Dwight Grell dies at 77; collector of Russian ballet memorabilia

Obituary: Dwight Grell amassed one of the largest private collections of Russian ballet memorabilia

In 1959, Dwight Grell saw the Bolshoi Ballet in Los Angeles and it changed his life.

"I literally walked in the theater one person and walked out another," he told The Times in 1987.

Grell, who was a manager at a button factory for much of his working life, became infatuated with Russian ballet, hanging out at stage doors to get autographs or spare toe shoes, and hurling voluminous quantities of flowers to stages during ovations.

He amassed one of the largest private collections of Russian ballet memorabilia, including rehearsal footage he filmed in Moscow when granted rare access.

Grell, 77, whose collection is housed at USC, died Feb. 3 at his apartment in Hollywood. The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his friend, Kathleen MacLennan.

His last job was as a ticket taker at the AMC movie theaters in Century City, where he worked until he took sick on Christmas Eve.

In addition to his 8-millimeter film clips, which were sometimes shaky and out of focus but still valuable historic records, the collection includes about 7,000 photos, hundreds of programs, costume designs, autographed toe shoes, scores, sculptures of dancers, ticket stubs and even pieces of stages where companies performed.

He hosted numerous exhibitions of selected items, including at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. And he arranged to have obscure Russian dance documentaries shown in theaters.

"They offered the intrepid balletomane unique perspectives on some of the world's greatest dancers," Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote in 1976.

As for the footage Grell shot in Moscow, "very definitely a home movie," Bernheimer wrote. "But it is a home movie made with disarming devotion, a home movie that affords endless fascination for any dauntless student of dance."

Grell was born June 7, 1937, in Los Angeles. Although he loved music from a young age, he had no background in dance. His friend Lawrence Rosenberg, executive director of Anaheim Ballet company and school, said Grell's devotion to Russian ballet was sparked by the passion dancers showed in performance.

"It touched on something so moving to him," Rosenberg said last week. "He felt he wanted to capture it, share it."

The first artifact Grell acquired was an autographed photo of legendary dancer Maya Plisetskaya in her role in "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai." Then Raisa Struchkova gave him an autographed pair of her ballet shoes, and from then on he would ask performers for them.

When the Bolshoi or Kirov ballet companies came to town, Grell would spend hours preparing flower tributes. "You'll know which bouquets are mine," he told The Times in 1986. "They're the ones with the pale-blue streamers, the Kirov colors. Not those cheap ones that land in the pit."

USC, which acquired the collection in 2003, wanted it not only for the materials but for what it said about how close a collector can get to a subject.

"The ballet companies embraced him as a fan," Melinda Hayes, rare books librarian at USC, said last week. "Maybe their No. 1 fan outside of the Soviet Union. What is interesting is that they even invited him to visit them in their homes."

Grell, for his part, saw nothing unusual about his fandom. "People may see what I do as strange or obsessive, but it's really not," he said in the 1987 Times interview. "Some people are devoted to stamp collecting or sports; this just happens to be the avenue I turn down."

He is survived by a sister, Harriet Knudson.

Twitter: @davidcolker

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