Mary Ellen Bute

Mary Ellen Bute was born in Houston, Texas, on November 21, 1906, the first of six children in a socially prominent family. From age 16 to 28, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, the Yale Drama Department and the Sorbonne, traveled around the world, and apprenticed to numerous avant-garde artists, scientists and musicians in New York City.

Between 1934 and 1953 Bute created 14 short abstract films, working with cinematographer Theodore Nemeth, an expert in animation and special effects. First in black-and-white, then in color, then pioneering in oscilloscope-generated imagery, most of the films were shown commercially in art theaters around the country; six premiered on the huge screen of the Radio City Music Hall.

In 1940, Bute and Nemeth were married and he opened his own studio where she often wrote scripts for his documentary and advertising films. Two sons, Theodore Jr. and James, were born in 1940 and 1947 respectively.

Moving to live-action fiction films in the mid-1950s, Bute produced a half-hour featurette, "The Boy Who Saw Through," casting teen-aged Christopher Walken in his first leading role.

Bute devoted some seven years to the feature-length Passages From Finnegans Wake, which she directed and produced. Her AFI-funded film about poet Walt Whitman was unfinished at the time of her death on October 17, 1983, in New York City.

(Biography by Cecile Starr, from the Center for Visual Music.)


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