The Crooked Lake Review

Spring-Summer 2007

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The Twice Lost Treasure

The Story of Batiste Madalena


Donovan A. Shilling

A Warning — There are many tales of treasure: lost sunken and buried. This is a tale of a great treasure lost, not once, but twice right here in Rochester. It may seem sad, it may seem frustrating and it may make you want to ask "Why didn't somebody do something?" Perhaps its best for those of you who get easily upset not to proceed, instead, skip to the next chapter. However, it you're still interested you may well be amazed at this tale of twice lost treasure.

The Gift — Our tale begins on August 5th, 1919. A black-tie dinner was being given by Mr. George Eastman at the Genesee Valley Club for the members of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry. There Dr. Rush Rhees, president of the University of Rochester, made a remarkable announcement. He told the audience that Mr. Eastman was giving the University three and a half million dollars. This handsome gift was to be used to build an elaborate motion picture theatre and a school of music, to be named Kilbourn Hall, in honor of the donor's mother. The funds were divided as follows: $481,000 for the site, building, and equipment. The remaining $2,139,000 was to be used for the School of Music endowment.

A Showcase — Press reports across the nation described the theatre as "the last word in stability of construction, beauty of material and design." Writers exhaused their supply of superlatives when the School of Music opened in September of 1921 and the Eastman Theatre opening followed in 1922. George not only wanted his new theatre to bring music to the masses of Rochester, but he also "envisioned his theatre as a showcase for the newest form of popular entertainment — motion pictures."

It goes without saying that the theatre was "supremely fitting" for the showing of films. After all, it was the manufacture of sprocketed film that allowed Hollywood to capture those silver dreams for the screens of the world.

Details — Mr. Eastman personally saw to many of the amenities of the elaborate edifice. He was meticulous about the placement of seven brass-framed theatre sign cases flanking the Gibbs and East Main Street entrances. These cases would hold the ballyhoo broadsides sent along with the film to promote the attraction. Its interesting to note that even in this detail George Eastman felt a special obligation to the arts. He disliked the Hollywood film ads, feeling they were cheap looking and poorly done. Thus, he directed his firm's advertising manager to find a local talent who could produce artisitic and attractive billboard posters for his theatre.

B. F. Madalena — A city-wide talent search was to end with Batiste F. Madalena, a young art student, recently arrived from Italy. In his early 20's, Batiste had just graduated from the Mechanics Institute (later Rochester Institute of Technology) and had accepted a scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York City. It may have been George himself that persuaded Madalena that he could postpone his further art education to accept a commission doing commercial art for the Eastman Theatre.

A Priceless Collection — The young Madalena's instructions were both simple and yet demanding. For each film he was to produce seven 22 by 44 inch posters, each different, that could be easily spotted and read from the trolleys passing the intersection. For the next four years Batiste labored at his craft. Seven posters each week, for 50 weeks, that's 350 per year. Starting in 1924, the commission expired in 1928 with the leasing of the theatre to the Paramount Publix chain. By then Madalena had created an estimated total of 1400 original paintings. These represented minor masterpieces which detailed and documented the early days of the film in our nation. His works were certainly the most definitive set of original film posters in America. They were a wonderful and priceless collection.

Style — His posters were vibrant and alive. Batiste was able to capture the essence of a movie with a minimum of clutter. Using tempera paint on poster board he created a mood that demanded your attention. The labels and captions on the posters were also well done. They sent their message to the viewer but did not interfere with the illustration. As with most gifted artists he exerted great control over the medium with which he worked. And, although he produced a variety of styles, his work was so distinctive that you could always identify it as a Madalena.

The Silver Screen — The industry serving the silver screen produced many great films that became the subject of Mr. Madalena's creative artwork. The Son of the Sheik with Rudolph Valentino, Laugh Clown Laugh with Lon Chaney, and The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd were among his subjects. He painted the Westerns such as The Covered Wagon, the mysteries including The Haunted House, and romaances with John Barrymore in Beau Brummel. His works spoke in a manner which was far more powerful than mere words. The historical masterpieces of the early screen's golden age were also captured by the young artist. He was master at conveying mood and plot in just a few bold brush strokes.

