Twice Burned : Artist Who Also Lost Collection in 1988 Fire Wonders If He Can Start Over Again


Even as he watched his life’s work burn, even as his wife’s paintings were turned to cinders and their eclectic collection of folk art, Hollywood memorabilia and architectural artifacts went up in smoke, Tony Award-winning artist Tony Duquette could see the beauty in being a two-time loser.

“It was extraordinary. . . . The top of Mt. Boney was all flame, the colors of black and mustard and white. The sky was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. And we didn’t have a camera,” Duquette, 79, said Friday, recalling how Wednesday’s fire tore through the Santa Monica Mountains ranch that he and his wife had so lovingly created from found objects, movie sets and other odds and ends.

“The little pagodas made a pattern of light against the black smoke” as they burned, he said, directing a visitor’s gaze to the charred remains of several pyramidal towers that Duquette had constructed from storage racks and reindeer antlers. “Even at their last moment they made something magical and beautiful to see.”

The 175-acre ranch north of Malibu--named Sortilegium, Latin for “land of enchantment"--had been a wonder. There were 16th-Century Spanish gates out front, illuminated by street lights from Copenhagen, and stone lions from a downtown Los Angeles bank. An elevator cab from the Hollywood Hotel sat amid a tangle of exotic plants. Flags from Bali flew atop tall poles, and a boathouse--one of several pavilions on the property--was topped with a Venetian gondola.


All this was made more precious because it was here that Duquette and his wife, Elizabeth, rebuilt their lives after a 1988 fire in a San Francisco warehouse destroyed much of what they had. In the wake of that blaze, Duquette had set out to create a monumental exhibition to be titled “The Phoenix Rises From His Flames.” But this week’s fire devoured many of the materials from which he planned to assemble that piece.

“That’s what kills me. I’d been able to get back into work. And now it’s gone again,” he said, still struggling to grasp what he calls “the second erasure.” “Having torn myself out of the death that happened (in San Francisco) . . . to have it happen again.”

“Is there a reason? Am I being taught something? Or is it just by chance that the wind changes?” he said. “I’m strong enough not to be destroyed by it. I’m just not smart enough to understand it.”

As he stomped around his property Friday, the sight of the trees gave him an idea. Throughout the place, he had positioned dead trees, painted a bright coral, because he loved the way the color came alive when the sun hit it.

“When the sun set, it was like flame,” he said, offering a theory on why the fire chose him. “I wonder if the fire got in a bad mood because I was daring to do a cheap imitation.”

The survival of the ranch had been threatened before.

Ventura County planning officials disapproved of Duquette’s creative development style. They didn’t care that the ranch had been compared to Prospero’s magical island, to Aladdin’s cave of treasures, to Shangri-La. They weren’t impressed that its ornate teahouses and pavilions had been featured in the pages of glossy magazines around the world. The buildings had been built without permits. They were illegal. Duquette and his attorney were fighting to keep from having to tear them down.

But at the same time, plans were being made to protect the future of the whimsical sanctuary. According to Hutton Wilkinson, Duquette’s associate and neighbor, legislators were considering making the ranch a state cultural landmark. And UCLA was making plans to turn it into an art center.

Now, Wilkinson said, he doubts if any of that will happen. After all, he said, it wasn’t the land the university wanted--it was the amazing collage of antique treasure and rescued junk, the one-of-a-kind collage of objects that could only have been arranged by Tony Duquette.

A Los Angeles native, Duquette was the first American to have a one-man show at the Louvre, in 1951. His costumes for the original Broadway production of “Camelot” won him a Tony award in 1961. He created sets for movies like “The Ziegfeld Follies” and “Can-Can.” More recently, he created a 14-foot work of environmental art, “Our Lady Queen of the Angels,” in honor of Los Angeles’ bicentennial.

To understand his work is to understand how devastating fire can be. If he were just a painter, he could buy a new palette and stretch a new canvas and begin painting again today. But Duquette’s art requires materials that are not easily purchased. A master of assemblage, he collects items from around the world--from junkyards, temples, even the side of the road--and mixes it all together.

When he sees something he likes, he will do anything to get it. He shipped windows from Paris, floors from Versailles, a 17th-Century ceiling from Austria--even a maharajah’s hunting lodge from India. And sometimes treasure has been found closer to home.

In 1949, the Duquettes were married at Pickfair, the Beverly Hills home of Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers. When Pickford and Rogers proposed a silver tea set for a wedding present, Duquette replied, “I’d rather have your doors.” He got what he wanted: three sets of 18th-Century English doors the Rogerses had stored in the garage.

He got reindeer antlers from the Hearst ranch at San Simeon, pieces of a Chinese temple from the 20th Century Fox lot, and a window from the love nest shared by John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Edith Head donated a gazebo. Duquette fashioned domes out of satellite dishes and adorned a forest of totem poles with skateboards and swordfish snouts.

All those things were toasted this week--though, save for some bubbling paint, the elevator cab from the Hollywood Hotel seems to have survived. The fire has left Duquette without the raw material he so loves to build upon.

“The found object--the branch of the tree or the shell--I took what existed and used it,” he said, as several hot spots on his property continued to smolder. His voice cracked suddenly. “That’s why this moment is so difficult. What do I do with what’s here?”

Those who know Duquette well can probably guess the answer to that question. He has always been driven, and this week has been no exception. Painfully, he has begun the process of “digging through the bones,” scavenging odd objects from the wreckage, placing them in a pile for future use. There is a prettily carved piece of wood, what’s left of a Balinese bird cage. There are shiny blobs of aluminum--the remains of a melted water tank.

He has not yet decided whether he is going to rebuild.

“I’m thinking about rebuilding. I’m thinking of living in Mexico. I’m thinking of living in Bali,” he said. “There has been trouble before. But I haven’t been 79 before. There really is only 15 more minutes for me to worry about.”

In some ways, the fire presents the ultimate challenge to a man who has spent a lifetime making fragments whole.

“To bring something back to life is a great excitement to me. To bring this back to life, if I can take it, is an enormous challenge,” he said, kicking the ashes with the toe of his running shoe. Above him, a huge metal angel remained intact.

“I don’t doubt that the phoenix will rise from the flames,” Wilkinson said, looking fondly at his friend.