Part 3: Sneaking in Through the Back Door


As told to Samuel L. Leiter


This is the third installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz. Please see Parts 1 and 2 for an introduction to the interview, which I’ve adapted as a narrative, and why it’s first being published 40 years after it occurred.

John Lee Beatty and his Design for Little Johnny Jones (Goodspeed Opera House)


John Lee Beatty shows sketches for Little Johnny Jones at the Goodspeed Opera House 1980


So then I went to Yale. It happened that way. And then the training started, those three years of training. Ming Cho Lee was my teacher. We had to do a color sketch a week my first year. And I’d never had competition before. I’d never known another designer, really. I was quite good academically but I’d never competed with other designers.

After my first class at Yale, I realized I hadn’t done as well as I knew I should have. And I saw the competition and I talked to Ming and saw what a designer was like. All of a sudden, I realized, all of a sudden, it became conscious, and all of a sudden, I said that this is what I want to do and nothing will stop me. And nothing did.

I’m not very aggressive but I also was completely unswayable after that. It wasn’t like I felt I was going to become a Broadway star. I had no idea of that at all. In fact, Santo Loquasto was one of my teachers for a brief period of time and Santo was very standoffish with me and was kind of snide sometimes to me and I was the world’s biggest innocent.


Santo Loquasto


I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like me. Everyone else seemed to. My friends said, “John, he’s jealous.” And I said, “What about?” And they said, “Because you’re such a good designer.” And I said, “That’s silly. Stop it. Don’t make up these stories to me.”

Santo saw it before I saw it. I didn’t think of anything. I just thought I was a kid off the bus and Santo was Santo, with a capital “S,” and I didn’t understand it. I’m sure I was quite offensive to him. I was so damn ingenuous. It didn’t occur to me that I would really become a designer.

Actually, professionally, it’s been a little difficult following Santo. He was a real star student at Yale, and he made a big splash, and a picture of his set was in Life magazine in color, and the whole routine. It’s a very hard act to follow. Especially as I didn’t know, at the time, how a designer’s personality and his work are tied together.

I design similarly to the way I am as a person. I’m fairly quiet, I’m fairly intelligent, and I’m fairly Protestant. And Santo is very bright, obviously, but he’s also a lot more effusive as a designer and much more noticeable. At least, at first. In terms of his designs. And I’m very conservative. I’ve always come up now, I see, following him. He made a big splash, and the way I came up, nobody noticed me at first, and then I slowly but surely sneaked in through the back door. And that’s how I’ve always been.

Conservative. Protestant is the word I usually use. By that I mean that if I had to choose between something that glittered a lot or glittered a little, I’d choose the thing that glittered a little. Just because I think that’s right. I’m very moralistic as a designer. If I think something’s going to detract from an actor, I won’t allow myself to do it.

I’m very bad on shows when they ask me to show off—like a big, splashy musical. I can do musicals, but if it’s big and splashy and they say we need a big effect here, I’m not really good at it. No matter how hard I try to be trashy—like I’ll glue sequins on everything in sight, do every color of the rainbow—it comes out looking kind of classical, and sort of tasteful. It’s very hard for me to do bad taste.

You’d find that hard to believe looking at my house. Look at my living room. [It’s been 40 years but my memory tells me that John’s living room was elegantly—I should say, tastefully—subdued.] As you see, I’m trying to be a little more free and easy, trying to be a little sillier, trying to let my own soul come through. It’s just sort of . . . toned down. I’m very careful to tone down. I tone down my own personality, too. (That’s not to say I don’t have a vivid imagination.)


(To be continued.)