by Bonnie Hull and Eileen Cotter Howell
In 1983, WOU art professor Jim Mattingly submitted a proposal to paint a mural in downtown Salem. The mural was to grace the rear wall of the Historic Elsinore Theatre, then a movie theater, but with a long history of vaudeville.
Mattingly’s proposed work, Theatrical Heartscape, was chosen and in the summer of 1984 he went to work. His idea was to “enrich and beautify the wall facing a major access route into Salem.” Professor Mattingly chose “…universal figures from vaudeville, early theater and film.” We can still recognize W.C. Fields, Theda Bara, Marlene Dietrich, and Charlie Chaplin. The mural, of course, has become a beloved landmark for most of Salem…seen daily as we go about our business…but was slowly fading away.
Photos above: Jim Mattingly on scaffold painting headdress section of Theda Bara in 1984, Dan Cohen working on the restoration in the summer of 2013. Below: the mural after three decades of exposure to the elements—both natural and man-made.
The mural was refurbished this summer under the auspices of the Friends of Mattingly's Mural (FOMM) with the full support of the Historic Elsinore Theatre Board of Directors, and with a restoration plan approved by Salem’s Historic Planner Kimberli Fitzgerald. The work was done by muralist Dan Cohen, and involved cleaning and scraping the mural to remove loose paint, applying an anti-peel product, filling holes and cracks with silicone, matching colors and applying two coats of high quality oil base paint, finishing with a clear coat (UV) to preserve the mural. The FOMM group includes Nancy Lindburg (chair), Frankie Bell, Jon Christenson, Eileen Cotter Howell, Donnie Mattingly, and Ellen Stevens. The Mattingly Mural was spotlighted in the fall issue of Preservation, the national publication of the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Mural after the restoration during the summer of 2013.
Jim Mattingly was a professor of art at Western from 1968 to 1994. He was well known as a painter and printmaker. His work is displayed in numerous public collections; including Western Oregon University, Salem Public Library, Northwest Print Council, Southern Oregon University, Oregon Arts Commision, Oregon State Capitol Building, Coos Bay Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Hallie Ford Art Museum, and the cities of Eugene and Salem.
Mattingly served on the board of directors of the Salem Art Association for 13 years, and was a long-time member on SAA's Exhibits Committee. He was one of the first members of the State Capitol Exhibitions committee in the 1970s. In 2007, he was posthumously awarded the Mayor's Invitational Purchase Award at the Oregon Artist Series Foundation exhibition. He was a charter member of the Northwest Print Council, founded in 1981 to promote the art form of printmaking. He served as president from 1982 to 1985 and was named an honoray life member in 1998.
The public artwork, Theatrical Heartscape spotlights four actors whose careers parallel the early years of the Historic Elsinore Theatre. Theda Bara is widely regarded as the screen’s first sex symbol. The mural shows her from the 1917 film Cleopatra. German cabaret star Marlene Dietrich came to international attention through her role as Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930’s film The Blue Angel. Actor, writer, filmmaker, producer and director Charlie Chaplin first appeared as a child on the English music hall stage. He is pictured in the mural with his fellow outcast, Scraps, from the film A Dog’s Life. W.C. Fields honed his juggling and comedy skills on the vaudeville stage. Later in movies, he often portrayed a hard-drinking curmudgeon whose acerbic wit targeted social norms.
Theatrical Heartscape is a fitting complement to the Historic Elsinore Theatre, which came to life during the lifetimes of these four great artists. Like these artists, the Elsinore's "career" has included vaudeville, the stage, and film, both silent and talking. By establishing this cultural time reference, the mural calls attention both to the age of the theatre and to its ongoing role in the life and development of the city of Salem. In doing so, the mural has grown into a landmark in its own right, drawing visitors in the Salem's historic downtown district.
In the words of Jim Mattingly, "Seldom does an artist have the change to do art with such an advantage as a mural like Theatrical Heartscape. Seldom does an artist have the opportunity to have such tremendous support from so many people as I did when we were working on the mural. Any community that demonstrates the kind of moral and financial support, as was my good fortune, in the permanent institution of major artworks in their community, also demonstrates a civic pride and well-being in that community."
The mural and the Historic Elsinore Theatre both serve as illustrations of the power of community involvement. In the 1980s, plans were being made to demolish the theatre and replace it with a parking lot. The push to restore the theatre was led by engaged citizens who understood its importance in Salem's history and culture, and who were willing to take on this very dauting task. Similarly, after many years of neglect, Theatrical Heartscape had faded to a ghost image of itself. The actions of the Friends of Mattingly's Mural helped raise awareness of this public art treasure and the need to bring it back. Both the theatre and the mural owe their restorations to the generous response of the people of Salem.
An educational brochure and a street level plaque are being planned by FOMM and the possibility of night lighting is being explored. Contributions in honor of former professor Jim Mattingly can be sent to The Historic Elsinore Theatre, FOMM (Friends of Mattingly's Mural), 170 High Street SE, Salem, 97301. All contributions are tax deductible.