Donald Elmblad SDSA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner 2014
Set Decorator Donald Elmblad SDSA credits his life experiences, from extraordinary to classic Americana, as key to the depth and range of his set decoration in film and television.
His commitment to furthering the proper recognition of the profession of set decoration has helped expand awareness across the spectrum of the industry. A dedicated member of the SDSA, almost since its inception, he emphasized the positive networking effect of the organization, served several terms on the board of directors and co-chaired the awards event.
He generously shares his experiences, relating what led to his career as well as the productions in which he was involved…
Watch this exclusive video Produced by History for Hire and directed and edited by Gregory Gast, Syncopated Video on our SDSA Set Decorators Vimeo Channel:
I grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, home of Lake Minnetonka, Tonka Toys and Minnetonka Moccasins. My grandfather was an auctioneer and often had me work with him at his farm auction house or at estate and farm sales, allowing me to hold up items for sale and to choose the next item up for bid. I quickly learned about glass, pottery, art, furniture, textiles, silver, jewelry and tools, including their age and value. He and my mother collected antiques, art glass and American Indian artifacts.
Before I was 16 years old, I had camped-vacationed across the United States with my family—three older sisters, mom (the poet) and dad (the hard-working telephone man/fisherman/gardener/hunter)—visiting most of the lower 48 states and their capitals. We explored museums, churches, libraries, bridges, lakes, forests, dams, waterfalls, national parks and other treasures of America. I occasionally saw movies as a youth, but spent hours every day watching television.
After graduating in 1969 from Winona State University, where I majored in Art Education with minors in Painting, Ceramics and Sculpture, I was hired by the Rochester, Minnesota Public School District. I taught Elementary Art K-6, and became a tenured teacher after three years. For two of those years, I lived on the 1200-acre Mayo Family Estate on the Zumbro River, residing in the estate’s coach house.
I served on the Rochester Art Education Committee that wrote the guide for Elementary Art Education, later adopted by the state of Minnesota as their guide to Art Education K-12.
During my fourth year, just before Thanksgiving, 1973, a principal at one of my three schools “perceived” that I was gay. I was given an ultimatum to resign from my career as a teacher, or he would “tell parents and the press that a gay teacher was at his school.” Being gay is still grounds for firing in 29 states. At Christmas, I fled Minnesota, left my family, friends and my love of teaching, and headed out in my VW camper with a great friend, Nancy Slocumb, to find a less repressive state and a new life and career.
We spent that winter visiting my friends in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, worked at the Village Inn hotel and skied every day. In the spring, we headed out to visit Nancy’s friends in Berkeley, California, which proved to be a turning point in my life for the next 8 years.
I started managing a great apartment building in the Berkeley North Campus Hills opposite the Golden Gate Bridge, with spectacular views of San Francisco and the Bay. I also waited tables, bartended, and managed staff at several restaurants in Berkeley, San Francisco and Mill Valley. I became a top commission salesman at Sausalito Design Furniture Co. for two years.
In 1979, when I returned from a “holiday gig” as a waiter on a Royal Viking cruise ship, a Berkeley neighbor said she had “the perfect job for me”. After an extensive interview and a two-week try-out, then a waiting period while others went through the same process, I was offered the position: the personal assistant/major domo for Francis Ford Coppola. Another life-changing blessing in my journey.
Francis was starting ONE FROM THE HEART. He was writing, interviewing and scoring music at his American Zoetrope office on Kearney St. in San Francisco. We commuted for several months from Napa or San Francisco by his personal jet to Zoetrope studios in Los Angeles, as his studio office needed to be set up at the same time that the film’s sets were going up. Hollywood had taken hold of me. I moved to West Hollywood in 1980, where I still reside.
Leslie Frankenheimer and Gary Fettis were the first Set Decorators I met, Dean Tavoularis the first Production Designer. I was inspired from day one. My job was managing Francis’s office, coordinating his home and family schedules, preparing daily lunch meetings (I learned to cook Italian!) with department heads, actors, celebrity interviews, meetings with the press and, occasionally, Governor Jerry Brown. I was hooked!
After ONE FROM THE HEART, circumstances dictated that personal staff needed to be let go. So after four years, my favorite job, serving the smartest person I had ever met, ended.
