Peter Larkin, stage designer with a funky asterisk, dies at 93

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Peter Larkin, stage designer with a funky asterisk, dies at 93
Clockwise from left, Dianne Wiest, Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei, “Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’: The Reading,” the last Broadway credit for the set designer, Peter Larkin, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, in New York, April 10, 2003. Larkin, died on Dec. 16, 2019, at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., Marla Strick, his daughter-in-law, said. He was 93 and had designed sets for 45 Broadway productions and worked as production designer on more than two dozen movies. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- When Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton’s sartorially adventurous music collective, played arena shows in the 1970s, the boisterous crowds would reach a fever pitch midway through the concert when a fire-spitting flying saucer descended from the rafters, landing onstage amid smoke and blaring horns.

Most of those fans probably didn’t know that the prop — the Mothership, it was called, one of the most outlandish stage effects in a decade full of rock spectacles — was the work of a noted Broadway lighting designer, Jules Fisher, and a four-time Tony Award-winning set designer, Peter Larkin.

“When it landed,” Fisher recalled in a telephone interview, “a door opened and George Clinton came out.” At the show’s end, it blasted off and disappeared skyward.

The Mothership’s co-designer, Larkin, died Dec. 16 at his home in Bridgehampton, New York, said Marla Strick, his daughter-in-law. He was 93 and had designed sets for 45 Broadway productions and worked as production designer on more than two dozen movies, including “Tootsie” (1982), “House of Cards” (1993) and “Miss Congeniality” (2000).

Larkin won his Tonys in a remarkable run in the mid-1950s, for “Ondine,” “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” “No Time for Sergeants” and “Inherit the Wind.” The last three of those plays were running simultaneously on Broadway. Larkin was still in his 20s.

He was nominated for Tonys six more times. His last Broadway credit came more than a half-century after his first; it was for “Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’: The Reading,” with a cast led by Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei. Estelle Parsons directed that production, which originated at the Actors Studio and caught Larkin when he was in a minimalist mood.

“His whole thing about set design was inspired by the burlesque sketch where the nurse comes out, puts up a card table and says, ‘Now we’re in the doctor’s office,’” Parsons said in a telephone interview. “The best scenery was no scenery.”

Yet earlier in his career he had done eye-catching sets, like the decaying roller rink he designed for the 1984 musical “The Rink.”

“He was one of the greatest American scenic designer in my era,” said Fisher, himself a multiple Tony winner. “He had the best ‘hand’ in the business. He could draw anything quickly. He could draw in any period, and they were always beautiful.”

Peter Sydney Larkin was born Aug. 25, 1926, in Boston, to Oliver and Ruth (McIntire) Larkin. His father, an art historian who taught at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1950 book, “Art and Life in America.”

Peter became interested in theater as a boy, and after graduating from Deerfield Academy and studying at the Yale University School of the Fine Arts from 1945 to 1947 he worked for several summer theaters.

A few years later, he showed his portfolio of summer-theater designs to George Schaefer, artistic director of City Center in New York, and the result was his first Broadway credit, for “The Wild Duck,” in 1951.

Another notable Broadway credit in the 1950s was the 1954 musical “Peter Pan,” with Mary Martin in the title role.

Larkin said his primary influence was Robert Edmond Jones, who designed more than 50 Broadway shows in the first half of the last century, and whom he met while a student at Yale.

“Bobby was the first to start with the script and work with the playwright and the director to achieve the mood and atmosphere and even the philosophical undertones of the play,” Larkin told the Los Angeles Times in 1966.

Although theater work kept him busy, he took other jobs as well.

“You have to have something else,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1973. “I did a job for Disney in California that kept me going. I designed a parade for the Disney characters. I’ve done nightclub interiors. I redesigned the Astor Hotel ballroom before it was torn down. I’ve always had other things.”

One of those other things was the Mothership, which Clinton used in his wild stage shows from 1976 into the early ’80s. Fisher had done lighting for the Rolling Stones and other rock acts, and Clinton approached him to help with his tour in support of the 1975 album “Mothership Connection.” Fisher had already worked on several Broadway shows with Larkin and hired him to help.

The original Mothership has not survived, but a reproduction was made when Clinton reintroduced the gimmick in stage shows in the 1990s. The reproduction is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

“The Mothership is probably one of the most iconic stage props ever,” Dwan Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the museum, said in a video made when the ship was acquired several years ago.

Larkin added film to his resume beginning in 1981, when he was production designer on two movies, “Nighthawks” and “Neighbors.”

Parsons, who met Larkin when he was just starting out and worked with him frequently at the Actors Studio, recalled one encounter with his sense of humor. She had sent him a script.

“I called him and said, ‘What do you think of the play?’ ” she recalled. “And he said, ‘The first thing to do is kill the playwright.’”

Larkin had a side interest in cars, particularly a rare 1926 Bugatti that he acquired in the mid-1950s. In 1962 The New Yorker took note of the car, primarily because Larkin, who at the time lived above Pete’s Tavern on Irving Place in Manhattan, had placed it on his terrace.

“I was stuck with finding a winter storage space,” he explained.

“A friend of mine and I took it apart, piece by piece, lugged it up the stairs, and more or less put it together again,” he added.

In the article, he pondered how to get it back down to ground level. He must have succeeded, because, his daughter-in-law Strick said, he still had the car at his death.

“It’s not a show pony,” she said. “He drove it all over, right until 90 years old.”

Larkin’s first marriage, to Mary Ann Reeve, who had a small part in “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” ended in divorce. His second wife, artist Racelle Strick, died in 2008. He is survived by a stepdaughter, Ivy Hamlin, and a stepson, screenwriter Wesley Strick.

In 2015, Strick wrote an article for The Paris Review about another of Larkin’s passions: the history of burlesque, and particularly a pop-up book he had been working on for years that he wanted to call “Panties Inferno.” He kept at it even though publishers told him it wasn’t feasible.

His idea was to make the pop-ups depict a typical evening of burlesque. Executing it may have been as taxing, in its way, as anything he did for the stage or George Clinton.

“The challenge wasn’t making the clothes come off,” Larkin said, “but making them go back on when you close the book. It’s no good having them come off and then having to rearrange everything yourself.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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