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From our house to Burton Exhibit: Why the Museum of Modern Art’s curators wanted to meet my husband

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 31, 2011 | 1:27 pm

Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” (2005) Directed by Tim Burton. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” (2005) Directed by Tim Burton. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

When the curators from Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) came calling two years ago, my husband, Ron Magid, had prepared for them a veritable smorgasbord of art by the gothic filmmaker Tim Burton. Among the fare sprawled across our dining room table was a pointy-eared cowl from “Batman,” Jack Skellington storyboards from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and puppets from “The Corpse Bride,” whose ghoulishly charming heroine sprouts a maggot from her eye. 

At the time, the MoMA curators, Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He, were on a global treasure hunt for work to include in “Tim Burton,” a career retrospective that would become the third-most-attended show ever at the museum — and is now on display, through Halloween, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) new Resnick Pavilion.

Magliozzi and He had tracked down my husband through an archivist at Warner Bros. who knew Ron as a collector and purveyor of high-end movie memorabilia, specializing in horror and science fiction. To us, the prospect of entertaining curators from one of the world’s most prestigious museums sounded daunting, especially since, as Ron put it, “We’re not exactly Norton Simon.” 

Yet Magliozzi and He — who arrived with another museum colleague — did not prove to be art snobs. Rather, with the enthusiasm of youngsters in a macabre kind of candy store, they admired Ron’s Burton memorabilia, as well as the grisly décor in his office. They even made a faux-horrified remark or two about the 1933 “King Kong” shield that was carelessly stashed in a corner. 

But, to our surprise, they bypassed the cowls and the corpse puppets and began snapping photographs of a rather unobtrusive (or so we thought) prop from Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes,” that was sandwiched between some looming “Apes” warrior manikins. The “scarecrow head,” as Magliozzi calls it, is an approximately 3-foot-tall rustic structure, whose skeletal, simian visage sprouts shocks of twiglike hair. 

Entrance to MoMA’s Special Exhibition Gallery. Entrance designed by TwoSeven Inc.. Photo by Michael Locassiano

“That wonderful scarecrow head is very ‘Burtonesque,’ Magliozzi told me recently on the phone from London, where he is now researching an exhibition on the stop-motion animators, the Brothers Quay. “It’s almost like a fright, but it’s also appealing at the same time. It ties in with Tim’s visual theme of the carnivalesque: a liberating mix of the grotesque with the humorous in defiance of the status quo.” 

As it turns out,  we are one of only a few private collectors represented in the exhibition; the more than 700 items on display reflect not only Burton’s films but also his non-cinematic artwork. The curators had intended to focus the show on his movies, props and such, but decided to spotlight his two-dimensional work when they discovered Burton had already catalogued thousands of his drawings, dating from childhood and including numerous personal projects, in his archives in London.

Ron’s scarecrow head is one of relatively few props in the exhibition; he came to own it in a fashion anomalous for one in his profession, and it was, essentially, a gift. Actually, the head at one time had been for sale at a price of several thousand dollars, but hadn’t sold, and the owner, a friend of Ron’s, didn’t want to bother with picking up the enormous artifact at the auction house’s remote warehouse. He told Ron to feel free to take the piece — and so Ron did — although he was disappointed he would have to leave the work’s 20-foot-high base behind because he had no room to store it.

At LACMA, visitors enter the show through the mouth of a giant monster, which also sprouts twiggy hair, inspired by a film project Burton hasn’t yet brought to life. A lolling red-carpet tongue leads into the galleries, which display drawings, cartoons, short films, props, sketchbooks, ephemera and storyboards organized in three sections: work Burton created in response to his alienated childhood in Burbank; pieces he rendered while attending CalArts and as an animator at Walt Disney Studios; and works completed after his first cinematic success, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which in 1985 launched his career as Hollywood’s reigning morbid auteur.

Tim Burton “Untitled” (Edward Scissorhands), 1990 Private Collection. Edward Scissorhands © Twentieth Century Fox. © 2011 Tim Burton

Burton’s inspiration often returns to what Magliozzi calls “the Burbank muse,” the suburb as a mind-numbing place the young artist “hated and acted against and survived through his creativity.” Likewise, Burton’s protagonists, like Burton himself, tend to be sensitive misfits and misunderstood youths battling a repressive, cookie-cutter world, from the sad-eyed Edward Scissorhands to characters in his 1997 book, “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories.”

