Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 343: “The Artist in the Flies,” Second Half

 Part 343: “The Artist in the Flies,” Second Half

This is the second part of an article, “Artist in the Flies,” started yesterday from the New York Tribune (4 Aug 1895, page 14).

“[The scenic artist] is often interrupted in his work, when rehearsals are going on, for while the frame is being lowered it makes a horrible noise, which naturally interferes with the work of the actors.

“Oh, say, up there, won’t you give us a chance to hear ourselves think?” or “Say, just wait a few minutes until se get through the scene and then you can make all the noise you want,” are common cries. Sometimes the assistant, whose work is to run the windlass, pays no attention to the calls from below, and goes right ahead, making all the noise possible, until the stage manager in despair mounts the paint bridge and in a forcible language commands the young man to desist; this he does after growling and grumbling about the delay.

After the scenery has been painted it goes back into the hands of the stage carpenter and his men. In a wood scene or a rural scene there is a great deal of cutting to be done. The leaves and branches are cut away from the canvas which has not been painted.

After the properties have been made – they are usually of papier-mâché – they are sent up to the paint bridge to be touched up with a coat of paint. The stage cloths or carpets are also painted by the artist. The getting up of the scenery is the most expensive part of a production. It is no wonder that a manager is leery of putting on a new piece. The great cost incurred before the curtain goes up makes him hesitate about engaging in a venture which the audience may find dull.

The most expensive scene drop is one which requires a number of faces painted on it, to represent an audience, for instance. Here the services of a portrait painter are generally called in, and each face is actually a likeness. Of course the faces in the background are not as perfect as the front ones. After one season of wear and tear in traveling, the scenery is not a thing of beauty. It is hardly worth storage room. When a piece is to be played a second season, the scenery goes back into the hands of the scenic artist and stage carpenter to be patched up and retouched. A great deal of this old scenery is bought by small out-of-town managers, to whom scenery is only a second consideration. In one-night towns it is often a puzzle to find out “where the actors are at.” The backdrop represents a French chateau and the house in the foreground is an English Inn. The properties used “have nothing to do with the case,” but they help to fill the stage.

It is a small wonder that scenery is in such a tattered condition when it returns after the season is over. The carting of scenery is an important to the stage carpenter, who travels with the company, as the box office receipts are to the treasurer.

In New-York may be found wagons especially built for the transportation of scenery, but few other cities have these wagons.

Advertisement for scenery transfer in Chicago. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1906.
Detail from scenery transfer advertisement in Chicago. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1906.
Detail from scenery transfer advertisement in Chicago. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1906.

When “Rob Roy” was on its travels last spring, the scenery was being carried from the theatre to the railroad station. The wagons were not long enough to carry scenery properly, and the tower of Sterling Castle hung way out of the back of the wagon and touched the ground. This almost drove the stage carpenter to despair, until a happy idea struck him. He borrowed a wheelbarrow, and then hired a sturdy boy to follow the wagon, with the top of the tower resting in the barrow. This scheme worked beautifully for a few blocks, until the boy got tired. He demanded his pay, and said the work was too hard. He could not be induced to resume his journey. Again the stage carpenter put on his thinking cap. “Come, boys, let’s have a drink,” he said to his employees. All retired to the nearest barroom, and when they returned each and every many was perfectly willing to carry the tower on his shoulders down to the train.

All of the big railroads have cars especially adapted for the transportation of scenery. Francis Wilson rents a whole house for the storage of his scenery. He has complete sets with properties, costumes, etc., of all his operas from “The Oolah,” his first production, to the “Devils’ Deputy.” In case of accident by fire or railroad disaster, he will not be obliged to close his season, but can resume it after a few weeks of rehearsals, of one of his former operas. The final resting-place of all the beautiful grottos, ballrooms, etc., is the furnace in the boiler-room down in the cellar of the theatre.”


To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 342 – “The Artist in the Flies,” First Half


Part 342: “The Artist in the Flies,” First Half

Throughout my research, I have encountered a series of delightful articles. They were not only enlightening, but also changed my understanding of theatre history and the late-nineteenth-century scenic art. In many cases, I transcribed these unknown bits of writing and posted them online. I believe that might have worth to other theatre historians and practitioners.

I discovered “The Artist in the Flies” after reading “Stage English” (installment #310) and tucked it away for the time that I would cover the year of 1895 (4 Aug 1895, page 14). The article really resonated with me and reminded me of Thomas G. Moses. This story is a slightly different presentation from the somber depiction of the artistic process described in yesterday’s post. This will be posted in two sections due to the length. This is a wonderful article to read before continuing with the activities of Thomas G. Moses in 1894-1895. Enjoy!

“No Summer Vacation for Him. He is turning out castles, forests, and interiors by the hundred yards in these warm days.”

“The busiest men connected with the theatrical business at present are the scenic artists and their assistants. Before the artist begins his work, the frames have passed through many hands. To begin with, a number of sewing women are engaged to sew the canvas together, for which they receive a certain amount for each yard. After the canvas has been sewed together, it passes into the hands of the stage carpenter, who has put the frames together. The canvas is stretched taut over the frames, and glued and nailed to the wood. This is a trade itself. When the frames are ready they are put upon an immense frame, which is behind the paint bridge, usually at a great height from the stage, up in the flies, where the different drops may be raised or lowered as needed. The paint bridge stretches across the stage from fly loft to fly loft on either side. Here the artist is away from the madding crowd. The scenery receives a preliminary coat of paint, and when dry is ready for the different colors needed in the scenes.

