Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 10 – The Ascension  

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…

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