Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 9 – Pepper’s Ghost

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…

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