As a general rule, the artist outlines the different scenes and puts in the most difficult and delicate touches, and then allows his assistants to fill in the rest. He is guided by his model, which is set in a complete stage by itself. One artist in an uptown theatre has a small room in the flies where he builds his models on a small scale, and has a complete electric light apparatus, by which he can judge the effect of the different lights on his models. This is a great help to him in his work. The paint bridge is usually crowded with pots of paints, and the uninitiated would wonder how the artist could move around without sending a few of them on to the stage below.

An amusing accident of this kind happened at the old Standard Theatre before it was burned down. The dressing-rooms of the chorus were on a level with the fly loft, and occasionally the bridge was used by the chorus of people who had to make an entrance on the opposite side of the stage. Instead of going into the cellar under the stage, they took this crossing.

One night one of the girls did not heed the flight of time until she was recalled to her senses by the sound of music, which was her cue to go on stage. She rushed through the fly loft and over the paint bridge, not heeding the paint pots with which it was covered. Away went the young woman in a heap on the floor of the bridge, luckily escaping the fate of two pots of paint, which fell to the stage below, completely deluging a “super” who was awaiting his cue to go on the stage. The accident was seen be some of the gallery urchins, who set up a shout of delight. After the accident the paint bridge was the sacred property of the scenic artist.

To be continued…

Here are some images from a Sosman & Landis collection created in 1898.  It was for the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry stage in Yankton, South Dakota.  The was a “used” scenery collection, originally created in 1898.

Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Originally painted in 1898, two years after the article was written for the newspaper. This is a Sosman & Landis installation.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Stage left side with Rick Boychuk taking photos for research (he provides scale).
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Looking toward stage right side.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. JBM tomb back.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. JBM tomb front.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Stage left side and counterweight system.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. 1898 flat construction.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Front of flat.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of painting. Sosman & Landis Studio, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of painting. Sosman & Landis Studio, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of painting. Sosman & Landis Studio, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of wooden batten at bottom of the drop. Sosman & Landis installation, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of netted edge. Sosman & Landis installation, 1898.

For large picture files, join FB Group Dry Pigment.

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 341 – Green Room Gossip From 1895, the Scenic Artist

Part 341: Green Room Gossip From 1895, the Scenic Artist

Thomas G. Moses worked as the scenic artist at Chicago’s Schiller Theatre during 1895. He painted the settings for all of the productions on their paint frames. He also rented the old Waverly Theatre space as he had more work than could be completed at the Schiller.

I understand that it is hard to appreciate the complexity and demands of the painting process at the time that Moses was working, especially as I discuss the many projects that Moses’ was simultaneously completely during the late-nineteenth century.

Below is an informative article about the artistic process and the role of the scenic artist, published in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on February 10, 1895 (page 22). Here is a portion of the article from the “Green Room Gossip” section of the Times-Picayune. It provides additional context for Moses’ story as we move forward:

Heading from the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, February 10, 1895, page 22) that details activities related to the theatre.

“When a manager has finally decided to produce a new play, his troubles have just begun. One of the first things to demand is the proper pictorial equipment. Just as the editors of illustrated periodicals of to-day send their accepted articles to the artist for illustration, so the theatrical manager puts his play in the hands of the scenic artist. Sometimes periodical illustrations cause the reader to wonder whether the illustrator read the story before he made the drawing or whether the cuts got mixed in the composing-room. The play illustrator is too important a factor in the box-office success to admit of similar mistakes.

[The manager] sometimes employs a scenic artist by contract, but usually the necessary assistant rents the space he needs in the theatre and charges the manager for work done for him, just as he charges outside managers for work done for them. The scenic artist, then, receives the manuscript from the manager, reads it carefully, notes from the authors description of scenes whether the locality is special or general, and where the scenery must be “practical” – with real doors to open, trees which may be climbed, fences that may be jumped- and where it is possible to make it purely representative.

The locality is the first point, naturally. Even if none be mentioned, in these days of photography, it is far more satisfactory to find a real locality which would fit the play, and which would, therefore, be more likely to differ from a thousand and one other scenes which have already been used as backgrounds for other general plays. From photographs or sketches of real bits of scenery, the artist most often draws his ground plans for what he considers a good stage picture suited to the action of the play.

These models are then placed convenient to the eye and hand in his studio, the main feature of which is really the back wall of the theatre, with a great paint bridge running about 25 feet above the stage floor. There is a space about a foot wide between the bridge and the wall, and in the space hangs the paint frame. When the stage carpenter has built the scenes according to the artist’s model, the paint frame is lowered to the stage floor, a piece of scenery is attached to it by means of a narrow ledge at the bottom, drops are tacked on and set pieces fastened at convenient points, then the frame is raised until it is where the artist wants it as he stands upon the bridge. The frame can, or course, be moved up and down, at the painter’s need.

The prime coating of the canvas is made of a mixture composed of whiting, glue and water. The artist has several assistants, many of whom are virtually learning the trade, but in exterior scenes the scenic artist himself usually does all of the painting; in the interiors he makes the finishing touches. Of course the work is done by daylight, and it takes a very skillful worker in colors to know just what the effects the various kinds and degrees of artificial light will have upon the painted scenery.

