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Post World War II - Hollywood

When Julian first returned from the war, he and Hilde continued living with Hilde's parents. He was eager to find a place of their own but he did enjoy the warm and cozy atmosphere of the Radon household. He was also pleased that his mother had been accepted into the family. But Julian truly was a new man when he returned – at 36, he was no longer young, he was a naturalized citizen and an official part of a large close family. Furthermore, he was a property owner: Hilde had bought a lot on Mulholland Terrace during the war. These roots were crucial to Julian at this stage of his life, and family and property would be central to his personal life for the next twenty years.

Although Los Angeles was a boom town after the war, there were not many opportunities for an artist and Julian was struggling not just to paint, but even to find a place to paint in the crowded Radon household. Fortunately, Hilde had been continually employed by Disney Studios from before the time she met Julian and she had confidence in his talent - considering herself a proprietor of that talent. Hilde also managed the couple's finances and started keeping ledgers of Julian's sales but those records are incomplete. For one thing, they documented only the month, price and buyer but, usually, not the piece. For another thing, not all sales were entered.

Julian Ritter on Hilde's ledgers

When I'd go out peddling, she'd give me gas money and meal money. I'd take along a little piece that I could sell cheap for my martini money. When I was out of town in the fifties, I'd paint larger paintings that I wouldn't necessarily mention to her. And she'd seldom record trades, no matter how large they were. Sometimes, she'd leave certain things out. I don't know what her reasoning was. She was a woman.

After a couple of months of living with the Radons, Julian found a small flat over a store on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Cienega in West Hollywood.

Julian Ritter on their first apartment

It was a tiny place - supposedly a studio apartment, but with too little room for me to really paint - overlooking an alleyway. But I started doing some charcoals and watercolors there. And I bought an easel and some oils, so I was able to get into portrait painting, painting people in their own house or store.

An example of of Hilde's record-keeping was the last couple of months of 1945: a thousand dollars worth of drawings to Paul Klieban, a friend of the Radon family and publicist at Knott's Berry Farm but no mention of the five and ten dollar sales Julian was making during these months off his silk screens.

Julian Ritter on selling silk screen images

I rented a place in a walled-off corner of a screw factory, and made silk-screens of wester subjects which I peddled in Long Beach. I took them under my arm and went from gallery to frame shop to antique store.

Julian painted only one painting in the West Hollywood location - a second portrait of Eileen Coghlan's sister, Frankie - before good luck intervened in the person of Leo Post. Post was a Hollywood developer who owned a large piece of undeveloped property in the Deep Dell section of the Hollywood Hills.

Julian Ritter on buying his Rinconia Drive home

Hilde and I had been looking into the cost of building on our Mulholland Terrace lot. We'd even had some bulldozing done. but they required a house of a certain size up there, with certain amenities, so we couldn't afford to start. then Post came along, offering a deal we could afford, so we went with him.

Part of that deal was a new apartment while their Deep Dell house was being built.

Bill Post [Leo Post's son] on the 'Chinese Gardens' apartments

The "Chinese Gardens" were actually the Bernheimer Gardens, built in, I think, 1914, by the wealthy Bernheimer brothers, as Japanese gardens at the top of Sycamore Street in Hollywood. There was a large one-story house there of probably 20,000 square feet surrounded by a fifteen acre garden. My ad and I put a road through there eventually, down the other side, and put in all sorts of apartment buildings. The main building now houses a japanese restaurant. At the time, I was finishing it. The house had vaulted sixteen or eighteen foot ceilings, so I divided it into two stories, and Dad leased it for commercial on one side and apartments on the other. So, we moved Julian and Hilde in there while they were waiting for their house.

Julian and Hilde had fond memories of the Chinese Gardens apartment. The rent was cheap and it was a big, new apartment with an upstairs and downstairs, terrific light and a great view overlooking Hollywood. Julian was able to set up his easel and paint, and he, no doubt, also enjoyed the characters that lived there.

Julian Ritter on living at the 'Chinese Gardens' apartment

There were a bunch of characters living there – unconventional individuals, doing things you shouldn't do. Alcoholics, dreamers, actors, artists, writers. Hilde was very much a lady, and probably didn't like it much. But she put up with it. She helped her Aunt Poti get a place there, while she was waiting for Post to finish her place in Deep Dell, so she was living there with her three daughters including Hilde's best friend, Rene, so she [Hilde] had plenty of company.

