Chapter 3 - The Las Vegas era: History and the Silver Slipper Collection

Julian RitterThe female form has been the favorite subject of painters throughout the centuries and present-day artist are no exception. Julian was celebrated for his portrayals of Las Vegas Showgirls and clowns, part reality, part fantasy. Ritter was at work on these in the late 1940's and fifties, creating paintings that were risqué for their era and consequently ideal decor for the various casinos in this racy town. The Silver Slipper Casino (later owned by billionaire Howard Hughes) was one of Julian's best clients. Julian sold 35 paintings to the Silver Slipper over a long career.

It is these paintings that now form the core of a collection of Ritter's work, owned by Greg Autry, himself an artist as well as a collector. Ritter befriended Autry who began to collect Ritter's paintings as well as commissioning major works throughout the 1980's. When Autry learned that the Silver Slipper was about to be demolished and the paintings were to be auctioned, he wasted no time in purchasing the entire collection from the Summa Corporation.
In the process, Autry also acquired Ritter's famous clown paintings, a subject the artist continued to explore over the years. The Clown paintings are Ritter's commentary on the opposite sex, the counterpoint to his showgirls and nudes. He would jokingly say that men  [including himself] acted like clowns around beautiful women. These disheveled but ever hopeful suitors, painted with a confident brushstroke and brilliant jewel colors, became as collectible as Ritter's showgirls and the subject of a series of collector porcelains.

Such themes as Showgirls and clowns are indeed crowd-pleasing, but what sets Ritter's work apart from the ordinary is their consummate artistry. Julian was truly a Master Colorist and Draughtsman.  Indeed, Julian was well trained. He attended the Chicago Art Institute and later won a scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles. It was then, under the tutelage of revered art instructor (and one of the original founders of Art Center) Stanley Reckless, that Julian was introduced to figure painting. Reckless had studies worldwide including Julien's in Paris, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art among others. Reckless passed away in 1955. Julian learned from Reckless the intense study of human anatomy, and working from the live model was the rule.  This was a practice Ritter continued throughout his career.

Graduating in 1934, Ritter was soon hired at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Warner Brothers Pictures, and other studios to paint portraits and movie sets. He also began to paint portraits of prominent Movie Stars such as Olivia de Haviland , Claudette Colbert, Veronica Lake, and Jimmy Stewart. In 1941, two New York Exhibitions - at the Gallery of Modern Art and the Newhouse Gallery - earned Julian lavish praise and write-up in several of the prominent art registries of the day. Then with the onset of World War Two, Ritter enlisted and served as an Army combat artist under General  George Patton. After the war, Julian returned to Los Angeles to raise a family and to paint, beginning an enormously productive period of his career which included working prominently in Las Vegas for many years.

Julian RitterYet the biographical details tell us only a small part of the story. Julian Ritter was widely known for his passion for life, his love and respect for women, his appetite for adventure, his understanding of the human condition, and his ample sense of humor. To study one of his canvases is to know something of the man. There is the luscious color and rich shading, the sensuous line and strong composition, the witty details tucked into backgrounds - all show off Ritter's complex personality.

One individual who knew him well is Janet Boyd, one of the most famed Showgirls in Las Vegas history. Ritter's portrait of Boyd, painted in the early 1970's, became the largest selling nude print in the world at the time. She modeled for the artist over the decades and speaks of their times together with a voice full  of laughter and warmth.  Janet says "Julian became a part of the Tapestry of my life". As a dancer, Boyd understood what poses would look best, translated into paint on canvas, and Ritter in turn made the most of the beautiful line and compositions offered. Paintings such as Las Vegas Fantasy, and Janet are the result. Janet Boyd and Greg Autry have become dear friends and communicate often today. Not a conversation goes by, without some story about Julian being remembered. Ritter is also well known for his ability to represent the translucency of flesh through his use of glazes. His figures' skin tones have a remarkably life-like yet ethereal glow reminiscent of the best work of the European Masters who developed the technique of glazing that are the hallmark of Ritter's style.

In recent years, glamour art, from Vargas pin-ups to modern Olivia style nudes, have come to command respect and high prices in the art market. Certainly the paintings of Julian Ritter deserve a fresh look and renewed appreciation. The paintings in the Greg Autry collection merit a place in the history of American twentieth century art as well as in the history of Las Vegas, and California, where he produced some of his finest works.

I had known of the Silver Slipper collection for some time but had not actually seen it. I had inquired about buying a couple of the paintings, and was rebuffed because the Silver Slipper was part of the Howard Hughes Estates, and was tied up in litigation for years. Then one day a friend (Scot Fawcett of Marinita Development) who collected Las Vegas memorabilia mentioned to me that the Silver Slipper was going to be demolished. After a couple of hurried inquiries it was confirmed to me that the estate of the Billionaire had been settled, and the property was being purchased by some guy named Steve Wynn. The property was to be demolished in a week and the art work was to be auctioned off. I contacted the Summa Corporation office in Las Vegas and made arrangements to go through the Casino to view the paintings. I got there the next day and the preliminaries of demolition were already taking place. I spent several hours touring the building (with a guard - I guess they were afraid I would steal something) and putting together an appraisal of the collection. Workmen were dismantling old bars, and anything that might be of value, for a potential auction, and before the wrecking ball came down.  The paintings were actually hung on the walls with gigantic screws. Screwing the Frames onto the walls. In some cases Nailed onto the walls. And these were beautiful gold leaf and gilded frames.  A few of the pieces had been covered with sheets of clear acrylic. 

