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…

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