Luckily, Francis started THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH soon after. He was able to get me hired as Co-Set Decorator with Gary Fettis on THE OUTSIDERS (screen credit: Gary's assistant) and as Set Dresser on RUMBLE FISH, with Set Decorator Mary Swanson in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1983. When I returned home, I presented my crew lists, deal memos and check stubs from these two union films to IATSE Local 44, but I was not allowed to become a union member at that time.
For the next two years, I did mostly commercials—set decorating and art directing. In 1985, I started working on non-union feature films and movies-of-the-week. I loved the shopping, decorating and character development—I loved the work and never looked back. I continued to be very busy for the next 8 years, also blessed with a few of Francis’s personal projects in New York and Belize.
In 1993, I was working in Maine on MAN WITHOUT A FACE with Director/Actor Mel Gibson and Production Designer Barbara Dunphy, and the film went union. When I returned to Los Angeles, I was finally allowed into Local 44 as a Union Set Decorator. Work continued to come fast and furiously.
Soon after, the SDSA was formed. I became a member and have served on the Board of Directors and several committees. I still feel extremely lucky to be associated with this group.
In 1994, I was accepted into the Academy of Television Arts and Science. I served on the Art Directors Peer Group-Executive Committee from 1995-1997. My primary focus was to work with other committee members to change the name to Art Directors Set Decorators Peer Group-Executive Committee, which continues today to better reflect the contribution of Set Decorators and their membership in our ATAS peer group.
I’ve done feature films, TV series, movies-of-the-week, as well as commercials. I loved location work most of all, especially in South Africa with Production Designer and friend Pam Warner on ALIEN FROM L.A.
In 2009, I was working with Production Designer Bernt Capra on THIS IS IT for Michael Jackson. After Michael’s death, I figured that “This Was It” for me, too…at age 65, a perfect swan song. So, with 45 films, movies-of-the-week and series under my belt, I retired from my film and television career. I've enjoyed all the characters, both scripted and in my life.
I have no regrets in my Hollywood life or any of the former experiences that gave me the instincts to know how to do almost any set required, and remain so happy and grateful for all of the adventures!
THIS IS IT (Documentary 2009)
DRAGON WARS: D-WAR (2007)
PEACEFUL WARRIOR (2006)
THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE (1993)
DEEP COVER (1992)
ALIEN FROM L.A. (1988)
BODY SLAM (1986)
WELCOME TO 18 (1986)
STAND ALONE (1985)
FRATERNITY VACATION (1985)
SWEET NOTHING IN MY EAR (TV Movie 2008)
THE THICK OF IT (TV Movie 2007)
LINCOLN HEIGHTS (TV Series - 10 episodes 2007)
SUPER SWEET 16: THE MOVIE (TV Movie 2007)
THE UNIT (TV Series - 3 episodes 2006-2007)
COLUMBO (TV Series -1 episode 2003)
SENOR WHITE (TV Movie 2003)
FATHER LEFTY (TV Movie 2002)
PARANORMAL GIRL (TV Movie 2002)
GROSSE POINTE (TV Series- Pilot 2000)
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (TV Series - 12 episodes 2000)
THE HUNTRESS (TV Series - Pilot 2000)
INVISIBLE CHILD (TV Movie 1999)
THE TIGER WOODS STORY (TV Movie 1998)
12 ANGRY MEN (TV Movie 1997)
LITTLE GIRLS IN PRETTY BOXES (TV Movie 1997)
MARY & TIM (TV Movie 1996)
A FRIEND'S BETRAYAL (TV Movie 1997)
KINDRED: THE EMBRACED (TV Series 1996)
SUGARTIME (TV Movie 1996)
EXTREME (TV Series - Pilot)
TAD (TV Movie 1995)
DEAD AIR (TV Movie 1994)
AMELIA EARHART: THE FINAL FLIGHT (TV Movie)
OUT OF DARKNESS (TV Movie 1994)
SCATTERED DREAMS (TV Movie 1993)
FUGITIVE NIGHTS: DANGER IN THE DESERT (TV Movie 1993)
FIRE IN THE DARK (TV Movie 1991)
THE HIT MAN (TV Movie 1991)
SHE STOOD ALONE (TV Movie 1991)
LUCY & DESI: BEFORE THE LAUGHTER (TV Movie 1991)
GOOD COPS, BAD COPS (TV Movie 1990)
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (TV Series - 3 episodes 1990)
TILL WE MEET AGAIN (TV Mini-Series 1989)