The Indiana Jones of Movie Poster Collecting…
It is a dark 1977 evening and rain bounces against the window of an American college dormitory. Inside, students (including one Dwight Cleveland) watch TV and eat popcorn in the warm home of their boarding school ‘dorm parent’, Mike King.
Earlier that day, news reached them of a fire at a Boston home. The boys’ eccentric Professor King (to the bemusement of students, movie posters covered the walls of the art department) left them to go on a rescue mission. Returning, soaked to the skin, he carried a precious cargo, a tiny stack of 11 x 14 lobby cards, saved from the flames of a poster dealer’s home.
“He had a dozen, or two dozen”, recalled Cleveland, “and one was ‘The Wolf Song’, a 1929 film with Gary Copper. Well, I saw it and just had to own it...”
It would take him a year to prise it from King’s clutches – not with money – but by finding posters from King’s ‘wish list’ to trade.
It was the start of a life-long pursuit of the rarest and most beautiful movie posters in the world.
Forty years later, Cleveland had amassed a collection of well over 10,000 posters, covered 115 years of movie history from around 50 countries - not the largest collection in the world – but, poster for poster, probably the finest. A collection that few of us would have the tenacity to amass…
Released in 1929, “The Barn Dance” (aka “Barn Dance”), was the first of twelve Mickey Mouse short films released that year. Sixty years after its release, Cleveland spotted its poster in an Iowa estate sale. There was one problem – the auction coincided with the weekend that he planned to propose to his then girlfriend (and later very understanding wife), Gabriela. The engagement had to go on hold.
In 1991, Cleveland heard of a house undergoing renovation in Three Oaks, Michigan. A previous, depression-era, owner had run a movie theatre and used movie posters as insulation for his home. “I basically went out there and helped pull down all of the walls of the house.“ The result? Eight thousand posters, including one for the 1935 Busby Berkeley film “Gold Diggers” – a holy grail amongst collectors.
One of his most prized finds is an Italian poster for the Bogart and Bergman classic “Casablanca” (1942). With stunning artwork by famed portrait painter Luigi Martinati (1893 – 1983), it took him ten years of phone calls to convince its owner, from the heel of Italy, to part with it.
Other International hunts have taken him to the streets of Havana, markets in New Zealand (where he found an excellent collection of horror movie posters) and to Israel, where he tracked down a rare Hebrew poster for Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993).
The collection would have been valued in millions, but for Cleveland, it was not about the money. (In 2013, he donated over a thousand posters to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts.) Paramount was the mission to preserve an important part of our culture…
“Film is arguably the most influential art form of the 20th century. From the outset it was the most populist form of visual art.”
“Most film buffs think all the art is on the screen, but I believe the best posters can represent the soul of the movie itself and communicate volumes about the essence of the film.”
In 2016, Cleveland began trimming down his collection, working hard to ensure his treasures ended up in the right hands.
As a result, this month sees a landmark exhibition at the newly renovated Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Coming Soon: Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection” takes over 200 posters from the 3000 held in the museum’s ’Cleveland Collection’ to present the largest ever museum exhibition of classic movie posters.
Posters from classics such as “Casablanca”, “North by Northwest”, “Barbarella” and “The Godfather” combine to paint a history of Hollywood and the movie poster, from silent movies through to the age of the blockbuster. Posters from South America, Europe and Asia explore how different cultures have used the movie poster to entice their customers.
If you are able to attend, don’t miss this extremely rare opportunity to see a collection that only the passion and hard work of an intrepid adventurer (pictured below) could bring together.
“Coming Soon: Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection” opened on 12th July and runs until 29th October 2019.
If you can't make it to the Norton, why not take a look at our catalogue of movie posters. With posters from the 1930s to the present day, it is also a fascinating journey through movie poster history.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.