From Chicago to Hollywood with Designer Sandy Dvore
As the holidays approach and the end of year projects wrap up I thought it would be fun to revisit a piece of writing I did almost 10 years ago. The article was a two part history of the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Specifically, I wanted to revisit and share the section on artist Sandy Dvore. Sandy has been an inspiration to me as a graphic designer and even more as a friend.
From the first time I found his work in a flat file, to tracking down his address and writing him a letter (remember those) to the seemingly endless stream of beautiful work that he sent to me, Dvore has never ceased to amaze and enlighten. From an undeniably talented Chicago kid to the Hollywood designer. Dvore is gifted in many areas, especially as a story teller. With words or his pencil he has a way of painting the most vivid of pictures that makes you feel like you are there. The best art lets you see your own life in a new light. His, is that one-in-a-million story many artists only dream to achieve. Thank you for everything you have shared and given me. My friend, Dvore.
Sandy Dvore is currently sharing his work and stories on instagram and I highly recommend you give him a follow @sandydvore.
The Hollywood career of Sandy Dvore lasted longer than most actors, directors and producers. For over 30 years he was the go-to guy for celebrities. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Steve McQueen and dozens more all trusted Dvore with making them look good. He would create iconic work for print, television and film that is still being seen and used today. Dvore could do it all. Primarily known as a graphic designer, nevertheless many of Dvore’s best pieces featured top notch illustrations in a variety of styles, all of them done with the same incredible skill.
Born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, Dvore began his post high school education far removed from the art world. “I went to the University of Illinois and I didn’t set the world on fire there! I started off in pre-med because the only guy who got any respect in my family was a doctor. But I had no ability for it so I switched over to art. They made you take all these classes that had nothing to do with art. So after a year I came back to Chicago and somehow enrolled at the American Academy of Art.”
Dvore studied at the Academy from 1953-54. The school was located on Dearborn street at the time.
“There was one floor with the old cage elevator. There was one design room, one life drawing room, a supply cove where you got your supplies, and offices for Frank Young Sr. and Frank Young Jr., who was running the school at the time. I don’t know how many students there were, maybe 30?”
So what was so special about the Academy?
“I got turned around there. Something happened while I was going there. There was an instructor there, a lovely older woman who was a watercolorist and an illustrator, and she really pampered me. She stopped by my desk throughout the day and she got behind me to where I started to feel I was doing ok. She taught me how to simplify. She would tell me, you can stop now; it’s there. I picked up on that right away. I had done enough and there was no reason to chase it. When your heart tells you to stop, stop. And I got that from someone I trusted and thought I had some capability. I just loved the place. I remember where everything was and every project I did.”
While at the Academy, Dvore stopped by the Artist’s Guild on Ohio Street looking for work.
“They used to give out the jobs in the area. They said they had an apprenticeship open at Kling Studios, which at the time was a beautiful Art Deco studio with no stairs, just ramps. It was way ahead of its time. They had all the best illustrators and specialized commercial artists all working in individual cubicles. And they needed a runner, someone to paste things up and wrap the illustrations and deliver them. It was 25 dollars a week. So I applied for the job with Ms. Ida Burke who ran the whole place. One day I got the call that they had decided they wanted me to come work for them. At the time I had been at the Academy for about a year. When I hung up the phone I remember I was in my kitchen and I was so happy that for the first time in my life I was accepted in an art thing that I lifted off the ground and hit my head on the kitchen ceiling. I actually flew into the air I was so excited.”
What was it like working for the famed Kling Studios?
“I worked there for about a year and got to know all these illustrators. Tom Hall, who was the great men’s fashion illustrator. He dressed beautifully, had long hair and wore sunglasses, and he would just sit there with that pallet and his Whatman’s watercolor board, working on an illustration. With one stroke he would add a highlight. And you never saw him correct something or get discouraged—it was just perfect. It’s like his brush was alive!” Dvore would then start an apprenticeship at advertising agency Leo Burnett, the highest position in Chicago for a student. “A hundred and twenty-five dollars a week in 1955, you could live like an American prince. But I didn’t want to cut mats or run errands, I wanted to take over the creative department! I had no patience for the years it would take to move up the ladder. I would sneak ideas into meetings, and one day I came back to work and found my illustrations for an ad campaign torn and thrown in the garbage. And soon after that I was let go. Then I went over to CBS, where I heard there was a job opening in the graphics department doing cards for the late show. Hollywood agencies would send over 8 x 10s for a movie that was going to be shown that night. So one night they gave me the photographs for a Lionel Barrymore movie. I thought, I can’t just paste up a picture with a hot stamp type machine and stick his name over it simply because I have 9 of these to do a day, I have to draw it! And that night when I went home, there was my stuff on television, and that was it.”
Around this time Dvore had seen James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and realized Hollywood had changed.
“They were outcasts and outsiders—my kind of people! That’s where I ought to go.” So Dvore jumped in his ’57 Chevy and headed down Route 66. “I decided I’d become an actor because as an artist I would just keep getting fired.” Once in Hollywood, Dvore got a job at an agency doing a poster for Johnny Mathis. “But I had been affected so much by losing those jobs in Chicago, never realizing that it had nothing to do with the fact that I wasn’t good, it was fact that when they’re paying you in Hollywood they want you to do what they want. I just never got that. So I figured I’d just leave and not come back before they can fire me!”