And yet the scenic artist is not too highly valued from a financial point of view. It takes, usually, six or eight years to attain the necessary skill and an average income of $80 a week is considered very good. From the manager’s point of view there is a difference. The necessary scenery for a play will frequently cost $1500 for the carpenter work and twenty-five hundred dollars for the coloring, without taking into account the sums paid for costumes, properties and the innumerable other accessories to proper play-producing.

Until applause greets him on the momentous “first night” and large audiences greet him for many nights thereafter, the manager, be ever hardened, endures endless anxiety from the minute the new play is chosen. If one proves a failure, he will be out a considerable sum at the best, for critics will know if he attempts to use the same costumes and special properties later on, or if he saves the scenery until it can be worked in other plays, a piece at a time; and critics seldom keep anything to themselves. He may have a new scene painted on the back of the old and save a part of the carpenter’s bill, but this is frequently the best that can be done. With all his risks and frequent failures, the theatrical manager is usually the last one to complain. When a play does not go, he simply pays the piper and tries again.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 340 – Captive on the Carousel of Time


Part 340: Captive on the Carousel of Time

At the end of 1895, Thomas G. Moses wrote, “I made a total of $46,000.00 for the year. My expenses were very heavy and I had about $3,500.00 for my salary – pretty bad – I needed a good business partner, for I had much to look after.”

Thomas G. Moses painting on a drop curtain, date unknown. Image from the Thomas G. Moses scrapbook. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin.

Moses knew that he needed someone else to help shoulder the burden of running a studio. That was one of the reasons why Sosman & Landis had done so well for almost two decades. Sosman was in the studio, or painting on location, while Landis focused on sales and negotiating new contracts. Landis marketed a product that Sosman and his crew produced. Moses was trying to do everything by himself. To succeed in the studio business, someone had to solely focus on increasing clientele and securing the jobs. No matter how talented you were, you needed a fantastic sales department and someone to negotiate the final contracts. Moses could not do all of the production and administrative duties by himself. He had tried and failed – twice.

Of 1895, Moses commented “Too much of my time was consumed in making models, and too much of the artists’ time was taken up with preliminaries before a production was actually under way.” He reflected that he funded a lot work completed by carpenters and helpers “always done to start the show on its way, and for which I never received a dollar in return.” He wrote that regardless of the loss, he had continued to make a name for himself. All he needed to do was manage another year, and hopefully he would be back on his feet again.

Moses was financially worse off than two years earlier when he wrote, “My expenses were very heavy this year, and I should have made a big profit, but the best I could do was $6,850.00.” He complained many times that he was not making enough money for the hours that he spent in the studio. Moses realized that there was no incentive for the profits to “trickle down” to any employee, no matter how valuable if he returned to Sosman & Landis too. The scenic artist was at the studio owner’s mercy; when times were plentiful, there was work and when times were slow, salaries were immediately slashed in half. Remember the scenic artists salaries plummeted at the close of the 1893 World Fair as studio owners redirected their massive profits toward other business ventures, or lined their own pockets and journeyed abroad.

I can only imagine Moses’ internal struggle during 1895 as he produced an astounding amount of work – much more than during the world fair – yet received a salary that was significantly smaller. By the beginning of 1896, Moses knew something had to change; he might have to return to Sosman & Landis, in order to keep his head above water. Throughout 1895, Moses continued to lose financial ground and had suffered an unbelievable series of set backs from 1894 throughout 1895. From the paint bridge collapse in Memphis, that injured seven of his crew, to the unpaid duties attached to each production. he was always losing ground

Moses was still  traveling and apart from Ella and the kids. No matter how hard he worked, or how many connections he made, there was never any assurance of a secure future. He made a national name for himself, immediately gained the respect of theatre owners and touring stars, but continued in a downward spiral. At the age of forty, he was growing older and the work wasn’t going to get any easier. He could only look back and envision what should have happened.

“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.”       
(The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell)

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 339 – Thomas G. Moses and Charles B. Hanford


Part 339: Thomas G. Moses and Charles B. Hanford

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses was credited with creating the new scenery for Hanford’s Starring Tour. He led a crew that included Ernest Albert and Milton C. Slemmer. The repertoire for the tour was “Virginius,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Damon and Pythias,” “Venice Preserved,” “The Hunchback,” and “Julius Caesar.” Frank G. Connelly managed the tour. Two representatives were sent ahead of the show to pave the way for the tour that opened on September 23 in Wilmington, Delaware and would reach Washington state by November 18. The company was composed of eighteen people, with the “Tripple Alliance” of Hanford, Elihu R. Spencer and Miss Nora O’Brien in the leading roles.

Charles B. Hanford

Charles B. Hanford (1859-1926) was 35 years old when the show toured. Born in Amador County, California. he made his debut with the “Barrett Club” of Washington, D. C., in May 1881, at the National Theatre in the part of Cassius in “Julius Caesar” (Opera Glass, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1895, page 18). He started with small roles in his first professional engagements when working with William Stafford. He was playing much larger roles by the end of his first season. The next two seasons were spent working with Thomas Keene where he continued to act in small roles. He eventually attracted the attention of Lawrence Barrett and became a prominent member of Booth’s Company. He acted in Booth’s, Booth-Barrett, and Booth-Mojeska companies. Hanford was soon working with Julia Marlowe in light comedy parts, such as “Mercutio” and “Malvolio.”