Julian did have one problem: he initially found himself unable to paint anything but morbid, gruesome paintings of death, darkness and despair as he processed the devastation of his native Germany and the horrific scenes he witnessed at Dachau. These paintings were uncharacteristic of Julian: gloomy reflections of war and destruction like "Refugees" and "Slums" - dark themes executed in the style that one critic compared to Daumier or Goya. "My mother always said that he had to work these things out," recalls Michael Ritter, "before he could go onto other things." As to the style, Julian confesses no influences, insisting that the style emerged from the subjects.

Julian Ritter on his morbid post-war paintings

I don't know how describe the series – desperate depression maybe. I did a dozen or more, sold a few of them and painted over the others. They were too depressing.

Julian returned to a familiar subject, nudes, which appeared to pull him from his gloomy mood. He painted at least a dozen or two after they moved to the Chinese Gardens. He did at least a half-dozen of Hilde alone with her breasts already swelled from her pregnancy. A half-dozen more were solo nudes or semi-nudes of women he met like Bill Post's wife, Nancy, or models he hired. And there may have been as many as a half-dozen compositions of two or three female figures – a new wrinkle in his nudes.

Julian also painted at least fifteen commissioned portraits between March, 1946 and April, 1947, for between $100 and $350 each. Most of these were painted before December when he and Hilde moved to their new home, many of them in his studio. Most of his studio work was on his own paintings: nudes, still lifes and multi-figure compositions that he did for his own satisfaction. During this period, he also painted a portrait of Doris Day, at the time a young singer with Les Brown's Band, who was married to Hilde's cousin.

Julian had begun his most prolific period painting some one hundred-plus paintings in nineteen months. Julian would regularly work long hours and he became known for the high quality and fine craftsmanship of his nude studies and clowns. Collectors acquired his paintings throughout the West, particularly in Southern California, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Julian and Hilde moved into their home at 2413 Rinconia Drive in the Deep Dell development not far from the "Hollywood" sign in December, 1946. Ritter landscaped the steep lot with shrubs and trees and broken concrete from Leo Post's other construction projects. Ritter's work continued to receive favorable reviews. Ritter and Hilde had two children while living in Hollywood - Christine was born March 22, 1947 and Michael was born September 2, 1948.

The house was probably no more than 400 square feet – a bedroom, a bath and a room that served as the kitchen, living room and studio. The house itself proved to be too small for the purposes Julian intended as a combination living and working quarters such as he had shared with Francesca in Silverlake.

Julian Ritter recounts building his first studio

I did some painting there when we first moved in, but it was pretty tight on space right from the beginning. After Christine came along, it was even more crowded.We saw that I was going to need a real studio if I was going to get any work done, so we took another mortgage and had Post build me a studio up above the house, right next to the road.

Things were finally looking a bit brighter for Julian in spring of 1947. His career had been going well the past year with him selling a portrait or two every month at a couple of hundred dollars apiece. During the previous few months, Julian had made over $500 each month and he had established a contact with a Westwood Hills gallery owned by James Vigeveno who bought a thousand dollars worth of paintings since November, and who scheduled a one-man show at his gallery for May. The show received some critical acclaim but it was not the financial success that Julian or Vigeveno hoped for, with only four paintings sold.

Art critic Arthur Miller of the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 1947 review of Ritter's one-man show at the James Vigeveno Galleries in Westwood, CA:

Julian Ritter, still-young painter and etcher who has not shown here in many years, has a large exhibit at the James Vigeveno Galleries to June 12. It shows him remarkably gifted and various.

Some will like his many paintings of girls or nudes, done in charming colors, or his characterful portraits of older folk or children. Others may prefer his slightly sardonic, action-packed grotesques of circus clowns or of merely comical people. He also can turn deeply serious with "Refugees" or "Slums."

The world is evidently a stage for this imaginative artist, who has the wit and the craft to present it filled with teeming humanity. A. M.

Hard times again fell on Julian and Hilde, and Julian made most his money by doing odd jobs as a gardener or a laborer in the neighborhood. Frustrated, Julian determined to increase his income by selling "schlock paintings" that pandered to the market using the psudonym, Sobrani.

Julian Ritter recounts painting 'schlock' under the name Sobrani

Although I couldn't find a market for my larger pieces, there was a cheap market for oil sketches - little things, recognizable subjects that I could do three or four an hour. I'd sell them to a frame dealer four a couple of bucks a piece. He's put a frame on them and sell them for five or ten dollars as original art.I didn't want to sign them but he insisted on a signature, so I signed them "Sobrani"." I'd sell them in batches  to him: he'd order thirty of them, or fifty of them, and I'd be down  few days later with the whole order.

