Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 102

Part 102: Call Me Unpredictable

The Moline scenery collection can be divided into two categories: existing scenery that was refurbished for the 1930 stage and newly designed scenery created specifically for the new Cathedral stage. These two categories can be further subdivided into other groups that are identifiable by painting techniques characteristic of individual artists. The entire Moline collection does not appear as a unified whole with a shared aesthetic. I have to wonder if this was apparent to those who worked in the studio or who purchased the scenery.

The new scenery produced by Becker & Bro. during 1930 can be easily identified by the excessive the use of spatter. However, other identifying characteristics include the use of paint glazes, a predominance of primary colors, and unrefined line work.

A.A.S.R. 15th degree ruins painted detail from the Valley of Moline collection, 1930. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

In contrast, the oldest scenery lacks spatter, uses a richer color palette, has precise lining, and the paint application is much more refined.

Original scenery from the Valley of Moline refurbished in 1930 for the new stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Painted detail from original wood setting. Valley of Moline refurbished in 1930 for the new stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

These older drops were already by the Valley of Moline were refurbished for the new stage in 1930. Although there is no documentation that notes who created the original scenery, almost all of the scenery has a Becker & Bro. studio label stenciled on the edge of each drop. Even those without any identification do not appear to be the work of either Sosman & Landis or Volland Studios. One other possibility may be that the earliest pieces were purchased piece-meal over the course of a decade and prior to 1925.

Good examples to show the variation in quality and style are the original wood scene and later 15th degree ruins and 21st degree ruined abbey settings. The Moline landscape depicts a more traditional style of scenic art and aesthetic associated with works produced from 1910-1920. There is a depth in the shadows and underlying warmth that is later replaced by a predominantly cool glaze. The tree trunks, branches and floral work suggest a skilled hand of a studio artist who was well versed in exteriors scenes and landscapes.

Original wood setting refurbished for the Valley of Moline in 1930 for the new stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

Becker lists in his scenery estimate from February 1930, that one of the “used” scenes for new stage is the wood setting. This scene is reminiscent of many other painted compositions created for both fraternal and commercial stages during the first two decades of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, many shadow areas in landscape compositions incorporate ultramarine blue. Cool hues dominate the recesses in theatrical landscapes during that time.

Painted detail from the 21st degree ruined abbey setting. Valley of Moline collection, 1930. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

It is possible that the variations of paintings techniques were due to the lack of consistent supervision in the Becker paint shop. John Becker was the primary designer and scenic artist for the company, whereas his brother primarily worked with the actual scenery construction and subsequent installation. John was also company’s main salesman, responsible for networking and contracting new work across the country. That meant he spent a great deal of time away from the studio. His continued trips and negotiations with the Valley of Moline are one such example. Was this the reason that many Becker & Bro. installations fail to depict a consistent quality and unifying style?

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 101

Part 101: Scrim Settings

The construction of the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral occurred during the initial decline of Masonic theater construction. The prosperity of the Fraternity and the construction of massive edifices were slowly grinding to a halt by the early 1930s. Although some Scottish Rite Valleys would to occasionally appear across the country, the race to build impressive facilities primarily ceased with the onset of the Great Depression. The creation of the Moline scenery occurred the year before Thomas G. Moses began the creation of his own Masonic Model, hoping that his new designs would ignite an enthusiasm to purchase new scenery orders. Maybe Moses understood that the building boom was over and the majority of “new purchases” would revert to items directly associated with degree productions, ceremonial work, costumes, and paraphernalia.

As with Fort Scott, McAlester, and other Masonic scenery installations from the mid- to late-1920s, new designs appeared on Moline’s stage and are worthy of comment. These innovations reflect the changing times, John C. Becker’s ingenuity, the skill of Becker stage workers, and the magic of theatrical illusion. Two of the Moline scenes designated as “Gothic” used transparencies created with scrim.

Scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Painted detail of Gothic Interior scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Painted detail of the Gothic Scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

The first “Gothic Interior Scrim” was the setting for the first section of the Eighteenth degree and suspended from line 5. This eighteenth degree scrim setting preceded three others that included a crucifixion scene, a Hell scene, and an ascension scene. Close the proscenium opening, the composition appeared as a simple stone colonnade with red draperies. The entire drop was constructed with scrim, a transparent material that was a predecessor to today’s Sharkstooth Scrim. A very light textile made from cotton, or flax, it appears opaque if lit from the front. It will become nearly transparent if primarily lit from behind, revealing hidden objects or actors.

View of auditorium from behind scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
View from stage right side of scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

The Gothic interior scrim was in remarkable shape with slight dusting and only some minimal damage along the original seams. As I stood upstage from the drop, I was astounded at the transparency. It was as if I was looking through a smoky window. I had never encountered a full scrim drop on a Masonic stage before. Transparent sections were common, but not entire drops. The largest section of scrim that I had even evaluated depicted an empty tomb opening with the two Marys and an angel (York Rite degree).

