Most of Remisoff’s Chicago years were devoted to designing sets and costumes for the Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page Ballet companies. During the years of his Chicago residence, Remisoff designed more than 20 ballets, and he continued his personal and professional relationships with Bolm and Page (see Fig. 8) for many years after he left Chicago.
Remisoff also created sets for the Chicago Grand Opera. His designs for Strauss’ Salome were among his most popular; indeed they were reported in the press as vying with the music and story line for the attention of prurient concert-goers.
In Chicago Remisoff found ample opportunity to exercise his skills as a muralist, completing works for the Chicago Club, the Casino Club, the Keeley Memorial, the Graceland Cemetery Chapel, and the Lake Forest Public Library. Most of these paintings, including the decoration of the clubs, involved popular designs of no great importance — although a few were singled out for particular disdain or acclaim. One of the controversial projects was Remisoff’s mural for the Graceland Cemetery. This mural shows the figure of Christ laid out at the foot of three great dark crosses surrounded by a crowd of contemporary Chicago personalities in modern dress. Both undertakers and clergymen found the work “too gloomy,” or as one cemetery trustee delicately put it, there was “a possible excessive solemnity . . . when viewed in times of great emotional stress.” Remisoff’s murals for the Lake Forest Public Library, however, were more positively received. His first creation was for the large reception room of the library, featuring writers of ancient Greece and Rome. The figures of Homer, Sappho, Aesop, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Xenophan, and Virgil and are pictured, painted in a style reminiscent of Attic vase painting. This mural was a popular success and led to a second commission to decorate the newly constructed garden room. This second cycle of murals depicted scenes of a garden throughout the course of the seasons: spring pruning, summer flowering, fall harvesting, and winter hothouse cultivation.
In 1931 Remisoff was commissioned to decorate State Street for the Thanksgiving Parade, producing “70 Mysterious Giant Fantasies,” wooden figures designed for the tops of the State Street lamp posts. There were ten different characters: “Crooner,” who cradles a saxophone and grins through broken teeth and a black eye; “Pole Sitter,” who sits hunched at the top of the lamp post, brooding; “Ali-Oop,” two circus performers in gymnastic display; “No Parking,” with the double deterrent of a policeman’s fist and a watchful seated pigeon; “High and Dry,” a waiter holding aloft a four-foot tall beer stein; “Lamp Lighter,” a giant thug attempting to ignite the lamp with his cigarette; “Gold Coast,” a portrait of rich man and his valet; “Zoo Skyscraper,” a perky giraffe; “Laughs,” a totem pole of exaggerated faces; and “Zoom-Zoom,” a bass player whose bowing would suggest the sound of his name. These figures were installed under cover of darkness and kept under wraps until the celebratory unveiling on the morning of the parade.
In addition to the artistic works and projects mentioned above, Remisoff consulted on architectural projects. These included commissions for the General Motors Cadillac Salons; the Sears Roebuck building (a part of the Chicago World’s Fair); and designs for the Punch and Judy Theater and the New Palace Theater. Remisoff also worked as a graphic artist, illustrating covers for the Marshall Field & Co. catalogs and creating advertisements for other companies, including luxury car manufacturers Cadillac and Murray Corporation in Detroit.
Remisoff also continued to work as a fine artist, producing paintings on Russian themes for sale and exhibition. He had exhibitions at the Arts Club of Chicago (1925), the Laura Davidson Sears Academy of Fine Arts (ca. 1926), the Art Institute of Chicago (ca. 1926), and the Century of Progress Exhibition (1933).
In 1935, Remisoff went to San Francisco to join Adolph Bolm, who had become Ballet Master of the San Francisco Opera, to design sets and costumes for a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or. Remisoff exhibited these designs and gave a series of lectures at the San Francisco Museum of Art during the run of the opera, from the late fall of 1935 through early 1936. During their stay, the Remisoffs discovered that they found the climate of California congenial, and in 1938 the Remisoffs moved to California for good, joining Adolph Bolm who had also left Chicago several years before.
