John Magoun

Studio Assistant Work
& Assistant Art Direction

01 - Set Model for Copperfield, ANTA Theater, NYC, 1981. Designer: Tony Straiges

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Copperfield
a musical by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, based on the novel by Charles Dickens.

Set model, 1/2" scale.

Tony Straiges was the first New York designer to hire me as a model builder. It was for the Broadway show Harold and Maude when I was fresh off the train. Copperfield was a year later, but the excitement of working on Broadway was still electric for me.

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02 - Set Model for Concert in Central Park, NYC, 1981. Designer: Eugene Lee

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Concert in Central Park
by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

Set model, 1/4" scale.

I was working for Eugene Lee in the summer of 1981 on several other projects. He invited me and Lisa to this concert, and afterwards he hired me to make this presentation model to give to Paul Simon. The actual production model was much rougher, reflecting Eugene's style.

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03 - La Traviata, New York City Opera, NYC, 1981. Designer: Zack Brown

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La Traviata
by Guiseppe Verdi.

Set model, 1/2" scale.

Zack Brown, a Yale Drama grad like Tony, also favored highly detailed models. I assisted him on and off for many years. He introduced me to the world of opera and the joys of reproducing classical ornamental styles.

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04 - Cantorial, Hartman Theater, Stamford, CT, 1984. Designer: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg

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Cantorial
by Ira Levin

Set model, 1/2" scale.

The Cantorial model's main challenge was that we had to reproduce the set change, in which a white sheetrocked loft is "restored" to its underlying architecture as an old synagogue. For the Act I setup, almost everything seen here was covered by thin little model flats that fit like a boxy skin.

Marj Kellogg was especially fun to work for because she was just starting her other career as a sci-fi / fantasy author. She gave me an autographed copy of A Rumour of Angels, her first book.

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05 - The Thorns, ABC Television, NYC, 1987. Designer: Tom Walsh

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The Thorns
produced by Mike Nichols

Production photo: Kitchen.

This was my first job as art director of a television show. The decor was an over-the-top parody of a fashionable Upper East Side townhouse - a hard trick to pull off, since mid-80s design was pretty mannered as it was.

I had the usual fun adventures, like choosing whether to walk my own union's picket line during a three-day strike; and trusting Metro-North's lost-and-found to actually find the roll of drawings for the scenery after I left them on the train.

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06 - The Thorns, ABC Television, NYC, 1987. Designer: Tom Walsh.

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The Thorns
produced by Mike Nichols

Production photo: Living Room.

The best adventure of all was watching Tom (and me) get "helped" by an interior designer who very expensively redesigned the set after it was already built. Then we got fired after the pilot was taped, because the "direction" of the show had changed and Tom's style of design was no longer wanted.

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07 - Porgy and Bess, Spoleto Festival, Melbourne, Australia, 1987. Designer: Zack Brown

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Porgy and Bess
by George Gershwin.

Set drawing, 1/2" scale.

After a few years of having me build his models, Zack Brown told one of his draftsmen to teach me how to draw scenery. This doubled my value in the NYC assisting world - another reason I will always be grateful to Zack.

No, I didn't get to go to Australia! Zack always traveled to supervise his own scenery and costumes, leaving us assistants back in New York to start on the next opera.

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08 - Raymonda, American Ballet Theatre, NYC, 1987. Designer: Zack Brown

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Raymonda
by Marius Petipa and Alexander Glazunov.

Set drawing, 1" scale.

Although this looks like a drawing for building a full size scenic chandelier, it's not. This piece is to be built flattened, in forced perspective. It is 10 feet high, 7 feet across, and no more than 6" deep from front to back.

It's a lot of fun to draw this kind of stuff. Zack would only render it impressionistically in a painted sketch, then ask me to make it real - but flat.

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09 - Tosca, Washington Opera, Washington, DC, 1987. Designer: Zack Brown

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Tosca
by Guiseppe Verdi.

Set drawing, 1/2" scale.

The last act of Tosca takes place on the roof of the Castel Sant'Angelo, where this statue of St. Michael commands the skyline of Rome. To help the scene shop's sculptors, I had to draw the statue in true elevation: dead on, from the front and side.

I combed New York for telephotos of the statue that weren't from the ground below. I found the best ones in the Italian language branch of the NY Public Library - in the Belmont section of the Bronx.

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10 - The Merry Widow, Washington Opera, NYC, 1984. Designer: Zack Brown

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The Merry Widow
by Franz Lehar.

Set drawing, 1/2" scale

Another over-the-top exercise in style, this time an Art Nouveau gazebo.

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11 - Rigoletto, Metropolitan Opera, NYC, 1989. Designer: Zack Brown

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Rigoletto
by Guiseppe Verdi, staged by Otto Schenk.

