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…

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