Wallie Spatz, the ‘Silhouette Queen’

Wallie Spatz captures incredibly delicate likenesses of people in intricate silhouette cutouts. She has made black and white paper silhouettes for more than 60 years of everyone from President Lyndon Johnson to thousands of servicemen during World War II.

“I’ve always been able to do it from the time I was a kid,” the 84-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. woman said. “I saw a movie when I was about 15 where a girl cut out silhouettes. I came home from the show and cut my sister out of newspaper. I was surprised I could do it, but that was the start of it.”

While she was still in school, she produced silhouette art of people at local school and church functions around Mason City, Iowa, where she was born and raised. This was the town on which the Broadway musical “The Music Man” was based, in the play, it was called “River City.”

About the time World War II began she and her family moved to Los Angeles, Calif.   She was in her early 20s and she ran a dress shop at first. It wasn’t long before word got around she could make silhouette pictures of people.

“I got a call from the Hollywood Canteen one day,” Spatz said. “They asked me whether I would be willing to volunteer to come in and cut out silhouettes of servicemen. This was my key to the future, because then I could do my war effort by doing this and have another job, too.”

So off she went to the canteen. Located at 1451 N. Cahuenga Blvd., it was near Hollywood and Vine in downtown Hollywood.

“I never knew for sure, but I think the club was sponsored by the movie stars,” she said.

Wallie Spatz stands in front of the back entrance to the Hollywood Canteen where she cut out silhouettes that were a big hit with the servicemen.

They set her up with a small table and a couple of chairs. Four or five hour at a time she would sit there cutting out silhouettes for soldiers, sailors, marines and just about anyone else who wanted one.

“Not only was it entertaining for the men watching me cut out silhouettes, but many of them had never had one done before. I used special paper that was black on one side and white on the other. I would fold it in such a way that when I finished I could give them two silhouettes,” Spatz said.

Often they would send one to their girlfriend and the other to their parents back home.

“They loved it. There would be guys lined up waiting to get their silhouettes cut out. It would take me three for four minutes to do each one,” she said. “They had something they could take away that was very personal. This was a big item for the Hollywood Canteen.”

While Spatz was busy cutting out silhouettes just off the service club’s big dance floor, Bette Davis might be strolling around the area checking out things. She was the person in charge of running the operation, and she was there much of the time.

“Speaking of Bette Davis, boy could she swear. At that time ladies didn’t swear,” she recalled. “But I saw her go into a rage one day after the war was over when she learned that the Actors Guild wanted all the actors to stop doing volunteer work. That didn’t sit well with her. She started swearing up a blue streak.

“There were lots of stars at the canteen much of the time. They would make sandwiches and shakes and serve them to the troops.”

Patti Page sings to a bunch of sailors at the canteen on June 30, 1945, where Wallie first worked during World War II.

Everyone from Jimmy Stewart to Spike Jones, Patti Page to Buddy Ebsen, Robert Alda (Alan’s father), the Andrews Sisters, Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle were all at the canteen doing their thing for the men and the war effort.

It wasn’t long before Spatz got a call from the USO Club in Los Angeles. They wanted her to stop in and cut out silhouettes of servicemen for them, too. She complied.

When she wasn’t at the canteen or the USO, chances are it was the weekend and she was plying her trade at a camp show. These were weekend parties held at the homes of some of the most famous movie stars in Hollywood.

For more than 60 years, Wallie Spatz of Port Charlotte, Fla., has cut out pictures of people in silhouette. The likenesses of everyone from President Lyndon Johnson to many servicemen during World War II have come under her scissors.

“I remember a boy named Cherry. He was so young. He looked like he might have been 17. He was walking around without two front teeth assisted by an aide because he was shell shocked,” Spatz said.

“Six or eight months later I was at another one of these camp shows and another girl was with Cherry. She said to him, ‘Come over here and have your silhouette done.’ “He told her, ‘I’ve already got one of those.’”

Spatz had cut out his silhouette months earlier.

“When I took a look at him again he had two new front teeth and he looked perfectly all right. The name Cherry stayed with me all these years,” she said as she broke into tears. “You’ll have to excuse me. I don’t know why I’m getting like this. It was 60 years ago.”

