Larger Than Life: New Exhibition Spotlights Israeli Cinema-poster Artistry

His name isn’t even mentioned, but the life’s work of the late Israeli artist Shmuel Ashkenazi shines through in a new Eretz Israel Museum show.

Ephraim Erde

Between the 1930s and 1950s, in a small factory behind the Mograbi Cinema at the corner of Allenby and Ben Yehuda streets in Tel Aviv, a small team was involved in a special project. Led by artist and designer Shmuel Ashkenazi, the crew produced huge posters advertising new movies, to be hung on the front of the now-defunct Mograbi and Allenby Cinemas.

Very little is known about Shmuel Ashkenazi. He was a painter, a graduate of what is now called the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, who also trained in Paris.

Avraham Oren, 92, is the only surviving member of the group. He began working with Ashkenazi in 1940. “His talent was like that of one of the Renaissance masters,” Oren recalls today.

Every week, the team would meet with Yeruham Vardimon (1897-1968), who ran both cinemas, Oren adds: “He would describe to us what the movie was about, and then we would prepare sketches for the signs. He would correct and revise and approve things until we were all in agreement. I would paint it up to a certain point, and then Ashkenazi, the head painter, would take the brushes and fill in the other parts.”

Photography researcher Guy Raz had been searching for information about Ashkenazi, and ended up with “Allenby and Mograbi: Film Posters on the Facades of Cinemas 1931-1959” – a new exhibition that Raz curated at the Eretz Israel Museum, which opened this week and runs through June 28.

“We don’t know much about Ashkenazi at all,” Raz admits, during a tour. Still, the late artist is the real hero here, even though there is no picture of him and no biographical text about him on show.

“We didn’t make a wall for Ashkenazi in the exhibition, because I didn’t have anything to write about him,” adds Raz.

Still, the man’s life’s work is there to be seen in the spectacular photos of the large movie posters he created for the cinema houses’ facades, which were a major marketing tool, drawing crowds of people who came to have their picture taken underneath them.

Most of the photos on display were taken by Ephraim Erde (1905-1986), a pioneer in Tel Aviv photography who immigrated from a small village on the Poland-Ukraine border. Erde opened his first studio near the Eden Cinema on Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv, and then in 1948 opened Erde Photo at 55 Allenby Street. At the request of Vardimon, his neighbor from down the street, Erde photographed the cinema facades: His archive contained 200 such pictures, plus about a million negatives.

The photos took an interesting path before ultimately coming into the hands of curator Raz. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality was preparing a file on the building that once housed the Allenby Cinema, ahead of its demolition, which has not yet occurred. In the course of the research, municipal representatives visited the home of the Vardimon family (one of whose sons, Yarom Vardimon, is an Israel Prize laureate in design), and found the photographs that Erde had taken there.

“A municipal architect involved in the project called me [about a year ago] and told me she had something interesting for me to see,” says Raz. When he saw the photographs, he was floored. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

Brimming with memories

The only one who could offer a first-hand account of the creation of the posters was, of course, Avraham Oren. Despite his age, he is still totally lucid and brimming with memories.

“There was no paint back then. We would buy powder, dissolve carpenters’ glue and mix it with water, until we got paint. That was the method we used to paint the pictures,” he explains.

Asheknazi’s other two helpers were responsible for erecting the posters on the cinemas’ facades. These were huge works of art, some as much as eight meters tall, and some with elements that protruded from picture.

“One time we built a sculpture of a horse for a movie about the Gallipoli war,” Oren recalls. “Other cinemas employed painters, too, but none of them came close to Shmuel Askhenazi.”

The Mograbi Cinema was built by Yaakov Mograbi in 1930, a wealthy man who had immigrated to Palestine from Damascus. Mayor Meir Dizengoff asked him to fund the construction of a new opera house in the city. It was designed by architects Yosef Berlin and Richard Pasovsky.

The Mograbi theater was located on the top floor, and included a roof that could be opened on hot summer days. The other hall in the building was used by the first Hebrew theater groups, including Ohel, Habimah and the Cameri. Concerts and other types of events were also held there. Vardimon took over running the place in 1931 and continued doing so until the late 1950s.

The 11 steps that led up from Allenby Street to the Mograbi “created a sense of going up to a lofty place, where a cinematic fantasy takes place nightly,” according to information displayed in the exhibition. The steps and the clock beside them were a popular meeting place in the city. In 1986, there was a fire in the building. Three years later, it was razed. A parking lot now sits on the site.

Not far away, at the intersection of King George, Sheinkin, Allenby and Nahalat Binyamin streets, stood the Allenby Cinema, which began operating in 1935, in a building designed by Shlomo Gepstein that became an architectural icon in the International Style.

Initially, the cinema was called the Rimon and it was jointly owned by several people, among them Vardimon. Eventually, he changed the name to Allenby and, in 1960, bought the entire building from the owners. The cinema ceased operating in 1987; in the 1990s it housed the famous Allenby 58 nightclub. At present, plans call for a residential building to be built on the site after the old one is torn down.

In the plaza in front of the Mograbi Cinema, various peddlers used to hawk their wares, including sausage vendors who were former opera singers. One of them, Fritz Zev Gerstman (1894-1970) is depicted in the new exhibition. He immigrated to Palestine in 1934 from Vienna and joined the Palestine Opera. “I aspired to perform on a Hebrew stage and this hope helped me keep going and fight for my survival,” he said in a 1953 interview in the Davar newspaper.

But Gerstman later had trouble finding work. “We need singers like a hole in head,” he was told when he went looking for a job. But Gerstman didn’t give up. He and a group of fellow singers formed a cooperative of 12 sausage vendors who all wore caps bearing the slogan: “Grab and Eat.”

The photo of him on display in the museum shows him reading a book in German. The caption: “The sausage vendor doesn’t have time to read at home, so along with the bread, the sausages, the mug of mustard and the hot water urn – he also brings a chair and a book. A German book, of course.”