Photographed by Jonathan Becker
It goes back to a book,” says Hilary Knight, “a sketchbook from the mid-20s. My mother had taken it to the circus, and it was full of drawings, circus acts, girls hanging by their teeth, which just fascinated me. I took this book when I was a little child and drew over my mother's drawings, it so inspired me.” Add to that the musical Jumbo, in '35, Adrian's costumes for The Great Zeigfeld, in '36, and Sabu from Elephant Boy, in ’37, and it was kismet! The child with the pirouetting pen would make drawing his own form of performance. Hence the title of the exhibition that opens on April 25 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center: "Hilary Knight's Stage Struck World."
"Eloise was a happy accident," says the show's curator, David Leopold, referring to that beloved poltergeist of the Plaza hotel, unleashed in 1955. "But it's this work that really reveals who Hilary is. This is the animating force in his life." By "this work" Leopold means Knight's inspired relationship with the theater: classic posters (Half a Sixpence; Sugar Babies; No, No, Nanette; Irene ... ) that make "show business feel like your best friend; as Knight-designed costumes, images that graced record covers, storyboards for his own dream cabaret shows, and shadow-box portraits (3-D fantasias in the key of MGM’s Oz). With 100 or so pieces on display, and Knight actively involved in the exhibition's creation, expect some big-top, over-the-top flourishes. "What Hilary captures is energy," says the costume designer William Ivey Long, who ranks Knight with Beardsley and Erte.
Summer brings a second swirl of life force when, 12 blocks north at the York Historical Society, the exhibition "Eloise at the Museum" checks in for a three-month visit, starting June 30. What does Knight, now 90 and drawing better than ever, have to say about it all? "Working is my first love. It's everything."
Photographs © Copyright by Jonathan Becker, All Rights Reserved Rights Granted for Publication/Promotion of Hilary Knight only.