In a 1948 "Brush Strokes" column in the Los Angeles Times commented:
Julian Ritter's paintings of clowns, on view in the gallery at 401 S Lake Ave., Pasadena, are notable for liveliness of expression and color. Ritter has chosen to paint clowns, he explains, because "In the clown one sees all the emotions a man can express; to record him is to depict humanity itself."

The fact was that Julian chose to paint clowns because there was a ready market for them and he could paint them quickly. Among artists, the attraction to clowns is in the universal appeal of the subject. Unlike portraits, which usually have only one potential buyer or nudes which most collectors would not have in their home, a clown can be sold to virtually anybody. What inspired Julian to paint clowns is a mystery – the first time he went to a circus was in 1949 - but the most likely explanation is that he saw the work of inferior artists fetching high prices. These were typically small clowns, 8x10 inches, that became Julian's bread and butter for many years, allowing him to make a living while still pursuing some of the portraits and nudes that he preferred painting.

Michael Ritter recalls Julian's mass produced clowns

He put a large piece of masonite up on an easel and paint it full of clown faces. My job was to cut them into pieces after they dried. These were his bread and butter that he could always sell for five, ten or twenty dollars. That's what he paid his bills with when his other work wasn't selling.

In spite of Julian deeming these pieces "schlock," many of his mass-produced clowns turned out much better than he expected as Julian explains below.

Julian Ritter about his mass-produced clowns

I got very good at them through so much practice. Sometimes I sketched the same clown over and over again. So it was very easy for me to sketch him in a few lines; oftentimes, a few lines would capture him as well as several hours of work on a larger painting. Sometimes I'd get caught up in painting one for a couple of hours, forgetting about the others. Ordinarily, I'd set such a clown aside and try to get a little more for it. Sometimes I could, sometimes I'd sell it with the rest. There's no way to distinguish them except the amount of care that went into them and the quality of the work

Perhaps the greatest surprise, in retrospect, is that clowns didn't occur to Julian sooner. He'd painted them in the past: a nice one he gave to his roommate, Bill Miller, to cover his rent in 1933, for example. He'd been painting bums, barflies and hobos for years - they were among his most frequent subjects. And he had cartooned his way across Europe for a couple of years, representing GIs as hapless Sad Sacks. With his skill as a figure and portrait painter, and his sense of humor, he was a natural as a clown painter.

Julian's career was once again looking up, with successful trips to San Francisco that included sales of his paintings plus a few commissions, including two nudes of a Japanese dancer - the only time he painted an Asian model. Although he struggled to keep his work before the public in Los Angeles, he developed relationships with several frame dealers who showed and resold his work. He also maintained his relationship with Bullock's, an upscale department store in Pasadena

Julian Ritter recalls selling at Bullocks Department Store in Pasadena

I showed my work there on consignment. I hated to do business that way, but it was a very nice gallery where I wanted to show my work. I sold a few drawings there; I don't think I sold a painting until I started doing clowns.

Julian was also busy doing a flurry of wall paintings, decorating the bathrooms of friends' houses, usually with nudes or humorous subjects. He painted about a half-dozen of these for $75 or $100 for the whole room. Julian also painted a series of wall paintings of the "Stations of the Cross" for the chapel of a convent in South Los Angeles.

Julian was painting but his works were not selling – another setback in a seemingly endless cycle in his flirtation with success. Michael Ritter was born September 2, 1948. Julian had a son to complete his perfect family. However, he also had another mouth to feed. Hilde sold the Mulholland Terrace lot that she had hoped would one day be the site of their home and used the money to pay the bills which had accumulated. The Ritters did, however, maintain an active social life in friends and new neighbors in the Deep Dell community.

One new friend was George Morgan, the son of the actor Frank Morgan who played the Wizard of Oz. Julian's former model, Eileen Coghlan, introduced the two while Julian was living in the "Chinese gardens" apartments waiting for his home to be completed. Morgan's family was well-off, money made distributing Angostura bitters. Morgan took a liking to Julian and was fast a regular drinking buddy for Julian. He was also an admirer of Julian's work and purchased eleven paintings and drawings between August, 1946 and December, 1950.

Another friendship developed between the Ritters and their immediate neighbors, Margaret and Wilson (Lefty) Lefler. Lefty worked in the traffic department of one of the big networks and was looking for art to decorate his walls. He  made a proposition to Julian: he would hang Julian's borrowed paintings on his walls and recommend Julian to guests who liked them. Julian would have none of that and Lefty got his first Ritter painting, a small clown, by trading a mitre box so Julian could make his own frames. It turned out to be a better trade for Lefty than for Julian.

