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…

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