MUSICIAN Sanford Shire, who five years ago don't know much about art, not even what he liked, today is the author of an esorteric art book, the rescurer of an Art Deco visual and performing artist from oblivion, and on his way to achieving his life's ambition to be very, very weathly.
Shire's discovery is Zdislaw Antoni Nelle', a Polish-American, who came from classical ballet. Nelle' became a major Art Deco artist, though his work was never exhibited as fine art in his lifetime, and a master of Art Stage design. In his 83 years, in six countries, Nelle' staged more than 100 classical ballets, 200 ballet tableaux, 160 jazz dance numbers, 28 opera ballets, 250 operettas and 180 dance numbers for revues, cabarets and films. Briefly, he was a volunteer spy.
All that's left of this labor are a few fading German films, and several hundred paintings, which are mostly renderings of his set designs.
Before Shire became obsessed with Nelle' and the profits to be made from his work, Nelle' renderings languished in a pasteboard box in the back of an antique store.
In November 1979, Shire, a conductor, arranger, composer and producer with comic Fred Travalena, happened to play Buffalo. There he found his old friend, Monte Hoffman, a cellist with the Buffalo Philharmonic, gloating over a recent purchase: five renderings in the Art Deco style, signed "Nelle'."
"I had never bought a piece of art in my life," said Shire, in Washington to promote his book: "Nelle'," published by Rizzoli International Publications Inc. ($35 hardcover, $17.50 paperbound). "But these grabbed me. I wasn't really sure what they were, but I wanted them.
"Monte had bought them at a small antique dealer's, where they'd been consigned by the family of Nelle''s wife, after her death. Monte and I each put up $1,500 and we bought 60. I put them in the closet and forgot about them.
"Sometime after, I had a back injury that put me into traction for a month. I couldn't conduct, or do much else. I began to wonder: Who was Nelle'? Some theatrical friends visiting me pointed out that the renderings were stage set designs. Paul Stiga, an expert, agreed and said they were good.
"So Monte and I consigned 12 to Sotheby's to auction. The estimated price was $35 to $50. They brought $1,000 each."
With his faith buoyed, Shire visited the Billy Rose Theater Collection at New York's Lincoln Center and found five scrapbooks of Nelle''s playbills, reviews and photographs.
With his new knowledge, Shire went to Rizzoli, saw the president and sold him on a book.
He tracked down the family of Nelle' who produced 500 letters by Nelle''s wife. And he and Hoffman auctioned four more pieces of Nelle''s for $5,000 each. This became the capital to set up their Nelle' cottage industry. Shire wrote the book, with the help of Marjorie Luesebrink and Rachael Chodorov. Shire and Hoffman published three posters using the Nelle' renderings and there are more to come. And they bought several more Nelle's, 100 in all.
Hoffman and Shire even gave a percentage of the take to Nelle''s heirs.
Now Shire is working on a second book, from Margaret Nelle''s letters. And he's well on his way to becoming very, very wealthy and establishing a school of ballet and music named after himself.
The book, with its 201 illustrations (55 in color), relates a fleeting story of fame, the sort you might have seen set to music, in front of one of Nelle''s stylized backdrops.
Nelle''s story rises like a curtain from the ruins of the old American silent movie palaces, those 1920s marble monuments with glittering chandeliers and glorious ceilings, where organs and orchestras played, and vaudeville saw its finale.
The dances he choreographed, the costumes he designed, the sets he built, are long crumbled. All that remains are the renderings, about 16 by 20 inches, in brilliant and dazzling colors, sometimes collages with tinfoil, velvet and wood against the watercolors and gouache paints.
The scenes are straight out of the Jazz Era: architectural, sometimes grotesque, full of jagged lines and surprising contrasts. Though they both designed for the dance, Nelle' is not at all like Erte' (see story on Page One), with his curlicues and softlines. Nelle' is all Art Deco, that style of the '20s and '30s that is a caricature of Art Moderne.
The renderings represent a life in the theater as a dancer, choreographer, set designer, director and impresario.
Zdislaw Antoni Nelle' was born in Warsaw, Poland, July 21, 1894, the son of the conductor of the Russian Imperial Opera Orchestra. His mother was a dancer. Antoni studied ballet in the Russian Imperial School, and was a classmate of the silent film-star-to-become Polo Negri.
Nelle' became a lead dancer is the Warsaw Imperial Opera, later performing in Odessa. He served in the Russian air force and after the war toured the Russian provinces.
In 1921 he met Anna Pavlova, the famous ballerina, and became a first character dancer with her company. He wrote:
"I was the youngest ballet master at St. Petersburg . . . was received at the court of the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia . . . The war came and the political revolution . . . Pavola and I started our tour of the world . . . we depended upon the language of the dance which can portray the heights and the depths of the soul."
