Winner of eight Tony Awards, five Donaldson Awards, New York City’s Handel Medallion and numerous other honors, Oliver Smith (1918-1994) was the twentieth century’s most decorated American set designer. His scenic designs for musical comedy spanned a golden age on Broadway from the 40s through the 70s, including My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, West Side Story, Brigadoon, Camelot, The Sound of Music, and over sixty others. His designs for the dance included Rodeo, Fall River Legend, Fancy Free and Les Noces (and many others for American Ballet Theatre, which he co-produced for forty years with Lucia Chase). His films included Band Wagon, Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma! and Porgy and Bess, and his opera designs filled the stages of the Metropolitan and New York City Operas.
Oliver Smith was born in Waupun, Wisconsin, and moved to Pennsylvania and New York while still a boy. His parents encouraged an early interest in theatre and opera, and while Smith had originally intended to become a playwright, he began painting in undergraduate school and moved to New York City after graduating from college in 1939.
During this first year in New York City, Smith’s watercolors were exhibited in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. When little sold, he created a theatre design portfolio and set about breaking into show business. It was a field uniquely suited to his talents, as his sensitivity to the sculpting of space made for scenic designs that were both beautiful and tailored to the practical needs of individual productions.
In 1941, Smith’s professional debut for Massine’s ballet Saratoga was hailed by a New York critic as a breakthrough in American scenic design. Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo followed in 1942, and On the Town and Fancy Free (with Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein) in 1944. Smith’s scenery won raves for each, launching a career in design for theatre, ballet, opera and film.
Throughout this career, Oliver Smith’s work blended a distinctly American painting style with the choreographed grace of his moving scenery, creating designs that earned accolades around the world
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