Emile Kuri; Oscar-Winning Designer Worked on Disneyland
Emile Kuri, an Oscar-winning set decorator who also influenced the look of many attractions at Disneyland, died Tuesday at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was 93.
Kuri won Oscars for set design for the 1949 William Wyler movie “The Heiress,” as well as for Disney’s 1954 classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
As head decorator for Walt Disney Productions, he worked closely with Walt Disney for two decades, supervising the decor on such Disneyland attractions as the sailing ship Columbia and the New Orleans Plaza Inn, as well as decorating the sets of such movies as “The Parent Trap,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
“He loved working for Disney and was a great source of information for everybody,” said Disney veteran Peter Ellenshaw, who worked with Kuri as a matte painter and production designer.
Kuri was born in Cuernavaca, Mexico, of Lebanese parents in 1907. His formal education ended at the age of 12 when his father, a merchant, fell on hard times. His family eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job at a Hollywood furniture store.
During the lunch hour one day, all the salespeople were gone, leaving Kuri the only employee on duty when the wife of director Hal Roach walked in. Although his job was to dust the furniture, Kuri began to advise Roach on her purchases. According to a son, Frederick Kuri, she liked his ideas so much that she hired his father to decorate her house.
Director Roach eventually put him to work as a decorator on the set of “Topper,” the comedy about two ghosts played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, released in 1937. That year Kuri was made set decorator for the Hopalong Cassidy features.
Eventually, Kuri would team up with many of the top directors of the 1940s and ‘50s.
He worked with Alfred Hitchcock on “Spellbound,” “Rope” and “The Trouble With Harry.” He worked with Frank Capra on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” For George Stevens, he oversaw the decor in “Shane” and “A Place in the Sun.”
“The most difficult thing,” Kuri once told an interviewer, “is to make a set not look like a set, but like a home, as if the people just walked out.”
In “A Place in the Sun,” he was so effective at assembling a tawdry look for the bedroom of Montgomery Clift’s jilted girlfriend, Shelley Winters, that it angered Winters, Frederick Kuri said.
“Shelley Winters was upset because it made her look like a tramp . . . and she wanted something better,” he said.
But Kuri’s vision prevailed. “Dad’s real strength as a decorator was not only good taste,” his son said, “but his way of conveying character through the set. He really understood the character of the girl that Clift has an affair with.”
Kuri was nominated eight times for Oscars and won an Emmy for the sets of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” He also was honored by the Los Angeles Furniture Mart with its Golden Chair award for his innovative whitewashing of Spanish antiques in “Parent Trap.”
Among his best remembered sets are Captain Nemo’s salon in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” based on the Jules Verne adventure, and Main Street in Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Appointed chief decorator for Disney in 1952, Kuri considered Disneyland his most challenging project, in part because the theme park, unlike a motion picture set, was going to be a permanent attraction and because he shared Walt Disney’s devotion to detail.
The huge crystal chandeliers at the New Orleans Plaza Inn were made to order by Baccarat according to Kuri’s instructions. The lampposts were originals that Kuri bought from the city of Baltimore.
Not only did the decor have to be authentic, but it had to be designed with maintenance in mind. So Kuri had the chandeliers hung on a concealed steel cable that allowed them to be lowered for weekly cleaning.
Kuri served on the governing board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was decorator for the annual Academy Awards show for 25 years.
He also supervised the decorating of the Disney exhibits at the 1963 World’s Fair in New York, was a consultant on Walt Disney World in Florida and supervised the decoration of Walt Disney’s homes and offices. He retired from Disney in 1974.
Kuri is survived by another son, John, of Malibu; a daughter, Elizabeth Clark of Oxnard; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A requiem Mass will be said tonight at 7 at Our Lady of Mount Lebanon-St. Peter’s Cathedral, 333 S. San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles.