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John Beckman at 91: A Life Designed for Success

When John Beckman, art director of the popular CBS television series “Designing Women,” celebrates his 91st birthday today, he will observe a milestone both personally and professionally.

For, in an industry that worships the young on and off camera, Beckman has enjoyed a career spanning more than half a century and is still going strong. He designed the interior of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the murals and theater of Catalina Island’s Avalon Casino, contributed sets for such film classics as “Casablanca,” “Lost Horizon” and “The Maltese Falcon,” and has been art director for dozens of other movies as well as television shows from “Profiles in Courage” to “The Partridge Family.”

His personal life has been just as colorful. Before he turned 14, he had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, watched Monet paint water lilies in Paris and canceled the passage he had booked on the Titanic. He recalls attending parties given by Errol Flynn, with whom he worked on the film “Too Much, Too Soon,” and nowadays enjoys flying off for overnight visits to Honolulu or Philadelphia just to have dinner with friends.

Despite his impressive credentials creating the backgrounds that frame a show or a character, Beckman is a modest, almost courtly man who opened a recent interview by saying, in utter sincerity, “I don’t know if I have enough to give you.” Now based at the Burbank Studios, where “Designing Women” is filmed, he apparently makes no concession to age: His work day begins at 7:30 a.m., usually ending mid-afternoon but sometimes running 14 or 15 hours. And age was obviously not a factor in his employment by the show’s producers.

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“He’s so bright and pleasant, and his stuff looks great,” says Harry Thomason, co-executive producer of “Designing Women” with wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. “He’s a producer’s dream, because he does it economically. When Linda and I came here for ‘Designing Women,’ someone from the art department called and said: ‘I have someone but I don’t suppose you want to hire him--he’s up in years.’

“It turned out to be John, and of course I hired him. A television series is like a war--survival is the main thing. You want to go to war with people who’ve been there before. If a guy’s 91 and has worked at a studio for 40 years, you want him on your team. He started with us on his 87th birthday and I hope he’ll be with us for his 100th.”

From his second floor office, whose sparse decor features a painting he did years ago of New Mexican Indians and several building models he frequently uses, Beckman talked about the good old days and the harried times today: “In television, everything is very sudden; I find I’m trying to beat the clock,” he says. “We sometimes don’t get a script or script changes until Monday morning, and the show films on Thursday. I meet with Harry and Linda, see what they have in mind, and based on that make ‘roughies’ (rough sketches), get them OK’d, have our draftsmen draw them up, have them estimated (for budget), OK’d and built.”

He did have about three weeks to create the standing set of “Sugarbaker’s,” where the title characters work. “We tried to do something to suit any occasion, nothing too light or too ponderous. We added a bay window the second year, and the set decorator will constantly bring in things so it doesn’t look the same all the time.

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“There’s a tremendous difference in the budget between television and films,” he adds. “We borrow and use anything that looks interesting. On the upcoming show (due to air next month) where Jean Smart’s character Charlene gets married, we had a $100,000 church set, for which we borrowed things from on the lot: columns from ‘Ghostbusters II,’ doorways, windows.”

Beckman, a native of Astoria, Ore., whose family later moved to San Francisco, began his artistic endeavors at the behest of his father, a prominent physician who wished him to become an architect. Accordingly, at age 12 he set off for an architecture school in St. Petersburg, Russia; on a two-week stopover in Paris, he managed to meet, through an art student-cousin, most of the era’s leading artists.

Upon his arrival in Russia, he discovered that the minimum age for school admission was 14, and decided to remain there until he was old enough to enroll. He returned home two years later, though, when his mother became ill, changing his reservation on the Titanic to its sister ship, the Olympic, because of rumors he’d heard that the Titanic was unsafe.

Beckman never did receive much formal training. He was expelled from UC Berkeley after one semester--"It was my fault. I asked too many embarrassing questions"--and worked briefly for a Sacramento architect before moving to Los Angeles in 1920. “This was a small town of maybe 400,000,” he recalls. “You could smell orange and lemon blossoms everywhere.”

He found work with the firm of Meyer and Holler, which built the landmark Egyptian and Grauman’s Chinese theaters, and created the latter’s color scheme, furnishings, wall hangings and murals.

“We had to turn the main roof over the entrance into a proper green, but it was hard to hold the chemicals on that vertical slant,” he says wryly. “So when the sun beat down, every so often the copper would pop off like snowflakes and burn holes into the clothes of the people below. We bought quite a few suits and dresses and took quite a lot of criticism.”

Beckman’s first foray into the motion picture field came in 1934, when he was asked to join the Samuel Goldwyn Studios as art director for the film “Nana”; he later did the Frederic March version of “Les Miserables” for the same company and designed the “Lost Horizon” lamasery set for Columbia. In the late 1930s he began a 25-year association with Warner Bros., where he received his first screen credit for art direction on the 1947 Charlie Chaplin film, “Monsieur Verdoux.” Other credits include such Mervyn LeRoy films as “The Bad Seed,” “Gypsy” and “The FBI Story.”

“Things have changed considerably since those days,” he says. “You had time to do things. The major studios had their own theaters, and the court decision forbidding that meant the end of a grand era, because then they started making pictures to sell to others. The studios back then were run by individuals with marvelous personalities, and even though you’d work six days a week it was fun, because they felt everything should be a family affair. You felt a certain loyalty then to the studio.”

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Since 1970, Beckman has been concentrating on television projects. He was at Paramount for several years, at one point overseeing “Cheers” and “Webster” when the art director for those series took a film assignment, and has done such Columbia projects as the miniseries “The Dream Merchants” and the television films “Kate’s Secret” and “Miracle of the Heart: A Boy’s Town Story.” He is in his fourth year with “Designing Women.”

Beckman will be returning to the show for his fifth season, tentatively scheduled to get under way in July. To what does he attribute his longevity?

“Well,” he says, " I smoked for 35 years and I eat a lot of sugar. So it could be my attitude. I don’t let anything bother me.”


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