Scrim section for the revelation of the two Marys visiting the empty tomb and seeing an angel. Winona Masonic Theater, York Rite setting. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
Standard composition that is behind the cave opening scrim. This drop is from the York Rite theater at the Milwaukee Scottish Rite. Photograph by Waszut-Barrett, 2014.

The first thing that I noticed about the Moline scrim was that it was constructed with 36” wide fabric, horizontally seamed together. Surprisingly, these horizontal lines were virtually indiscernible from ten feet away, let alone anyone sitting in the audience. As with the sides of the scrim drop, all edges were reinforced with jute webbing to prevent fraying. The work was extremely well done and there was only one small spot where the seam had started to split. This provided an opportunity to examine the actual construction.

Jute webbing reinforcement on the Gothic Interior scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Jute webbing reinforcement on the Gothic Interior scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Split seam shpwing webbing reinforcement on the Gothic Interior scrim drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

Another scrim setting also called the “Gothic Interior” Scrim was used for the first section of the nineteenth degree. Remember that Moline in in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, and their degree settings began to radically depart from the Southern Jurisdiction degree interpretations just prior to WWI. The nineteenth degree in Moline used settings that depicted Hell, a stone interior, the Holy City, and a city in ruins. The stone interior setting also used a small section of painted scrim that later revealed a cross.

18th degree stone interior and transparent section at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photograph by Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

For the second Gothic interior, the central section of the drop included two hidden doors in the altar. These undetectable doors were noted as “Vampire doors” in the contractual agreement from Becker & Bro.

Gothic interior at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral with “Vampire doors” for the 19th degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
View from behind the scene. Gothic interior scrim section and Vampire doors at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral for the 19th degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Vampire doors in the Gothic Interior setting at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Vampire doors in the Gothic Interior setting at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Vampire doors in the Gothic Interior setting at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

The central altar was constructed of 1” thick lumber and supported by a wooden frame. This frame was suspended with wire from the top wooden batten.

Wire supporting wooden frame for Vampire doors in the Gothic Interior setting at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

As with other practical doors and wooden frames, the painted surround was simply tacked onto the wooden surface. Other Moline scenes that incorporated transparent sections included the central section of an interior setting for the twentieth degree, the Traitor scene. Again, the translucency was undetectable when front lit. All of the scrim sections in the Moline installation were in remarkable shape and still hung from their original line sets.

Twentieth degree interior setting at the Moline Scottish Rite with scrim center. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Twentieth degree interior with scrim section at the Moline Scottish Rite with scrim center. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 100

Part 100: The Plot Thickens

In this complicated tale between the John C. Becker and the Moline Scottish Rite, the timeline for the planning and installation of the Scottish Rite scenery becomes quite fascinating:

1925 First consultation by John C. Becker & Bro. with the Valley of Moline. Becker presents a tentative scenery estimate.

1926 Becker presents another tentative scenery estimate to the Valley of Moline.

1927 Becker presents another tentative scenery estimate to the Valley of Moline.

1929 April. Becker pressures the Valley of Moline to finalize their scenery selection as other large Scottish Rite contracts are being negotiated.

1929 May. Cornerstone laying ceremony for Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral.

1929 October. Becker presents another scenery estimate for new Moline Scottish Rite cathedral stage. The inventory provides a thorough installation to stage all twenty-nine degrees.

1930 January. Becker requests some form of deposit or guarantee that his studio will receive a contract soon as work has already begun refurbishing some of the existing scenery due to the impending deadline.

1930 February. Becker sends three final contracts to the Valley of Moline for the refurbishment of existing scenery and the creation of new scenery.

1930 March. Valley of Moline accepts two of three contracts sent in February by Becker but doesn’t sign them.

1930 April 1. Howard C. Passmore of Moline Consistory signs two scenery contracts.

1930 May 2. Raymond H. Becker leads installation crew at the Moline Scottish Rite. During this same month, John Becker is in New York. They are suing Harry Rogers of Theatrical Enterprises for an overdue amount on a scenery contract.

1930 June. Becker begins inquiries about overdue balance for scenery and installation labor from the Valley of Moline. A new board has been appointed to the Scottish Rite Cathedral Association.

1930 July. Becker visits the Valley of Moline to inquire about the overdue balance. A few days later, Becker receives a letter from the Valley of Moline soliciting donations for their Commander-in-Chief.

The following correspondence was sent to John C. Becker from the assistant secretary at the Moline Consistory. Howard C, Passmore, the Commander-in-Chief of the A.A.S.R. Moline, worked as a securities agent in the Moline area and is financially struggling. Here is the handwritten letter that the asst. secy. sent to John and Ray Becker.

The letter dates July 24, 1930:

“My Dear Bros. Becker.
I am writing you a few lines on a subject that is hard for us to talk about as it concerns none other than our Dear Commander in Chief, Howard Passmore, nor do I want to say much in writing, but knowing what you and Ray think of Howard, my short story will probably surprise you.