Her toughest assignments were meeting with the soldiers in hospital wards. It wasn’t fun like at the canteen or USO—this was the front line of the war for her. Much of the time she would be cutting out a silhouette of a serviceman who was seriously wounded, which could prove to be a challenge.

“When I went to the hospitals and did the silhouettes I thought I was doing more of my duty,” Spatz said. “Sometimes Jimmy Durante would go with us. He was so funny.

“They brought one guy down and he was in a cast from his neck to his ankles. I thought he was going to fall out of his wheelchair he was laughing so hard at Durante’s jokes,” she said.

She met her late husband, Hugo, while taking the streetcar from the Hollywood Canteen back home one day.

“I didn’t have a date the night I ran into Hugo in the streetcar. He asked me if he could buy me a drink. I told him no. Then he asked me if he could buy me a cup of coffee. I told him no again.

“Finally, he said, ‘Can I ride home with you?’ ‘I can’t stop you from doing that,’” Spatz recalled telling him.

He served in the Army in Europe. His job was to refurbish tanks and big guns that had been put out of service by the enemy and get them back up on the front lines.

He went overseas six weeks later. They corresponded for two years. When Hugo came marching home after three years, they got married and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. By this time her silhouette art had become more than an avocation.

“Hugo wasn’t going to have a working wife. He said a man’s job is to earn a living and a woman’s job is to keep the house,” she said. “But I wanted to do my silhouettes.”

She devised a devious way around the objections of Hugo, who went on to own an optical retail business in Cleveland.

“With a room full of people in a weak little voice I would say, ‘Hugo, I have a chance to work doing silhouettes at so-and-so place,” What could he say in front of all those people but ‘Okay!’”

This was Hugo Spatz, Wallie’s late husband, when he served as a sergeant in the Army during the war.

Eventually she began doing silhouette art for serious money. Her talents were in demand all over the country. She tried to keep her engagements mostly to the Cleveland area. Occasionally she would go out of town if it was something special.

One day she received a letter from the Democratic Executive Committee in Washington during the Johnson Administration of the 1960s. The President and First Lady wanted her to come to D.C. and do her artwork for a party fund-raiser.

She cut out silhouettes of L.B.J., “Ladybird,” U.S. senators and congressmen during the three-day fund-raiser. Spatz was also retained by a number of large corporations for their annual banquets.

She acquired a booking agent. Her paper-cutting art became more than a job that provided pin money. Her agent would demand fees she would never think of charging, which her clients gladly paid.

“The money I made cutting silhouettes went into what Hugo and I called our ‘Frivolity Fund.’ It paid for thing that weren’t necessities,” she said.

One of those things was trips. Over the years the couple visited 91 different countries.

Still at it: after decades of cutting silhouettes Wallie Spatz can still produce a likeness in a minute or two.

The Spatz’s moved to Charlotte County, Fla. more than two decades ago. With his dapper bow tie, meticulously trimmed mustache and beaming eyes, civic activist Hugo was known by some as a fearless advocate for holding local government accountable. He is probably best remembered as the communicator for the Concerned Citizens Coalition, a watchdog group Hugo ran in 1996, the group dissolved in 1998. Hugo died in January 2000 at the age of 86.

“If anyone was to ask what hobbies we shared, I would have to say people. I became a very good cook and we would invite people over for dinner,” Wallie Spatz said. “We might invite a banker and a bus driver. We liked all kinds of people.”

As she walked through her apartment looking at Hugo’s office, she glanced at his computer still sitting on his desk ready to be used. She knows little about computers, but said it makes her feel as if Hugo is still there by keeping his computer.

“We had a very good life together,” Spatz said with a sigh.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida in 2002 and is republished with permission.

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Artist, philanthropist Spatz dies at 95
Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Author: Staff Report
Ruth “ Wallie ” Spatz, 95, an artist and philanthropist whose presence reached well beyond Charlotte County, died at her residence in Charlotte Harbor Healthcare in Port Charlotte Monday.

Spatz will be remembered for accurately recreating the curves in a face, the bumps on a nose, the wisps of hair, but her famous black-and-white silhouettes reveal so much more.

