Rose Festival designer Winn Morton's work to be showcased at TMA

Published on Thursday, 19 September 2013 22:21 - Written by By Jon Perry Guest Columnist

For months now, I’ve fielded the question, “So, I hear the museum is doing a Rose Festival show?” Well ... yes and no.

Yes, the Tyler Museum of Art’s next exhibition is Winn Morton: Festivals, Pageants & Follies. Yes, we planned its Oct. 6 opening in time for the 80th Texas Rose Festival, and we’re offering free admission as an enticement for festivalgoers. And yes, across Tyler, Winn Morton’s name is synonymous with the Rose Festival; he’s designed costumes and sets for the annual bacchanalia since 1982.

But no, though we are celebrating the Rose Festival, this show is not exclusively devoted to the occasion. Morton’s six-decade legacy as a costume and scenic designer extends almost infinitely beyond four days in October. Ringling Bros. Circus, The Ed Sullivan Show, Six Flags, the Roxy Theatre, the World’s Fair and countless Broadway productions are just a few highlights in the resume of an extraordinarily prolific career. And no ... until we started organizing this exhibition, I wasn’t fully aware of it either.

But now, not only have I cultivated a profound appreciation for Morton’s body of work, I’ve positively geeked out on his theatrical designs. (As a former theater geek who’s still on the periphery, that’s a given.) The craftsmanship, the spectacle, the, well, wizardry of his work for the Broadway stage and venues across the globe, simply is astonishing.

Our own Bob Cook, a close friend of Morton’s for 35 years, has curated a thing of beauty in putting together this retrospective. The roughly 200 sketches, costumes and accessories in this show are stunning in and of themselves – but as a side benefit, offer an illustrative exercise for anyone with aspirations of diving into the realm of theatrical design.

Let’s face it: If you’re fortunate enough to find professional work as a designer, you won’t spend the bulk of your career on Eugene O’Neill productions at the Lincoln Center. You’ll take work where you can get it – and you’d be well-advised to tear a page from the Winn Morton narrative. Sure, he designed stage productions ranging from “Avanti!” to “West Side Story” to “South Pacific,” and like him, you even might be fortunate enough to find yourself rendering costumes for an entertainer as iconic as Harry Belafonte. But the steadiest, most lucrative work you’re likely to find, even if you’re a genius like Morton, is with theme parks, industrial shows, and special events, such as charity balls, private parties – and the Rose Festival. Morton’s still working at 84 because no project ever has been “beneath” his artistic sensibilities. He applies his signature aplomb to any job he tackles, almost invariably with magical results.

Only recently, as my years finally have begun to eclipse my ignorance, have I developed a genuine appreciation for the Rose Festival. (My only flirtation with direct involvement in its mechanics, almost 20 years ago, ran afoul as a result of a distressed ’81 Chevy Malibu [aka The ‘Bu] and the most obnoxious, gunshot backfire in the history of obnoxious, gunshot backfires.) If you live in Tyler and have a vested interest in your community’s well-being, hopefully you will acknowledge (as I have) the value of an institution that consistently brings in more tourist dollars to our city than any other occasion.

For the last 32 years, most of the reason for that has been Winn Morton’s singular talent.

I finally will have the opportunity to meet him Oct. 5 – and so will you, if your turn out for our annual Little Black Dress fall fundraiser. In honor of Winn as our special guest, we’ve chosen Little Black Dress Goes to the Rose Festival as this year’s theme. Regardless of whether the Rose Festival is your bag, this one should hold true to the event’s reputation as one of the more rockin’ parties of the year, and a special preview of the Winn Morton exhibition is part of the package. Tickets are on sale now; call us at (903) 595-1001 to make your reservation.

And you still have a few more weeks to check out our exhibition Deco Japan: Shaping Art & Culture, 1920-1945. We’ve had to pull some of the pieces out of the show (an agonizing selection process) and consolidate into one gallery to make room for Winn Morton, so we’re reducing the admission fee to $5 for adults and $3 for seniors and students (and free as always for TJC students) for the duration of its run until Oct. 20. Unless you’re planning a trip to Palm Beach this fall, the TMA is your only opportunity to see this stunningly beautiful show. Get on it.

So there you have it: three compelling reasons to darken the TMA’s doorway in the next few weeks – one of which is free. Pull me aside when you come by, and I’ll tell you the whole story of the backfiring ‘Bu.

Jon Perry is the public relations coordinator for the Tyler Museum of Art.