Howard has by some manner (“unknown” generally) gotten himself into a financial jam that took a sudden turn that it was very necessary that his friends come to his immediate assistance in order to save him from more serious trouble. So after many sleepless nights etc. it was decided that our faithful friend C. J. Seymour take hold and see what he could among the more prosperous of our Consistory members in the way of a free will offering, and he decided he could place his at $50.00 and $25.00 and I was to solicit the membership at large and I was to place my donations from $1.00 to $5.00 and my letter herewith is what I got out yesterday.

(Side note: C. J. Seymour was a successful salesman and later manager who started with the Moline Plow Company. By 1917 he became in charge of motor truck sales for the Nash Sales Co. at Omaha)

John and Ray, I am writing this letter to you as a personal matter as I feel you both are so close to Howard as any of us, and feel personally that you would want to do your bit for him whatever you feel you can afford will be appreciated by us. Make your check payable to me and I will see to it that it is properly taken care of.

I won’t go into any detail by letter. But if you come down our way and time I may tell you. Fraternally yours,
H. A. Johnston, asst. secy.”

John Becker donated $10.00 to the Passmore fund during an onsite visit.

1930. September. The Valley of Moline still had an outstanding balance for their scenery installation.

To be continued…

Downtown in Moline, Illinois, 1930. Note the prominent Le Clair Hotel in the distance.

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 99

Part 99: The Installation

I have completely disassembled two complete Scottish Rite scenery installations by Sosman & Landis during the early twentieth century.  This process gave me a sense of how much stage equipment and hardware was shipped to each Scottish Rite Valley. Seeing the buckets of hardware and stacks of wooden battens at the end of each project gave me an appreciation for the sheer volume of materials estimated when planning and ordering stage hardware for a scenery installation.

View of Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral counterweight arbors and wooden battens on bottoms of backdrops. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Arbors that provide the counterweights for each drop. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

John C. Becker purchased their stage hardware from J. H. Channon Corporation, specialists in the manufacture and installation of steel curtains, counterweight rigging, and theatrical supplies for the Moline. The contact for Channon was N. C. Nussbaumer, the company’s Vice President.


Channon Corporation estimate for Becker & Bro. Studio regarding stage hardware for Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral, 1929. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Note the J. H. Channon Corp. name. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

For Moline, Channon Corp. provided equipment for 100 sets of counterweight hanging, each with five line sets of cable.

Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral arbor cage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
Standard cable used by Sosman & Landis in 1920s rigging systems for Scottish Rte theaters. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

The necessary cable specified in the agreement would use 1/8” cable constructed of 7 strands (6 wires each) around a cotton core. For the sheave, Becker ordered two types of 5” groove sheaves and pins: regular and deep that would not need oiling. The system would also include head blocks of the same construction. Oak and iron arbor cages slid on malleable iron wire guides. Turnbuckles were included for tension. Eyebolts with wing nuts were added for later trimming. A tension spring was added to the system for weather conditions (slack lines).

Springs used to keep tension during seasonal changes at the Moline Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Turn buckles for anticipated adjustments. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

To fully appreciate the amount of stage hardware ordered from Channon for the Moline project, here are some of the supplies ordered to create one hundred line sets:

800 5” deep groove sheaves and pins
300 5” regular sheaves and pins
40,000 feet bright sash cord
10,800 feet 5/8” manila rope
12,000 feet 1/8” guide wire
200 ½” x 40” rods, nut & washer each end
700 5/16” H. & E. Turnbuckles
100 Springs
700 ¼” x 4” under eye nut eye bolts with wing nuts to have ¾” eye

Becker noted that each set would be properly balanced with gray iron weights provided by a local foundry. The Moline Foundry & Machine Co. produced the numerous seven-pound and twelve-pound weights for the Scottish Rite Cathedral stage’s arbors.

Arbor weights at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
One invoice for the stage weights at the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.

Channon would also supply the rigging for three sets of border lights and the front velour curtain. The agreement notes that the 30’ x 37’ Front Curtain that would “be of Marshall Field quality, heavy cotton backed with velour, sunfast.”

Ray H. Becker led a crew of five men to install the scenery in Moline. We know this, as it was the companies practice to take out a life insurance policy for each member of the crew. These policies provide a glimpse at the Becker installation crew, detailing information about the backgrounds and physical characteristics of the crew.

