By Ken Billett
The conference room, much like the rest of the first-floor work area, is to put it politely, cluttered. Sample printed photographs both framed and unframed line the walls in upright stacks that are a foot or more deep in most places. A huge black-and-white print of legendary performer Tina Turner, her long hair captured in mid-snap, hangs on the conference room’s far wall.
Leaning against that same wall is a penciled sketch of the late actor and comedian Danny Thomas, who is surrounded by the likenesses of three small children. The outline – an original drawing by Jack Robinson – was used to design and fashion several stained glass windows that adorn the Danny Thomas Pavilion at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
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To be conducting interviews in a room surrounded by artistic history, in which Memphis and the Mid-South feature so prominently, is to be immersed in so much creative expression and output that it is overwhelming and a bit surreal.
At the same time, the creativity hanging on walls or in windows, along with those stacks of photos lining the conference room, is a snapshot – pun intended – of a time and place and of the man who created most of this art. It’s also a window into the creative soul of the man who fashioned these works of art and into the heart of another man who made sure those works leave a lasting legacy.
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Previously, we took a visual journey back in time through the black and white photographs displayed in the Robinson Gallery on South Front Street. Our December story, A Shrine on South Front, is here. In this follow-up to our Inspiration series on the artistic legacy of acclaimed photographer Jack Robinson, we focus on how Memphian Dan Oppenheimer honored his late friend by successfully creating a unique business that continues to thrive to this day.
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The caretaker of Jack Robinson’s artistic legacy is as interesting, creative, and vibrant as the iconic photographs adorning the Robinson Gallery on South Front Street. Dan Oppenheimer became the recipient of this legacy when Jack died of cancer in 1997. Little did Dan know that Jack’s death and the discovery of a trove of Jack’s earlier artistic endeavors would be the catalyst that grew into a unique business that continues to thrive to this day.
Robinson Editions became Dan’s business focus once he realized the scope and the historical significance of Jack’s legacy of photographs, negatives, call sheets, and photo-shoot notes. It took several years to compile and catalogue the photos and negatives and then to create an art publishing company that has a unique niche in a highly competitive industry. Dan leveraged his prior experience working with the hotel industry, along with his entrepreneurial talents, to become successful in yet another business venture.
An Art Publishing Company
The business basically has two components: the collection or library of photographic images – known as Robinson Archives – and the process of selecting a set of related images – similar to developing a theme – that can be printed or downloaded, or both. Focusing on the hotel industry allows Dan’s small team at Robinson Editions to select images specific to a hotel’s location and setting.
Emily Oppenheimer, Dan’s daughter and currently the Managing Director of Robinson Archives and Robinson Editions, says that even though the company has a national presence, most of its work is east of the Mississippi. Emily has now become the face of Robinson Editions, but her dad continues to be its heart and soul.
“He’s my inspiration,” Emily says about her dad. “He enjoys solving creative issues.” At the same time, according to Emily, he doesn’t get stressed out and, no matter the situation, Dan’s take is that “it will always be fine.”
Dan, who has an easy-going, approachable personality, describes himself as a hippie. From an early age, Dan says he’s always been chasing what’s fascinating and cool. Dan focuses on what he likes – not necessarily always to make money. He equates success with freedom.
It’s an interesting philosophy and one that has worked well for Dan Oppenheimer.
Inventor, Entrepreneur, and Friend
Dan’s online biography describes him as an entrepreneur, inventor, and craftsman. He has started and maintained more than a dozen businesses in a span of almost fifty years.
To put it simply, Dan is a problem-solver. He’s an imaginative soul who not only loves the creative process, but one who also wants his creations to serve a purpose. Whether it’s stained glass partitions for the hospitality industry, utilizing dark room techniques to enhance stained glass design, or figuring out how to effectively etch elevator signs, Dan enjoys a challenge and has a natural curiosity, especially about understanding how things work.
As Dan puts it, “I like to figure stuff out.”
Figuring stuff out has been a hallmark of Dan’s personality since he was young. A self-described audiophile, Dan enjoys working with his hands and understanding the inner workings of just about everything around him. Yet, as his biography states, Dan is also an entrepreneur, so he’s been fortunate that his natural curiosity and inventiveness have translated into several successful ventures.
Dan credits his parents – “great parents” he calls them – with influencing both his artistic and entrepreneurial talents. His father was an officer with First Federal Savings and Loan, now BankTennessee, and Dan sometimes accompanied his father on drive-by home appraisals. He said watching his dad go about his work honed Dan’s sensibilities about money and business.