Remisoff worked for a time in San Francisco with Bolm before moving to Los Angeles, which in 1938 was the scene of one of his greatest triumphs in stage design. Director Max Reinhardt commissioned Remisoff to create the setting for his production of Goethe’s Faust at the Pilgrimage Theater, a natural amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills. Remisoff bulldozed 38,700 cubic feet of earth from the surrounding hillside in order to accommodate a set large enough for the 150-member cast. He then created a horseshoe-shaped stage that wrapped around the audience on three sides, and extended more than 200 feet back. A 16th-century Bavarian village was constructed atop this, with labyrinthine streets and 35-foot tall houses complete with windows, doors, and staircases. The spectacle was a major success and did much to bolster Remisoff’s reputation.
From 1939 until his death, Remisoff made his home in Southern California, dividing his time between a summer house in Palos Verdes and a winter residence in Palm Springs. While in Los Angeles he continued his professional association with Reinhardt and forged a new one with director Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov). Remisoff created scenic designs and costumes for a number of Michael Chekhov’s plays, including his production of Gogol’s Inspector General. Remisoff also continued his work for the ballet, designing sets and costumes for Stravinsky’s Firebird for a Hollywood Bowl production choreographed by Bolm and conducted by Stravinsky himself (see Figs. 13 and 14).
By 1939 Remisoff began to move away from live stage productions. He renewed his interest in portrait and landscape painting, touring Mexico for several months to make special studies of its people and scenery. These studies ultimately resulted in a series of lithographs that were exhibited in Chicago and New York, and became the germ of Remisoff’s new passion: art on Southwestern themes. But this new interest would have to be indulged in his spare time, for upon his return to Hollywood Remisoff found his schedule increasingly occupied by set design for television and motion pictures.
In the summer of 1939 Remisoff began work on his first motion picture as art director for Lewis Milestone’s production, “Of Mice and Men”. Remisoff was responsible for the authenticity of the scenery, the mood of the sets, and the composition of each scene. To this end he first created a working ranch in environs faithful to the Salinas River region of Steinbeck’s story, complete with sluggish river, sycamore and eucalyptus trees, duckweed, and marsh grass. Remisoff then decorated the ranch house to imply years of solitary masculine habitation, including cracked plates and dirty curtains to suggest the character of Curley and his father. Finally, Remisoff provided a series of 500 sketches — or storyboards — delineating the actors’ positions, the background, and camera positions for each scene. This methodical preparation contributed to the speed and the facility of the shoot, and assured proper pictorial composition of each scene.
The success of Of Mice and Men helped to establish Remisoff in the movie industry, which would become his principal employer for the next twenty years. Remisoff was particularly known for his attention to accuracy of detail. For example, for his work in the 1944 picture “Guest in the House”, Remisoff traveled to Maine and New England for several months to research architecture, home furnishings, and even peculiarities of light and climate. Remisoff returned to California with books of notes and sketches and a truckload of antiques for the set, effectively transporting a bit of New England back to Hollywood. Before his career was finished, Remisoff acted as art director or production designer for 31 movies, including “The Red Pony”, and four television series.
Remisoff retired from the film industry in 1960 with the completion of “Ocean’s Eleven”. This film featured the “Rat Pack” — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford — at the height of their celebrity. (N.B.: the USC Libraries own the entire production files for this film, including highly detailed blueprints for the creation of sets, hundreds of photographs of the completed sets, and “stills” of the shoot.)
Remisoff spent the remaining years of his life in personal artistic pursuits. He completed countless sketches, landscapes, portraits, and charcoal drawings, including a revival of his Re-mi persona in the form of his illustrations of the 1960 presidential debates. Remisoff also continued to delight in the California landscape, painting many studies of the mountains, deserts, and beaches near his home.
The Remisoffs retired to their Palm Springs home in 1965. Sophia passed away in 1973, leaving Leonid and his family as Nicolas’s only surviving kin. Nicolas Remisoff lived in Palm Springs until his death in 1975 at the age of 91 in the California Convalescent Hospital, Palm Springs.