By 1895, Hanford owned the magnificent Booth and Barrett production of “Julius Caesar.” In “Julius Caesar,” Hanford originally played the role of Marc Antony, while Edwin Booth played Brutus and Lawrence Barrett played Cassius. In addition to this show, his company carried new special scenery for each of the other six plays in their repertoire. The Evening Star reported, “The new scenery is from the brush of Thomas G. Moses, one of the best known scenic artists in America. It has been found necessary to carry four men to handle this elaborate production and a special car will be used for its transportation”(Washington, D. C., 14 Sept 1895, page 8).

Elihu R. Spencer

Elihu R. Spencer was thirty- years old when he toured with Hanford. Born in Buffalo, Spencer’s early acting career was supported by the Meech brothers, who were managers in Buffalo. They recommended Spencer to Steele Mackaye, who then hired him to play a minor role in the premiere of “Paul Kauvar.” Spencer worked his way up the acting food chain, and by the fall of 1891 became a prominent member of Julia Marlowe’s company. After two seasons with her, Hanford cast him in the role of “Cassius” for his production.

Nora O’Brien

Nora O’Brien was born in Baltimore, Maryland and was only eighteen years old when she made her debut as Juliet, playing at Ford’s Opera House in Baltimore. After graduating from Loretto Convent near Niagara Falls with high honors, she entered the acting profession. In less than a year, she joined Hanford’s tour.

The Buffalo Courier reported that after the Hanford’s Star tour was completed, Elihu Spencer purchased the scenery, costumes, and properties used by the Hanford-Spencer-O’Brien Company (27 Sept. 1896, page 8). The article commented, “The scenery was painted by Thomas G. Moses, Ernest Albert, and Milton C. Slemmer, the three best scenic artists in the country.”

Charles B. Hanford’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” 1907. Image from: http://www.seattletheaterhistory.org/
Charles B. Hanford’s “Julius Caesar” (Act IV), 1907. Image from: http://www.seattletheaterhistory.org/

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 338 – Thomas G. Moses and the Belle City Opera House in Racine, Wisconsin

Part 338: Thomas G. Moses and the Belle City Opera House in Racine, Wisconsin

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses recorded that he negotiated, “A good contract for Racine, Wisconsin, Opera House” and the project lasted a few weeks. He was referring to the renovated Belle City Opera House in Racine. Moses previously worked in Racine at the Belle City Opera House during 1883. He painted a second set of scenery for the same venue after it was renovated (see installment #184). While painting for the Belle City Opera House in 1883, Moses also painted scenery for the Blake Opera House, another venue in Racine. The Blake was located on 6th Street and managed by W. C. Tiede.

The original Blake Opera House (1882-1884) in Racine, Wisconsin. Thomas G, Moses painted scenery for this venue in 1883.

The local newspaper commented about Moses’ work in 1883 for the Belle City Opera House, “The scenery at the Opera House is handsome in every particular, Mr. Moses, the gentlemen who designed and painted it deserves the highest commendation” (The Journal Times, 3 Feb 1883, page 2).

His work for the Blake Opera House was equally admired. The Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin) reported that “Thomas Moses, the scenic artist, who painted all the handsome scenes at the Blake Opera House, departed for Illinois to-day. During his stay here Mr. Moses has made many warm friends, who wish him every success, wherever he may go” (14 March 1883, page 2). That message must have meant a lot to Moses. It also says a lot about his personality and character. To have such a warm farewell message published in a local newspaper after a relatively short stay it quite something. Time and time again, it appears as if the people genuinely liked Moses as an individual.

Unfortunately, the following year all of his painting was destroyed when the Blake Opera House burned to the ground in 1884, just two years after it was constructed. It was a very short life for the 1200-seat venue and is often overlooked by historians.

Detail of front curtain on a Belle City Opera House program. This drop was possibly painted by Thomas G. Moses.

By 1895 when Moses returned to Racine, the Blake Opera House’s manager, W. C. Tiede, was managing the new Belle City Opera House. It must have been a pleasant reunion for Moses and Tiede when he arrived for work. As to the specifics of Moses’ scene painting for the Belle Opera House in 1895, it is unclear whether Moses painted stock scenery or supplemental pieces for a specific production.

As with almost all of the theaters that Moses provided stock scenery for in 1895 this venue was a theater located on the ground floor. The renovated Belle City Opera House, located at the intersection of State and Main Streets. It opened on February 11, 1890. The address was 211 Main Street. It original building was constructed in 1876. The 0pening was reported in the Racine Country Argus, “Racine people will always patronize a first-class entertainment, now that they have a good house to go to. The Belle City Hall, as remodeled, makes a fine little Opera House, only a few improvements being necessary to make it as good as any, and the people appreciate it” (January 6, 1876). This venue ceased operations by 1883.

