University students fill a bright corridor waiting for class to begin inside the glorious Armer Theater in Manzanita Hall, the home of the Department of Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA) at California State University Northridge. The kids converse and joke amongst themselves; for them, it’s just another day at college. They probably don't know that they're congregating within the country’s only permanent university exhibit dedicated to the art of the movie poster.
And they almost certainly don't know the roots of The Gallery of Film Poster Art are in the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake – 20 years ago this past January.
Because of the severe tremors the area sustained, all buildings on the CSUN campus were damaged, some beyond repair, which led to a raft of new construction. In 2001, The CTVA department got a new facility called Manzanita Hall, plus a state-of-the-art screening room donated by Alan Armer, producer of such classic television series as The Untouchables and The Fugitive. For 18 years, Armer had been a professor of screenwriting and directing at CSUN.
At the time, John Schultheiss, a Professor of Cinema and Television Arts who still teaches film history and aesthetics, was the department chair. He was also an avid movie poster collector who'd begun buying posters in the 1960s, when you could get a large 3-sheet for 10 cents. He says, “I was in a position to introduce some of my own interests,” so he and other department faculty members made the new Armer Theater their own.
“We just did it,” Schultheiss says. “Frankly, it was like the Oklahoma Land Rush. We just grabbed stuff before people could say ‘no.’”
For Schultheiss, filling the lobby walls and the corridors leading to the theater was a no-brainer. “It wasn’t as though I was from the biology department or something, and I had this side interest [in movie posters],” Schultheiss says. “It was a passion.”
Schultheiss had been acquainted with another ardent collector of movie posters — producer and documentary filmmaker Mike Kaplan. Kaplan’s IMDb credits reflect his work with revered directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. After visiting Kaplan’s home, which prominently displayed pieces from his vast collection, Schultheiss suggested to Kaplan a permanent movie poster exhibit at CSUN.
And so the Gallery of Film Poster Art opened shortly after construction was completed on the Armer Theater in 2002. Its first exhibition, Hollywood Worldwide, contained pieces from Kaplan's personal collection. It included posters from about 12 countries and featured works from Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard, along with iconic Saul Bass posters for Hitchcock's Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder.
At the closing of Kaplan’s exhibit about five years later, Steve Olson, whose business card read “Buyer of Investment Properties – Collector of Rare Movie & Art Posters,” admired Kaplan’s collection. Olson started collecting movie posters in 2005, and at one point owned about 22,000 posters. He knew his extensive collection was worthy of a gallery setting, so he approached Schultheiss about the prospect of teaming up.
It was a nearly two-year project getting the exhibition ready, but in 2012 The Gallery of Film Poster Art re-opened with a new display of stunning posters: The Steve Olson International Film Poster Collection. The occasion was marked with a reception and a special screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Thief Catcher and 1932’s The Lost Squadron — two of the 80 films for which you’ll currently find posters from Olson's collection hanging in the gallery.
The gallery houses gorgeous posters of popular titles like The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, Frankenstein, and Singin’ in the Rain, as well as posters of obscure films. Vibrant and exquisite posters for films like 1934’s Cockeyed Cavaliers and 1930’s The W Plan are on display next to posters for well-known films like Wuthering Heights and Grand Illusion. Olson’s 1915 poster for Chaplin’s The Thief Catcher is particularly striking with its black and red graphics against a white background.
As for the students, Schultheiss says, “I know they’re aware of being in the presence of something important.” Once in awhile, he tells the Weekly, you’ll find students standing in front of posters and reading Schultheiss’ description cards. Overhearing that observation, a faculty member volunteers, “It happens more than you think.” Schultheiss is absolutely delighted to hear it.
The Gallery of Film Poster Art, located on the CSUN campus in Manzanita Hall, is open Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm. The Department of Cinema and Television Arts screens a free film, open to the public, almost every evening during the semester in the Armer Theater. Visit the CTVA department at csun.edu for more information.