MaryAnn Biddle SDSA

April 2nd, 2023

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SDSA Honors MaryAnn Biddle with The Earl Cooperman Lifetime Achievement Award 2023

Mary Ann Biddle SDSA from OfficialSDSA on Vimeo.

The Earl Cooperman Lifetime Achievement Award is made possible by an annual bequest from EC Prop Rentals

Origin story... In her suburban Denver home, 14-year-old Mary Ann discovered a can of white paint and surreptitiously brushed her family’s maple furniture, completing her all-white vision for her new bedroom. Her sense of color, design and order was innate, well ahead of trends to come. That design sense would later help her earn eight Emmy nominations, including two wins for her work as set decorator on NYPD BLUE and MURDER ONE, during her 40 years in the entertainment industry.

Off to Hollywood... After earning a degree in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she spent several months drafting at a New York City firm, then moved to Los Angeles. She worked at Bullock’s department store’s design studio for two years. A subsequent job with a Beverly Hills designer on commercial projects involved extensive travel to the San Francisco area, as well as Scottsdale, Arizona, for another two years—but Mary Ann wished for something both local and more challenging. It dawned on her while watching TV: Someone has to be designing what’s being filmed and placing the items in the shot. That someone could be her. Mary Ann was advised by the Set Designers Union to purchase a studio directory containing a list of film studios and industry members. Cold calling was mostly discouraged, but she kept at the search for a way in.

The studios story begins... Her first break was in 1975: She met William DeCinces, head of Universal Studios Art Department and Property. The directory also led her to NBC Studios’ Art Department chief, Milt Altman. Unbeknownst to her, there was a government mandate for the film and television industry to diversify in race and gender hiring. She was in the right place at the right time, with the right preparation for this new arena. Altman invited her to substitute for a vacationing art director on the daytime drama DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Art Directors Hub Braden (JEOPARDY), Dick Styles (WHEEL OF FORTUNE) and John Schrum (THE JOHNNY CARSON SHOW) showed her the ropes. She scraped together the required 30 days on the job and was invited into the Art Directors Guild. Roy Christopher, a prolific art director on sitcoms and awards shows, took her under his wing and guided her toward set decoration. Mary Ann was assigned to decorate the procedural MCMILLAN starring Rock Hudson. She worked the required 30 days to become eligible as a set decorator in IATSE Local 44, her second union card in as many years. She was met with a wide variety of attitude from predominantly male staffers. Many were supportive, but others made it clear she was not welcome. She became adept at anticipating and avoiding problems on set and earned the respect of her colleagues.

Emmy recognition begins and a foray into feature films... In 1977, Mary Ann received two Emmy nominations: for the comedy series MR. T AND TINA with Production Designer Roy Christopher, and for SIROTA’S COURT with Production Designer Seymour Klate. In the late 1970s, she had the privilege of working on feature films with the legendary Art Directors Henry Bumstead for THE CONCORDE...AIRPORT ‘79 and Bob Boyle for THE BIG FIX. Mary Ann earned her third Emmy nomination for the 1980 TV movie BRAVE NEW WORLD, created on the gargantuan Stage 12 on the Universal Studios backlot. An adaptation from Aldous Huxley’s novel, the futuristic sets were designed by New York Art Director Tom John and built entirely on wheels in the manner of moving stage scenery. The romance of making the now classic SOMWHERE IN TIME... A life-changing opportunity arose in early 1980 with the 1912-period fantasy romance SOMEWHERE IN TIME, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. This was her first location, on Mackinac Island in upstate Michigan. The romantic theme extended reality: Mary Ann met her future husband Boom Operator John Unsinn.

The non-stop ‘80s & ‘90s... Her work in the ‘80s and ‘90s encompassed feature films and television series, such as: the film GHOST STORY, starring Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Melvin Douglas and Patricia Neal; the MURDER SHE WROTE series, for which she designed the permanent sets; MAGNUM P.I. and EQUAL JUSTICE. She garnered two more Emmy nominations for both seasons of THIRTYSOMETHING, with Production Designer Brandy Alexander. Mary Ann won her first Emmy with Production Designer Paul Eads in 1993 for NYPD BLUE, and they were again nominated for the same series the following year. In 1996, working with Eads and his wife, Art Director Mindy Roffman, they won another Emmy for MURDER ONE. A 14-year alliance with producer Steven Bochco also led to her designing his homes and special events. Writer/producer David E. Kelley kept her busy for four years on BOSTON LEGAL.

Apropos... In 2005, Mary Ann, her husband John, and Paul and Mindy formed a partnership and opened Apropos Interiors in North Hollywood, initially with inventory purchased from Bochco, who was divesting his stock of set dressing. They moved to a larger space in 2010, continually adding to their inventory. When the lease was up in 2014, the rent on their space doubled, and many productions were leaving Los Angeles, so they decided to close the business. Hawaii...Hollywood...Hawaii... In 2011, after returning from OFF THE MAP, shot on Oahu, Hawaii, she decorated the permanent sets and first season of SCANDAL. In 2012, she was asked to do the sitcom HAPPILY DIVORCED starring Fran Drescher, with Production Designer Brandy Alexander. Although Mary Ann attempted to retire repeatedly, she kept receiving offers she could not refuse. In 2013, she decorated the Hawaii portion of GODZILLA (2014), and couldn’t resist one last assignment filling in for three months on the CBS series HAWAII FIVE-0. She “officially” retired in 2016. Once retired from set decorating, she renovated two commercial buildings in Hollywood, a medical building in Tarzana, and five kitchens, including her own.

The honoree... Mary Ann Biddle became a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1977 and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1984. She has been an integral member of the SDSA since its founding in 1993, and has watched set decoration and the organization evolve throughout the years. Her counsel for the SDSA is to generate positive publicity and for set decorators to stand up for themselves, ensuring they are respected for their unique contribution to film and television, they have an enviable job and should celebrate their strengths and individuality. Mary Ann fell in love with the variety of each day as a set decorator. Even when she experienced difficulty being accepted, she made it clear she was there to stay. Her perseverance and skill earned respect from colleagues and the larger industry. A role model who never let her confidence waiver, she always knew how to stand up for herself. Decades after she started her design career with her all-white bedroom, she still enjoys being creative, and is currently designing an addition to their Encino home. She maintains an active presence in the SDSA, and is grateful for her second family.

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N.Y.P.D. BLUE Police precinct, reception. Emmy Winner. Production Designer Paul Eads. Steven Bochco Productions

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Apropos Home Staging-Condo development, Encino, CA *note: MaryAnn is waiting for John to deliver a flatscreen TV for above fireplace!

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SOMEWHERE IN TIME -with my crew and lead man Ed Fitzgerald. This is the transportation I refer to in my notes. Seymour Kate Production Designer

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This is my long time lead man and crew from our last show’s wrap party. The names from left to right are: Jordon Paul, Randy Bostic, Yaniv Bashan, Shane Rogers.

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“N.Y.P.D. BLUE” Bar. Interior set on Fox Studio back lot. Production Designer: Richard Hankins. Steven Bochco Productions

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APROPOS INTERIORS Vignette in warehouse

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“BOSTON LEGAL” Study in lawyer’s home. Stage set Production Designer: Peter Politanoff. David E. Kelley Productions.