Insurance policy forms sent from Raymond H. Becker to the scenic studio for coverage during the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral scenery installation. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

In 1930, Raymond H. Becker was 38 years old, born on August 13, 1891 in Booneville, Indiana. He was 6’-0” tall and 175 lbs., currently living in Maywood, Illinois. Ray was assisted by Wallace Lloyd Timmons (a 23 year old male from Chicago), Louis French (a 45 year old male from Davenport, Iowa), William Newman (a 40 year old from Davenport, Iowa), John Murphy (a 41 year old male from Davenport, Iowa) and two unnamed gentlemen. One was a 56-year-old man who was also from Davenport who also listed “stage work” as his profession. This crew had one 45 year-old local hire from Moline who lived on 9th Street. I was personally surprised by the age of the crew, expecting the majority of men to be slightly younger. The out-of-town crew stayed at Moline’s Le Claire Hotel, a sizable building with “220 rooms with baths and 70 apartments” for approximately three weeks. Built in 1922, the hotel was a fifteen-story hotel that only competed in size with the height of the steeple of the First Lutheran Church. Becker had used the hotel stationary for his correspondence with the studio.


Hotel where Ray Becker stayed during the Moline Scottish Rite cathedral project. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

I thought back to 1912 when the western representative for M. C. Lilley explained the loss of their head carpenter in correspondence with the Valley of Austin. Although the carpenter remained unnamed, Brown noted that this individual was the sole person who specialized in the installation of counterweight systems for Scottish Rite scenery collections. I had to wonder when purchasing insurance policies for the installation crew became a standard policy for Becker & Bro. Was this a standard industry practice due to the anticipated danger?

Ray Becker’s note accompanying the insurance policies also gave us a little more information about the timeframe for the Moline installation. On May 7, 1930, Ray Becker had mailed the insurance policies with the explanation that he would only have that particular crew for another week.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 98

Part 98: It’s All in the Details

John C Becker & Bro. sent out three final contracts to the Valley of Moline on February 17, 1930. The first contract proposed the stage equipment, draperies and scenery for the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral stage that would give “a very good scenic background” for the degrees.

Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral’s front entrance.
View of fly loft at the back of the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral, 1930.
Moline Scottish Rite auditorium with cathedral scene.

The new size of drops for the Moline stage measured 24’ high by 41’ wide. Leg drops were to graduate in width from 6’ to 9’ on full stage sets of three legs. All leg drops with profile edges were to be “re-enforced with strips of galvanized iron rosined on the back to prevent curling and getting out of shape.” This was an interesting technique that I had never come across before in either Sosman & Landis or Volland installations. The standard method to prevent curling edges was to attach thin pieces of wood. The studios typically used painted strips to attach the wooden slats along the cut edge. Paul Sannerud and I marveled at the success of this particular technique during the scenery evaluation. Over the decades it had successfully held up to the rigors of use in degree productions. The contract also stipulated that all exterior leg drops would be netted with linen netting.

Galvanized iron strip attached to cut drop to prevent curling edges. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Patches on backdrop securing galvanized iron strips to leg drop at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

The theatrical lumber was to be the best straight grain White Pine available. The canvas would be of the “heaviest unbleached cotton sheeting.” The paints and dyes used to produce the scenery were to be of “the best and most durable quality.” Furthermore, the painting would be produced by “high class artists of their respective kind.” The agreement stipulated that Union labor would be used throughout the entire process.

Ruined Abbey scene at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Detail of the Ruined Abbey scene at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Detail of the Ruined Abbey scene at the Moline Scottish Rite. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

The scenic equipment included a front curtain, working (or second) draperies, sets of lines, side tabs, black setting, rope sets, border light equipment, pin rail and painted scenery for the 6, 10, 13, 15, 16, 18, 20, 24, and 32 degrees. These settings included King Solomon’s Chamber, the Quarry, a Mountain landscape, an interior corridor, the ruins, a Gothic scrim, a crucifixion cut drop, an ascension drop, an interior scrim, a seascape, a Valley Forge scene, a Temple drop, and a palace drop. They would also enlarge and refurbish existing scenes owned by Moline that included compositions of the the woods, Cyrus’ Palace, a treasure chamber, catacombs, Hades, the Tabernacle, and a cathedral. All were to be delivered and installed in “first class condition” with markings for convenient handling. Furthermore, the installers would work with the stage crew at a rehearsal so that they will be able to handle the scenery effectively. The final price for this particular contract was $12,000 and an additional $2000 for installation services.

The second contract included additional scenery to stage the 5, 9, 12, 19, 21, 22, and 27 degrees. These compositions included the Holy City, an open-air court, the five orders of architecture, a Rose Croix transparency, a ruined abbey, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. Becker wrote, “Gentlemen: We propose the following listed of scenery in addition to the original listed on this date, subject to the Scottish Rite Cathedral Association raising the sum of Two Thousand Dollars from the sale of windows in the Cathedral.” This meant that the funds raised for the stained glass windows would be re-directed toward additional scenery. It was common in many Scottish Rite buildings for Masonic Classes or individuals to contribute funds to the creation and installation of Memorial windows.

