Reading the Writing on the Doors

The other night at a local watering hole, I was scolded by this queen who had clearly taken offense to some of my good natured ribbing of Provincetown in an earlier column. Didn’t I know Tennessee Williams had spent time in P’town? Didn’t I know that Michael Cunningham, who wrote “The Hours,” summers there? And didn’t I know that I ought not to wear a blue and red striped belt with a pair of orange poplin shorts?

Well…..fashion sense aside, I felt compelled to point out that if he had indeed read my column closely he would know that I had not disparaged P’town’s artistic pedigree. To the contrary, it’s one of the things I like best about the place. C’mon, John Waters has a place there. And Divine – bless her chubby soul – was a P’town girl. The queen wrinkled his nose.

He wrinkled it again when I mentioned Rehoboth’s arts heritage. I asked if he knew about a book called Doors to History, chronicling the story of the Rehoboth Art League through the tradition of artists signing what are called the “Doors of Fame.” He didn’t.

So, I’m dedicating this column to The Scold, though I don’t remember his name, just his nose and too tight Hollister t-shirt.

While not recognized as one of the country’s elite summer artist colonies, Rehoboth did attract some well-known artists: American watercolorist Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth, and Ethel Leach. The arts really flourished after the founding in 1938 of the Rehoboth Art League, which is headquartered in Henlopen Acres in one of the oldest homes in Sussex County.

More than 285 artists, creative people, locals, and notable citizens have signed the Art League’s three “Doors of Fame” over the years. The tradition began on June 18, 1938, at the dedication ceremonies for the League. Signers actually did more than sign the doors. They also affixed their “trademark” to their signatures. These symbols had different meanings and were associated with the character of the artist and his or her work. Ethel Leach, one of Delaware’s premier artists, for example, painted beside her name the symbol of the rare lotus plant that grew in the waters of Delaware. Travel author Amy Oakley from Philadelphia drew a Viking ship. Earle Chesney drew a head with captain’s hat and smoking pipe. Chesney, a Washington, DC, cartoonist who served in the US Navy created the cartoon character “Eggburt” for the Navy.

I’m fascinated with the short bios of the door signers in the book. You know, a lot of very interesting, if not necessarily very famous, artists have spent some time in Rehoboth. Some of the signers that caught my attention follow.

Amos Burg, an explorer, author, and lecturer. He made nine explorations to Alaska and was a lecturer at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC. In 1943, he presented a lecture on Alaska at “Mon Plaiser,” the summer home of that penultimate Rehoboth Beach matron Mrs. H.B. Thompson.

Victor Clarke. A baritone from Wilmington, DE, who performed in both opera and Broadway musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun. Clarke sang in the Baroque Room of the Plaza Hotel in Rehoboth during the late 1940s. He departed from Rehoboth in 1949 and traveled to Milan, Italy, to appear in the title role of Verdi’s opera Otella.

Rachel Hawks, a Maryland sculptor whose bronze fountain figures, portrait busts, and decorative mural reliefs were exhibited in New York, Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, and at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. During WWII, she worked for the Baltimore Marine Hospital and sculpted false noses and ears in plastic for disfigured servicemen.

Marquis James, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author from Philadelphia. His prizes were for his biographies of Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson.

Hans Kindler, a Dutch cellist and former director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC.

Sandy Leach and his wife Mary both were asked to sign the doors because of their active service to the Art League. The couple lived in Henlopen Acres and Sandy was a regular winner of the costume contests for the League’s Artists Balls. He appeared as “Salome” in the 1964 Night of the Opera Ball. He also won rave reviews for other appearances as “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Geisha Girl.”

Norwood MacGilvary, an artist and professor at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. MacGilvary exhibited his work in Paris, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Some of his work is held in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art. When he died in 1949, his ashes were strewn from an airplane over the beach.

Mary Mullineaux, from Germantown, Pennsylvania, was a color block printmaker whose prints are held in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Art. She directed the early “clothesline” shows at the Art League.

A.J. Obara, Jr., a Pennsylvania sculptor specializing in wildlife bronzes. His work is collected by Paul Newman and the Prince of Wales. It is part of the White House collection, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Delaware Museum of Natural History. His work was the first bronze sculpture to be put into space as part of the Discovery Launch by NASA in 1985.

Stanislav Rembski, a Pole who studied in Germany and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He lived in Baltimore and exhibited widely, especially in Maryland where his portraits are found in the Maryland State Capitol.

Eddy Ruhl, a musical child prodigy from New York and Washington, DC, and an opera singer in Europe and the United States. In 1949, he performed in Rehoboth and delighted audiences with arias and ballads by from Handel, Brahms, and Debussey.

C.A. Schenck, a German forester who founded America’s first forestry school when he became chief forester for George Vanderbilt at his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. For more than a decade, Schenck managed 120,000 acres that is now Pisgah National Forest.
The Biltmore Forestry School opened in 1898 and lasted until 1913. It catered to the sons of tycoons.

The book also mentions fifty others who should have signed the doors. My favorite of this group, Betty Atkins, lived in Lewes and taught shell arranging classes at the Art League during the 1940’s. She was the first accredited Master Flower Show judge in Delaware and a pioneer in raising the standards of flower shows throughout the state. She traveled in her automobile “bulging with massed flowers” and taught legions of women in local garden clubs to “extend themselves through flower arranging.” She also wrote a popular gardening column for the Wilmington Evening Journal.

If you’re interested in the history of the arts in Rehoboth, I suggest you stroll over to the Rehoboth Art League and buy a copy of Doors to History. It’s a great beach read.

PS. To the queen in the Hollister tee, wait ‘till you see what I wear with my pink and green ribbon belt…

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