Recently, I had been talking about the history of Newel to a group of visitors in our showroom; Kiel Wuellner who head our sales division, suggested to me that I should write a book about Newel and the incredible people and productions associated with the Company. The thought seemed too daunting for me with so many stories to tell, but intriguing to try. With this in mind, Oliver Smith seem like a trans-generational figure in telling Newel’s story. He was a Broadway designer and socially connected New Yorker extraordinaire; he’s a good person to start the journey.
Newel had always been associated with only the top Broadway set designers going back to its founding in 1939 through the 1970s when Broadway evolved away from period productions. But in a time when going to the theater, and especially going to a Broadway production was entertainment in its highest form, Newel’s inventory was in constant display on those stages. “Furniture and furnishing by Newel Art Galleries” was in the credits of every Playbill for any show of merit. The designers were rock stars in their industry. Jo Mielziner, Boris Aronson, Donald Oenslager, Howard Bay, the list goes on and on. Oliver Smith’s credits are on the same plateau as these designers, but he holds a special memory for me.
Thinking of designing the original stages for the My Fair Lady Broadway show was a statement into not only style and taste, but personality and character. Henry Higgins aka Rex Harrison was a powerful individual and the whole tenor of the show required a correctness and formality. It also reflected the social scene in New York in the 1950s too. Mid-Century modern hadn’t been awakened yet and Broadway design was focused on the French, English, and Victorian periods. At that time, who wouldn’t want an apartment designed by Oliver Smith; but he only did it for Broadway.
Oliver Smith is a figure I find connects a lot of dots for Newel. I worked with him at Newel in the 1970s and 80s, but his work from the late 1940s through the 60s was incomparable. With a cigarette constantly dangling from his lips, he would assemble a set in an open space in our warehouse. Casually choosing Newel’s items, he would put the finished product together in an afternoon. But it was a different time and era of live performances. Even radio had only one take and in the 1950s, TV was also all live. Show of Shows, US Steel Hour, Hallmark Hall of Fame, were all one and done live TV productions. Only the movies got a second chance. Perhaps that’s why Saturday Night Live is so near and dear to my heart. They still do it the old fashion way since 1975, and Newel’s still a part of it.
Perhaps it was Oliver Smith’s sense of social grace and demeanor that most impressed me. Always well dressed and exuding a low-key confidence, his cropped white hair gave him the appearance of a connoisseur. He had an aura of the consummate man of taste which anyone in New York’s society would easily recognize. His many escorts of Jacqueline Kennedy to social events in New York are a testament to his stand in society as she was also a long time loyal Newel client. And that’s a story for another chapter of Newel’s history.