One memorial window in the Moline Scottish Rite auditorium. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Detail of one memorial window in Moline Scottish Rite auditorium. Photo by Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

A third contract was enclosed with the first two, recommending additional scenery that Becker personally recommended for the Valley of Moline. He was desperately trying to recoup some of the studio’s losses incurred over the past five years of consultation. I can’t blame him at this point. The accompanying letter to the contract stated that “the very essentials of equipment and scenery had been carefully selected to provide a very fair layout,” but he suggested additional scenery to complete the first two contracts. This third proposal added standard designs for the 4, 7, 10, 14, 29, 30, 31 and 32 degrees, including a picture sheet and a floor cloth to accompany these painted settings.

The third contract was never signed.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 97

Part 97: Money Makes the World Go Around

1929 letterhead from John C. Becker & Brother scenic studio. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

John C. Becker & Bro. began working on the Moline scenery installation without a final contract. Some of the original scenery collection was being enlarged and new compositions added to it. The current collection included exterior legs, a treasure chamber, palace gates, King Cyrus’ Palace, Hades, the Tabernacle, a cathedral, and a stone vault. Becker contributed his expertise in many other areas beyond the scenery, investing heavily in the entire endeavor. Negotiations for new scenery were still taking place just a few months before the building opened.

Becker received a letter from the Valley of Moline on January 18, 1930, explaining that their stage equipment committee was meeting within the next week to discuss the overall reduction of funds for the scenery portion. Harold C. Passmore, AASR Commander-in-Chief, wrote, “It may be necessary for us to change your set-up considerably.” He explained that they would also have to make a separate arrangement for some of the anticipated balance upon completion of the project. This had to have been a red flag for Becker in light of everything else but there was not much that he could do at this point. Becker & Bro. had the original collection in their shop and were busily enlarging it for the new space before any contract had been signed. As with many other Scottish Rite Valleys, Moline had been hit hard by the market crash and started to limit their spending as members began to tighten their own belts.

This entire situation had to have been incredibly frustrating for Becker, especially after having an easy experience with the Valley of Indianapolis. The communication between Becker and the Horace Mitchell, the Indianapolis Director of the Work was ideal. The Indianapolis stage equipment committee was very specific about their new system: the old scenes that would be refurbished and the new scenes that they would purchase. The process for Indianapolis started during January 1929 and a contract was awarded four months later.

Scottish Rite in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Auditorium at Indianapolis Scottish Rite.
Auditorium at Indianapolis Scottish Rite.

For the Valley of Moline, over five years had passed contemplating new scenery and time was rapidly running out to produce anything new. The building was scheduled to open in a few months and the stage equipment committee was still making changes. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The February 17, 1930 scenery contract stipulated that the sum of $5000.00 was due on delivery – April 1, 1930, and the balance due sixty days from delivery. This is solely the contractual amount to be paid for the scenery. It did not include the installation labor, amounting in another $2000.00 due sixty days from delivery.

Three contracts sent to the Valley of Moline from Becker & Bro. Studio during February 1930. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

It is not until the end of March 1930 that the scenic studio finally received a signed contract from the Valley of Moline. Unfortunately for the studio, the Cathedral was unable to pay the contractually agreed upon amount of $5000 at the time of delivery. Instead, they paid $4000 with the promise of sending the remaining balance “soon.” Money slowly trickled in over the course of the next few months. The Valley of Moline also began to waiver in regard to other projects that were contracted separately from the scenery installation. Blackout shades for the auditorium windows were one such project.

It is apparent throughout their correspondence that the Valley of Moline had become the fraternal client from hell during trying times. Becker received little correspondence from the Valley of Moline during that spring other than for the Valley to continually seek his opinion on the color of draperies, carpets and other decorative items. On July 20, 1930, Becker wrote a letter to asst. secy. Johnston, after attempting to visit the President of the Scottish Rite Cathedral Association – the entity funding the construction of the Moline Scottish Rite Cathedral. Becker shared his interaction concerning the Mason who greeted him in the Scottish Rite offices while in Moline.

Becker wrote, “I met with very gruff treatment, hard to tell you in a letter, I wonder how such a character can take his Masonic degrees and treat another Mason with such uncivil courtesy, and how he could represent and Masonic body is beyond me.” Becker continued, “Why did not the old board pay their bills? Why had the statement never been presented before? And some other questions along similar lines and never once did he look up from his typewriter while talking, absolutely the most uncouth man I have ever met.” So there was a new board. Why?

Now the quality and quantity of the scenery comes into play. Becker explained that the Valley of Moline settled for a smaller collection for the price of $14,000 when the average Scottish Rite had purchased $24,000 worth of scenery for the same degree work. He goes on to explain that other Valleys “had the Cathedral at heart” and that “the stage would sell the work to other new members.” Becker continued that he and his studio had given as much time and assistance in preliminary work as they could for the amount agreed upon. He then ended, writing, “While I knew nothing of the inner troubles of the officers, AT NO TIME WAS THERE EVER A THOUGHT of anything but the best at the most reasonable prices.”