“[Burton’s] attention to the creaturelike qualities of his characters is a way for him to access their humanity,” Magliozzi wrote in his catalog essay. “The cartoon concept art for Batman and the Joker emphasizes their damaged psyches; the drawings of Edward Scissorhands’ sinister bondage gear and Jack Skellington’s freakish emaciation translates to their soulfulness on screen.”

My husband — who is a movie journalist as well as an entrepreneur — identifies with Burton’s characters, as well as with Burton’s disaffected childhood. “I felt pigeonholed as a nerd who liked monsters and hated sports,” Ron told me when I wrote about Ron’s love for the 1933 film “King Kong” in 2006. Ron views Frankenstein as an abused child; he also came to understand that there was something distinctly Jewish about his bond with monsters — Jews have also been reviled and accused of unspeakable crimes. “Planet of the Apes” — Burton’s version, as well as the original — could serve as a metaphor for the Third Reich: “When you have a master race enslaving people, what does that remind you of?” he asked, rhetorically. 

Actually, it was the original “Apes” that launched my husband’s career as a buyer and seller of memorabilia, in the nascent days of that profession. At 12, he once walked into downtown Long Beach wearing a gorilla mask and wielding a prop rifle from the film, both procured through friends at a science fiction convention. His mission on that hot summer day was to hand out fliers advertising “Apes” goods for sale. But when he became tired and chanced to sit down in front of a bank, he was stunned when police cars screeched up, cops drew guns and ordered him to take off his mask, mistaking the already 6-foot-tall preteen for a would-be bank robber.

“When they saw I was a kid, they laughed and drove me home,” recalled Ron, who was more embarrassed than frightened by the incident.

Fast forward to 2009, when Ron — like Burton — had parlayed his childhood obsessions into a career as well as a collection that was threatening to overtake our Westwood home.

The author’s scarecrow head from “Planet of the Apes.” Photo by Dan Kacvinski

“Actually, your house reminds me of Tim’s place,” Magliozzi told me when I complained about the mess. “Tim’s house [in London] is rather what you’d expect after seeing the exhibition — it’s like a big toy chest. I was more surprised by the fact that Ron has a whole exhibition going on in his office — that was intense.”

Magliozzi and He chose more than 500 pieces from Burton’s home and archives for the exhibition, which they organized with Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s chief curator of film. “We wanted to trace the current of Tim’s visual imagination from childhood to his feature films,” Magliozzi said. “In our gallery exhibitions, we tend to treat filmmakers as artists.” 

Not everyone has been so enthusiastic. A New York Times reviewer who lauded Burton’s films critiqued what he perceived as a “sameness to all Mr. Burton’ two- and three-dimensional output that makes for a monotonous viewing experience.” 

“That critic didn’t get it,” Magliozzi said of the review. “All artists have recurring themes in their work. And MoMA has been doing gallery exhibitions for cinema artists since the museum opened. I think the fact that Tim has created so much art that is not necessarily from his films has been more challenging for critics. But it’s art that speaks to a large audience and has influenced so many other artists, and that alone is enough to bring it into the museum. Our mandate is to put Burton next to Picasso, in the sense that viewers come for Burton and they go to see Picasso — that’s the kind of dynamic we want.”

Britt Salvesen, LACMA’s curator for the exhibition, agrees. “The show’s opening in New York was not only full, but undeniably all kinds of people were talking to each other,” she said. Salvesen has also organized a parallel exhibition, “Tim Burton Selects,” which consists of art from LACMA’s holdings that resonate with the filmmaker — it’s heavy on the Symbolists and German Expressionists.

In an e-mail, she called the scarecrow head “a real highlight” of the main exhibition, which proved thrilling for Ron. And even more exciting was the possibility of meeting Burton at the opening reception.

“Back when I was a special effects journalist, I had hoped to write about Tim Burton’s movies, and finally got the chance with “Planet of the Apes,” even though I didn’t get to interview Burton himself,” Ron said.

“I had hoped that ‘Planet of the Apes’ would bring us together, and of course, now it has — it just took an additional 10 years.”

For more information about the exhibition and related events, and to purchase tickets, visit lacma.org.

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