Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire

Peter Pan Concept Art | Mary Blair

Today is the birthday of Disney artist and designer Mary Blair, born on this day October 21, 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma. Blair was an integral part of Disney, designing incredibly beautiful, unique concept art for a variety of Disney attractions and animated films, including her most well known work on the “It’s a Small World” attraction, as well as Alice in WonderlandPeter Pan, and Cinderella. In addition to her prolific Disney collection, Mary Blair was an illustrator for several Little Golden Books.

Disney’s Peter Pan‘s Mermaids | Mary Blair
Peter Pan Concept Art | Mary Blair
“It’s a Small World” façade concept painting | ~1963 | Mary Blair
Alice in Wonderland Concept Art | Mary Blair

Soviet Film Wednesday: Viy

Viy Poster

In this 1967 film, a young seminarian stays the night in an old woman’s barn during his travels. During the night, the old woman casts a spell on him and flies on his back through the night. When they touch ground again, she suddenly turns into a young girl. Frightened, he runs away.


Soon after, the boy is back home at seminary, where he is summoned to pray for a girl who is dying. Once he arrives in her town, he discovers that the girl he is to pray for is the one he ran from, and that she has died. He is ordered to spend three nights alone with her corpse, praying at her wake. The story is minimalist but creepy nonetheless, and the 1960’s low budget film effects are pretty amazing.

Viy (Вий) or Spirit of Evil, is based on a story by Nikolai Gogol. It was directed by Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov, and stars Leonid Kuravlyov and Natalya Varley.

Meet Palm Springs Architect Albert Frey

Tramway Gas Station, Palm Springs. The station built in 1965 now serves as the Palm Springs Visitor Center. | Steve Cukrov

Albert Frey was born in Zurich, Switzerland on October 18, 1903, and was known for being one of the most influential architects in the Palm Springs area.  He studied architecture at the Institute of Technology in Winterthur, Switzerland, and later worked with Le Corbusier, who became a friend and influence of Frey.

Tramway Gas Station, Palm Springs. The station built in 1965 now serves as the Palm Springs Visitor Center. | Steve Cukrov

One of his most famous designs is the Palm Springs Tramway Gas Station, built in 1965, and which is now the Palm Springs Visitor Center; a landmark that he and Robson C. Chambers designed together.

Frey and Chambers also designed the The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Valley Station, which is only a few minutes’ drive from the visitor center. From here, visitors can take the rotating tram from Coachella Valley up the San Jacinto Mountains.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Closeup of a tram car docking at the Valley Station. | Steve Cukrov

On a side note, the tram takes visitors from the Valley Station to the Palm Springs Mountain Station, which was built by another distinctive mid-century modern architect, E. Stewart Williams, in 1961.

Other notable buildings by Frey include the Raymond Loewy House and the Salton Bay Yacht Club.

Frey was deeply influenced by Palm Springs and the desert in general, and once wrote to his mentor, La Corbusier, “It provides the rare pleasure of combining a magnificent natural environment with being a center for interesting and varied activities. Moreover, the sun, the pure air and the simple forms of the desert create perfect conditions for architecture.”

Soviet Film Wednesday: Ivashka and Baba-Yaga

Ivashka and Baba-Yaga Poster

Last week we had an introduction to the Brumberg Sisters, and this week we have another great film by the duo, featuring one of the scariest characters of folklore, Baba-Yaga. While this fairy tale, and others, portray her as a child-hunting witch, there are some different renditions of Baba-Yaga.

In Slavic folklore, Baba-Yaga is typically portrayed as an enchantress who lives in a hut in the forest, and is known as a either a villain, a donor, or a completely ambiguous character. In Berkeley professor Andreas Johns’s book Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale, he describes her as “a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a Cloud, Moon, Death, Winter, Snake, Bird, Pelican or Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image.”

This take on the Russian folktale of Baba-Yaga, the short animation Ivashka and Baba-Yaga, was made in 1938 by the Brumberg Sisters, who really were pioneers of Soviet animation, making films as early as the mid 1920’s.