Fours days after Becker’s request for the overdue amount, he finally received a letter from Johnston. Unfortunately, the letter did not address the payment of any overdue balance. Instead it solicited a monetary donation from John C. Becker “as a fellow Mason” to the Valley of Moline. The author requested a donation for their Commander-in-Chief Passmore to show him “our affection and esteem.” It continued, “If you agree with us and would like to make a small freewill offering, you may send a check for one, two, three or five dollars.” In actuality, Passmore, a securities agent, had managed to get himself into some financial troubles.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 96

Part 96: Plan D

During October 1929 Becker sent a letter to the Moline Scottish Rite to follow up with the scenery estimate. He wrote, “I know you will be shocked with my estimate, but I have gone over it fairly well and I know it has exceeded your budget, but please do not feel discouraged as it can be cut some more I am sure, but I hate to see that done.” The new scenery would cost $12,000 and its installation another $2000.00. The October proposal included all of the stage equipment, practical draperies, painted scenery, and properties for the stage to produce all twenty-nine degrees from the fourth through the thirty-second.

Scenic studios frequently pushed for a larger sale. The approach of “ bigger is better” often worked with fraternal clients and their substantial funding. The 1920s was the era when massive Masonic complexes start appearing across the country. Examples appeared in St. Louis, Missouri, McAlester, Oklahoma, and Detroit, Michigan. There appeared no end in sight to the subsequent profits that could be gained from the Fraternity as they constructed even more elaborate buildings.

In Becker’s correspondence with the Valley of Moline we learn about the scenic studio’s process of presenting designs to the client. Fraternal regalia and paraphernalia catalogues always offered several grades of costumes, props, and other ceremonial supplies. Scenic studios had a variety of price points for painted settings. The standard Scottish Rite stage setting typically included a leg drop, a cut drop, and a backdrop to create a successful painted perspective for the stage. Scottish Rite Valleys with more funds, added leg drops and cut drops to this common setting, suggesting vast illusions of space. If the funding was limited, the scene might only include a leg drop and a backdrop. Removing leg drops and cut drops was a common way to reduce the overall cost. However, there was one step below this grade “C” option that could simply suggest a location – the sole backdrop with fabric masking. I refer to this option as plan D; an option that was offered as a last resort, but never advertised in any initial discussions with a Scottish Rite Valley.

In Becker’s letter to the Moline Consistory, he suggests that they could use one set of leg drops for all of the masking. Only the backdrop would change. Explaining that this is never an ideal situation, Becker simply offers it an option to further reduce the overall expense. Ideally, there would be at least two sets of painted leg drops – an exterior set and an interior set. However, a few Valleys solely used sateen draperies to mask each scene. Becker cautioned against this approach as it conveyed a “dead atmosphere” on stage.

Let’s return to the City of Winona and the unknown fate of their Masonic scenery collection for a moment. Remember that they had voted to only keep ten backdrops from their collection. One option was to retain individual backdrops instead of entire scenes. This would mean that all of the settings would solely consist of a backdrop without any of the accompanying leg drops or cut drops to create a painted illusion on the stage. The original design for the Winona stage included two leg drops, a cut drop, and a backdrop for most settings. Some city council members recognized that reducing each scene to a single backdrop would destroy the painted illusion. They are correct. Becker addressed this ineffective staging technique when he stated that a “dead atmosphere” on stage would be the result.

Winona Masonic Stage. Wood scene photographed in 2010 by Waszut-Barrett.
Winona Masonic Stage. Wood scene photographed in 2010 by Waszut-Barrett.
Winona scene if only a leg drops and back drop were used instead of the entire setting. Winona Masonic Stage photographed in 2010 by Waszut-Barrett.
This depicts the “dead atmosphere” described by John C. Becker if only a backdrop is used on the stage. Scottish Rite scenes were painted with the intention of depicting the composition’s middle ground and foreground with cut drops and leg drops.

The scenic studios knew what was impressive and what would sell more drops. If it couldn’t amaze the potential client, why show it at all? A single backdrop surrounded by sateen masking legs was not impressive, nor did it provide any illusion of depth on stage. In this scenario, the actors were simply in front of a backing, or large-scale painting. They were no longer a part of the setting.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 95

Part 95: The Waiting Game

Even though correspondence continued between John C. Becker & Bro. and the Valley of Moline, it was apparent that the lines of communication were down. The Valley of Moline continued to request John C. Becker’s advice and opinion on projects outside of the stage equipment and scenery installation while Becker kept requesting a signed contract.

Becker had produced a series of scenery estimates for the Blue Lodge and Scottish Rite between 1925 and 1930.   The earliest versions included backdrops and set pieces for the 3rd, 7th, 15th, 23rd, 25th, and 32nd degrees. Stage settings depicted King Cyrus’ palace, the cathedral, the woods, the tabernacle, the treasure chamber, ancient ruins, and the ascension of Jesus. It was not until October 5, 1929, however, that Becker Bros. began finalizing their scenery installation for the new Scottish Rite cathedral in Moline – all without a contract. It had been more than five years in planning and the complex was to open the coming year. There left a record of constant negotiations.

