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By Sandy Siegel '72

Published Jan 15, 2015 8:00 AM


Kenneth Macgowan's tenure at UCLA was his fourth career.

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Photograph courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive

By the time Kenneth Macgowan joined the faculty of UCLA in 1946, the 57-year-old had had three successful careers. His tenure at UCLA added two new roles to his résumé — as a professor, and then as the first chairman of UCLA’s groundbreaking Department of Theater Arts.

Macgowan’s decades-long journey to Westwood started at Harvard, where his flair for writing and interest in the dramatic arts led to a career as a journalist and drama critic. That set the stage for his next profession: theatrical producer, working in the 1920s with Eugene O’Neill at the Provincetown Playhouse and Greenwich Village Theatre.

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Photograph courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive

Lured by the prospect of a better livelihood, Macgowan headed to Hollywood. Between 1932 and 1946, he produced four dozen films, including Little Women, Young Mr. Lincoln and Lifeboat. Most notably, he won an Oscar in 1935 for La Cucaracha, the first three-strip Technicolor live-action short, and that same year produced Becky Sharp, the first full-length feature shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor (restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in 1992; see the before and after images.

Next stop: UCLA. The year after joining the English Department as a professor of theater arts, Macgowan, also a prolific author, became chairman of the highly anticipated Department of Theater Arts.

“[It] will be the only one of its kind in the world,” boasted the June 26, 1947, Daily Bruin. “The new department opens vistas of education in theater arts beyond the scope of the fondest dreams of the drama student.”

Becky Sharp in Vivid Colors

In 1935, Kenneth Macgowan made history when he joined RKO pictures and the production of Becky Sharp, the first feature-length film to use Technicolor. The three-strip invention by the color motion company turned the screen -- as the original trailer of the movie so proudly presents -- into “the palette for life’s great canvas.” By adding a separate blue film register to the already existent red and green strips, Technicolor brought the three primary colors to the big screen. At the time of its release, critics praised the film's "beautiful splashes of multi-tone visual values." But for many years, aside from the 16 millimeter version of the film, the original was not accessible and Becky in living colors did not see the light of day. Then, in 1992, under the supervision of archivist Robert Gitt and with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and Film Foundation, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, restored the flim back to its vibrant hues.

Under Macgowan’s leadership, the department took off in dramatic fashion. The 1947-48 curriculum included acting, play production, motion picture direction and animation. By the second year, radio had been added to the mix, and the course offerings had more than doubled. The curriculum now featured sessions taught by Hollywood professionals such as Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head. Classes in television would follow.

The department’s wide range of study reflected its chairman’s viewpoint — that movies and radio came out of the theater, and television borrowed from all three. So while other universities developed film schools, Macgowan established a program that embraced all of the theater arts.

One thing he did not embrace, though, was the walk from his office to the building entrance. To save time, he used his ground-floor window as a “door.” In 1956, anticipating his retirement, his colleagues dubbed the makeshift entryway “The Kenneth Macgowan Window,” and placed a dedication below the sill: “Through This Window Passed Kenneth Macgowan, Respected Scholar, Devoted Teacher, Cordial Colleague.” But, in no hurry to leave UCLA, he continued to teach part-time, later becoming a professor emeritus.

The Macgowan Window, along with the theater arts bungalows, eventually gave way to the Research Library, but Macgowan’s name did not disappear from the campus landscape. Macgowan Hall, the department’s first permanent building, opened in March 1963. The next month, its venerable namesake succumbed to cancer.

Macgowan’s legacy lives on in today’s world-renowned UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, which integrates all three disciplines, as well as digital media, within a single professional school. Just the sort of scenario Macgowan envisioned, almost 70 years ago.

Besides breaking academic ground at UCLA, Kenneth Macgowan produced Becky Sharp, the first full-length feature shot entirely in threestrip Technicolor.

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