About Arthur Radebaugh

Two Parts Of a Biographical Introduction, by Jared Rosenbaum

I imagine Art Radebaugh, caped, perhaps wearing a monocle, staring out from his private studio window in the Fisher Building, one of Detroit’s spectacular Art Deco behemoths… In front of him sits an easel bearing a luminous canvas, onto which he is airbrushing a sleek jet propelled monorail that silently arcs above Michigan farmland. The scene is to be featured in newspapers nationwide for his weekly column on the future, “Can You Imagine.”

I am imagining Art because, five decades later, his future has arrived, yet the past of this solitary and childless genius has largely disappeared.

*    *    *

Radebaugh’s studio is decorated with an unusual touch, invisible until he turned off the lights and ignited his blacklight. Springing to life on one long studio wall is a life-size and life-like vista painted entirely in fluorescent blacklight paints. The scene is of Rio de Janeiro: famous statue of Christ on the hill to one side, beach and city below, as seen from a hotel balcony, bedecked with an arabesque striped awning and elegant white railings.

The room also features a long blue satin couch, from which a prospective client, a journalist, or a young art assistant might watch Radebaugh at work. As suggested by his cape, his monocle, his beret and jodhpurs, Radebaugh has a flair for the theatrical. His easel faces the couch at a dramatic three-quarters angle, and a lone spotlight illuminates the artist at work.

The titles of Radebaugh’s syndicated pieces range from the whimsical (“Rocket Mailman”) to the highly practical (“Mining on Mars”), and, placed together, they read like a catalog of mid-century futuristic prognostication. As Radebaugh himself describes, his work falls “halfway between science fiction and Designs for Modern Living.”

Immediately next to the coffee lounge, Radebaugh’s studio is part of a much larger commercial illustration house, New Center Studios. At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s New Center Studios boasted of being the largest art house in the world. Its office, an enormous duplex facility with zodiac-inspired marble floors and giant skylight, sit directly above the faux-Mayan Art Deco splendor of the Fisher Theater. 

The wealth that allowed New Center Studios, at its height, to employ 150 illustrators, letterers, pencillers, key-liners, and salesmen does not derive from syndicating illustrations of futuristic 'imagineerings.' Automotive industry money coursed through Detroit in the decades following World War II, and New Center Studios was the most prominent advertising illustration studio in town, handling numerous national ad campaigns, car catalogs and dealer brochures for the Big Three—GM, Ford and Chrysler, and the remaining independents as well.

Arthur Greenwald, founder and president of New Center Studios, was a personal friend and champion of Art Radebaugh’s, and this more than anything accounts for Radebaugh’s poshly appointed private studio within the facility. Greenwald liked retaining Radebaugh, because the futuristic airbrush virtuoso lent an exotic flair and artistic breadth to the studio’s portfolio. Art Greenwald, who was an artist turned flamboyant entrepreneur, also fielded prize-fighters, and in some way retaining Radebaugh was a vanity akin to promoting these boxers, with one major difference: unlike the pugilists, who never amounted to much in the ring, Radebaugh had been, in his own words, “to the top and back again several times.”

*    *    *

The Grand Rapids Press featured an article in 1972 entitled “The Rippling Last Laughter of Arthur Radebaugh.” The title is strangely morbid (he would live until 1974) but also a fitting epitaph for the illustrator, capturing his humor, optimism and stubborn persistence. A photograph of Radebaugh appears in the sidebar, his eyes heavily lidded, and face a little bit puffy. He is jauntily holding a cigarette in one hand, hair pomaded into the iconic style of decades past, a slight amusement playing across his lips.

Radebaugh describes watching TV several days earlier, only to see something very reminiscent of a 1948 invention of his featured on the “Today” show. The invention, an “endless elevator parking lot”, was something of a Ferris wheel and conveyor belt for cars, and it was in the testing phase at the Dulles International Airport. 

In 1948 the response had been “a ripple of laughter from engineers and designers." "Most of my stuff was laughed at," Radebaugh said, "But the guys now making this and other things come true are the guys who were sitting on the floor back in those days, reading [my] comics.”

One wonders what sort of instinctive public relations reflex caused the semi-retired Radebaugh to arrange this shortish article in which he enjoys a small validation. It comes on the heels of a larger Sunday pictorial feature on Radebaugh’s new projects and old glories, and it is tempting to think that he was still a thriving, well-known and celebrated individual. 