February 1930 estimation sheet for final proposal. From the collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Last formal estimate produced by John C. Becker & Bro. for the Moline Scottish Rite. From the collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

By April 22, 1929, a full year before the complex was to open, Becker even started to include pressures from other jobs in his correspondence. He explained that his scenic studio had been awarded a large contract in Indianapolis for the Scottish Rite . His underlying implication was that the Scottish Rite Valley better secure their services soon as other contracted projects will begin to take priority. Becker suggested using Indianapolis as a guide for Moline as their scenery installation would “make a very nice working layout.” In 1912, M. C. Lilley representative, Bestor G. Brown, made similar statements when negotiating the scenery contract with the Valley of Austin. During negotiations, he suggested to replicate the recent Valley of Santa Fe’s lighting plot.

Like Brown for M. C. Lilley, Becker was a Scottish Rite Mason and made a point of visiting Valleys during their Reunions. It was a good way to talk up business and propose new ideas. On May 7, 1929, Howard C. Passmore (Commander-in-Chief for AASR Moline) invited Becker to their upcoming Spring Reunion on May 22, 23, and 24 as they would be laying the new cornerstone for the building on the last day. Passmore expressed his desire to discuss the anticipated stage lighting plans with Becker during the visit. In later correspondence, Passmore thanked Becker for not only attending the Reunion, but also going over the construction plans – once again – for their new building.

During July, 1929, Becker shared with Passmore that the Indianapolis Scottish Rite project was nearing completion, but two other large Scottish Rite contracts were on the horizon. He expressed concern that if both of the projects went through, they would be unable to complete the Moline scenery in time for the opening of the facility in 1930. He wrote that he wa not “boasting” but that they were only able to do so much work “with the right kind of artists,” and that a contractual date needed to be established soon to secure these artists. Becker explained that they also needed to set aside an entire day to present all of the designs in his miniature stage, fully going through everything with the Scottish Rite committee. He added that Moline didn’t need to worry about money for the next several months as nothing was ever collected initially, not until after the contracts were signed.

By early January 1930, Becker Bros. reached out to the Valley to seal the deal, requesting some form of monetary deposit or guarantee that they would order new scenery. The Valley was still wavering with the final scenery order and Becker was starting to worry. A significant amount of effort had been invested on Becker Bros.’ behalf without securing any guaranteed income. It would not be until February 1930, that the Valley of Moline would accept the contract – only two and a half months before the dedication ceremony. The actual contract would not be signed until a month later.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 94

Part 94: The Quad Cities
Paul Sannerud picked our route as we meandered north to Moline, Illinois, after USITT. We enjoyed the sites along the winding river road and had lunch in Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain. At Quincy, Illinois, we paused to see the Masonic building. Earlier that fall I was guest speaker for Scottish Rite day and evaluated their scenery collection. The drive was a time to enjoy the moment, anticipate the next day, and reflect on the Moline files.
Our stop in Hannibal, Missouri, for lunch.
The Masonic Temple in Quincy, Illinois.
Details from the Masonic Temple in Quincy, Illinois.
Paul read aloud all correspondence and contents in the Moline file so we could familiarized ourselves with the collection prior to seeing it. This would provide us with information pertaining to specific characteristics to look for once on the stage. The letters were entertaining and Paul provided a running commentary to this tale of intrigue. The planning and construction of the Scottish Rite was revealed in a series of letters between John C. Becker and various Scottish Rite representatives, including Harry C. Passmore, the Commander-in-Chief (Northern Jurisdiction SGIG equivalent). Even though this tale occurred almost nine decades ago, the relationship between theatrical suppliers and Masonic clientele had remained unchanged. “When will I get paid?” seemed to be a constant theme.
My file on the Moline, Illinois, Scottish Rite scenery collection by John C. Becker & Bros. Photograph by Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
The story of the design and installation of the current scenery collection is long and complex. John C. Becker & Brothers’ correspondence with the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in Moline began in 1925. During this time, scenery estimates were sent out and rejected by the Valley of Moline. Their bids also included scenery for the use by the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (Grotto). Some of the Grotto compositions included theatrical settings that depicted the River Styx with profile pieces of water rows.
Moline, Illinois, is part of a region referred to as the Quad Cities that include four counties in northwestern Illinois and southeastern Iowa. The urban core consists of four principal cities: Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. These cities are the center of the Quad Cities Metropolitan area. The settlement history in this area was primarily stimulated by river-based transportation along the Mississippi and its tributaries. The first bridge across the Mississippi linked Davenport, Iowa to Rock Island, Illinois in 1856, replacing earlier ferry service and winter ice bridges. A few years earlier in 1848, John Deere moved his plough business to Moline, incorporating Deere & Company by 1868. Today, John Deere remains the largest employer in the Quad Cities.
Freemasonry flourished alongside the economy in this region. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite was especially popular and prospered during the 1920s. As in many other parts of the country, a large Scottish Rite Cathedral was planned toward the end of this decade and just prior to the 1929 crash of the stock market. As others that were in the midst of planning and constructing a new building, the collapse of the American economy affected the final outcome of each fraternal edifice. In some instances, rooms were left incomplete or the “bells and whistles” cut from the project entirely. The Valley of Moline’s handling of construction during times of economic uncertainty is one of intrigue.
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 93

