Thursday, April 10, 2003

Signs of the times: Theater painter Roland Borduas, 1908-2003

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Roland Borduas, born in Biddeford in 1908, spent summers at his father’s cottage in OOB, making signs for local businesses. He didn’t know then that he would end up painting show cards and posters for theater and movie houses in New York and in Maine. He describes his work simply: " I used to paint posters in Old Orchard Beach, " he said.

One man told him he should head to New York because he was such a good artist. " My father didn’t want me to go to New York. I was 20 years old and I’d never left home, " Borduas said. A friend who lived in the city assured Borduas’s father that the young man would get to church every Sunday, so his dad relented. (He fulfilled his promise, too — Borduas was involved in church activities for his whole life.)

Borduas was close to show business from the get-go: His friend was an acrobat in one of the troupes set up by then–Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to promote fitness among the men on the police force. And his friend’s wife was a Tiller Girl, one of the predecessors of the Rockettes.

Shortly after arriving in the city, he picked up a copy of the New York World to check out the help-wanted section. " There was an ad in there on a Sunday for a banner man for a theater, " Borduas remembers. His friends told him not to apply because the market was tight; they didn’t want Borduas to get discouraged. He went anyway, and had to make a sample poster. On his application he said he was from OOB, figuring folks might know that town better than Biddeford.

" Wednesday, I got a call. I had the job, " he said. After a week of work, his boss, Joseph Jowett, asked if he ever went fishing or hunting. As it turned out, Jowett loved Maine and had been several times to hunt and fish in the state’s wilderness, and had hired the young artist as much for his talent as for his connections to the Pine Tree State.

The job was hard. Much of the work was promoting movies, and turnaround times were fast. " If they said ‘Charlie Chaplin,’ I had to remember the name of the picture he was in, " as well as whether it was sound or silent. " I was young and I had a good memory then, " said Borduas.

He worked around the New York area for several years, painting for theaters, movie houses, and businesses, until a doctor told him to go " somewhere with a lake " to relax for a month. Borduas went home to Old Orchard instead, and kept working. The man who owned the Palace Ballroom hired him to promote events there. " I got to meet a lot of the big orchestras, " Borduas said, and painted portraits of their leaders and stars.

He also worked at the Ogunquit Playhouse, and remembers that when Ethel Barrymore came to do a show, " she came down one Saturday and ordered everyone out of the theater so she could rehearse. " It made his job a bit harder: " I had to make the poster that day on the hood of an automobile, " he said.

He was about ready to head back to New York when the State Theatre opened in Portland. The regional manager, Arthur Morrow, hired him to do the posters. He ended up working for the Strand, the Jefferson, the Empire, and the Maine Theater as well.

To keep his income up, Borduas also " made cards " for local businesses. He opened his own shop and kept trying new things. " I was the first one to do silk-screen work in Maine, " he said. He also made the first airplane banner in the state.

He continued to paint for theater and music halls for years, including the Lycaeum Theater on Stevens Avenue. " I used to do the stage scenery when they’d have a play, " Borduas said. He made signs for a play in Biddeford, too, and knew the actors. " I never thought that guy would play a duke, " he said of one old friend who made it up on stage. He loved watching theater, and used to sit through auditions to see how different people did.

And even after he retired, he kept painting. He took watercolor lessons with local painter Sarah Knock and painted over 50 scenes of the homes of his family and friends, to give them as gifts. But he was a sign-maker, not a showman. " I did a lot of work for orchestras and I never learned how to dance, " he said.

Author’s note: Roland Borduas died March 2, less than two weeks after the interview for this story was conducted. His work can still be seen in St. Patrick’s Church in Portland.