Of Pavola: "This wonderful woman in whose art are mixed Slavic melancholia, elemental passion, coquetry and happiness . . . a woman whose fire started to burn out of the wonderful communion between old technique and modern art."
They toured the United States, ending at New York's Metropolitan Opera House.
When the company went back to Europe, Nelle' stayed in the United States, touring with the Greenwich Village Follies, and with Sol Hurok. He set up a dance studio in New York City. There he met 18-year-old Margaret Donaldson, who became his partner and his third wife. They danced in variety theaters and reviews, atop the Ziegfeld roof on the New Amsterdam Theater and in the Keith Orpheum circuit.
In those years, Nelle' began to dance in and design the lavish spectacles that preceded silent films. People in those days got their money's worth when they went to the theater. Shire tells about one program of 1926:
"The program opened with a 30-piece orchestra playing Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld,' followed on the screen by the Newest Pathe News and Buster's Girl Friend, a Buster Brown comedy. Then the state show was presented: Nelle' and Donaldson, International Dancers Extraordinary. The main film feature, 'The Waltz Dream,' concluded the show, and patrons exited to the accompaniment of an organist playing 'The Beautiful Blue Danube.' "
From there he made the big step to be assistant ballet master at the Roxy, called the "Cathedral of the Motion Picture." He went on to the Fox Theaters in St. Louis, and Detroit, and San Francisco. He supervised 160 dancers for some shows and designed new shows every week.
Shire quotes a profile of Nelle' by Katherine Hill in 1931, in the San Francisco Examiner:
"He is tall, lean, unsmiling. His title at the Fox is Stage Director. Which means, just to go into the matter a little, that he plans and sketches the tableaux, designs costumes, rehearses the ballet, consults with scenic artists, keeps an eye on the lights, suggests music, and once in a while runs a frantic hand through his hair and implores, 'For God's sake girls, get it right this time, can't you?' He wears a slightly savage expression that may come of barking at ballet girls or may be just naturally Polish. He vibrates energy all over the place. He smokes a good many cigarettes and is constantly reaching for a sheet of paper to put down a good idea before it escapes. When life gets too complicated he gets into his car and drives 40 miles very fast, after which he feels better. . . ."
After the talkies finished the movie houses' stage show, Nelle' and his wife went home to Poland. They put on shows including "Hallo Ameryica" at theaters in Warsaw and in the provinces. From there he tried to find work in Paris, but instead was hired by the music halls of England. His greatest successes came at the Prince of Wales Theater, which featured French revues. His works included "Jolie de Paris," "La Revue D'Amour," "Follies en Parade" and "La Revue Solendide." These are all rendered in a wispy romantic style. For Palladium Theater he did dances for the Crazy Show series, notable in the renderings for the cartoon-like designs. "The Foundry," in the Russian futurist style caused him to be called a communist. Shortly after, in 1935, he went to Germany. A letter from that period tells the story:
"I arrived at the Scala Theatre on Lutherstrasse (in Berlin) and there with my head full of my grand Hollywood images, demanded 48 girls, 16 boys and eight horses for the first revue. On the first day I was talked out of the horses, on the second day I lost the boys, and on the third I was promised only two-thirds of the girls."
Though the show was, according to his wife, the biggest hit in years, and Hitler himself came, Nelle' was disillusioned and disgusted with the Nazis. Even so, he stayed on to design dances for Scala, for a German movie, "Leuchten die Sterne," and for some dances, including one where the girls danced on white balls. He also designed dances for Nazi film shorts, as well a four or five other films.
Outside Berlin, while on film sets in construction studios in 1938 and 1939, he realized that some of the miniatures being made were actually designs for underground artillery emplacements. Nelle' copied them. And shortly after left for New York. When America entered the war in 1941, he sent the drawings of the emplacements to the War Department in Washington, and was commended by President Roosevelt and Gen. George Marshall.
Even so, Nelle' found it hard to get work, but finally became a draftsman and illustrator at Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls. During these years he drew terrifying war paintings.
After the war, Nelle' put on ballet for the summer festivals at St. Louis Municipal Opera Association, for 22 seasons. He was famous for his green whistle and his call "Rush in slowly, girls." He worked in nightclubs, department stores, and finally opened a ballet school in Gowanda, N.Y.
One friend remembers every evening the Nelle's would lay out their best crystal, silver and china, put on their evening dress and light their candles for their TV dinners.
He died in 1977 at the age of 83. His wife died 14 months later.