Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center – part 38

Part 38: A Sea of Troubles

 “To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

I soon realized that I was constantly taking arms against a “sea of troubles” as the Curatorial Director at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.

The weekly OAC (Owner/Architect/Contractor) meeting had continued after I asked about the smoke door placement. Throughout the remainder of the meeting, I thought back to many conversations with the CEO since my return from Fort Scott.

One conversation kept popping into my mind. It had been mid-December 2015 and I was sitting with the Minnesota Masonic Charities staff for a short coffee break near the Minnesota Masonic Home café. This was unusual, as I was often too busy to attend these daily gatherings. While chatting about my finds in Fort Scott with the CEO, I inquired whether he had any preferred order for scenery restoration. I was getting ready to start compiling the first timeline.

He immediately responded that he had absolutely no preference – I could choose the restoration order. The CEO then elaborated that he had always been in front of the scenery – performing – not really caring about what happened behind him. At the time, I simply thought, “oh…actor” and made a mental note. So, the occasional “us and them” struggle between performers and technicians carried over to fraternal stages too. This production dynamic peaked my interest from a historical standpoint, thinking of Joe Jefferson and other nineteenth century actors who were deeply involved in all aspects of a production. When did it start on fraternal stages? Had the “us and them” dynamic always been there?

Now the CEO’s fraternal performances and degree production experiences were all at the Scottish Rite in Duluth, Minnesota. I was extremely familiar with this 1904 scenery collection, as I had provided a lot of information to the historical architect Rolf Anderson for his written nomination of the building for the National Register of Historic Places. Rolf and I spoke extensively about the significance of the scenery collection and how the Winona Masonic Center was placed on the National Register primarily for the historical significance of its scenery (the work of Lance Brockman and Charlie Nelson).

Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. Photo by Rolf Anderson, 2014.
Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. Photo by Rolf Anderson, 2014.
View of Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. View of auditorium from stage with wood set. Photo by W. Waszut-Barrett, 2014.
View of Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. View of auditorium from stage with wood set. Photo by W. Waszut-Barrett, 2014.

I had also conducted a variety of theatre tours at the Duluth Scottish Rite over the years, including one for theatre practitioners of the Northern Boundary Section, USITT (United States Institute of Technical Theatre), in 2012 and the Ladies Tour at the Minnesota Grand Lodge in 2014. It was an outstanding scenery collection!

View of Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. View of tour for Northern Boundary Section fall conference (2012).
View of Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. View of tour for Northern Boundary Section fall conference (2012).
View of Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite. View of ladies tour for Minnesota Grand Lodge (2014).

While reflecting on the CEO’s comments, I considered his lack of appreciation for any historical scenery. I had initially noticed it during the August evaluation at Fort Scott as his interest waned as the fourth scene was lowered. I had encountered the “It’s just backing, not art” attitude before in many Scottish Rite Valleys across the country. These were frequently the same individuals who viewed Masonic libraries as “just books waiting to be scanned.” I fell in love with the Fraternity because of its reverence for history, ritual, and instruction. While it is no surprise that not everyone uniformly shares this belief, the Fraternity is so much more than charitable donations. There are those who deeply understand that Scottish Rite theaters are an extension of a unique cultural heritage; one to be studied and preserved, like the books, and other Masonic artifacts.

In addition to the CEO’s “just scenery” attitude was the general director’s comments about how “his” theatre would be staffed by volunteers. I had repeatedly argued for at least ONE theatre professional – even a part-time theatre technician. SOMEONE had to know how to operate and maintain the equipment. At the time, I had been primarily concerned about the lighting, rigging, and sound systems. I hoped that the historical scenery collection would ultimately fall under my control as a recent museum acquisition.

Both the CEO and general director’s comments made me think of most state-of-the art performing arts centers built all across Minnesota. It all starts with a “big vision,” followed by a small plan to run the facility. These performance venues cost millions of dollars to construct, but are never adequately staffed after the opening. It results in the gradual deterioration of both lighting and sound systems as high school students or volunteers run the facility. No one knows how to run, maintain, or repair the equipment. How shortsighted, and it was apparent that we were going to repeat this process here too.

This is a tried and true formula for failure. There were massive Scottish Rite buildings across the country with amazing artifact collections and almost all are collapsing. Why? There is no one to staff the buildings beyond a team of volunteers. The Masons of Minnesota find themselves spending tens of millions of dollars to create a state-of-the-art facility, staffed primarily with volunteer labor. What was the REAL endgame? Was this all a charade?

To be continued…

Duluth Scottish Rite, Treasure Chamber (15th degree).
Duluth Scottish Rite, King Solomon’s Throne Room (6th and 9th degrees).
Duluth Scottish Rite, wood set.
Duluth Scottish Rite, cave scene for 9th degree). Photo by Rolf Anderson, 2014.
Last scene lowered when I was guest speaker for ladies tour at Minnesota Grand Lodge (2014).

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