A life of grandeur begins in the everyday. Alumna Cheryal Kearney knows this well, no stranger to showbiz. Graduating from Woodbury College in 1969 with a degree in Interior Design, Cheryal’s career as a set decorator has spanned over 40 years, including winning an Emmy Award for her role on the film “Gaugin, The Savage.” She is credited in over 50 films and television series, including her work on a 17-minute Michael Jackson short film.
From a young age Cheryal knew she enjoyed design; she found color fascinating, fabrics and textures inspiring, and re-arranging furniture a favorite pastime. She loved for research, with a knack for discovering the perfect piece. As she went on to study interior design, she also kept her eye on other fields. She inquired about other opportunities at Woodbury, and was told about a training class for film workers. Many IATSE Locals were participating, including Local 44. She went there a few days later and told them she wanted to be a set decorator. When they said that category wasn’t in their training program, she persisted, knowing that there were experienced decorators she could learn from. They agreed, and she was assigned to Marvin March, Al Spencer and Jim Payne. Across four different studios she would learn the ropes in television and film.
Cheryal became one of the first black set decorators in California, and found a love for collaborating with producers and writers to bring a scene to life. Her work on the 1992 TV series “Picket Fences” was a special joy for her. “They had phenomenal scripts on that show. It was a challenge, but that only made it all the more rewarding,” she said. Cheryal would also have the chance to work at CBS Studio Center. Starting out, her work was irregular, and while there could be months-long intervals in between, she kept coming back to the set. She eventually met art director Walter Scott Herndon, who hired her for the television series “HARRY-O.” They would end up doing many projects together before the series ended.
Over time, one of Cheryal’s favorite collaborations was for “Coming to America,” the American romantic comedy film directed by John Landis. “I loved working on the sets, with the grand wedding scene and the dancing. It was a lovely time working on that film.” As she worked to give life to TV series and films, Cheryal’s collaborations would impact iconic pictures throughout many decades. From “Wonder Woman” and “Boston Legal,” to “Poltergeist” and “The Addams Family,” Cheryal would switch between iconic films and television series.
Throughout her career, Cheryal never once used a buyer. She would show up to a prophouse with a plan in place, but was always open to a piece with panache. Later in her career, Cheryal taught set decorating classes at FIDM and Santa Monica College. Throughout her life, she enjoyed all the aspects of her work. “Every day was different, and you always had a chance to meet and work with new people. I’m grateful I had such a diverse career; it was truly wonderful.” From working with industry icons to traveling to new locations, she led a life of adventure.
Cheryal is widely recognized for elevating the craft of set decorating. In 2017, she was recognized with the Earl Cooperman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Set Decorators Society of America. She continues to do small projects and shows with friends and filmmakers, and those that may need a hand on set. She is known by producers as a decorator that brings class, vision, and tenacity to whatever she works on. When considering her career, she said that, “We made sets of fantasy, work that captured your imagination and gave you something fantastic. Looking back, I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m thankful for all of it, for the chance to make everyday moments a little brighter.”