The renovated opera house had a seating capacity of 1,200. At this time, Racine’s population was approximately 30,000. The theater was illuminated with a combination of both gas and electrical lights (volt 110). The proscenium opening was 30’-0” wide by 28’-0” high. The depth of the stage from the footlights to the back wall was 32’-0.” Distance between the sidewalls was 60 feet and the distance between the fly girders was 45 feet. The height of the grooves from the stage was 18’-0” and could be taken up flush with the fly gallery. The distance from the stage to the rigging loft was 50’-0.”

Postcard depicting the original Belle City Opera House, renamed the Racine Theater in 1906.

The Belle City Opera House was across the street from a more prominent theatre. The competitor was known by a variety of names, including the Bate Theatre, Orpheum Theatre, RKO Theatre, and Main Street Theatre). On August 16, 1906 the Belle City Opera House was also renamed to the Racine Theatre. It was rechristened again on May 14, 1914 as the Rex Theatre and became known as a vaudeville house. Eventually the entertainment turned toward cinema. By 1959, the building was transformed into a bowling alley. In 1978 it was demolished to connect State Street and Lake Avenue.

The original Belle City Opera House was renamed for a second time in 1914 when the entertainment venue became the Rex Theatre.
A view depicting the Rex Theatre, originally the Belle City Opera House. Notice the fly loft on top of the building.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 337 -The Jacques Opera House in Waterbury, Connecticut


Part 337: The Jacques Opera House in Waterbury, Connecticut

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses wrote that he secured “a good $1,000.00 job at Hillsboro Theatre at Waterbury, Conn.” During my research I found no mention of any performance venue in Waterbury called the Hillsboro Theatre – either before, during, or after Moses’ visit in 1895. Keep in mind that Moses’ painting project in Waterbury, Connecticut, occurred thirty-six years before he created his 1931 manuscript. Moses based this manuscript on his handwritten entries from annual diaries. It is important to understand that Moses was preparing a book, “Sixty Years Behind the Curtain Line.” Looking at some of the very few existing diaries and his 1931 translation, a lot was omitted from the final manuscript. Subjects were glossed over, or presented with a much more optimistic outlook. He was reflecting on his career at the age of seventy-five. In addition to misspelled names, there were variations for the titles of the productions that he worked on. I think that some details were fuzzy and he simply improvised.

Here is what I did discover while researching Moses’ stay in Waterbury during 1895, as there was a stock scenery collection created for a refurbished opera house at that same time. The newspapers document a painting of drop curtain and scenery that coincides with Moses visit to the area.

Interior of Jacques Opera House, 1896. Illustration is from “Town and City of Waterbury, Connecticut,” written by Joseph Anderson and Anna Lydia Ward, 1896.

Waterbury is located on the Naugatuck River, 33 miles southwest of Hartford, Connecticut, and 77 miles northeast of New York City. The town was associated with the manufacture of brass during the nineteenth century, as factories harnessed the waters of the Naugatuck and Mad Rivers. By 1853, Waterbury was incorporated and known as “the Brass Capital of the World.” Later the clock making industry also became linked associated with the town.

During the summer of 1895, the interior of the Jacques Opera House was thoroughly remodeled and new scenery purchased for the stage. I believe that this was the theatre project that drew Moses to Waterbury to paint $1,000 worth of stage settings. Up until the time that Jacques opened his opera house, there was only the People’s theatre. This early performance venue had provided marginal entertainment in mediocre accommodations. Jacques wanted a larger, and much more impressive home, to host touring shows for his community. I was curious to learn more about this ambitious individual.

Jacques Opera House was founded by Eugene “Jean” Jacques (1855-1905). Jacques initially worked for his father, a physician and pharmacist. He was involved in many business ventures, such as the Jacques & Fenn skating rink that was later transformed into the Casino and eventually into the People’s Theatre. Jacques and the community recognized the limitations of the venue, prompting him to construct his new opera house during the summer of 1885. Located at on the corner of Abbott and Phoenix Avenues, it was constructed for $50,000.

Program for 6th Dramatic Season of Jacques Opera House, estblished in 1885.

After opening the 1885 Jacques Opera House, he constructed another building with a stage called the Auditorium during 1891. It featured a hard-maple floor, measuring 5,000 square foot with a stage at the end of the room for dances and social events. The space was intended for dancing and also boasted a smoking room, a ladies room, a kitchen and other accessories. I found it interesting that historical records noted that no dramatic presentations of note took place at the Auditorium, but the space was used by a variety of fraternal groups, such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.). Jacques also founded the Diamond Bottling Works.

Postcard of Jacques Opera House.

The “Town and City of Waterbury, Connecticut,” written by Joseph Anderson and Anna Lydia Ward in 1896, provides much information about the interior of Jacques Opera House in both 1885 and 1895 (pages 1095-1096). Here is a brief description of the original 1885 interior:

“The auditorium was built in the shape of a fireman’s trumpet, with the stage at the mouthpiece, and the seats were so arranged that the stage was visible from all parts of the house. All corners were rounded, and all rails curved, no angles being visible to mar the general effect. The decorations were bright, warm and cheerful, the woodwork being Tuscan red, terra cotta and gold, and the tints of the walls, ceilings and draperies harmonizing with it. A unique feature was the scene of the drop-curtain, which was a view of the celebrated glen in High Rock grove. The stage was large and thoroughly equipped with modern appliances. The orchestra pit was below the level of the floor, separated from the house by a curved rail. There were sixteen boxes, four on each side of the stage. The dressing rooms, lobby, etc., are in the basement, under the stage.” The original seating configuration was reconfigured a few years later, when several rows of plush covered sofas were put in.

