As a child growing up on Wisteria street in the Garden District of Baton Rouge, Gene Callahan (1923-1990) never dreamed that he would one day be an Academy Award-winning production designer for one of the most beloved comedy-dramas of the late-20th century: Funny Girl (1968). Callahan spent more than six years studying at Louisiana State University; in that time, he was only enrolled in one course on scene design.
A visit to a friend who was designing theater sets in the Catskill Mountains would prove to be the jumping off point for Callahan when he was hired on as designer. When the small company closed, Callahan moved to New York City and spent several years working on back-to-back shows but not moving up in the business. A hard-won interview with CBS landed him a job as a set decorator and then as an art director in television production. Over his long career, Callahan earned a reputation for hard work and attention to detail while working on over 1,000 television shows and specials. Callahan won Academy Awards for his set designs for The Hustler (1961) and America, America (1963) and worked on over 100 films, including Grease 2 (1982), Places in the Heart (1984), Children of a Lesser God (1986), and Steel Magnolias (1989).
In 1968, Callahan worked as production designer on the film Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand. In this position, he was responsible for developing ground plans for each of the musical’s stages, including separate renderings for stationary set elements, moving set elements with off-stage storage locations, complete scene layouts, and front elevations for each set used in the film. Such detail was needed so that his designs could be used to build the actual movie sets used on film. The pieces on view were created as part of his set designs.
Gene Callahan, Untitled (stage scene), 1969. Paint on board, 20 x 39 inches. Gift of the artist. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 1969.001.027