Dan’s mother was an artist – a painter and an illustrator. “She had quite a talent for drawing,” Dan told me. His mom did portrait work and classical pianist. Later on, she worked, for a short time, on stained glass design for Rainbow Studio, Dan’s stained glass business.
Stained Glass Windows and That Spark
Dan grew up in Idlewild Presbyterian Church. When he was younger, according to Dan, he wasn’t much into church, meaning the sermons, but he spent every Sunday sitting in the pews while staring up at the beautiful stained glass windows at Idlewild. It’s how Dan became fascinated with stained glass.
Around 1972 or ‘73, Dan rented a place to live on Cooper Street in Midtown. There was an antique stained glass window in the garage that was broken. The people who moved out had just left it, so Dan figured out how to restore it.
A next-door neighbor came along, saw what a great job Dan had done, and paid him $100 for the restored window. For Dan, it was an Ah-ha moment. He realized he could make money at this.
“That was the spark,” Dan said. “Repairing that window and getting paid for it.”
Rainbow Studio – Where it all began
“The Rainbow name just came to me,” Dan explained. “There was really nothing special about it. Think Everything under the rainbow.”
In 1975, Dan found another place on South Cooper, originally zoned residential, but slowly turning commercial. Rainbow Studio created stained glass booth dividers for the restaurants of then Memphis-based Holiday Inns. Contracting with Holiday Inns became that initial link to the hotel industry that continues to today.
According to Dan, the dividers were large and the creation process was old-fashioned compared with more modern techniques.
“We got so busy that we ended doing some of the processing – mostly sandblasting – outside in the parking lot.”
“In those early days,” Dan continues, “we just sort of made-it-up as we went along. We were all a bunch of hippies…just enjoying the creative process.”
Enter Jack Robinson
Stained-glass design and production brought Dan and Jack Robinson together in the late 1970s. Jack had been in Memphis for several years before he came to work with Dan. By then, Rainbow had moved over to a larger building on Union. Dan and Jack played around with how the end-product might look and found that the same process used in the darkroom processing of photo negatives could work in creating the designs of the stained glass windows.
This experimentation produced a photo-etching technique that led to the capability to etch into stainless steel, which, later on, led to making etched signs for elevators and, eventually, hotel signs. That technique was used by a Memphis-based company to etch the more than 55,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.
For the next nineteen years, the two men worked together on various stained glass projects, including those windows inside the Danny Thomas Pavilion at St. Jude.
Rainbow Studio still occupies the second floor of the building at the corner of Huling Avenue and South Front Street. Dan bought the building years ago before redevelopment of South Main had kicked in.
Creative Spirit – Dan Oppenheimer’s Legacy
Dan continues to chase cool, even today. Emily Oppenheimer concurs. “He’s still having fun,” she tells me. Her dad still gets a wild hair and wants to make something better for someone else.
“He’s not a pleaser, in that sense,” Emily says. Her dad, she explains, likes to fix things both physical and situational for people, and to maybe even surprise them with the result.
At times, Emily has to rein-in her dad’s natural curiosity and inclination to fix or improve something. She admits it’s a difficult task. “Sometimes I feel like a professional rain cloud.”
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In the cluttered conference room of that old building on South Front Street, the late actor Dennis Hopper – another icon of 1960s counterculture – stares at me from a corner perch. His long wavy hair, thick bushy mustache, and flowery suit coat recall those hazy days of the late Sixties. Hopper was, after all, one of the stars of the ultimate counterculture film, Easy Rider.
I’m sitting across the table from a self-described hippie – a civilized hippie according to one close friend – who has done so much, accomplished so much, yet remains true to himself. In the immortal wisdom of that cartoon sailorman – I am what I am, and that’s all that I am. Dan Oppenheimer is who he is. Nothing more and, certainly, nothing less.
Renaissance man comes to mind, but it’s almost too trite, too cliched. It just doesn’t properly describe Dan Oppenheimer. So, I asked Dan to describe himself. Dan tells me that he doesn’t like to talk about himself. He did, however, offer me one insight into his unique blend of creativity and business success.
“I’ve always enjoyed being around eccentric folks,” Dan says with a smile.
Jack Robinson’s artistic legacy led to the creation of a unique Memphis-based business. But it’s Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit that has created a lasting legacy for others to enjoy. And, most importantly, as a way to honor his late friend. <>
Rainbow Studio and the Robinson Family of Companies, which includes the Robinson Archives, Robinson Editions, and the Robinson Gallery, are all housed at the corner of South Front Street and Huling Avenue. The gallery is free and open to the public most weekdays from 10AM to 5 PM.
For more information, please visit their website here at Robinson Gallery.