MILWAUKEE – When you go see the new blacklist exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, you may find one of the smallest objects makes the one of the biggest impressions.
Look for the card with the tiny blue-green heart on it.
“Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare,” opens Oct. 12 at the museum, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The movie posters, panels and pieces of history here will take you back to the 1940s and 50s, when Hollywood was pressured into blacklisting those with alleged ties to communism. It became a witch hunt, costing people their careers, livelihoods and more.
The tiny construction-paper card with a heart on it reads, “Daddy Trumbo … Love from Mitzi.” Young Mitzi made it for her father, Dalton Trumbo, who’d been imprisoned for refusing to answer questions about political affiliation. Dalton was one of the Hollywood Ten. These were 10 directors, producers and screenwriters who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October of 1947. Unwilling to answer questions about any possible communist affiliations, they were voted in contempt of Congress. All 10 spent time in prison.
This was a dark time in American history, when Congress was questioning loyalty and demanding that suspected communists name their alleged compatriots. Naming names could set you free.
With its new exhibit, Jewish Museum Milwaukee, at 1360 N. Prospect Ave., has put together a presentation that does not relate to Milwaukee in particular. Rather, “Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare” takes on this swath of national memory, with plans to send the exhibit touring to other museums after it closes Feb. 10, 2019.
“Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare” will explore the personal and national impact of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklist through the biographies and accounts of blacklistees, films that were considered subversive by the FBI, committee hearing footage and more.
Ellie Gettinger, Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s exhibit curator and education director, came up with the idea for the exhibit about three years ago, after a preview for the “Trumbo” movie came out. The 2015 film – starring Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Brian Cranston – tells the real-life story of the man on the receiving end of that “Daddy Trumbo” card from Mitzi.
“I was familiar with this period because my research project in high school was about the Hollywood blacklist,” Gettinger said. She started Googling and couldn’t find a major exhibit about the Hollywood blacklist since 2002, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in California put one on.
Jewish Museum Milwaukee is not in the motion picture capital of the world. But it’s making use of a strong archives at Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, which provided the Trumbo heart card and other items, Gettinger said. Also, family members of those who were blacklisted have been helpful, telling Gettinger of the impact of the blacklist on their families.
Families are providing speakers for the museum. Mid-December will have Tony Kahn featured, the son of blacklistee screenwriter Gordon Kahn. Lisa Gilford, daughter of Madeline Lee Gilford and Jack Gilford, is to speak on Oct 15.
Lisa said her parents were very liberal but not communists. Yet they were listed in “Red Channels.” At the exhibit, be sure to check out “Red Channels,” a book that’s basically an encyclopedia of people believed to be connected with communism. Looking at it through modern eyes, you’re likely to find it eerie.
Lisa recalls walking to school as a child in New York City and being followed by the FBI. She said the FBI then was different from the FBI today; the men asked young Lisa what her name was and, following her mother’s instructions, she declined to give it. Lisa said the FBI’s goal was simply to harass her family.
“You can’t let this happen again, and I think it could happen again,” said Lisa, who is working on a documentary detailing her mother’s fight against the blacklist. “I remember it as if it was yesterday. I’m 70 years old. You remember your friends. You remember who crossed the street and didn’t want to talk to you.”
Her father, she said, was able to work in theater, which had a union that shielded actors from the blacklist. But that’s not where the money was. “My father lost 10 to 15 years of TV,” recalled Lisa, a University of Wisconsin – Madison alumna who now lives in Denver. “We were able to survive. There was not TV for anybody who was blacklisted.”
What’s Jewish about this?
“There’s a huge proportion of Jews who were blacklisted,” said Gettinger, owing to the fact that Hollywood tended to be both disproportionately Jewish and liberal.
In fact, six of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish. The people regarded as “un-American” were disproportionately of minority backgrounds — Jews and immigrants, according to the museum. Gettinger said the exhibit explores what led to the Hollywood blacklist, at a time when First Amendment freedoms became central in a cultural battle. The gritty, dark feel of the exhibit is intended to send museum-goers back to the tense and anxious era of Hollywood’s Red Scare.
The exhibit, according to museum promotional materials, “seeks to answer many key questions still relevant today.”
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The Hollywood Ten
The Hollywood Ten were directors, producers and screenwriters who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October of 1947.