Here is a description of the 1895 interior after the remodel with the scenery that was likely painted by Thomas G. Moses during his visit to Waterbury that year:

“The tone of the decoration was entirely changed, lighter and more delicate tints replacing the old color scheme. Eight boxes, of new and graceful design, replaced the sixteen of former days, and new seats were added to parquet and balcony, the seating capacity of the house being thus increased. A new and handsome drop-curtain, new sets of scenery, improvements in lighting facilities, etc., made the opera house seem almost like a new building, and added much to the comfort and pleasure of theatre-goers.”

Jacques future wife performed at his theatre during 1887. He married the actress Annie Louise Ames (1865-1915) two years later in 1889, and she gradually withdrew from show business to raise their daughter. Jacques Opera House had no competition until Poli’s Theatre opened in 1897. Poli’s was located just around the corner on East Main Street.

Postcard of Poli’s Theatre, 1897. This was the first competition fo Jacques Opera House.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 336 – The Broad Ripple Auditorium in Indianapolis, Indiana


Part 336: The Broad Ripple Auditorium in Indianapolis, Indiana 

Thomas G. Moses painted scenery for the Broad Ripple Auditorium in 1895. He also made a brief appearance as part of a theatrical management team– Moses & McDonald. This was shortly after Joseph S. Sosman, Abraham “Perry” Landis, and David Hunt started the theatrical management firm of Sosman, Landis & Hunt. A combination of touring vaudeville acts and creating a stock company eliminated the need to feature expensive touring stars. It appeared to be a winning proposition.

When the Broad Ripple Auditorium opened during August 1895, it was at an odd time. The Indianapolis News announced, “This cozy summer theater, although opened late in the season, is doing good business. The attendance is increasing nightly, which is the surest indication of success” (11 August 1895, page 10). It was marketed as being “complete with all the modern equipment” and a seating capacity of 1,200 (4 Aug. 1895, page 13). The newspaper article added that Moses & McDonald were not only the managers, but also the organizers of the the Auditorium Stock Company. The company presented standard dramas, supplemented with vaudeville acts. It was the Auditorium Stock Company that purchased the theater, funded by members that included R.C. Light, George J. Marott, Charles Kirschner, and a Mr. Eldridge.

Review of the new Broad Ripple Auditorium, managed by Moses & McDonald. Indianapolis Journal (4 Aug 1895 page 13).

Moses was also credited with the stock scenery collection and the Indianapolis New commented, “The scenery is by Thomas G. Moses, of the Schiller Theatre, Chicago, and the stage is 40×40 feet, with three sets of border and footlights” (4 Aug. 1895, page 13).

The opening play was “Fanchon, the Cricket,” a charming five-act play made famous by Maggie Mitchell. This show was followed by “The Smugglers,” “Mystic Mountain,” “Ten Nights in a Barroom,” “The Factory Girl,” and “Kathleen Mavourneen,” each attracting large crowds. Then something happened.

Just eleven days after opening, the Indianapolis News reported, “The Broad Ripple Auditorium will remain closed until next Saturday night, when ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ will be presented. Preparations are making for an elaborate production” (13 August 1895, page 7). There is no other mention of the show. It appears as if the production never took place at the Broad Ripple Auditorium. The next production for the venue was “Mabel Heath, or the Shadows of Home.” That was their last advertised performance. After that, the venue under the management of Moses & McDonald disappeared from the local papers.

Small advertisement for the Broad Ripple Auditorium squeezed between a soap and baseball. Indianapolis Journal (18 Aug 1895, page 6).

Unfortunately, the Broad Ripple Auditorium productions were poorly advertised; they appeared few in number, small in scale, and uninspiring in content. This would be understandable if the majority of Moses time was spent creating scenery for other venues. Little is known of “Moses & McDonald” beyond their brief partnership to manage the Broad Ripple Auditorium.

I had to wonder what had happened. Did this have anything to do with an inexperienced management team? There are only a couple mentions of them in newspaper articles, but all suggest that Thomas G. Moses was the “Moses” of Moses & McDonald.

Who was McDonald? I believe that he was another scenic artist that Moses was working with in Chicago during 1895?. This was a perfect combination as McDonald was not only a scenic artist, but also a talented stage carpenter. Where was McDonald painting during the spring of 1895? He was painting at McVicker’s Theatre with Homer Emons and Edward Peck. They were all working on the production of “Linsey Woolsey” (Chicago Tribune, 7 April 1895, page 35).

1896 advertisement for P. J. McDonald in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide.

In 1896, P. J. McDonald was back to working as the stage carpenter for the Grand Opera House in New York. That would explain the end of Moses & McDonald. He would later partner with Claude L. Hagen, another stage carpenter, in 1899. McDonald & Hagen advertised as “contractors and builders of scenery,” providing scenery for “scenic productions, scenery for Theatres, Balls and Private Theatricals, Pageants and Celebrations, Tricks and Illusions, Masonic and Mystic Shrine Paraphernalia, Mechanical Effects, and Scrim Profile and all Supplies for the Trade” (Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1899). The two separated by 1902 and McDonald again advertised independently as “P. J. McDonald, Scenery and Stage Construction, Mechanical Effects and Intricate Devices.” His shop was located at the stage of the Grand Opera House – 320 West 24th Street, New York.

1899 advertisement for McDonald & Hagen in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide.

There is much that can be written on Hagen, and I cover him in a later post. For now, here is an announcement from “The Salt Lake Tribune” in 1910 (20 Feb, page 39). It gives a brief summary of Hagen’s importance.

1896 advertisement for Claude L. Hagen, featuring his Patent Shoe Toggle, in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide.

“For eight years Mr. Hagen was associated with Klaw & Erlanger. Later he was superintendent of Luna park. He invented the racing scenes in “Ben-Hur,” “The Ninety and Nine,” “The Vanderbilt Cup,” and “Bedford’s Hope.” He designed and built many of the illusions used by Herrmann. He also invented the “Loop-the-Loop” and designed the first hippodrome building in this country in which the racecourse or stage revolved entirely around the audience. The latter device was first used at Luna park in the naval show “War is Hell.” In 1908, he was appointed the technical director of the New Theatre, submitting his resignation on May 1, 1910. At the New Theatre “he set up the most complete theatrical stage in existence, and all the machinery of it was invented by him. His revolving stage and system of counterweights for the raising and lowering of scenery are said to be the most effective devices of the kind known.”


To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 335 – Pittsburgh’s Avenue Theatre and Lumiere’s Cinématographe


Part 335: Pittsburgh’s Avenue Theatre and Lumiere’s Cinematograph

Thomas G. Moses painted the stock scenery for the Avenue Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during 1895. The proprietor and manager was Harry Davis who advertised the venue as “the Mecca of refined Vaudeville,” (Pittsburgh Post Gazette 20 Nov. 1897, page 5). He also promoted that it was the “Family Avenue Theatre” and booked acts for ten hours every day – 1PM to 11PM.

A year after opening the Avenue Theatre, Davis, partnered with his brother-in-law, Senator John P. Harris, to present a new form of entertainment. They presented the first motion pictures to audiences in 1896. The Pittsburgh Post advertised this first exhibition of “Europe’s Reigning Sensation- Lumiere’s Cinematographe” to premiere at “The Avenue.” The Avenue Theatre was marketed as the theater “where the people go” (Pittsburgh Daily Post, 6 September 1896, page 16).

One of many illustrations available online illustrating the “cinématographe.”

The Lumiere brothers, Louis (1864-1948) and August (1862-1954). patented an improved cinematograph that allowed simultaneous viewing by multiple individuals. A cinematograph is a motion picture film camera that serves as both a film projector and printer. The device was first invented and patented as the “Cinématographe Léon Bouly” by French inventor Léon Bouly on February 12, 1892. “Cinématographe” was taken from the Greek for “writing in movement.” Due to a lack of funding to develop his ideas and maintain a hold on his patent, Bouly sold his rights to the device and its name to the Lumiere Brothers.

An advertisement for Harry Davis’ Avenue Theatre in Pittsburgh. In 1895 Thomas G. Moses painted the stock scenery for the venue. One year later, the theater included “Lumiere’s Cinematographe” as part of its “continuous entertainment” that was presented for ten hours each day from 1 PM until 11 PM.

The 1895 Pittsburgh Post newspaper advertisement for “Lumiere’s Cinematographe” included a lengthy description of this novel entertainment:

“The Lumiere Cinematographe is in brief the perfection of instantaneous photography. It reproduces life and motion with such fidelity that the beholder is well nigh awe-stricken. ‘Photography is revolutionized,’ says the entire European press, ‘and the Nineteenth Century has its greatest marvel. Hail, the inventive genius of Lumiere!’ The Lumiere Cinematographe is at present the greatest fashionable and scientific fad of London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and the entire continent. Its exhibitions have been attended by the crowned heads, and have created a furore wherever witnessed. It is the original of all the life-photography inventions, having been shown nearly a year ago. That is the best and only perfect one is now confidently asserted. Descriptive lectures by the distinguished actor, Mr. Beaumont Smith, especially engaged as a large salary during the exhibition of the Cinematographe.” Smith was a singing comedian who traveled throughout the region.

Shortly after Harry Davis presented Lumiere’s Cinématographe at the Avenue Theatre, Edison’s Vitascope was showing at the nearby Bijou Theatre. This was Davis’ first competition and would mark a battle that would ensue across the country during the early years of moving pictures. Audiences were enthralled with this new form of visual spectacle, while panorama companies and the producers of other stationary spectacles feared the paradigm shift in the entertainment industry. It explains the theatrical manufacturers’ drive to incorporate even grander spectacles with movement for their staged spectacles, such as the chariot race in Klaw & Erlanger’s “Ben-Hur.”