Sadly, Radebaugh’s semi-retirement in Grand Rapids was not uncomplicated, nor was he able to rest on his laurels or cash in on the prodigious visions of his earlier days.

In 1967, Radebaugh had moved to Grand Rapids with his wife Nancy, escaping a string of bad fortune and the vestiges of his career in the Detroit area. Radebaugh’s health had deteriorated in the early 1960s (he suffered from congestive heart problems) and shortly thereafter he had lost the majority of his financial investments. He was forced to sell his cars, his Lake Michigan vacation home, and “everything else” he could lay his hands on.

The commercial illustration business itself was beginning to crumble in Detroit, with illustrated advertising work increasingly supplanted by color photography and by the ascendance of television advertising. Several short years hence New Center Studios would go out of business and Radebaugh’s friend and champion, Art Greenwald, would be dead.

Acquaintances in Grand Rapids say that Radebaugh spoke of having been cheated by his agent, and whether it was this or poor investments that ruined him financially, one sad reality of the artist’s life, then and now, is a lack of a safety net. Aside from a small military pension, Radebaugh had no means to provide for the retirement his failing health demanded.

So he continued to work through his retirement, first for a sign painter, then as a furniture decorator.

It is hard to say what drew Radebaugh to Grand Rapids. He seems to have wanted to construct a frugal cottage on nearby Lake Michigan, and perhaps thought of Grand Rapids as a waystation while he mustered the means, regained his strength, and scouted an appropriate location.

Perhaps, however, he was drawn to Grand Rapids because of its signature industry, furniture-making. Grand Rapids was the furniture manufacturing capital of the world, and there was hack work available for a technically masterful artist, creating highly embellished replica furniture with historic and exotic themes, which sold to the upper crust for tens of thousands of dollars.

Radebaugh went through at least four furniture decorating jobs in as many years, his artistry unimpeachable but his attitude not necessarily in accord with the uptight atmosphere of a high-end manufacturer. LaVon VanBuren, a young and rebellious art student who took a shine to Radebaugh while working with him at Baker Furniture, describes Radebaugh as a mysterious older man who wore a scarf, cape and beret, and wielded a cane. Radebaugh and VanBuren often collaborated on “chinoiserie”—replica oriental furniture with pagodas, craggy cliffs, and women carrying ornate parasols. The pair amused each other by subtly altering the Asiatic themes, and caused the company a good deal of grief when on several occasions expensive pieces were returned to the manufacturer. A Chicago dealer returned more than one piece when they discovered that Radebaugh and VanBuren had given the parasol-wielding ladies too ample breasts and hidden nude women in the backgrounds.

VanBuren was only vaguely aware of Radebaugh’s former fame. She later recognized Radebaugh’s work in an instruction booklet for her newly purchased Paasche airbrush, in which her co-worker was described as a “famed airbrush artist” and “one of America’s leading designers.” Radebaugh himself rarely mentioned his accomplished career.

Just as Radebaugh kept a modest silence about his past while working at Baker, he was subdued about his work as a furniture decorator when featured in the local press. While work at Baker was considered prestigious, painting patterns was hardly the work of Radebaugh the “Imagineer”.

“Up to the Top and Back Again with the Futuristic Mr. Radebaugh”, is the title of an in-depth article in the Grand Rapids Press’ Sunday Wonderland Magazine in December 1971. Radebaugh is full of reminiscences from the past and ideas for the future. He describes developing a new syndicated column to be called “Plowshares and Pruning Hooks”, which was taken from Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn to make war anymore.”

Or, as Radebaugh says in the article, “It purports to show new ideas and things that can be manufactured…in effect what our plowshares and pruning hooks may be like in the future.”

There is no evidence that “Plowshares and Pruning Hooks” ever lifted off from Radebaugh’s easel and into the smudgy, bright pages of the Sunday funnies. Yet a sketch for the proposed series, a “Poor Man’s Yacht” powered by one’s own car, which is a sleek floating platform onto which a convertible is symbiotically docked, displays the same ingenuity, dashing trajectory and everyman appeal of his earlier work. It is worth noting that the sketch is an updated version of an idea published over a decade earlier.

Whether the syndicates rejected “Plowshares and Pruning Hooks” or Radebaugh’s failing health prevented him from carrying out the proposed strip, it seems to be his last gaze into the future, nearly four decades after his earliest prognostications fed the imaginations of readers of Esquire, MoToR and Fortune Magazine.