Valentina Semyonovna Brumberg was born on August 2, 1899, and Zinaida Semyonovna Brumberg was born on the same day, August 2, in the year 1900, both born in their Jewish family in Moscow. Also known as the “Grandmothers of Soviet Animation,” together the two sisters created, directed, and produced about 50 films. The first film they ever worked on together was as contributors for the 1925 cutout film China in Flames. It was one of the world’s first animated feature films.

Some of their most well-known films include The Samoyed Boy, which was their first hand-drawn animation, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Little Red Riding Hood, The Lost Letter, The Island of Mistakes, The Night Before Christmas, and It Was I Who Drew the Little Man.

Ivashka and Baba-Yaga

At the beginning of Ivashka and Baba-Yaga, Ivashka goes on his first fishing trip by himself, and when he does, he finds an adventure awaits him.

After fishing for a while, Ivashka’s mother brings him food and sings to him to come and eat. When Baba-Yaga sees this, she tries to lure Ivashka by singing to him, too, but young Ivashka knows that Baba-Yaga is dangerous and is really the one calling him, and he sails away.

Ivashka and Baba-Yaga

So the old woman gets a different voice from the blacksmith in order to trick Ivashka into coming into her hut, to be baked in her oven. She uses the voice on Ivashka and then hides behind the bushes. When he walks on shore, she jumps out and grabs him. However, once in her house, Ivashka comes up with a plan of his own.

Here is Ivashka and Baba-Yaga (Ивашко и Баба-Яга), a musical animation made in 1938, written and directed by Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg.

Click “cc” for subtitles.

Soviet Film Wednesday: Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood (1937)

Let me introduce you to The Brumberg Sisters, Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg, who worked together as animators, screenwriters, and directors, creating around 50 films in total.

This is their spooky animation of Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, made in 1937. Perrault’s version was a cautionary message to children about stranger danger.

Click the “cc” icon for subtitles.

Soviet Film Wednesday: Seasons

Seasons Poster

Seasons, made in 1969, is one of the most beloved Russian animations, directed by Yuri Norstein and Ivan Ivanov-Vano, with the music of Tchaikovsky. You can find this and four other animations by Norstein: The Battle of Kerzhenets, Fox and Rabbit, The Heron and the Crane, and Hedgehog in the Fog, all on DVD in Masters of Russian Animation.


The detailed stop-motion animation, much done with delicate lace, features a couple gliding through the seasons, all set to brilliant renditions of “October” and “November” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.  As in many of his short films, Norstein also used cut-outs for much of the animation, creating magnificent scenes and magical movements of wind, snow, the sparkling starry night, and warm sunlight pouring in.

Soviet Film Wednesday: Birthnight


In Birthnight, Night visits young Tima, a boy who sleeps with the light on because he is afraid of the dark, and she invites him to her nighttime birthday party in the woods.

If the story doesn’t sound intriguing enough, the eccentric synth music of Eduard Artemyev is sure to transport you to another world, the realm of Night. The electronic composer also did film scores for SolarisStalker, Siberiade, and Burnt by the Sun.


The 1980 stop-motion animation was directed by Rozaliya Zelma, who had worked mainly on drawn animations until Birthnight (Ночь рождения). The story was written by Aleksandr Kostinskiy.

Click “cc” for subtitles.

Is the Tiki Kitsch Craze Innocent Fun or Exploitation of Culture?

Hand Carved Tiki Statues in Hawaii

When Trader Vic invented his now famous Tiki cocktails in fun whimsical Tiki head souvenir glasses with curly straws and tons of rum, there was not any thought as to sensitivity to the Hawaiian culture that might exist if it were today. Think of it like this. What if a bar were started with a Jesus shaped container for a souvenir glass? Eek. Or Mouhammad? Ugh. Not that cool.

What do Hawaiians think of these type of Tiki head container usages? Pacific Islanders have, for the most part, ignored this whole fad, one observer says. “But seeing your ancient gods or your ancestors in a bar somewhere across the ocean, I think that can be difficult.”