She used only scissors and her eyes, yet she somehow captured personalities — an eyelash bat, the sag in shoulders, the stress in a neck. And that’s how a stranger looking at one of her silhouettes gets to know the child too nervous to take a deep breath, the nurse too tired to be anxious, and the young soldier too naive to understand mortality but whose faraway gaze indicates doubt.

That’s all in a silhouette, which made Spatz a well-known artist whose talent and curiosity led her all over the world.

She made the silhouettes during World War II at the Hollywood Canteen in Los Angeles, which offered hospitality to soldiers before being shipped overseas.

That is where she met her husband, Dr. Hugo Spatz. The two married after the war and lived in Cleveland, where Wallie’s silhouettes continued to attract interest.

“I became very much in demand … I papered Ohio with silhouettes,” Spatz said in a November 2010 interview.

Wallie eventually traveled around the country. Among her most famous silhouettes: President Lyndon Johnson and Pope John Paul II.

Wallie and Hugo also traveled the world, eventually touring 91 countries, mostly on their own.

“If anyone asked what Hugo and I shared, we shared one hobby — and that was people,” she said in 2008. “Hugo liked all people and I happened to like all people. It made life interesting.”

Her friend Kim Lovejoy, director of the Military Heritage Museum, said Wallie was eclectic in her taste. Though guests included the social elite, “she and Hugo used to enjoy inviting bus drivers to their house,” Lovejoy said.

The Spatzes moved to Port Charlotte in 1980, where they quickly became known around the community, especially for their philanthropy.

Wallie donated $500,000 to the Edison Community Foundation. A building on the Punta Gorda campus now bears the Spatzes’ names.

“Because of Wallie’s generosity, students at Edison will have the opportunity to live the life they now could only imagine,” said Edison campus President Pat Land during the dedication of the Dr. Hugo D. and Wallie Spatz Hall in 2008.

She also has contributed to the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, Military Heritage Museum and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.

Wallie was preceded in death by her husband, Hugo, in 2000.

Those wishing to make donations may send them to the Cultural Center of Charlotte County. Spatz served on the center’s board of directors and also volunteered there for 30 years.

“She just loved people,” Cultural Center executive director Jim Hageman said. “She worked a lot with volunteers, just talking with people about the center.”

There will not be any services for Spatz, according to Lovejoy.

“She didn’t want any services,” Lovejoy said. “(A friend) and I are going to scatter her ashes on the harbor.”

Comments

  1. I stumbled upon this story tonight, I’m looking for soldier silhouttes for the North Fulton Jaycees parade float for The Old Soldiers Day parade in Alpharetta, GA August 6, 2011. wow! What ann amazing story, I thoroughly enjoyed! Thank you!

  2. I have recently discovered that my baby silhoutte was done by Wallie Spatz. Had no idea she was famous. I have pasted a link to your story on my blog, pattersonestate.blogspot.com Thank you so much for doing this article otherwise I never would have had found out who Wallie Spatz was.

    • Christine,

      Wallie was a wonderfully talented individual. She cut out beautiful paper silhouettes of people with her scissors in a minute or two. It was a treat to watch her perform a miracle while one watched. But more than her ability as a silhouette artist, she was a great ol’ gal.

      Regards,
      Don Moore

  3. Cheryl – Unfortunately, no, I don’t have a clue and Wallie isn’t around anymore to answer that question. I’ll leave this comment up, you never know who might happen upon this website and recognize it. Stranger things have certainly happened.

    Thank you for your query and for checking out War Tales.

  4. I knew the Spatz family very well, Hugo was a very good friend. This only came up because my granddaughter asked about the family silouette on our wall and it prompted the Google search. We kind of lost contact when he moved to Florida. Great people.

  5. Thank you for this story about Mrs. Spatz…a Cleveland treasure. My mother would take me, my brother and my sister to have our silhouette’s done every year. I still have several framed in my house to this day. I will share this story with my mother. I’m sure she will enjoy the trip down memory lane as well.

  6. My sister found my silhouette I believe was done on Prom Night or sometime in high school in Florida by Wallie Spatz in the early 80’s. She lived in a neighboring town. So cool to read her story. I’ve always loved it.

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