Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 68

Part 68: Service Studios
I was in the middle of constructing the databases, collecting unemployment, and looking for work when something wonderful appeared out of nowhere.

Over the years, amazing fraternal artifacts have found there way to my door, usually journeying north from Chicago. It always came from my friend, Brian. We had initially met over the phone in the mid-1990s. This was when I started doing research for Lance Brockman, tracking down information for the museum exhibit, “Theatre of the Fraternity.” We touched base again during 2000 when I was assigning metadata to the Scenery Collection Database at the Performing Arts Archives. Both times, Brian was my link to information on early-twentieth century scenic artists in the Chicago area, especially if the belonged to the Union.

A decade later in 2010, Brian contacted me again when he heard of the Peoria, Illinois Scottish Rite scenery collection. We both frantically tried to come up options that could provide the scenery collection with a new home. Then, I realized that if it was going to be saved, I would have to personally finance the project and rescue the collection.  It became clear that the drops were destined for a dumpster. A year later, Scottish Rite pounces ended up on my doorstep and a Thomas Moses oil painting (1926) rolled up in a tube. Then came the installation records for several Northern Masonic Jurisdiction Scottish Rites. A year after that, all of the leftover dry pigment and aniline dyes he had stored were sent back with a family member and a message for me to pick up.

I finally was able to visit with Brian at the Chicago Lyric Opera shops while I was attending a League of Historic American Theatre conference in 2014. Once again, I returned home with my arms full of abandoned records that Brian had carefully collected and stored, waiting for the right moment to find a new home for the artifacts. You see, Brian was a kindred spirit, one of the few people who was also intimately familiar with life and art of many the Chicago-area artists from the early twentieth century onward. He was a scenic artist and historian who also had a driving desire to preserve our past. So when I started to create my Scenic Artist Database during the Fall, Brian was a recipient as he would be able to add information to my records.

Most recently, he shared a book of Masonic designs from the 1920s when he travelled to the Twin Cities. I was speechless as I paged through the book of black and white photographs of Masonic models during lunch with Brian and my son in St. Paul.

Service Studios book of Masonic designs for Scottish Rite, York Rite, Blue Lodge, Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (MOVPER) Grotto, and Ancient Arabic Order of the Noble Mystic Shrine (AAONMS).

These images were all Sosman and Landis designs yet stamped “Service Studios.” These designs filled in many of the compositions that weren’t included in the Holak Collection (Sosman & Landis, Chicago Studios, and New York Studios), Twin City Scenic Co. Collection, and the Great Western Stage Equipment Co. Collection.

Stamp for Service Studios of Chicago, Illinois.

I tried to recall all of the information that I knew about Service Studios of Chicago. Amazingly, I had learned quite a bit during my trip to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. The origin of the Service Studios is a fascinating one and depicts the struggle between the first wave of scenic artists who started their careers between 1880-1900 and the second wave of scenic artists who started their careers between 1900-1920.

You see, by 1920 the artists who started working during the second wave began founding their own scenic studios. This was no different that what the first wave of artists had done, but the actual artists were different. There was always the internal battle for the scenic artist between freedom and steady paycheck.

But there was something different for the studios started by the second wave artists as they were founding companies just before the crash. The money wave that everyone had been riding started to slow down for a variety of reasons, one being the diminished demand for painted illusion and the other had to do with early appearance of “paint it yourself” scene painting manuals for academic institutions. I previously discussed the crumbling of old alliances between studios and the passing of many original founders in the 1920s (see part 60).

So this was the business landscape when Service Studios emerged onto the scene in 1920. You see, several top artists left the Sosman and Landis studio (not just one or two) to start their own business. Among them was the scenic artist John Hanny, who had worked for the company since 1906. Hanny, as was the case with many other young hires, started out his studio career as a “pot boy” – filling the pots on the paint palettes with color. Hanny very slowly worked his way to becoming a scenic artist.

Thomas Moses had actually been the one to hire Hanny. This was just two years after Moses had returned to Sosman & Landis from NYC where he had been working from 1900-1904. He had left Chicago to paint Broadway shows, even creating scenery for amusements at Luna Park on Coney Island.
I appreciate and relate to Moses’ outlook on life, his artistic drive, and work ethic. It is obvious that he worked his tail off – all – the – time – and took pride in everything he did. That being said, I doubt that he was an easy man to work for, especially if you were a studio “pot boy.” Moses was extremely fast, a hard worker and, most of all, a perfectionist. This never bodes well for others unless they share these same characteristics.

Interestingly, the Service Studios artists seem to have created their own sales book of black and white photographs, depicting Masonic designs. The only problem is that the designs were those from Sosman and Landis installations. The designs in the Service Studios book depicted the exact compositions found in many Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rite Theaters, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Tucson, Arizona, Winona, Minnesota, and many other Masonic locations.

Service Studios book with photograph of design for the 5th degree.
Pasadena, California Scottish Rite drop for the 5th degree. This scene was originally created for the Scottish Rite in Little Rock, Arkansas (first scenery collection there (1896-1901).
Service Studios photograph depicting 9th degree design.
Tucson, Arizona scene depicted in Service Studios Masonic design book.
Grand Fork, North Dakota scene depicted in Service Studios Masonic design book.

What’s the possibility that the artist’s starting Service Studios pirated pictures of the model as they would start with an “instant inventory?” It was looking very likely.

To be continued…

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