“The shrieking of mutilated victims became the music of his life.” The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961
Other than paint-by-number, oil paintings on canvas barely existed outside of large cities in 1950s America. Without museums or art galleries, it was a tire store hoping to elevate its image and expand its product line which brought art to the small towns of south Louisiana.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. started as a mail order catalogue company in the late 1800s. Eventually their automotive services superseded their reputation as a department store, and they aggressively pursued a change in their image by incorporating fine art.
They hired a famous actor, Vincent Price, to lead this elevated national crusade.
Together Price and Sears sold more than fifty thousand pieces of art, original paintings, prints and woodcuts by Rembrandt, Picasso, Chagall, and many unknowns, with traveling exhibitions between 1962 and 1971.
“Sears was one of the first companies to mass market good art, which they mixed with bad art,” says George Rodrigue, who saw his first art exhibition at age eighteen at a Sears store in Baton Rouge.
View a catalogue from the Vincent Price Collection for Sears here: VPSearsCatalog.pdf
“They thought that if people associated Sears with art," continued Rodrigue, "then they would associate it with everything, purchasing their washing machine and Miro on the same afternoon.
“Vincent Price wasn’t there when I visited the show, but I forgot about him after I saw all of the art. There were fifty pieces hanging on the wall in a special room. I’d never seen anything like it. A few years later, at Art Center in Los Angeles, we actually studied the Sears-Price partnership in an advertising class.”
Vincent Price (1911-1993) grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri, in a wealthy family made comfortable years earlier when his grandfather invented “Dr. Price’s Baking Powder,” the first cream of tartar baking powder. He spent his life embracing his passion for art, beginning with an Art History education at Yale University, combined with an interest in theatre and eventually horror films, entering the genre in 1939 with Tower of London, when he worked alongside English actor Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) and, most significant, Boris Karloff (1887-1969) of Frankenstein and Mummy fame.
It is this Vincent Price, the king of horror and horror-comedy rather than the art collector, that caused me and my mother in the mid-1980s to rendezvous each Saturday night with popcorn and blankets (for hiding) in the den of our Fort Walton Beach condo for late night movies hosted by Elvira.
My mother, an artist, adored Price and yet never mentioned his artistic pursuits (the first I heard of it, in fact, was years later from George Rodrigue). Rather, her passion for both the actor and his movies stemmed from her childhood in New Orleans, specifically the double features at the Abalon Theatre in Algiers and the antics of her favorite mad scientist, Morgus the Magnificent.
My passion stemmed from hers. Together we watched the same movies dozens of times, happy that we ditched our dates, as we echoed the lines in chorus with the characters.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door.’
‘Only this and nothing more.’” —The Raven, 1963 (originating with Edgar Allen Poe, of course, in 1845)
George Rodrigue remembers watching Price in movies at the Evangeline Theatre in downtown New Iberia.
“We paid 12 cents for a double feature with cartoons. It was all about monster movies and science fiction films like The Blob and Men from Mars.”
And indeed, much like the life of Vincent Price, Rodrigue’s first paintings blend art with horror.
The two men crossed paths in more literal ways as well. In 1974 a production company traveled through Lafayette with a play starring Vincent Price. Unable to sit still through such events, Rodrigue passed on the evening, despite a special invitation to visit backstage with the actor.
Late that night after the play, Price called Rodrigue, complimented him on his paintings, and expressed regret that the two did not meet. Frances Love (1926-2010), director of the Art Center for Southwest Louisiana and a strong advocate for the local arts scene, presented Price with a Rodrigue print as a gift from the city of Lafayette. To this day, George regrets passing on the opportunity to meet the screen legend.
Vincent Price’s legacy, as he planned it, is two-fold. Whether or not we remember him for curating and promoting the Vincent Price Collection for Sears, his passion for art lives on in the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College. His movies, obviously, are cult classics.
Personally, Price made a significant impression on my life’s memories. Consider the final scene of The Fly, as he sits on a bench, contemplating the terror of a botched science experiment. I imagine, even as I write this, my mother and I, our hands frozen and claw-like near our faces, as we squeak out together, “Help meeeeeeeee……. Help meeeeeeeee……”
In honor of Mignon and the Vincentennial,* won’t you join me?
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
*Cinema St. Louis presents 'Vincentennial,' the Vincent Price 100th birthday celebration, May 2011, St. Louis. For information visit http://www.cinemastlouis.org/vincentennial