Julian Ritter about making picture frames

It would've been nice if I could've made my own frames; a frame always adds to the value of the painting. But my big problem was that I could never measure: I'd start out to make a 30x40 and end up with an 8x10

Though Julian was not selling a lot of his paintings, he was bartering a great deal – for furniture, for services, for past debts. Julian even traded a painting to pay for the services of the obstetrician who delivered Michael. The obstetrician encouraged Julian to have more children so he could get more paintings. Finances were extremely tight in January of 1949 when Julian had another flirtation with success:

Julian Ritter recalls selling a painting when money was tight

We were flat broke, and I had a studio full of paintings. So I took a painting up to Scharlin, my neighbor who was a liquor salesman and traded it for a bottle of whiskey so we could have a party. We invited a bunch of movie people we'd met, including a couple of radio writers, whom we hoped would buy a painting. As soon as he entered the house, one of them, Parke Levy, said, "I'll buy that painting." It was a big nude that he paid $250 cash for, right on the spot. When I told Hilde, she swooned; she was so overcome that she had to sit down for a few minutes. Then she ran down to the store and bought some sandwich food and another bottle of whiskey. All we'd had was that bottle of whiskey.

Julian got as much as $250 for a painting only once more in 1949, after his sale to Parke Levy. But he worked and peddled steadily that year, selling at least a couple of pieces each month - even in his worst months - some months bringing in $400 or $500. There was a healthy variety to his sales: at least a half dozen nudes, a half dozen clowns of various sizes, a couple of portraits, a still life and a marine are all documented in Hilde's ledger from 1949. There was a healthy scattering of business too: a few sales to Parke Levy and to his friend, Stanley Adams, who was also a writer; a few paintings to June McAfee, who also commissioned a portrait; a few nudes to a fellow named Curtis; a few large paintings to a Dr. Bob Sullivan, whom Julian had met socially; a few clowns to a designer named Gelber; a few more pieces to George Morgan and various single pieces to a variety of customers. Julian's only problem was that nearly all his sales were directly to customers and few to galleries. This was a problem that Julian faced over and over. Julian hated paying the gallery's commission and made more money selling directly. But his lack of gallery representation caused the art establishment to pass him over, especially when he would be selling a piece at a lower price out of the trunk of his car. Julian was, at last, making money but he was not building the reputation that mosts artists are eager to develop.

Julian Ritter on selling directly to customers

I'd sometimes approach a private customer by bringing a painting over to his house that I'd thought that he's like. He'd usually invite me to lunch or dinner, or to have a martini, so even if I didn't sell a painting, I'd have something. Many times it would work and I'd have a celebration.

Thus, Julian had entered a cycle that continuously hurt his career in terms of building his reputation as an artist. Peddling was making money, and often more than he would get from a gallery sale, but he remained in the shadows for many potential buyers who would buy only through galleries. He often did have work in some gallery, but he was still out peddling his art instead of driving sales through the galleries which would have boosted his reputation and provided more gravitas to his artistic career. Fortunately, Julian's commercial success loomed just across a state line.

It was not Julian but, rather, his brother-in-law, Stewart Potter, who concocted the plan that would turn a trip to Las Vegas in February, 1950, into a sales coup that would lift Julian's career to a higher level in terms of his commercial success. Julian fully credits Stewart with the idea.

Julian Ritter on selling paintings in Las Vegas

He [Stewart] had been up to Las Vegas, and became convinced that I could sell a bunch of nudes up there. So he and I made a plan. I didn't have that many large nudes in my inventory, so I had to get Eileen [Coghlan] in to model for a few, along with a couple of other models. I sold five or six as I was painting them, so it took me several months to build up my inventory. By February, I finally had enough and we drove up there. Stewart was the eternal optimist, always sure we were going to get a break around the next corner. He had to be since we were up there for a couple of weeks, going from casino to casino, being refused by each one. I was ready to give up when he tried [Bill] Moore at the Last Frontier and he bought everything – thirteen nudes from 36x48 down to 9x12 for $1000. I gave Stewart $300 and sent $700 home to Hilde. I stayed on and celebrated there for a couple of more days.

Thelma Loden remembers

My husband Bob and I had an interior decoration business in Las Vegas, and we were decorating the Last Frontier Hotel, which was just about to open. One morning Bob went out to start the crew working and Julian was parked there, with all these paintings in his car. He showed them to Bob who became very excited. Bob went immediately to Bill Moore, the manager, and told him these were fantastic paintings, saying, "You better snatch these paintings up before they're gone." I don't know what price Julian was asking, but he sold thirteen paintings to Bill. Julian was so happy; he really was.