Following his termination as the Eastman artist, Batiste opened a small commercial art shop near Main Street. He never did follow through on his invitation for advanced art education in New York City. It was a bleak, windy and rainy evening in late October of 1928. Mr. Madalena was riding his bicycle, using Swan Street as a shortcut home from his studio, when he saw something that made his body wrench to a stop. He spotted a truly horrendous sight.

Trashed Treasure — Next to the Eastman's rear entrance, scattered across the wet pavement, were hundreds of Batiste's paintings. Parmount Publix, having no use for them, simply had the treasure trashed. Thus, a great artistic treasure was lost. Batiste, stricken with heartache, gathered up as many as he could salvage from the sodden mass. Most of the tempera-painted art work, easily moistened by the rain, was streaked and mottled beyond repair.

Restoration — Bursting into his home he called for Margaret, his wife, to help him with the almost hopeless task of drying and restoration. Hour after hour they labored to carefully dry the damp poster board. It was necessary to use a warm iron to reseal paint that had begun to peel. Then, using books and other weights. they spread the works across the kitchen and living room floors, table tops and other available surfaces to flatten and dry. The Madalenas salvaged about 225 out of 1400, a mere handul. During the following days he contructed a number of wooden crates. Into these he placed all that remained of four years of his life's work. Each of the crated posters were then placed in their attic where they were to gather dust for the next 45 years.

Coincidence One — Mr. Madalena retired at age 63 from his firm, B & M Designs, in 1965. We might have heard no more of him had it not been for a series of coincidental events. The first was an exhibition in the lobby of the Lincoln Rochester Trust Company on East Main Street of works of some local artists in 1973. The Madalena's daughter Rita entered a number of her father's posters in the exhibit.

Coincidence Two — Attending a city convention was Steven Katten, a documentary filmmaker. Chance, and a break from the convention would place him in the lobby of the bank where he would discover Batiste Madalena's striking theatre posters. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Katten discussed the dynamic quality of the paintings with his wife Judith. The unfortgetable images would haunt him for several years. Thus, in 1979 he contacted Mr. Madalena and arranged to buy the entire collection.

Twice Lost — Most of the posters of Batiste Madalena had been thrown out on the street in Rochester. Now the remaining ones that Batiste and Margaret had saved left Rochester.

High Praise — In 1981, Anthony Slide, former resident historian for the Academy of Motion Piccture Arts and Sciences paid high tribute to Madalena saying, "Perhaps best of all Batiste Madalena's posters capture the glamour of an era of film history which is past and which no written word can adequately recapture."

The posters now tour the southwest, displayed in museums throughout California. They have even come East as a part of an exhibit on Hollywood at the Smithsonian. The tale of the posters also came to Charles Kuralt's attention. On his "Sunday Morning" television show he referred to them as "…the greatest movie posters ever created."

Time magazine termed the posters as "the kind of movie colorizing that deserves sustained applause." They reported that Madalena had wanted to become "the best darn poster artist in the city," and had now "become recognized as one of the best in the world." A mass-produced poster of the 1942 film Casablanca, recently sold for $17,000. One of Batiste's posters sold for $9,500 in 1988, the year he passed away.

An Alternative — In displaying Madalena's works, Steven and Judith Katten have made our Rochester artist internationally famous. It was, however, in California, not New York, that the true value of the paintings was recognized. The next time you go by the Eastman Theatre and see those seven poster display cases, remember Batiste Madalena, and how our city twice lost his treasure.

If you can't get to California to view our lost treasures, there is an alternative. In 1986 some twenty-four full-color posters were reproduced in the book Movie Posters: The Paintings of Batiste Madalena. New York City art publisher, Harry N. Abrams, publishes the paperback book for $14.95. It's worth the price.

© 2007, Donovan A. Shilling
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