In early 1974, Radebaugh was hospitalized at the Michigan Veteran’s Facility in Grand Rapids. Heart disease had plagued him for a decade, and on January 17, 1974 Arthur Radebaugh departed the planet for good, to be survived by a vast published legacy of inspiration, silently awaiting confirmation as the future arrived.

Biographical and Professional Timeline

1906 - Born in Coldwater, MI, May 14 to Cloyce, a shoe repairer, and Mabel Radebaugh

1924 - Graduates from Sturgis High School, Sturgis, MI
    Participates in Glee Club, Debating Team, Sturgensian Board, Senor Play
His yearbook quote, "A rare combination of wisdom and wit--Half wisdom, half wit."

1925 - Attends Chicago Art Institute for 1½ years, where he first experiments with
   -     airbrush
1929     Employed as bus driver, theater usher, and hotel clerk
     Leaves Chicago to become a beachcomber in Florida

1930 - Returns to parents' home in Sturgis, MI and finds work as a sign painter and at a
    neon sign company
    Future wife, Nancy, is a clerk at a telegraph company. Lives with her widowed
    mother and brother, Oscar

1931 -    Illustrator at Crescent Engraving, Kalamazoo, MI
   -    Paints candy boxes, etc. for $25 per week

1934 - Marries Nancy Harrington (who lived 4 blocks from his parent's home) on July 3rd
    in Fort Wayne, Indiana

1935 -     First major commercial success: MoToR Service Show Number cover artist, which
    earns him $450. His tenure as cover artist lasts until 1957.

1936 - Esquire, pictorial editorial for December issue
    Illustrations for William Stout Scarab, first rear engine auto [Esquire bio]
    Ad work for Studebaker, Bendix, Checker Cabs, United Air Lines, Hastings Piston
    Rings, United Tires, Dodge, Nash
    Illustrates Burlington Zephyr train menu cover
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1937 - Working at Crescent Engraving Company, 3440 North Church St., Kalamazoo, MI
    Has own studio on 3rd floor
    Finds inspiration to render clouds on small engine aircraft owned by James Arthur
        Wilson, of Crescent Engraving Company [Advertising Agency, May 1937]
    Advertising Agency - Cover artist and editorial, May and July issues
    More Business - cover artist, March issue
    Esquire - pictorial editorial for August issue   
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1938 -     Radebaugh represented by the advertising agency, Ruthrauff & Ryan [letter from
    R.E. Radebaugh of Radebaugh-Fetzer Company, Cleveland, OH]
    Fortune, cover artist, July issue
    Ad work for Dill & Collins Advertising Agency
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1939 - Illustrates Dodge Luxury Liner, Silver Anniversary brochure and Dodge News cover
    Dodge ads noted as one of two most attention garnering ads by Clark-Hooper
    "Radebaugh Airbrushes Dodge Ad Campaign", Automobile Topics, Sept. 25
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist and editorial

1940 - Illustrates Dodge Luxury Liner brochure, 2nd year
    Ad work for Hercules Paint, featured in Fortune
    Saturday Evening Post cover artist, March issue
    Exhibits at Kalamazoo Art Studio in late 1940
    Affiliated with Knickerbocker Studio, NY, NY
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist and editorial

1941 - Illustrates Dodge Luxury Liner brochure, 3rd year
Saturday Evening Post cover artist, July and September issues
MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1942 -     Joins Army November 23
Works at Pentagon in the Office of the Chief of Ordnance in the Research and Development Dept./Design and Visualization Branch
    Saturday Evening Post cover artist, October issue

1943 - New Center Studios opens in New Center Building, Detroit

1945 -     Separates from Army November 30
    Pictorial in Firepower, the Ordnance Dept.'s magazine
    Ad work for Electric Boat Co.

