Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 11 – Wooden Battens

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…

 


 

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