Joseph Urban 26 May 1872 to 10 July 1933

Joseph Urban entered this world on 26 May 1872 in Vienna.
In 1912 he moved to the United States becoming Stage Director for the Boston Theatre. He was already an accomplished international architect, illustrator and theatre set designer with over 50 productions from his home Vienna Royal Opera, the Champs Elysée Opera and Covent Garden. Here was a man confident in his ability with a unique style influenced by the finest European impressionist painters.

By applying points of primary colours side by side on the canvas backdrops he was able to create and light theatre sets of vivid colour reminiscent of the finest works by Monet or Seurat. The blank canvas was placed below a special scaffolding such that his staff at the Boston Theatre remarked that painting one of these pointillist backdrops was like “painting the Sistine Chapel from above”.

He had settled in his new country for about 2 years. The Great War for Civilisation had started. The Boston Theatre had closed and he found himself taking a job creating sets for a mediocre production “The Garden of Paradise” by Edward Seldon.
There was nothing mediocre about the sets and word of his ability reached Gene Buck, writer and lyricist. He took Florence Ziegfeld to see the production and Ziegfeld knew he had found the right person to give his rooftop stage atop the New Amsterdam Theatre the ‘Wow Factor’ it needed.
Urban went to work creating a stunning night-club with glass balconies, moving stage and rainbow lighting effects. This Danse de Follies soon became a cocktail blend of ideas and talent mixed to perfection before serving in the Follies theatre below.

Success followed success with Urban creating many of the Follies sets and a reputation second to none "If only one person each night sees something in my stage settings which quickens his or her interest in beauty, I shall be supremely happy."

Irene Castle a famed ballroom dancer of the period gave the following apt description:-
“I wanted to make my entrance down a long flight of stairs. When I saw my set I gasped. It was one of Joseph Urban’s most perfect creations. Flanking the silver stairs were two huge mauve chiffon pillars, lighted from within and the staircase curved up to a Maxfield Parrish blue sky”

(Maxfield Parrish was a famous illustrator known for vivid blue skies – Urban had a similar fame for his ‘Urban’ blue skies)

Urban’s influence on the follies was well recognised at the time as George Jean Nathan a well known critic for ‘The New York Set’ and the ‘American Mercury’ so well described when writing about Florence Ziegfeld:-
“Take away all his tunes, all his lyrics, all his jokes and give him merely Joseph Urban, fifty or sixty girls and a keg of talcum powder and his Follies would be just as good a show”

William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon, wanted to hire Urban to work on his films starring Marion Davies, his mistress, and previous Follies starlet. He came to an understanding with his friend Ziegfeld that Urban’s work for Hearst would not interfere with any Follies production. Urban worked on 25 films over the years and also maintained his post as Artistic Director for the Metropolitan Opera House from 1917 to 1933.

Urban’s architectural prowess was well known so in 1926 when Flo’ wanted to build his own theatre – ‘The Ziegfeld’ he was an obvious choice. Urban described his design, as “A modern playhouse for musical shows animated by gay detail to unite actor and audience”. The theatre was built with a loan from Hearst and opened on 2nd February 1927 with Rio Rita and of course sets were by Joseph Urban.

Pictures Featuring Urban Sets:

"Arabesque", "Mirror", "Standing in The Garden of Eden", "Waiting for D'Artagnan" "The dressmakers Day Off"

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