There were two very large paintings in the entry. Hung up high. A reclining Nude and a large piece with multiple figures. Amazingly painted. I was awestruck, to see this amazing art unattended and uncared for.  The guard going around with me told me that they were going to throw out some of the painting because they were just old, smelly, and moldy.  Indeed they did in fact smell of tobacco from years of neglect. Thank God, none of the painting had any mold. And actually after getting them home, I spent years having many of them cleaned and frames restored. I never allowed any retouching, they have only been cleaned.

All of the frames were original, and in fact had been done by Frame Masters in Los Angeles. Leo and Herman owned Frame Masters, and I took several pieces back to them. They were so sweet and so delighted that the pieces came back to them to have the frames cleaned and restored. A couple of frames were in such bad condition that I had to replace them.  And these are frames that are Gilded in 18 and 24 Carat Gold leaf, by Craftsman of the Old World.  Julian had introduced me, and I understood why Frame Masters was the only framer her would use. They were true artist and craftsman, as was he.

Julian RitterSo as we were touring the building we went through all the lounges, the stage, behind the stage, and every room in the building. Every room except one, which I couldn't get into. The guard said it had been Howard Hughes private office. He said there was nothing in there and that he didn't have the key with him.  So when I got done with my tour I had a total count of 27 paintings.

I went to my car, tallied things up and decided on about six painting I really wanted. I went back over to the Summa's offices and asked the receptionist if I could purchase the paintings since I was already here.  I told here there were six that I wanted.  She asked me to wait and disappeared into a door behind her. To the nether offices in the dark confines of the big time bosses - well thats my description.  She went back to the Summa Corp's executives. She came back in about 15 minutes and apologized, but she said, that paintings would be auctioned off individually. I protested, but she was quite firm that I would have to bid on the paintings individually at auction.

Now I had my Ire up !  Who did the Summa corporation think they were anyway? I went home, disappointed. Not defeated. I tallied up what I thought the entire collection was worth. And I debated what to do. Well, it was worth by my calculation several times what my mortgage was. I was determined, I wanted those 6 pieces. So I would have to buy the entire damned collection. But I could not risk a bidding war. Which I surely may miss out on the pieces I wanted most.
Fortunately, I had a very good banking relationship. And in those days, unlike the Remote Corporate Banks today, the Branch Manager actually had some authority and Power. So I went to the Bank, got the manager and we sit down and I tell her, I need a personal loan of x amount of dollars. She goes into the standard, `I need some papers filled out, what's the loan for?, how will you secure it ?...yada yada yada'.  And I said I do not have time for all that. I need a Cashier's check now, paid to the Summa Corporation. So, on my signature and personal guarantee, I was out of the bank in about 30 minutes, on my way back to Las Vegas.

I walked into the offices of the Summa Corporation late that day, at about closing time. The same receptionist looked at me, recognized me, and in her very formal Receptionist voice, said "May I help you Sir ?". I said, `Yes you May. I am here to buy all of the paintings in the Silver Slipper. Now'. And I laid the Cashier's check face up, facing her, on her desk. She looked down at it and her jaw literally dropped. She stood there with her mouth wide open looking down at the check.  After she regained her composure, picked up the check, and excused herself as she took the check to the offices in back.  I sat and read magazines. She was gone for almost an hour and when she came back she said Mr. Autry your purchase is approved, and presented me with a Sales receipt, which said I had purchased all of the paintings in the Silver Slipper. I was also told that I had to have the paintings removed within 72 hours, as the physical demolitions of the building was to begin.

Julian RitterI was elated, excited, and nervous. I went home, contacted my neighbor across the street, Mike Roth, who was on the Culver City Police Department. I told him I needed an Armed Guard. I rented a U-haul the next day, and Mike and i drove back to Las Vegas, and got to the Slipper mid morning.  We were on top of ladders with screw drivers, screw guns, and hammers, prying, and unscrewing the frames on the walls. It was a circus with all the activity around.  I could just feel that big wrecking ball coming down on my head. So as we unscrewed and loaded painting we had to keep track. I counted. Mike Counted. We recounted. 7. 8, 12. 15. We kept counting. We kept checking room after room to make sure we didn't miss or forget anything. And then we came to this room where the door was locked. It was that same room the Guard had said he didn't have a key for. Oh Yes, the Silver Slipper guard was watching us all the time.  I told him I needed the door opened. He said No.

He told me that was a private room of Mr. Hughes and no-one was allowed inside. I told him I have paid for and had a receipt for ALL of the paintings in the Silver Slipper, and I wanted in that room. He still said no.  Then I explained that I would have my attorney get a Writ, and that I would stop the Sale of the Property , stop the Demolition, and bring to a stop the whole deal of this new Mr. Wynn guy. OK, I confess now, i was just full of wind, but I must have sounded very convincing.  He talked to his supervisors or somebody, and came back with a key and opened the door to let me in. When I walked into the small room, there against the wall was a large gorgeous reclining nude by Julian.  I took it and took it to my truck. I had purchased all of the painting at the Casino. And that painting was indeed placed there by Howard Hughes year before. I'm sure today, that that room was where the Bosses were keeping their own stash. Whatever mementos they were pilfering for themselves. I purchased 28 pieces now known as the Silver Slipper Collection. And we're told that there was 35 or so, painting which Julian had sold to them over the years, including paintings originally hung in the Frontier hotel. Seven paintings are somewhere out there. Taken as mementos of the Glory Days of old Las Vegas.   

Finally having loaded all the paintings, and exhausted, and dirty, I got the receipt corrected, and and drove home to Culver City.

Sometime. months later, Julian, and his son Michael, came down to see the paintings. I promised Julian that I would take care of them and treat them with the respect they deserved. And for 25 years, through Divorce and financial peril I have honored my word to Julian.   That is how I came to own The Silver Slipper Collection, by Julian Ritter.



Rewritten from previously written materials.
2-10-12 by Greg Autry . [Previously written for me by someone whose name I can not remember at this time].



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