Another person went on to talk about how seeing his Hawaiian culture copied, exaggerated, and then turned into kitsch can feel invalidating. He added. “Really at the root of it, it’s exploitation. It’s pretty much ignoring the real lives, the real culture, and the real problems that we all do face on a daily basis.”

Of course, the idea behind these Tiki bars has not been exploitation, but rather escape. Hawaii has been the land of perfect escape and the Pacific islands are glorified for many reasons as the lands of enchantment. So, in the middle of Winter, someone in New York City can walk into a Tiki bar and hear island music. They can feel the warmth of the atmosphere of Tiki torches and Tiki lights. For a few hours, the people in the Tiki bar can make believe they are miles away in the South Pacific. Escapism. Not a thought about the people behind the culture at the root in the place where they stand. And maybe that is the problem.

In previous articles about Tiki culture, I have mentioned I don’t know enough about our 50th state. Hawaii has a rich history that is so much a part of our American history. Pearl Harbor is located in Hawaii. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942 led the United States into WWII. Hawaii was not a state yet. How many people know that?

The Tiki culture is fun. I’m not knocking it. There is no denying the fun and the excitement of a great Tiki party. However, I think having Tiki décor and Tiki fun without knowing the history just misses something. Especially, because Tiki history is part of America’s history. Our nation is so large, and we have such a rich history. Isn’t it amazing that the Tiki culture is a part of our nation’s history? And that is pretty special.

When you decorate that back yard with Tiki Torches or with other Tiki décor, remember this is a part of your history and try to learn more. Hawaii has only been a state for about 60 years. We have so much to learn about this state and the island people. Unfortunately, Hawaii is not a road trip. If you live on the mainland, you have to fly there.

However, with more and more airlines making Hawaii a destination on their list, hopefully, this will make it possible for many of us to visit. This may be a good news/bad news for the Hawaiian people. Good for the economy, but too many tourists will always bring problems of their own with increased traffic, more crowded beaches, longer lines, and a stress on the environment. If you are able to visit, please study up on language, traditions, and ways to increase respect for this wonderful culture and land of beauty.

Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock

When I was young, I was led into a homemade haunted house on every Halloween. It was comprised of sheets tunneling through the halls and bedrooms, colored lights, and scary surprises around every corner. I’ll never forget how it was all so delightfully set to a record of Alfred Hitchcock Presents playing. My older sisters created these haunted houses for me, and it is one of the fondest memories of my youth, one which kindled an early love for the “Master of Suspense.”

Today we celebrate the master on his birthday. Film director, producer, and screenwriter Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day, August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone in east London, in the flat above the family grocery shop. He was born to Catholic parents Emma Jane Hitchcock and William Edgar Hitchcock. Hitchcock stated that he had a lonely childhood, without a memory of a playmate. He was also known for being a well-behaved youth, even called a “little lamb without a spot” by his father. Despite this, in interviews Hitchcock would often recall a scarring childhood event where his dad had him spend a few minutes in a jail cell when young Alfred was five, which left him terrified of law, to the point that he did not drive for fear of getting a ticket.

Hitchcock received many accolades in his lifetime, including 46 Academy Award nominations and six wins. He died on April 29, 1980 in Los Angeles, California, four months after being knighted.

Now Hitchcock is widely regarded as one of the most influential film directors of all time, earning him the title “Master of Suspense,” with a roster of iconic films including Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963).

The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.

-Alfred Hitchcock

Soviet Film Wednesday: War and Peace

Aleksandr Fadeyev in War and Peace (1966)

In 1966-1967, writer and director Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (Война и мир) was released in four parts; a seven-hour-plus long adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel depicting the lives of several aristocratic families during the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

The stunningly beautiful film skillfully portrays personal stories amidst a political backdrop, and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1969. The film stars Lyudmila Saveleva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, and Sergei Bondarchuk as the main character Pierre Bezukhov. It is also the most expensive Soviet film ever made, costing 8.29 million Soviet rubles, which equates to approximately $70 million in today’s terms.

The sweeping masterpiece has been digitally restored by Mosfilm Cinema Concern, and is currently available on Criterion.