The art of a voyeur

Times Staff Writer

Santa Barbara

"I wanted to flood the gallery with an inch of water and make you walk across lily pads to see the show, but they told me no. Something about the insurance...." Artist Mark Bennett is warming up the docents for an exhibition of the Hollywood glamour architecture of John Elgin Woolf.

Even those who entered the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara bleary-eyed expecting the routine gallery walk-through are alive and laughing now. When the Tennessee-born Bennett talks of homes and the rich and famous, he paints verbal pictures everyone can relate to.

Although Bennett's installation isn't as splashy as he'd envisioned, it is still filled with many star turns. Woolf was a frou-frou designer with a mile-long client list that included Fanny Brice, Ira Gershwin, George Cukor, Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, John Wayne and Loretta Young. "Judy Garland had two, Gary Grant had one," reads his obituary. He was born in Georgia in 1908 and worked in L.A. from 1938 until he died in 1980, at age 72.

One of the purveyors of a style dubbed California Regency, Woolf made simple modern mansions that were also pastiches, with a French or Southern Neoclassical flavor. Mansard roofs abound, as do Greco-Roman columns and urns. Extremely familiar today, Woolf's homes, or ones like them, are everywhere in and around L.A. but particularly in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, where they are the favored style of a bygone era when carports were hidden by faux-fancy facades, front doors were tall enough to let even the biggest giant in and architect-designed poolside pavilions were the norm.

All this is perfectly suited to the voyeuristic taste of Bennett, 45, who has made a lifestyle of searching for used "early Mervyn LeRoy Bel-Air furniture" (LeRoy directed the 1962 movie "Gypsy") and a career of studying how the other half lives. He is best known for meticulously drawing what he imagines the floor plans of classic TV homes would look like if they were real -- from the small-town comfy-ness of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, N.C., house to the blowout gaudiness in "The Beverly Hillbillies." Now, at the invitation of UC Santa Barbara, Bennett has organized a show that presents his own very personal take on Woolf, whose homes, coincidentally, Bennett sees regularly in his day job -- he's a Beverly Hills postman.

"I see all these houses that are incredible," he says of his postal route, "constantly in upgrades. The owners are constantly ripping out a hedge, putting in shutters. I finally realized that the reason it all looks like a movie set is because somebody is always keeping it all fresh."

To compliment the Woolf show and explain Bennett's point of view, the artist's own works -- including the TV blueprints, an installation with a chair upholstered to say "As seen on TV" and a mannequin wearing a matching fabric -- are also here. The result is a point-counterpoint that raises the questions: Is this art or a historical survey? Camp or culture?

The answer to each may well be ... both. Bennett is a colorful character with myriad interests and a taste for fashion revival that may be a bit ahead of the curve. He spent about two years -- "pointing and squealing," as he puts it -- meticulously surveying the Woolf archives and howling at the cleverness of Woolf's ability to "turn a chicken shack into a palace."

Now Bennett has installed a large gallery with plans and drawings of his nine favorite Woolf houses.

Although he says he made his choices to represent a span of Woolf's career and did not base them on the glamour of the residents, the star factor is unavoidable and the inclusion of homes belonging to Brice, Loy and Young lend sparkle to renderings that might otherwise seem overly familiar as a type.

And to give life to the show, Bennett lent some period furnishings he's collected, creating small vignettes to echo what might have been in Woolf's interiors.

A near-life-sized photomural of the James B. Pendleton House in Beverly Hills from 1941 to '42, now the home of filmmaker Robert Evans, lines the far wall of the gallery, as if beckoning the visitor to come inside. That house, says Robert K. Woolf, son and business partner of the late Woolf, really made his father famous. "Everybody wanted him after that house. I've been to many, many parties there."

Bennett says he has a taste for pure Modernism, but he's moved toward more ornate styles in reaction to the popularity of the mid-century planar styles. In fact, he is able to marvel at the one Woolf house that would most outrage the purists, a 1955 Craig Ellwood Case Study house in Beverly Hills that Woolf completely made over in 1962 with decorative flourishes.

"Architects hate this stuff," says architectural historian John Chase, whose 1982 book "Exterior Decoration: Hollywood's Inside-Out Houses" examines the fantasy qualities of houses from the Woolf era.

Although Woolf may have been a favorite in Hollywood, he was neither the only one working in this style nor the most distinguished, Chase says, comparing him unfavorably, for example, to designer Tony Duquette. The Woolf firm was not particularly versatile, Chase says. "The work is slim; it's not like there are a million devices.

"It's not a bad show," he adds, "but did you need an artist to do this?"

Bennett, Chase points out, "is at his most entertaining when he does his own stuff." What Bennett's stuff is, however, is in a state of flux.

He's a longtime resident of a 500-square-foot Los Feliz garden apartment that he proudly rents for just $650 a month, but in a hearty nod to fashion, he redoes all his furnishings "every season." "That," he says pointing to a video interview of himself running in the gallery, "was four couches ago."

His interest in fancy homes is deeply rooted: "My parents would take us to open houses every weekend. They were great tire kickers -- they'd never buy, just look.

"When I was a little kid, I knew that houses were important to them, so they were going to be important to me.

"My brother and I would sit and draw houses in front of the TV, do contests to see if we could get a four bedroom house on a little piece of paper."

Raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., by Pentecostal, church-going parents who loved to spend their weekends checking out the local real estate, Bennett very early on became obsessed with square footage and finery he never hoped to have in his own life. TV, in particular, was a fantasy outlet, more real for him and his two siblings at times than their own life.

He studied art in college and went to NYU for graduate school but dropped out. He's been working for the postal service for 23 years, in four states, and has lived in L.A. since 1985. He takes great pleasure in his Beverly Hills route, and with a big laugh he tells the story of one woman he delivers to who'd heard he'd been on TV and asked if he'd be on again.

"Next Monday at 7 a.m.," he told her. "Got anything later?" she asked.

Art is his passion, and he does it with "single-mindedness of purpose," he says, paying for his supplies with "money earned working overtime." In recent years, his work has been exhibited in museums and published in books, but it wasn't always so. Stuck with a credit card bill he couldn't pay in 1995, he dragged out the TV floor plans he'd drawn and showed them on the walls of a restaurant. It turned out to be a good move. His work was soon hanging on the walls of the Mark Moore Gallery in Santa Monica and has been published everywhere from People to art magazines.

He's making a new set of imaginary blueprints for an upcoming show in Washington, D.C., this time of houses in classic B movies, like the original "The Bad Seed." Not every movie home qualifies, however. "I'm only doing movies where the house is as important as the movie," he says with a grin.

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