took him less than a minute to realize that the Windmill — now a lap-dance joint — wouldn’t be much use in the WWII era film “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Time has completely transformed the performance spaces featured in four of this year’s Oscar contenders, forcing the production designers on “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” “The White Countess,” “Cinderella Man” and “Walk the Line” to inventively re-create the stages, arenas and bars where the movies’ characters once performed.

In Luczyc-Wyhowski’s case, he spent five weeks researching original Windmill show programs as well as vintage photos of the theater and its sets. “I was very lucky,” he says. “After a lot of digging through vaults, I was able to find the original drawings from when Mrs. Henderson had the architects prepare the conversion of what was then a cinema into a theater.”

Returning the space to the way it looked in 1937, Luczyc-Wyhowski’s team rebuilt the interior of the Windmill to scale in Sheperton Studios near London. The task took 85 people more than seven weeks to finish. The resulting theater reached from the bottom of the stage’s water tank to the rafters and included a 3-ton piece of steel to support the audience-filled balcony. For all their attention to lavish historical detail, it was actually the cheap cardboard sets featured onstage that best reflect the Windmill’s all-nude revue.

Meanwhile, working on James Ivory’s “The White Countess,” production designer Andrew Sanders enjoyed considerably more freedom in creating the fictional bar that gives the film its name. “The White Countess had been refurbished from an imaginary theater,” Sanders says. “I didn’t intend for it to look brand new. It needed to be an intimate space where all types of things could happen, ranging from cabaret to politics.”

Drawing on a 1930s Italian bar in Shanghai for inspiration, Sanders bought antique wood to texture the elegant nightclub housed on a Shanghai soundstage. Assembled in eight weeks, the set accommodated 500 people and included a functional upstairs. The stage’s elaborate curtains were made of canvas and inspired by Sanders’ research into the classic designs of the period.

As for “Cinderella Man,” New York’s Madison Square Garden looks nothing like it did in the 1930s, which forced the film’s production team to search for a substitute location. Luckily, they found a near-perfect double at the boxing venue in Toronto’s long-closed Maple Leaf Gardens.

Of all the places Jim Braddock fights in the movie, “it had the largest ring, the cleanest floor cloth, and the rope was covered in velvet for a plush look,” says set decorator Gordon Sim. “In other venues, we would wrap the ropes with cotton to give them a rougher, dirtier feel.”

Maple Leaf also doubled for the massive 72,000-seat outdoor venue of the Madison Square Garden Bowl. Once situated at 45th Street and Northern Boulevard in Queens, the Bowl closed in the late 1930s, served as an Army Postal Concentration Center until 1962 and now hosts a series of car lots. To suggest the open-air Bowl, the crew erected girders to hang lights that reached so high that they nearly touched the Maple Leaf’s ceiling.

Since “Walk the Line” subject and country legend Johnny Cash never followed rules, it seemed only natural that production designer David J. Bomba should take an unconventional approach to creating 45 sets during the pic’s 90-day shoot. For Cash’s first true performance space — and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll — Bomba would need to duplicate Memphis’ Sun Records studio. Since the real Sun Records hosts tours morn-ing to night, 363 days a year, Bomba re-created the studio to scale in a storefront a mile away.

Cash’s historic Folsom Prison concert also played out in a more nontraditional space — an indoor flea market at the Tennessee County Fairgrounds. Adding a makeshift stage, barbed wire and a catwalk to this one-story building were part of Bomba’s plan as he meticulously matched his research materials.

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