Part 93: Surprise, Surprise
On my return trip from USITT, I stopped to complete one more scenery evaluation at the Scottish Rite in Moline, Illinois. Earlier that spring, I discovered that the Moline Scottish Rite building was for sale. Located at 1800 7th Avenue, it was listed for 1.2 million dollars. The Scottish Rite Cathedral in Moline was constructed in 1929 and dedicated in 1930. As with many Masonic buildings from this era, the space rented to a variety of fraternal tenants. There were four floors that included a Lodge Room, commercial kitchen, banquet room, several meeting rooms, and a 500-seat auditorium. Here is a link from a March 8, 2017 online article about the listing: http://qctimes.com/business/scottish-rite-cathedral-put-up-for-sale-in-moline/article_0aefda2f-3a61-5db0-af28-89eaa61cafce.html
Moline Scottish Rite theater pictured in the online article.
Moline Scottish Rite stage pictured in the online article.
Moline Scottish Rite proscenium arch detail pictured in the online article.
Moline Scottish Rite lodge room pictured in the online article.
Knowing how quickly a scenery collection can change hands and disappear forever, this became a destination location for me on my return trip. The Scottish Rite Valley seemed lukewarm about my visit and the executive secretary immediately transferred me to the building maintenance man – never a good sign. This type of disinterest suggested that the future of the scenery would be perilous at best. As with Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 2010, the scenery collection becomes the least of a Scottish Rite’s worries during an impending sale. As the administrative staff becomes overwhelmed with the liquidation of many artifacts and the possible transfer of certain items to a new facility, the drops are placed at the bottom of the list. When I was passed off to a general maintenance man who was simply being provided to lower scenery for an inquisitive girl, I organized my plan of attack and thought about finding an extra set of eyes during the quick evaluation.
As was the case for many Scottish Rite Valleys, the gentleman responsible for cleaning and repair of the building juggled his schedule with another part-time job, one that was often another cleaning job. Luckily for me, the Moline gentleman and I had a lovely chat over the phone and he sensed my excitement about their collection. Unfortunately, he could only allow me to look at scenery for three hours in the morning on Monday, March 13, 2017. I decided to post my plans on Facebook and see if anyone might want to tag along for an extra day either before or after the conference.
Luckily, Paul Sannerud was able to join me on this excursion and would be my extra set of eyes on stage during the evaluation. The greatest difficultly would be catching all of the flaws and identification markings in a rushed situation. That is what had happened at Fort Scott as I would literally run from my tripod in the auditorium to the stage area with a handheld camera. This would be my final project before I returned home to a relatively quiet spring. I needed a break to focus on my family, home, and yard. Moreover, I needed time to process all of my discoveries from the Mt. Pleasant Theatre Museum and Scottish Rite scenery collections. For the past two years, spring had been bustling with activity causing me to postpone many home-related tasks, both at our new home in Crystal and our previous home in Cambridge.
My plan was to depart St. Louis before noon on Sunday, March 12 and arrive in Moline by that evening. The next morning, I would arrive at the temple by 9AM, work three hours, and depart by noon. As the entire trip was self-funded, I was grateful to not spend another night in a hotel room.
I had no idea what to expect at the Moline Scottish Rite, having seen only a few glimpses of the collection in an online image search. All I knew was that the scenes were not produced by Sosman & Landis as they were the wrong style. I suspected that either Volland Studio or Becker Bros. Studio, or a combination thereof, produced the collection.
On Sunday morning, Rick Boychuk and I left our apartment early to pick up his car so that he could drop a friend off at the airport. We had both driven to St. Louis, and I had scored the garage space as I was driving to and from the Scottish Rite that week. After picking up Paul from the convention hotel, I returned to the apartment to finish packing up the remainder of my belongings.
I left reading material with Paul as I finished checking out of the apartment; my little teal carrying case for hanging files on Northern Masonic Jurisdiction Scottish Rite installations. I had carefully tucked away documents passed along from my friend in Chicago years ago. The contents included paperwork pertaining to a variety of Scottish Rite scenery installations. I had only ever had the chance to quickly skim the contents and mainly brought along the files to share with Rick. I envisioned relaxing every evening after conference activities, sipping Scotch, and discussing the evolution of stage rigging for Scottish Rite stages. The week was over and we had hardly peaked at the files. Oh well, I thought, as I handed them over to Paul in the lobby, maybe there is time now.
After loading up my car, I sat next to Paul while waiting for Rick to return. Paul noticed that the folders actually included a file about the Moline Scottish Rite. I was absolutely stunned! This was the same installation that we were going to see!
To be continued…