“Can you tell me where I could buy this wallpaper?” asked a recent visitor at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. NYPL exhibit curator David Leopold cocked his head and smiled, “It’s not for sale.”
In fact, it’s not wallpaper. It’s the pièce de résistance of Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World, the splashy new exhibition at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts now on view through September 1.
“It’s not your typical museum show,” says Leopold. The one-of-a-kind experience showcases photographs, video footage, and found objects from the artist’s life (and home); but the most exciting piece for theatre-lovers is that corridor plastered in show posters—from early drafts to final art.
Since 1965, Knight applied his knack for observation to the illustration of hundreds of posters for a variety of Broadway shows, films and high-brow cabaret acts. A life-long observer himself, Knight’s art will stop even the least observant in their tracks.
“Nobody takes the time to really see things anymore, or appreciate all that’s around them,” he says. “I’ve made my life’s work through observation.
“That’s what theatre is,” the vivacious nonagenarian continues. “It’s a spectacle… it’s a live event. Theatre exists to be seen.” And so does Knight’s artwork.
Knight’s passion for theatre first ignited at age five, when his mother took him first to the circus, and then, upon moving from Roslyn, Long Island to New York City, to Jumbo, his first Broadway show. “He was completely captivated right from the start,” Leopold says. “It really set the tone for his entire life.”
Influenced by performers like Sabu, Carmen Miranda, and Lena Horne, Knight got his start as an amateur costume and set designer under legendary producer George Abbott at the Ogonquit Playhouse. “He loved that, but he felt that it wasn’t the right canvas for him to express creatively,” explains Leopold. “[It was] too big; he’s much more of a detail kind of guy.”
Enter Knight’s neighbor D.D. Ryan and Diana Vreeland, then an assistant editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Vreeland had met famed cabaret performer Kay Thompson who had a voice in her head for a literary character—a certain precocious little girl who wreaks havoc on her home within the Plaza hotel—and she needed an illustrator.
Knight was swept up in Thompson’s sparkle, and the pair produced four Eloise books from 1955 to 1959. But his passion for theatre still lingered in the background.
Harry Rigby, himself just starting out in his producing career, commissioned Knight’s first show poster: Half a Sixpence. Now, he’s produced enough to plaster the library.
“I hope this will bet people interested [in my life] and intrigued that I do do other things,’” says Knight of the display.
“If he had done nothing but Eloise, we would still know who he was. But I also think if he had done nothing but theatre posters, we’d know him just as well. He’s got so many distinctive elements [in] his work, you look at it right away, and you know it’s a work by Hilary Knight.”
Take a sneak peek at the exhibit in the gallery below: