Part 13: Getting My Hands Dirty
The rigging crew would later admit that no one knew what my contribution would be to the project, even Prewitt, the owner of BellaTex, LLC. Would I sit with my camera in hand and slowly photograph the removal process, or would I actually get my hands dirty? It is important to understand that when I was sent to Fort Scott, my directive was to solely supervise and not to help out as a “common laborer.”
It is important to understand that throughout the duration of my career I always worked alongside my crew, never expecting anyone to perform a task that I wouldn’t do myself. I realized long ago that this type of attitude and a general willingness to get one’s hands dirty, had a positive impact on any work environment. Showing great appreciation for your staff and lending a hand is such an easy thing to do and it always pays off in the long run.
In addition to this instilled work ethic, I was raised to conquer obstacles and take pride in my work. Therefore, when I encountered the thick layer of contaminants coating the scenery and set pieces, I couldn’t ignore it. It is possible that others would have ignored the dirt, rolled the drops, shipped them, and dealt with the consequences later. That was not an option for me, so I tackled this initial obstacle.
We covered both the stage floor and auditorium floor with heavy duty plastic to catch the majority of the dirt that fell off of the drop as it was lowered to the floor and stripped of both battens and hardware. I purchased both dry mops and wet mops to clean the plastic as often as possible so that dirt from one drop, wouldn’t contaminate another drop.
Then, the drop was placed on the auditorium floor face down. I used my handy Festool dust extractor to remove the majority of loose contaminants with its special HEPA filter. The drop was then flipped face up so that I could vacuum the loose particulates from the painted surface. This initial cleaning was to protect the painted surface during shipping and limit the amount of airborne particles in the space on site.
Dirt and pigment would continue to dust off during the rolling and transportation, necessitating additional vacuuming and cleaning with archival sponges before any necessary repairs or restoration. The vacuuming for each drop in no way made the surface completely clean nor free of contaminants. After vacuuming both sides, it took four of us crawling across the floor on our knees to loosely roll the 36’ long drop. This loose roll meant it could be carried down the winding staircase to the first floor where it would then wait to be rolled onto 25’ cardboard tubes.
The drops couldn’t be rolled immediately after vacuuming on the second floor as the winding staircase could not accommodate a 25’ rigid tube. This was the process prior to rolling, wrapping, and loading onto our shipping truck. Multiply this procedure ninety-two times.
The need for any additional cleaning prior to any restoration was a point of contention with the CEO. Even after several conversations, I could not convince him that this initial cleaning was not sufficient. Nor would he believe that the drops had to be stabilized or any repairs made prior to hanging. It was impossible to convince him that the dusting pigments and other surface contaminates were dangerous to both the performers on stage and the audience members.
To be continued…
Part 12: The Volcano Scene
The 17th degree of the Scottish Rite can be one of the most exciting degree productions on a Masonic stage. Lighting flashes, thunder rumbles, the ground trembles, and a volcano explodes, toppling buildings in the foreground of the painted composition. A red plume of lava shoots into the air, while rivulets of lava stream down the mountainside and gradually spill into a lake. Slowly, the sky and water become a bright blood red. The first time I documented this scene was at the Winona Scottish Rite Theatre, were volunteers assisted in successfully presenting the scene.
This scene is often labeled “17th degree Vision” and could include a variety of scenic effects, all dependent on the amount of money the client was willing to invest. The Fort Scott scene was like Winona one and quite elaborate, using netting, transparencies, translucencies, and a variety of rigging mechanisms to lower painted panels on the front of the cut drop.
The staging relates to the breaking of the seven seals in the Book of Revelation. Cataclysmic events occur and a variety of painted visions are magically revealed in transparent sections of the composition. Fort Scott had five small drops for the visions. These small paintings were almost always the work of an inexperienced artist as it was a perfect opportunity for them to show their skills in drawing and figure painting. If it really was a horrific end product, it wouldn’t matter due to its placement on stage, plus the dim lighting would conceal most of the flaws.
I have often wondered whether these small scenic art projects were the work of the owner’s nephew. Over the years, I have stumbled across comments concerning this relation who was constantly given an opportunity to prove his artist ability and consistently failed. This might have been the perfect project to prevent him from ruining the remainder of the installation.
In my mind I imagine the following dialogue:
Artist 1: What are we going to have him paint this time? He doesn’t seem to be getting any better and he’s so slow!
Artist 2: Give him the Vision drops again.
Artist 1: But he can’t paint figures and it will take him forever!?!?
Artist 2: I know, but at least it will keep him busy and you can’t see much of the painting during the degree anyway.
Artist 1: Well, the art does represent the end of the world.
In the past, I have posted painted details of anatomical oddities from various Vision scene figures: breasts that were placed just below the collar bone, hair that defied gravity, hands that were unbelievably large, and faces with unnatural eye placement. Similarly, figures from the York Rite’s Sepulcher scene were often sporadic in terms of quality. I frequently post these details with my standard comment,” …and this is why drawing classes are important in scenic art training!”
The figures for Fort Scott were an interesting mixture of skill, but very inconsistent. I was reminded of the Vision scenes in Winona, Minnesota where one was “okay” and four were pretty awful. Although Thomas Moses was not a fabulous figure painter, I wondered if his onsite assistant was responsible for these paintings.
To be continued…
(Pictures will be uploaded tomorrow due to hotel internet service!)
Part 11: Wooden Battens
Most drops in Scottish Rite facilities have wooden sandwich battens at the tops and bottoms of each drop. This means that the fabric is “sandwiched” between two pine boards. The battens at the top were typically 1×4 boards, whereas the battens at the bottom were 1 x 3 boards.
Drops were rolled in the studio without the battens and attached onsite during installation. Lumber for battens was ordered from companies specializing in theatrical lumber and shipped separately in linear feet and not cut to order. Typically, the Scottish Rite Valley and the name of the recipient was stenciled onto the battens for shipping. I have frequently encountered these markings. Two examples that stick out are William Hayes Laird for the Winona Scottish Rite, and Charles Rosenbaum for the Little Rock scenery (moved to the Pasadena Scottish Rite in 1924).
Once the drops and the lumber arrived on site, the lumber for the top batten was laid in a straight line on the stage floor. This would become the backside of the top batten. It was secured to the stage floor with clout nails to prevent shifting while the drop was attached to it. The top edge of the drop was then draped on the batten and tacked down every four inches.
Once the fabric was secured, a second batten was placed on top to “sandwich” the fabric. At this point slotted screws secured these two battens together. The entire batten was pried from the stage floor and the clout nails were hammered over into the wood. Half-inch holes were then drilled into the top batten for the pick points. A similar process happened to the bottom of the drop, without the holes.
Bottom battens were especially important as the weight stretched out apparent wrinkles while hanging. Eventually wooden batten were replaced with pipe pockets.
Usually the bottom battens were rounded, allowing the bottom battens to easily slip past each other and not catch during raising or lowering of a drop. Shapes were anywhere from perfect ovals to angled edges. In Fort Scott, both the top and bottom battens were cut at forty-five degree angles.
To transport or restore a scene, the battens are removed from the fabric. This is a slow process due to the initial assembly.
Most people don’t realize that these wooden battens contain a treasure trove of information pertaining to the transportation, installation, client, and artist. Fort Scott was the best example of “hidden text” that I have ever come across in my career. Often I have encountered a shipping stencil or the individual who would receive the lumber on site, but Fort Scott was truly unique. One example scribbled on the inside of these boards was the preliminary ordering of scenes. Another scene depicted how a counterweight rigging system worked to raise and lower a scene. Mathematical formulas were written and corrected everywhere. Even the onsite paint frame was disassembled and became part of the top wooden battens.
I was meticulous in documenting every hand written detail because I would later need this information to analyze the collection in its entirety. Clues were everywhere, and I had little time to catch them all. As the crew stripped the battens and hardware from the drops, they would shout out “Scribbles!” and I would come running with one of three cameras to make sure that a picture wouldn’t be blurred or lost.
The majority of the writing was that of Thomas Moses. In most of the writing, he was carefully explaining installation details to his crew
You can imagine the panic that I felt at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center when I realized those restoring the scenery had replaced the wooden battens with pipe pockets. My mind was reeling as I kept thinking, “All of that history is now lost.” I desperately hoped that they were safely sitting in a storage unit somewhere, preserving the history for someone. There is also the physics involved in sewing canvas pipe pockets onto fragile fabric. Often the pipes selected are not heavy enough to pull out the wrinkles. If they were, the bottom of the drop would work like a perforated page and eventually fall to the floor.
To be continued…
Part 10: The Ascension
Another Fort Scott stage effect was the Ascension scene, a standard setting in many Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rites theatres. This scene and others from the 18th degree had been used for decades to perform Passion Plays across the country. It was not only a great way to generate income, but it was also an event that brought people into a Masonic building – a positive outreach program. A good example of this phenomenon occurred at the Scottish Rite in Bloomington, Illinois. Starting in 1924, the Bloomington Masons annually presented “The American Passion Play,” an elaborate production was over three hours in length, with fifty-six scenes and up to two hundred and thirty actors.
In most Valleys, however, the image of Jesus was presented as a small cut-out set piece, ranging from thirty inches to forty inches in height. This image was often part of a staged scenic tableaux, devoid of people and accompanied by music. Occasionally, actors played the role of Jesus and were securely strapped into a harness, slowly ascending out of sight. Just remember that this was not “Flying by Foy” and the rigging to raise actors high above the stage was sketchy at best. At Fort Scott, the Jesus cut out was approximately 5’-6,” the size of an average male.
We staged the effect to document the scene. Tracking down the Jesus cable to a small machine behind the fly rail, we flipped the switch and hoped that it would work. The machine immediately came to life and started to whirr! Slowly Jesus descended from the fly loft. I ran to the stage and carefully filmed about sixteen seconds. “Got it!” I shouted, only to immediately realize that I had filmed the “second coming” and not the “ascension!”
We now set the scene with Jesus starting in the appropriate spot on stage – partially hidden behind the painted bush in the center of the cut drop. Again, I began to record the stage effect. His ascent was painstakingly slow and you could hear the noise of the engine as the cable was slowly coiled back onto the spindle. My patience lasted even less than sixteen seconds this time before I figured we had enough video. In the back of my mind, I wondered how loud the music needed to be to drown out the sound of this motor.
Our local Scottish Rite contact had given his permission to remove the unit, as many of us fancied the idea of owning this particular stage artifact. Unfortunately, the motor remained in place as there was little energy to take on any extra task during the final days of the Fort Scott project.
Removing this cut drop and others proved to be a challenge due to the excessive amounts of dirt that clung to the 1” opera net and the bobbinet (open weave netting , similar to mosquito netting). For the first few scenes, netting and bobbinet were left in the openings of the drops, but I became increasingly concerned that the dirt would become transferred to the painted surface, possibly permanently damaging the scene during rolling and transport.
As previously stated, I had never encountered this particular type of surface contaminant before during any restoration project. Very soon, I made the call that all netting on cut drops would be gently removed prior to rolling and transport. Again, this was a time-consuming step that I had not factored into the overall project timeline. It would help out the restoration in the long run as all of the netting would be replaced on each scene; you never leave partial pieces of netting on a scene as this doesn’t support the cut opening.
After removing the cables from Jesus, we carefully propped him up near the exit of the theatre. Unfortunately, his silhouette against a white wall would frighten each of us multiple times throughout the duration of the project. We would catch his shape in our peripheral vision and it would literally make us jump as we perceived an unexpected visitor. This would lead me to use the phrase, “Remember, Jesus is watching you.”
To be continued…
Part 9: Pepper’s Ghost
I met the remainder of my Fort Scott crew on the second day. We started the morning by setting up the catacomb scene for the 30th degree. This would prove to be an ideal project, allowing us to start the day with something really fun. This scene included a stage effect called Pepper’s Ghost, an absolutely delightful scenic illusion – even for seasoned theatre people.
We rolled out the large and dirt encrusted Pepper’s Ghost chamber. This unit, as everything else on the stage, was coated with a thick layer of oily black residue. I had never encountered this particular type of surface contaminant before and was starting to feel a little uneasy about what it might be.
In terms of Pepper’s Ghost, it was obvious that a theatrical manufacturer did not professionally construct this unit. It also appeared to be a second generation artifact, constructed by Masons during the mid-twentieth century. It is important to note that many Scottish Rite stage props and set pieces were “updated” or “touched up” with paint in the late 1940s through mid 1960s. Sometimes the originals were simply thrown out and rebuilt. Second generation replicas were often the product of industrious Masons or an ambitious stage crew, all with the mind set of “Hey, I know how to make this even better!” In some cases it worked, in most instances it failed – miserably.
The manufacturers of the Fort Scott unit proudly stenciled their creation with “A.A.S.R. Senic Building Corporation of Fort Scott, Kansas.” I wondered if the misspelling of “scenic” was intentional. Maybe “senic” was a play on the word “senior;” probably not. Regardless, it was a delightful piece of both theatrical and Masonic history that could be treasured by future generations. I immediately decided that it was coming with me.
Now it’s really important to understand what happens on the stage prior to the Pepper’s Ghost scenic illusion. The central opening of the drop is covered with a painted panel that will eventually fall to the floor. To the immediate stage right side of this space is a translucent section in the drop with a passage of text. When front lit, this translucent section looks like a painted stone wall. When backlight, portions of the wall reveal a text from the ritual: “He who shall overcome the dread of death shall ascend beyond the terrestrial sphere and be entitled to initiation into the Greater Mysteries.”
The text is illuminated and on cue, the painted panel slams to the ground, beckoning the actor to enter this dark chamber. After entering the space, the audience witnesses man’s mortality where the actor transforms into a skeleton. Pretty magical, isn’t it?
Here is how this stage effect works: The unit is placed immediately behind the practical opening in the catacomb backdrop where hooks connect to eye bolts on the backdrop’s wooden supports. In the corner of this “L” shaped unit is a moving piece of plate glass. This plate glass is placed at a 45 degree angle to the drop opening and the audience. At the correct moment, the glass slides “soundlessly” into place, moved with a hand crank and a cable.
The actor walks over the fallen panel and through the opening in the drop; he remains in full view of the audience. He is fully lit with his own miniature spot light in the chamber. This plate glass rolls into place, separating him from the audience while remaining entirely visible. The glass is undetectable.
A second light illuminates the skeleton, reflecting its image onto the plate glass. The lights on the actor go down and only the reflection of the skeleton remains. The mechanized skeleton with glowing red eyes even gestures to the audience with his bony hand! This is nineteenth century theatrical magic at work!
Eventually, the lights on the skeleton are turned off as the lights on the actor are turned back on, allowing the skeleton’s reflection to be replaced with that of the actor. The plate glass is rolled back and the actor is allowed to immediately exit the unit.
We were able to stage this effect and I witnessed the delight of my crew. In this instant, I knew that Pepper’s Ghost was going to accompany the drop collection back to Minnesota, including all six feet of plate glass and paper maché skeleton. Why restore a catacomb scene without the scenic effect? This was what made audiences gasp in wonder and delight. I even took a video so that the CEO and general director of MMHC could understand the importance of the scene.
The mechanics of this unit were fascinating to examine. Behind the fly rail we had encountered another hand-made mechanical device; a converted sewing machine with cables to raise Jesus during the Ascension scene (18th degree), thus replacing the original hand crack. They were both delightful examples of mid-twentieth century ingenuity conceived and built by fraternal stage crews. These unique machines captivated my crew and they eagerly anticipated the discovery of other artifacts.
It proved be an ideal start for the second day and the duration of the entire project. Prewitt had assembled a good combination of unique personalities and individual expertise. The crew and I tentatively shared stories about each other, our families, and homes in the beginning. Each man was hardworking, easy going, accommodating, and fun. I was very lucky to have this particular crew as there would be numerous challenges around the bend. Every day would bring an unanticipated surprise.
To be continued…
Part 7: Arriving in Fort Scott
On November 1, 2015, I drove into the parking lot of the Fort Scott Sleep Inn & Suites, my home for the next three weeks. After unloading all of my supplies and setting up the suite as my out-of-town office, I contacted the local Scottish Rite representative. He and his wife wished to welcome me to town, offering to take me out for dinner at a local restaurant. They picked my up at 6:00 and we headed to Sharky’s. By the end of my stay in Fort Scott, I would have sampled everything offered on the Sharky’s menu.
I learned that John’s wife was the current mayor of the town, and they both were intellectuals. The couple had heavily invested in Fort Scott over the years, not only at the Scottish Rite, but also in the downtown area where there were continued attempts at revitalization. They had recently purchased a local store front on main street and had high hopes for an upward swing in business, also being part-owners in the Sleep Inn & Suites.
I was invited to a variety of upcoming social events, but had to respectfully decline – noting that I would have my hands full with supervising the scenery removal.
They also wanted to share a recent situation that had occurred in the Scottish Rite Theatre concerning a local resident who had lived in the building for a while. I was being told as I might notice some things that appeared odd since my last visit – like a couch that had been placed in the balcony area. There were two reasons for sharing this story, the first was to suggest that the scenery might have been handled during the lodger’s stay. The second reason to share the story was my safety and the safety of my crew. Although I was assured that they were in possession of all building keys , I was to keep an eye out for uninvited visitors. If anyone was to enter the space not associated with the Scottish Rite, I was to contact John right away. This caused me some uneasiness about our upcoming working environment and what we were walking into as there might be more going on, such as a hostile undercurrent resulting from the sale of the scenery.
I was representing a business with millions of dollars at our disposal taking one of the last things of value from this small town. During our August visit, the CEO had made clear that Minnesota Masonic Charities’ had deep pockets to fund this endeavor; they could write a check of any amount to both purchase and restore the collection.
Fort Scott was an economically depressed community with a median income of $18,000-$24,000 per year, and the pride of the community was at stake. This had once been a booming town of industry and there were reminders everywhere of their thriving past. It could become a difficult project if we were not fully welcomed by the local citizens. It was also a small enough town to realize that everyone knew what was going on in the community and all of the new projects– especially our initial offer to purchase the entire scenery collection for $2,500.
The mayor asked if I would be amenable to a newspaper interview. We discussed how this entire endeavor must remain a positive and noble effort to preserve the material heritage of both Fort Scott and the fraternity. Not a large business swooping in to gut the town.
To be continued…
Part 5: Delays
Time was running out to contract our rigging crew and order the necessary supplies. The search for a licensed and insured company to participate in this endeavor started when I initially estimated all of expenses associated with the project in August. Unfortunately, my preferred ETCP rigger and owner of 20/20 Theatrical was not available for the project. The next best option was Ty Prewitt , founder and owner of BellaTex, LLC out of Jackson, Tennessee (http://bellatex.com/). Regardless of how well I knew and respected Prewitt, my worries stemmed from working with an unfamiliar crew. These might be men who did not understand historical scenery and the need for careful handling.
It was not until October 2 that the CEO finally accepted Prewitt’s initial estimate to remove and transport this scenery. This ultimately meant a delay in the submission of the final contract. The finalized proposal for the removal and transportation of scenery was submitted on October 15, 2015 – approximately two weeks before the start of the project. Since September, there had been continued negotiations concerning insurance and liability, specifically addressing concerns of “who” would insure the drops during removal, transportation, and their unloading into storage bays?
We were all skating on thin ice in terms of timeline and the project was now in jeopardy.
My largest concern continued to focus on the weather in Kansas. In Fort Scott, we would be working in an unheated building for three weeks without water. Due to the size of the theatre and height of the fly loft, it would be extremely difficult to heat the space. I knew that it would be a cool working environment, but desperately hoped that it would not become too frigid.
On October 26 – a mere six days before my departure- I received confirmation of a signed contract and immediately emailed both the rigger and Fort Scott contact to nail down logistics of my arrival and the commencement of the project.
To put this scenery acquisition in perspective necessitates looking at my contributions during 2015 as both a Historical Consultant and the MMHC Curatorial. My plate was full with numerous MMHC projects during the planning and initial construction of the complex. All of my duties as an independent historical consultant simply carried over into my Curatorial Director responsibilities as the contracted duties for this position would not completely begin until the center opened in June 2016.
Since the fall of 2014, I had worked nonstop with architects, interior designers, theatre consultants, and others to provide insight and examples of historic ornamentation, color palettes, painted décor, or other decorative details standard for Masonic edifices constructed between 1910 and 1930. I had also directed the theatrical consulting firm of Schuler Shook to recreate a Scottish Rite space for the CEO’s anticipation of the folding of the Valleys. This meant that we recreated a Scottish Rite space that could accommodate drops on lines spaced 4” apart, with the exception of motorized electrics.
Besides directing these visual elements, I had also functioned as a Masonic scholar, designing the thematic layout and selecting artifacts for the six-gallery museum exhibit planned for the opening, working with other Masonic scholars from Washington, D.C. to finalize the majority of graphics and text panels prior to my departure. In addition to both these artistic and scholarly endeavors, I worked with the Director of Communications for Minnesota Masonic Charities as she continued to develop the MMHC website and marketing of this new corporate identity. I had been pulled into this aspect as I would be the first “employee of interest,” a marketing strategy to constantly keep MMHC in the news both before and after the opening. Part of this role meant participating in local radio interviews to raise awareness of the MMHC mission.
The Fort Scott scenery collection was simply another acquisition for the center and not the main focus of my job. Earlier acquisitions had included the St. Paul Scottish Rite library composed of approximately 10,000 items that would form the basis for the MMHC library.
In the big picture, Fort Scott was just one MMHC project that I took the lead on and nothing more.
To be continued…