This sale was the beginning of the Silver Slipper collection, named for the casino that was part of Moore's Last Frontier Village adjacent to the Last Frontier Hotel. These first thirteen paintings grew into a collection of 34 paintings over the next 15 years. And it was the beginning of a whole new phase in Julian's career, when he began to spend the larger part of his time on the road, peddling his paintings and drawings. Julian was back in Las Vegas the following month trying to peddle clowns without much success. He did sell a couple to a furniture dealer named O'Shea in Palm Springs on his way home. On his next trip to Las Vegas, he stopped again in Palm Springs and bartered for furniture to surprise Hilde.

Julian was in Las Vegas most of the summer of 1950, from June through August, getting back home only on occasional weekends. In June, he painted a mural in the Thunderbird Hotel for $1000 and got $300 for the decoration of another bar. In July, he got $1000 for his larger-than-life portrait of Doby Dock, the "curator" for the Last Frontier and Silver Slipper properties who had acquired (through questionable means) much of the Nevada memorabilia  he sold to Moore, and he sold a couple of paintings through the Silver Slipper. In August and September, he worked a few weeks for Bob Loden, a Las Vegas decorator, painting sets for Las Vegas shows. Sometime that summer, Hilde and the kids came up from Los Angeles for a week, staying in a motel with him.

Julian Ritter tells of his family's visit to Las Vegas

We took a few day trips to see points of interest. I wanted Hilde to see the area, to see if we could live there. But she didn't like it so I dropped that idea.

Hilde's ledgers for 1950 show the significant change in Julian's stature as an artist. She recorded thirty-odd clown sales in 1950, ranging from five and ten dollar sales of small clown paintings to a hundred dollars for a large portrait, "Sad Clown", and also one of his clown compositions. A few of these were sold to old Los Angeles customers (including George Morgan), a few went to Las Vegas and a few to Fresno, CA,  where his old friend Bill Citrin had moved. For the most part though, he sold his clown paintings to new Los Angeles buyers or out-of-towners, customers he'd never here from again. His nudes moved slowly – understandably after selling the baker's dozen to the Silver Slipper had depleted his inventory; he sold only a few smaller nudes, none for as much as $100. Besides the huge portrait of Doby Dock, he painted a couple of other portraits that year, one in January and one in December, which perfectly illustrate the change in his stature.

Julian painted a portrait of a young Hollywood woman named Jacqueline Cummings, who George Morgan had introduced him to. It is a 40x30 painting of her in an armchair called "The Girl in the Blue Velvet Suit." Julian painted this portrait in eight to ten sittings, about two hours each time at Jacqueline's mother house in Benedict Canyon and received only $50 for it. The second portrait was one that he painted at the behest of his old friend Bill Citrin and his wife, Herta.

Herta Citrin recalls the portrait of Dr. Snyder's daughter

We moved to Fresno in 1949. Our friends there, the Snyders, expressed an interest in having their three year old daughter painted, so we said that we knew somebody really god. Julian came up and talked to them and they made a deal; he stayed with us while he painted it. He got paid $300 which was… Dr. Snyder was kind of new in practice, and that was a lot of money at the time but they felt they couldn't pass it up.

Commenting on the six-fold discrepancy in price, Julian admits that he was a lot more desperate in January than in December, pointing out that he never did a portrait for less than $300 again.

Julian Ritter on painting portraits

A portrait takes more time than other pictures and, if the client doesn't like it when you're done, you're stuck with it. I preferred nudes and clowns, though I got considerably less for them. As long as I could make a living with them, I didn't solicit portraits.

Julian spent a great deal of time away from home in 1950 but, remarkably, he was there both times Hilde really needed him at moments of domestic crisis. The first incident involved a fire that was blazing in their canyon in the Deep Dell community. Julian and Hilde were driving up La Cienega and could see that the fire was near their home. When Julian arrived, he bolted past the police lines only to find that the Leflers had both families safely in a car and headed from harm's way. The second time was in mid-December after Julian returned home from Fresno. Some careless bulldozing on the property below theirs accompanied by a heavy rainstorm set their hillside in motion. They had bulldozed away the toe of the hill and the combination of the Ritter's cesspool and the heavy rain sent the hillside into the houses below. Julian was afraid the house was next (although it never moved) and was determined to get out of there. Julian demanded a settlement and while it was pending, someone sent a bulldozer to push the dirt back into place. Julian grabbed his pistol and threatened the operator who in turn called the police. Julian explained "This is my property and I don't want anybody to bulldoze it without my permission." It was a fortuitous move - the bank sent someone over with a check that afternoon which Julian and Hilde used a month later as a downpayment on their Woodland Hills house.