In 1898, the “Chemical Trade Journal and Oil, Paint and Colour Review” included information about an upcoming photographic exhibition (Vol. 22, page 282). It reported, “The following article will be shown by Fuerst Bros. at the forthcoming photographic exhibition, Portmanrooms, London, W.: Lumiere’s cinematograph machine, Lumiere’s cinematograph special camera for projection only, Lumiere’s cinematograph blank negative gauge and positive film (perforated to either Lumiere of Edison gauge), Lumiere’s cinematograph accessories, Lumiere’s negative and positive films (a large assortment of English and foreign subjects), Lumiere’s photographic dry plates, extra rapid, orthochromatic, panchromatic and special X-Ray plates, Lumiere’s Citos paper, glossy and matter, bromides for contact printing and enlargements, Lumiere’s pyroacetone developer, Lumiere’s yellow screens, Hauff’s developers (ortol, amidol, metol, glycin, etc.) Hauff;s toning and fixing and fixing cartridges, Hauff’s thiocarbamid (stain remover), hydroquinone, eikonogen, ordinal, etc., chloride of gold in 15 grain tubes (Axe” brand, English make), nitrate of silver (cryst. And fuse, “Ax” brand, English make), and all photographic chemicals.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 334 – Thomas G. Moses and Pittsburgh’s Avenue Theatre

Part 334: Thomas G. Moses and Pittsburgh’s Avenue Theatre

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses provided scenery for the Avenue Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was also known as the “Family Avenue Theatre,” opening on Monday, November 11, 1895. The Avenue was one of three theaters on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh: The New grand Opera House, the Avenue Theatre and Tivoli Gardens Theatre.

The Avenue was originally known as the Harris Theatre from 1888 to 1895. The performance venue originated as a hall for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall (I.O.O.F), located at 58-60-62 Fifth Avenue. By August of 1865, it was listed as an Opera House. Then another opera house appeared – the “new opera house,” or the Pittsburgh Opera House, opening in 1871. It was located directly behind the Harris Theatre (later known as the Avenue Theatre). The Pittsburgh Opera House was christened the “New Grand Opera House” in 1895, the same year that the Harris Theatre was renamed the Avenue Theatre.

Advertisement for Harry Davis’ Avenue Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thomas G. Moses painted scenery for the venue when it opened in 1895.

From cellar to roof, newspaper reviews for the Avenue Theatre reported, “every vestige of the old Harris theater has been removed, and in its place is the coziest, prettiest and most convenient and best-appointed little theater in Pittsburgh.” (Pittsburgh Daily Post, 13 Nov 1895, page 9). Harry Davis was reported at spending over $30,000 to transform the property into “a delightful family theater.”

As with the Lowell Opera House in Massachusetts, architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick & Sons provided the plans for the alteration, reporting “nothing but the four walls” would be left standing (New York Times, 29 May 1894, page 8). There was also an interesting comment made about the backstage area. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the new proprietor hoped to create a stage that would accommodate “any kind of show, from quiet comedy to a grand spectacle.” The new proprietor, Harry Davis, created a house “anew” at the expense of $50.000” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 Nov 1895, page 5).

The Avenue’s seating capacity was increased to accommodate 2,600 people. 4,000 incandescent lights illuminated the auditorium and stage. The New York Times reported, “The scenery is the work of Thomas G. Moses, the celebrated Chicago scenic artist, and will compare favorably with his best productions found in the leading theaters of the country. The drop curtain is a beautiful work of art, agreeably harmonizing with the prevailing colors of the house. A fire-proof curtain has also been added to the equipment of the stage, and in the design of the building a sufficient number of exits has been included to make it possible to empty the house in two minutes” (New York Times, 29 May 1894, page 8).

The opening week performances included Alice Shaw, the famous ‘La Belle Siffleuse,” the “great Lady Whistler. Famed over two continents.” Other acts included A. O. Duncan, premiere ventriloquist; Lawrence & Harrington, the Bowery Spielers; Bryant & Saville, comedians; Dockstader, the black-faced comedian; and other “sterling vaudeville acts,” such as the Ariel ballet, John and Ella M’Carthy, M’Bride & Goodrich, Campbell & Evans, Minnie Lee, Edgar Seldon, and Carl Johnson.

Advertisement for the Avenue Theatre in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (20 Nov 1897, page 5).

Advertisements promised “continuous performances” and “ten hours of uninterrupted fun each day” from 1PM until 11PM (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 Nov 1895, page 5). The Avenue Theatre was marketed as venue that presented “high-class vaudeville,” as well as the “best of drama” and “superb comic opera.” For the opening, Charles Drew headed the 40-member Mackery Opera Company in the revival of the “Mascot.”

Davis’ gamble proved to be a success and by 1902 the Pittsburgh Press reported “There will be hilarious times at the Avenue Theatre this week, for the management have engaged a company of vaudeville performers whose stock and trade is to make people laugh. There is scarcely a serious act on the bill which would seem to prove that Proprietor and Manager Harry Davis has discovered that people go to a continuous show house to be amused and not to worry over the intricacies [sic.] of plots and problems” (19 October 1902, page 34). By 1897, the Avenue Theatre would be advertised as “the Mecca of refined Vaudeville,” still showing continuous entertainment daily (Pittsburgh Post Gazette 20 Nov. 1897, page 5).

The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported, “The auditorium is the temporary place of visitation for the public, and it has been shown that no pains have been spared to give pleasure and comfort. The same can be said for the world which lies behind Thomas Moses’ scene curtain – the stage” (10 Nov 1895, page 9).

Illustrations of the Boxes in the Avenue Theatre from the Pittsburgh Daily Post (10 Nov 1895, page 9).
Illustrations of the Avenue Theatre Lobby from the Pittsburgh Daily Post (10 Nov 1895, page 9).

To be continued…