It took Honolulu to officially recognize one of Los Angeles’ great muralists last week on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
“The mayor there declared his birthday--Oct. 17--as Einar Petersen Day,” Petersen’s daughter, Norma Porter, said from the Hollywood cottage her father has called home for about 50 years. It was his studio even longer than that.
He designed the cottages on Beverly Boulevard in 1919, four years after he arrived in the United States, to house artists like himself.
“In the olden days, there was a silversmith, a portrait painter and a ceramicist besides him. It was a true art colony,” Porter recalled. “The artist opposite dad’s place has been here 45 years.” “Shows what a good landlord I am,” he said with a chuckle. “Shows how cheap your rents are,” she countered good naturedly.
The cottages resemble his home town in Denmark--"Abletoft,” he said, repeating the name of the town. “It means apple orchard.”
“His Danish background is very important in his life,” Porter said.
He learned to draw from his father, who was a drawing teacher. At the age of 14, the younger Petersen had to leave home to be an apprentice for seven years to a well-known local painter.
“That was a hard time in my father’s life,” Porter said, “because his mother died shortly after he left home, and the painter was a taskmaster.”
It paid off, though, because Petersen then studied art in school in Switzerland with a stipend from the Danish government and traveled afterward--with money he saved--to Italy and France, studying painting masterpieces.
“He put on a knapsack and walked all over Europe,” his daughter said. “He lay on floors and copied paintings that were on ceilings. And how did he buy paper to draw on?
“It got down once in awhile to paper that was free and available,"--toilet paper. She laughed. “That’s right,” he said. “I did that in Paris.” He was, as his daughter described him, “a typical art student, living in a garret with a few sous to live on.”
“I was just a little student, you know. I didn’t count for much,” he said with a smile.
It wasn’t long before he counted for a lot.
It started in Zurich. “I got a job there from the biggest decorating concern in Switzerland,” he remembered, “and I was sent all over Switzerland to decorate chapels.”
Then he came to the United States and painted murals and other decorations for the walls and ceilings of buildings in San Francisco, Spokane, Wash.; Omaha, Neb.; Reno, Nev.; Pueblo, Colo., and other towns.
Many Murals Gone
In Los Angeles, he designed murals, painted tapestry and other things for about 20 buildings in downtown alone. Unfortunately, few remain. The most accessible is the ceiling of the Variety Arts Theatre.
Others, including the murals at Clifton’s Cafeteria of the sleeping apostles and at the Mayflower Hotel of pilgrims landing in America, are gone.
Don Clinton, owner of Clifton’s, said that Petersen’s 1939 murals of the Garden of Gethsemane in one room and a tropical jungle in another were “torn down along with the (original Clifton’s) building--Clifton’s Pacific Seas at 618 S. Olive St.--about 25 years ago. The garden mural was recreated at Clifton’s at 515 West 7th St. by a Pasadena artist when Einar was about 90.”
The Mayflower Hotel murals were sold by a Dayton, Ohio, liquidator a month ago.
Kept No Records
“There is some of his work at Hollywood/Burbank Airport and Forest Lawn Mausoleum, and there was some at the Del Mar Club (now the Pritikin Longevity Center) in Santa Monica, but I don’t know if those murals are still there,” his daughter said. (A spokeswoman at the center said that they are no longer there.) “With four sons and six grandsons, I haven’t had time to search out buildings, but I wish I could.”
The search is complicated by the fact that Petersen kept no records. “It was difficult to keep track of the various jobs,” he said. “There were so many of them. I was working hard.”
His career was its busiest from 1915 to 1945, and he had a partner--Niels Miller--who often executed his designs. These designs weren’t always for murals and wall and ceiling decorations. He also gave the Owl Drug Co. its logo while decorating the firm’s many outlets, since closed, with themes relating to medicine.
Murals were his forte, though, and his first job in Los Angeles was to design one in five panels, each 19 by 9 feet in size, depicting different phases of Los Angeles history for the Rosslyn Hotel at 5th and Main streets. In 1976, a free-lance writer discovered that these panels had been obscured by a false ceiling, which is still there today.
‘The Lost Art’
She also discovered “a panorama” by Petersen, “blending fantasy and Spanish history on three walls” of the Broadway Cafeteria at 620 S. Broadway. The cafeteria is now a Carl’s Jr. and what remains of the panorama has been stretched and framed into two paintings.
In her search for Petersen murals in Los Angeles, the frustrated free lancer referred to “the lost art of Einar Petersen.”
Finding samples of his work in other cities is even more of a chore. The jungle-like Art-Deco scenes he designed for a cocktail lounge in Manila were destroyed in a ship blown up by the Japanese at the start of World War II.
The Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash. is just being torn down. “That was his first big hotel job in this country,” Porter said.
Gambling Scenes Missing
The detailed stagecoach scenes he designed for his first job in the United States may or may not be in the same building today, because his client--First National Bank in El Paso, Tex.--is no longer listed. “I remember that I had to draw about three dozen legs of those mules before any were passable,” he said. “It isn’t so easy to draw a mule running.”
The Hotel Golden in Reno isn’t listed either. That’s where Petersen designed murals with a gambling theme, “putting the wife of the owner in every scene,” Porter said. “He figures that’s what got him the job.”
The raucous, card-playing and shoot-'em-up scenes are preserved, along with his other murals, in old photo albums, but the real things may never again be seen. Perhaps this is why it took a city 2,574 miles away from his home of nearly 70 years to remember him.
His work is still prominently displayed in the Honolulu City Hall and the Alexander & Baldwin Building.
Mural in Solvang
No wonder he likes Hawaii, even sports a cap bearing the state’s name. “But he hasn’t been there in 50 years,” Porter said.
Closer to home, a mural of his birthplace that he painted on his 80th birthday is still hanging in a bank in Solvang, she added, and his homemade Christmas cards and hand-painted woodcarvings, reminiscent of Danish folk crafts, adorn his grandchildren’s residences. “Since he retired, he has painted for pleasure and made lots of hand-carved toys,” Porter said.
His favorite subject for paintings: landscapes. His favorite professional job: “There was something interesting about any kind of job,” he said.
Petersen also plays the violin--"but only on Christmas Eve,” his daughter noted. He started playing when he was 7. “It’s something you never forget,” he added.
Party for 100
Playing the violin reflects his secret, or Porter’s, to longevity-- “It’s keep moving,” she explained.
However, he didn’t expect to play the violin at the birthday party Porter planned for him on Saturday. He was looking forward to visiting with the 80 to 100 guests Porter invited, including her mother, Kristine, who is 86.
Porter’s parents, both Danish, have been divorced for about 50 years, “but they are the best of friends to this day,” she said. Petersen has what he calls a “little brother,” who is 94 but still lives in Denmark. “Dad and I went to visit him 10 years ago,” Porter said.
Petersen’s other relatives and friends had a special opportunity Saturday, though, to view some of his original art, collected and displayed by Porter.
So all of the art of Einar Petersen is not lost. Some is even being restored.
“The mayor of Honolulu had the colors of the mural in his office brightened,” Porter said.