1946 -     Returns from 4-year hiatus in military and attains major commission: he designs
    Detroit Automotive Golden Jubilee symbol for celebration of Detroit's
    150th anniversary and the automobile's 50th anniversary
    The symbol is made into several storey tall sculpture and is featured on all Jubilee
    Ad work for Bohn Aluminum
    "Who is Radebaugh?", Detroit News article, May 2
    "'Black Art' for Dealers Displays", MoToR article, January issue

1947 - Featured in National Exhibition of Automotive Art at the Detroit Institute of the
    Arts, January 3-31
    His work is in a special section of exhibit with his blacklight art
    "Can You Imagine", a syndicated illustrated series, appears in Detroit News Pictorial
    Magazine, December 7
    "Envisioning Transportation of the Future", feature in Philadelphia Inquirer's Picture
    Parade, March 23
    Fashion design work featured in Cochocton, Ohio Tribune, June 1 & November 2
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist and editorial

1948 - Series of pictorials in Detroit Free Press
"Junk Gold: Detroiters Turn War 'Swords' into Fancy 'Plowshares'", Detroit Free Press, Sept. 8
    "Dynamic Detroit Seen Muddling in Plans for Future", Detroit Free Press, March 10

1949 -    Living in Beverly Hills, MI at 15825 Buckingham
    3 ads for Coca-cola, featured on the back page of Nat'l Geographic
    Series of pictorials in Detroit Free Press and Toledo Blade Pictorial
    "Garwood Won't Like This at All...", Detroit Free Press, August 7
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1950 - Featured in Life magazine article, "Black Light 'Art'"
    Ad work for Nash
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1951 -     Chrysler full line brochure
    Chrysler Imperial full line brochure
    Ad work for National Motor Bearing Co. from 1951 through 1955
    "Free Press Artist Gazes into Real Crystal Ball", Detroit Free Press, October 24
    MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1952 - MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1953 - MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1954 - Detroit Free Press Auto Show insert, cover artist. First Auto Show Section in 13
"Free Press to Salute Auto Show", article on Radebaugh's Auto Show work,
February 20
MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1955 - Detroit Free Press Auto Show insert, cover artist
MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1956 - Detroit Free Press Auto Show insert, cover artist
New Center Studio moves from Fisher Building to Penobscot Building
"And Now 21st Century", Detroit Free Press, September 1
MoToR Service Show Number cover artist

1957 - Detroit Free Press Auto Show insert, cover artist
 MoToR Service Show Number cover artist, final year

1958 - "Closer Than We Think" is nationally syndicated from January 12 to April 3, 1961
    Tours in converted mobile studio in 1950s British Ford van
    "'Rebel' Radebaugh", feature in Birmingham Town Hall, December 15
    Detroit Free Press Auto Show insert, cover artist

1959 -     Radebaugh's father, Cloyce dies, October 30
    "Fear of Restless Robot Voiced by Illustrator", Washington Star, May 6

1961 - "Closer Than We Think" is no longer nationally syndicated as of April 3

1962 - "'Imagineered' Own Telestar", Grand Rapids Press, September 27

1963 - Renders this year's Mercury catalog using actual car paints, causing uproar in studio

1964 -     Radebaugh's mother, Mabel dies, April 3

1965 - Featured in Paasche Airbrush catalog

1966 - New Center Studio moves to Detroit Bank & Trust Building

1967 - Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Artist, H1527 Diamond Ave. NE

1968 - Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Artist, H1508 Herrick Ave. NE

1969 - 'Solution for City Hall is Both Far Out, Far Up', Grand Rapids Press, August 29
    Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Decorator, Kozak Studios (Division of Baker
    Furniture Inc.) at 1138 Hamilton Ave. NW

1970 - Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Decorator, Kozak Studios (Division of Baker
    Furniture Inc.) at 1138 Hamilton Ave. NW

1971 - Featured on cover of Grand Rapids Press'  Sunday magazine, Wonderland on 
    December 19, "Up to the Top and Back Again with the Futuristic Mr. Radebaugh"
    Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Decorator, Kozak Studios (Division of Baker
    Furniture Inc.) at 1138 Hamilton Ave. NW
    LaVon VanBuren begins working at Baker Furniture

1972 - "Rippling Last Laughter of Arthur Radebaugh", Grand Rapids Press, June 11
    Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Decorator, GR Chair Co. 1661 Monroe Ave. NW
    (HW Baker, Chairman)

1973 - Grand Rapids Directory: Listed as Decorator, H r1381 Parkway Drive NE, Milling
    Road Furniture, first listing with no mention of Nancy

1974 - Arthur C. Radebaugh dies in a Veteran's Facility in Grand Rapids, January 17

1975 - Art Greenwald, former owner of New Center Studios dies

1992 -     Eighteen years after Radebaugh's death, his wife Nancy dies, April 10