Part 65: That’s Why They Call Me Second Hand Rose
The Valley of Austin was just down the street from the Harry Ransom Center on West 18th. Eric Colleary had kindly provided a preliminary email introduction to the woman that ran the Scottish Rite theater. This was another situation where a community theatre group had primary access and control of the stage and not the Masons. Taking a break from the reading room, we walked over to the Scottish Rite to meet the women who were the theater’s new caretakers. I intended it as a short trip for an in-person meeting, hoping one day to come back and evaluate the scenery collection in its entirety.
I knew that most of the Austin Scottish Rite scenery had been purchased second-hand through the M. C. Lilley Company from Lance Brockman’s research, but not much more. Mitchell C. Lilley (1819-1882) founded the M.C. Lilley Company in Columbus, Ohio during 1865. Originally starting as bookbinder and publisher, his company expanded to include regalia and paraphernalia for both military and fraternal organizations, as well as stages for fraternal theaters. For the many Scottish Rite Valleys in the Southern Jurisdiction, it was M.C. Lilley who contracted the entire project and then subcontracted individual portions of the project to various manufacturers and suppliers.
The Austin Scottish Rite scenery was purchased second hand through M. C. Lilley in 1913. It was originally manufactured by Sosman & Landis for Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1900. At the time of the scenery’s creation, David Austin Strong (1830-1911) still supervised Masonic scenery production in the shop; Moses had again left the studio and was freelancing in New York at this time. In his typed manuscript, Moses credited Strong as the “Daddy” of all Masonic design. I had always wondered about this statement as I had traced the origins of Scottish Rite scenery elsewhere in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, believing that Moses was solely referring to Strong’s influence on Masonic scenery at the Sosman & Landis studio, and their individual designs for the Scottish Rite.
Strong was a prolific artist in his own right, having flourished in New York as a scene painter before moving to Chicago. Among many impressive accomplishments, he is credited as one of the original artists for the 1866 productions of the “Black Crook” and “Rip Van Winkle.” His story is a tale that desperately needs to be told too.
Of the total 67 drops installed at the Austin Scottish Rite in 1913, 53 included the original charcoal markings designating their origin for Guthrie and measuring 15’ high by 30’ wide. This scenery was replaced when stage was enlarged in 1910, necessitating new scenery that measured 19’ high by 38’ wide. M.C. Lilley offered the the Guthrie Scottish Rite $1400 credit toward their new scenery purchase, intending to quickly resell the collection to another Scottish Rite Valley. This 1910 Guthrie scenery collection then was later transferred to their current building in 1923.
Records from Guthrie suggested that the original scenery collection had been purchased by Fort Scott, Kansas – a fact that shocked me when I stumbled across it. I now believe that the original Guthrie collection was split up immediately upon its return to M.C. Lilley; a few of the old drops were sent to Fort Scott to expand their 1904 collection and the rest remained in storage.
My discovery of the two scenes in Fort Scott that were much older than the remainder of the 1924 collection supports this theory. Furthermore, a 1912 letter to the Valley of Austin from Bestor G. Brown, then manager of the Western Offices for M.C. Lilley, discussed the division of the original Guthrie installation; noting that all of the original scenery would not be installed at the Austin Scottish Rite. Brown mentions that there were several drops and scenic pieces that would be of no use to the Austin Bodies.
As an M.C. Lilley representative, Brown negotiated with the Valley of Austin for the sale, arrangement, and installation of the Guthrie collection in their “new” theatre; they purchased an existing building. A scene plat was mailed to the Austin Scottish Rite for use when determining the final arrangement of scenes. Brown wrote, “The arrangement of drops is one of the most difficult things.” I know this intimately, as I designed how the Fort Scott scenery could fit into the new rigging system for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. There is a rhythm that you must follow to ensure an effective stage picture that will accommodate scenic illusions.
In 1912, Brown explained that they would arrange the used scenery so that it would be “properly adapted to the different Degrees and the sequence of Degrees.” However, he noted that even after careful preparation, some modifications would still occur after all of the scenery was hanging. Interestingly, all of the negotiations with Austin were delayed due to another M.C. Lilley project – the Santa Fe Scottish Rite.
As Brown later explained M.C. Lilley had only one employee who specialized in Scottish Rite scenery installation. I believe that this individual was possibly the stage machinist, Charles S. King, a Sosman & Landis employee. Little is known of King beyond a few newspaper articles identified furing the extensive research conducted by Rick Boychuk regarding the history of counterweight rigging.
Brown notes that the one who would be “superintending the installation” for the Austin project was currently occupied in Santa Fe at the Scottish Rite, installing an entirely new stage there, necessitating that he remain on site for approximately three weeks. Shortly after his correspondence, this superintendent and installation expert died from an accident. Brown explained that their deceased employee was the “only one thoroughly familiar with the special method of installing Scottish Rite scenery.” This special method was referred to as “Brown’s special system.” Then he continued, “We do not mean that it is impossible to follow the same methods as heretofore, but it will take a longer time to do it because of a lack of familiarity with the work.”
On January 23, 1913, Brown also noted the condition of the 1900 Guthrie collection, noting that “The scenery is in very good shape – infinitely better that the average theatrical scenery used on the road. The writer personally went over the scenery at the studio last week. While our contract does not contemplate it, we are touching up some of the scenery and if it be properly lighted, you will have a handsome set of scenery that we would not undertake to paint and install for less than, at least, $8,000.00”
The M. C. Lilley contract on February 25, 1913 sells the Austin Scottish Rite Bodies 64 used drops for $1,650, with a third due upon installation (cash), a third due the following year, and the final third due in two years. This financing was standard for these Scottish Rite endeavors and Brown writes, “In fact, if we had not been able to carry the Bodies in the Southern Jurisdiction as we have, we believe that fully one half of the development of the past ten years would not have been possible.”
Up to that time, M. C. Lilley had installed between 35 and 40 Masonic installations nationwide since 1900. And now some of these collections were finding a new home. I immediately thought of the line from Fanny Brice’s recording of “Second Hand Rose” in for the 1921 Ziegfeld Follies: “It’s no wonder that I feel abused, I never get a thing that hasn’t been used.”
To be continued…