It was a different time in Hollywood.
“There wasn’t a ton of people out there like it is now. So I started to try and become an actor and did a couple of things. But they weren’t waiting for me to do that. And after about 4 years I was having a rough time, living hand to mouth, and I was getting ready to leave but didn’t know where I’d go next.”
“I was playing baseball with a bunch of actors, entertainers and people who were established in the business. During one of these games a girl from Chicago saw me and said, ‘what’s Sandy doing out there playing ball? He’s a wonderful artist.’ So after the game this guy asked me if that was true. I said I used to be an artist but I gave it up. And he said, ‘Well if you ever decide to do it again, I’m a publicist and I represent Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Judy Garland and Tony Bennett; we do ads for the Hollywood Reporter and Variety.’ And it was important for these stars to have their every accomplishments in front of their peers on the back cover of Variety.”
“So I needed some money and I called this publicist and asked if he had anything. He said we need an ad for Judy Garland, who is being honored for her triumph at Carnegie Hall. So I did it, the night before it was supposed to be turned in of course. After that I got a call from her agent Freddy Fields. He said, ‘I wouldn’t leave town if I were you, stick around.’ A lot of people had called and said, ‘Who did that great new ad?’ They had never seen anything like that. So I went over to see this agent in this big office with velvet curtains and a big desk that looked like it cost $10,000. He said, ‘Here’s what I want to do with you, kid. I represent everybody in the business that’s huge, everyone. And I’m gonna give you a list of everyone I represent and send you a few lines about each star every week by messenger of what current thing each star is up for. I’m gonna buy the back page of Variety and the Reporter for 52 weeks. You do anything you want to do for each one with the information I send you. And I don’t have to see it, kid; I’ll see it when everyone else does and just make up a bill and send it to me.’
Things had turned around for Dvore.
“This is after years of parking cars for a buck. So the next ad I get is for Sammy Davis, Jr. Now I liked Judy Garland, but I loved Sammy Davis, Jr. He was opening a show at the Cocoanut Grove and they asked me if I could draw Sammy Davis, Jr. I had a week to do it and waited until the last night, like any art student…The ad came out great! I was sitting in Schwab’s the day it came out and I could see the news stand from my seat, so I could see everybody who came in. Rod Steiger came in and looked at my ad, then Sidney Poitier came in and looked at it. Because every star wanted to see what their peers were doing on the back cover of Variety. I could see people looking at it and I knew, something’s gonna happen.”
And something did happen.
“Then the night of Sammy’s opening came and I was invited to the guest’s table right down front. And first thing he did when he came out on stage was say, ‘I want to thank the young man who did the ad on the back cover of Variety for me. I want everybody to appreciate the fine illustration done for me by…” and the spotlight hit me and he introduced me to every major hitter in show business. After that they had a party and Sammy walked in and came right up to me, took my face in his hands, gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, ‘thank you so much, that was wonderful what you did for me.’ And he did this every time we saw each other, for thirty-some years up until the last time I saw him two weeks before he died. He would kiss me on the cheek and say, ‘Sandy...Sandy, thank you.’ That drawing really put me on the map.”
Sandy Dvore had finally arrived and was off and running.
“The work was everything. The work made me happy. When people would ask, ‘did you study this? Did you go to school?’ I would always say the American Academy of Art. And after about four years of solid work I got to expand. I would do a pen-and-ink illustration or a watercolor or whatever. And sometimes I would have 4 or 5 ads a week, sometimes 2 or 3 a day for different clients. You couldn’t have the same drawing style over and over. So I would do totally different things, a cartoon or whatever and I would hide my name. So, when these agents would see it they would say, ‘we don’t have to keep paying Dvore these huge sums because there’s somebody new in town.’ And then they would find out it was really me. Hollywood was very fickle. Too much of the same thing and they get bored easily.”
Working for Frank Sinatra was a special experience for Dvore.
“The illustrations I did for him were so tight because he was cool; I couldn’t have fun with Sinatra, but he was very polite. There was never a time I did an ad for him that I didn’t get a thank you. When I would meet with him he would say, ‘You got too much hair kid!’ One thing he always asked me to do was hide some orange in any ad I did for him. It was good luck for him. He was a cool customer. People were also afraid of him. He was larger than life.”
Dvore would then add television and film title sequences to his list of accomplishments: The Partridge Family, The Waltons, Police Story, The Miracle Worker, The James Dean Story, The Young and the Restless, Knots Landing, North and South, Spencer for Hire, the United Artist’s logo, and many more. Times were changing yet again in Hollywood. Studios began to create the work themselves.
“That’s why stars don’t have the charisma they have today. It all became corporate. It’s not custom tailored anymore. It’s all computers, and the great smell of oil paints and rubber cement is gone... But it all started at the American Academy of Art. This place changed my life.”
Above: A small collection of Sandy Dvore’s work featuring some of his most well know images including the United Artist Logo, the Partridge Family opening credits and the Solo Cup logo.
Dvore would go on to win an Emmy for his titles on the Carol Burnett Special. Today he continues to create art and take on anything that comes his way.
For more on Dvore’s creation of the red Solo Cup please read my blog Who Really Created the Red Solo Cup?