As an award-winning director, production designer, and costume designer, Tony Walton’s name is synonymous with some of the most fabled films and Broadway productions of the last 60 years.
Among his many accolades, Walton earned the Academy Award in 1980 for Best Art Direction for “All That Jazz” and was nominated for his work on the film versions of “Mary Poppins,” “The Wiz” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” His Emmy Award came for Outstanding Art Direction for “Death of a Salesman” in 1985. Walton’s Tony Awards were won for Best Scenic Design for “Pippin” (1973), “The House of Blue Leaves” (1986) and “Guys and Dolls” (1992). Countless other nominations were earned along the way for many other shows, and Walton, a long-time East End resident, has also created several children’s books with his first wife, Julie Andrews, and their daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, a co-founder of Bay Street Theater.
On December 10, a never-before-seen collection of Walton’s artwork was unveiled at the Mark Borghi gallery in Sag Harbor. “The Tony Walton: Retrospective” features approximately 100 works by the designer and will be on view until February 3.
Recently, Walton took time to answer a few quick question and reminisce about his life and legendary career for stage and screen, including his designs for a fabled theatrical version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that ran for a decade.
Q: In designing the Michael Ockrent version of “A Christmas Carol” for The Paramount Theater in Madison Square Gardens, what was your first thought? How did you visualize it?
A: How are we going to make this gargantuan hall friendly for the audience?’ And my solution was to wrap London around them. There was all kinds of different stuff going behind each store window.
Q: And then how did you, in such a gargantuan hall, make Scrooge’s room feel so small?
A: We created a very small room. It actually was very small, and we tricked it out so that it felt small.
Q: Thousands of people saw that show every holiday season for 10 years, and lots of different people played Scrooge. Who were some of your favorites?
A: Well, Walter Charles who originated the role, was wonderful. F. Murray Abraham was fun. Tim Curry was an old chum, we had done “Once Upon A Time” in London for Gillian Lynn and David Frost, so that was a good time. And Roger Daltrey was a great decision because he strode the variations between British Music Hall and vaudeville and classical theater, plus being a rock star.
Q: What did it make you feel like to see the joy of that the final scene, with the snow falling down on audiences?
A: I loved it. Especially I loved seeing the kids, and adults, break out of their seats and spin around as the snow fell, trying to catch pieces of it.
Q: Since you grew up in England, let’s talk about what “A Christmas Carol” meant to you in your youth. What was your experience with it?
A: Probably very much the same as it was for most young people, except of course, that I grew up in Walton-on-Thames, which was right in the thick of “Dickensiana.”
We would go to pantomimes of “A Christmas Carol” and then there was the movie with Alistair Sim, and then our dear friend Richard Williams made a brilliant animated version, for which he got the Academy Award.
Q: While we’re on the subject of your youth, I picture you as one of those kids who was always sketching scenes from your head or even real life. Was that a common pastime for you?
A: Yes indeed. I drew all the time and even painted if I had the materials on hand. I still have a few attempts at finished books, mostly with a text by Julie [Andrews]. “Peter Pickalow’s Great Ideas,” “Conceited Mr. Concerto.” These were special times for me.
Q: Was production design for film and stage a profession that you longed to pursue when you were young? Did you even know that it existed as a career back then?
A: Yes, but mostly for the theater, as I didn’t know much about film technique until later. My father’s uncle, Charles B. Cochran, was a prestigious theater producer, a sort of British Ziegfeld.
Q: How much of good production design would you say is historic accuracy and how much is sheer fun and imagination?
A: Much is historic accuracy but of course sheer fun and imagination are fundamental!
Q: The retrospective show at Mark Borghi includes 100 or so sketches and artwork from many of the shows and films you have designed. With so much material to choose from, how did you decide what to include in the show?
A: I mostly included original costume and set designs from the theater and film spanning 60 years.
Q: Are you someone who saves everything? Were there some forgotten treasures that you uncovered in the process of putting this exhibition together?
A: Yes I do save everything but no forgotten treasures, since mostly everything has been cataloged.
Q: What were some of your favorite shows to design and what was it that made them special for you?
A: Shows by Bob Fosse, Kander and Ebb, Tommy Tune and other creatively gifted choreographers.
Q: I’m sure you’ve made strong and enduring friendships throughout your long career in film and theater. Can you talk about some of the most meaningful and lasting connections you’ve made through your work?
A: Some of the most meaningful and lasting connections and friendships include Mike Nichols — “Uncle Vanya,” “Hurly Burly,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Heartburn,” “The Real Thing,” “Regarding Henry”; Sidney Lumet — “The Seagull,” “The Wiz,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Deathtrap,” “Prince of the City”; and Bob Fosse — “Pippin,” “Chicago,” “All That Jazz,” “Star 80” and more. They all were dear friends.
Q: Mike Nichols was one of your very best lifelong friends, and you worked with him many times. Some of the works in the Mark Borghi show come from his Broadway version of “Uncle Vanya,” which starred George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Nicole Williamson, Lillian Gish, and an all-star cast. What do you remember from that experience?
A: Mike was very keen to keep an intimate aspect to the story in the round — the 1973 play was performed at Circle in the Square — so he encouraged the company to communicate at a naturalistic level. He told them to imagine that each of their lines of dialogue was a bowl of water or other precious liquid, and they had to carry this precious liquid very, very carefully across to their scene partner without spilling a drop.
Q: Out of all of the people you’ve worked with, who were you most star-struck by?
A: Francois Truffaut. I was a tremendous Truffaut fan, and probably enjoyed “Jules et Jim” as much as any other European art film of that era. When I first met him for “Farenheit 451,” I said, “I hope you don’t mind my fanship, but I think ‘Jules et Jim’ is perhaps the most perfect period film that I’m aware of ever seeing.’ And he said, “‘Jules et Jim’? Pshaw! It was all prepared and shot like a detailed game show, abiding by our own strict made-up rules.”
Q: When you received the Academy Award for “All That Jazz,” you had a humorous exchange with Mickey Rooney, who presented you with your Oscar. Can you recall that for us?
A: He and Ann Miller were the presenters, and “Sugar Babies,” their Broadway show, had racked up quite a few awards. So as we left the stage he congratulated me, and it was a very hot time, professionally, for him. And I said to him, “Of course, you deserve all of the accolades you’ve received.” His response was “Oh fart – I don’t give a bean about any of this awards shit.”
Q: Despite all your work in New York City and Los Angeles, you and Gen have been residents of the East End for many years. How has living here near friends and family inspired you throughout your long career?
A: My ideal working experience involves friends and family in intense ways and the fact that I’ve been able to combine work and loved ones so frequently is a remarkable blessing for me.
“The Tony Walton: Retrospective” runs through February 3 at Mark Borghi Gallery, 34 Main Street, Sag Harbor. The exhibition includes Walton’s sketches, paintings and murals from Broadway’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Pippin,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Company,” “House of Blue Leaves,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Uncle Vanya” and more; as well as work from the film versions of “Mary Poppins,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “All That Jazz”; and the American Ballet Theater production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” A portion of the proceeds will benefit Bay Street Theater.
An Art Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement winner, Walton has been honored by the American Museum of the Moving Image, The Noel Coward Society, the National Arts Club and The Library of Congress, as well as locally at Guild Hall in East Hampton and most recently at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, where a retrospective of his work remains on display. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Gen LeRoy-Walton, and is the stepfather of Bridget LeRoy.