White set model, 1/4" scale: Act I

In 1989 Zack was picked to design a new production of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera.  The challenge was to adapt and enlarge his earlier Rigoletto for the Washington Opera to the Met's much larger stage and budget.

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12 - Rigoletto, Metropolitan Opera, NYC, 1989. Designer: Zack Brown

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Rigoletto
by Guiseppe Verdi, staged by Otto Schenk.

Set model, 1/2" scale: Act I

We developed a full set of 1/4" white models (see previous photo), which Zack took to Austria to get the director's approval. Then I built and  Zack painted a second set of models in 1/2" scale as full construction and paint elevations.

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13 - Rigoletto, Metropolitan Opera, NYC, 1989. Designer: Zack Brown

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Rigoletto
by Guiseppe Verdi, staged by Otto Schenk.

White set model, 1/4" scale: Act IV

Here is the white model for the last act, a creepy inn by a river.

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14 - Rigoletto, Metropolitan Opera, NYC, 1989. Designer: Zack Brown

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Rigoletto
by Guiseppe Verdi, staged by Otto Schenk.

Set model, 1/2" scale: Act IV

This is the final model for the same scene. Zack asked for a dead horse in the river mud, so I modeled one all distorted and decaying - see it to the right of the dock?

Following European practice, the Met design office drafts the company's sets, rather than the (mostly foreign) designers. Since I knew it inside out, they hired me that summer to draft Rigoletto, and kept me on for the entire season.

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15 - Late Night With David Letterman, NBC television, NYC, 1989. Designer: Kathleen Ankers

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Late Night with David Letterman
NBC Television

Production photo:
NYC Backing

As Letterman's show became successful, someone decided to invest in a more complex backing outside the "window" behind Dave's desk. The design team, busy with the nightly show, hired me as a supervising art director to babysit the miniature-themed set through the scene shop.

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16 - Late Night With David Letterman, NBC television, NYC, 1989. Designer: Kathleen Ankers

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Late Night with David Letterman
NBC Television

Production photo:
NYC Backing, elevator detail

Along with miniature skyscrapers, the design featured working models of construction cranes, elevators, taxis, etc. I made and detailed these myself. There was an elaborate remote control console for Letterman to use at his desk to make the things go.

Unfortunately, no one told the writers to write this into the shows, and all my motorized toys were never used on camera.

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17 - Another World, NBC daytime drama, NYC, 1990. Designer: Bobby Berg

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Another World
NBC Daytime

Set model, 1/4" scale:
Arizona desert

Bobby Berg hired me to supervise the art direction on a new exterior set that was supposed to replace a planned location shoot. I put together this model from Bobby's ground plan and rough sketches.

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18 - Another World, NBC daytime drama, NYC, 1990. Designer: Bobby Berg

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Another World
NBC Daytime

Production photo:
Arizona desert

Once the model was approved, I drafted the scenic elements and supervised the carving and painting of the rocks. The set looked quite good on TV.

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19 - Another World, NBC daytime drama, NYC, 1990. Designer: Bobby Berg

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Another World
NBC Daytime

Production photo:
Arts and crafts house

Bobby brought me back  later that year, to research and draft a new set in the Arts and Crafts style.

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20 - Another World, NBC daytime drama, NYC, 1990. Designer: Bobby Berg
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Another World
NBC Daytime

Production photo:
Arts and crafts house

In order to get the proportions right, I talked my way into the Metropolitan Museum's Frank Lloyd Wright period room, where the guard let me measure all the dimensions of the doors, windows, trim, ceilings, etc.

It was an authentic learning experience for me about Wright's unique genius, and as a result the set did not  feel like every other soap opera box set.

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21 - The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, Mediascope, NYC, 1990. Designer: George Tsypin

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The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez
directed by Peter Sellars

Production photo:
Cathy's apartment

This was my first job as Art Director on a feature film. Following both the low budget and neo-Expressionist theme of the film, Georgi and Peter decided against built sets in favor of simple but profound changes to locations. This extraordinary loft condo in the West Village was painted in standard landlord white; we painted it an electric blue with one pink water pipe.

That's Mikhail Baryshnikov, playing the role of Cesar, rehearsing his entrance. This very arty film was well received at a few festivals, but is not available on DVD.

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22 - The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, Mediascope, NYC, 1990. Designer: George Tsypin

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The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez
directed by Peter Sellars

Construction photo:
Cathy's apartment

Of course, when we were done, we had to paint it back to white. Managing the process of professionally repainting this skylight twice, for as little money as possible, was my job.

 

All images and commentary on this page are the property of John Magoun; all designs are the property of the Designers credited. All work may not be reproduced without permission. This page last updated: April 2012