Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 132

Part 132: Burridge, Moses & Louderback at the Columbia Theatre

Burridge, Moses & Louderback started in 1887. Later, Moses would form a second partnership with Will Hamilton. Moses & Hamilton would work in New York City from 1900 until 1904. Moses would eventually return to Chicago and the Sosman & Landis studios for good, becoming the company’s second and final President.


Burridge, Moses, & Louderback was short-lived, only from 1887 to 1888. However, it provided Moses with an opportunity for his reputation to skyrocket in not only the Chicago area but also throughout the country. The company’s offices were located at 22 Chamber of Commerce in Chicago, Illinois. This was on the corner of Clark and Division Streets.

Burridge, Moses & Louderback advertisement.

Advertisements listed Louderback as the business manager and very little is known of him as a scenic artist. He was well-respected owner of an auction house with fine art galleries. The firm carried a variety of high-end fine products in the Chicago area, including Turkish rugs. It made a great deal of sense for Louderback & Co. to host the first Scene Painters’ Show in 1885. This would have been a well-known and popular venue to promote the works of this eccentric group of individuals and sponsor the scenic art community. Their sales galleries were located at 215 Wabasha Avenue.

Burridge, Moses & Louderback painted at the Columbia Theatre under the management of J. M. Hill. Located at the corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets, the building was seventy feet wide with a depth of one hundred and ninety feet. It rose up six stories high and was surmounted by a pyramidal tower. The total seating capacity of the entire house was two thousand with a stage of seventy by fifty-four feet.

Article listing Burridge, Moses & Louderback as scenic artists.

The original theater was opened by Mr. Haverly on September 12, 1881, and he continued as the proprietor until June, 1883, when financial reverses caused him to re-lease the property to Charles H. McConnell. McConnell made changes to the front of the building and in the lighting and ventilating facilities, but the chief attraction became the art galleries, which were added during the summer of 1884. The art galleries were Mr. McConnell’s pet project and became a popular feature with a notable collection. These art apartments were further embellished with cabinets, mantels, bronzes, Bohemian-glass, settees, decorative screens, marble pedestals, bronze busts, Egyptian lamps, and many other items of fine décor.

Photograph of the Columbia Theater, Chicago, Illinois.
Columbia Theater program.

On February 2, 1885, a stock company was organized, and Mr. McConnell sold out a large interest in the theater. The same day, Mr. McConnell transferred the theater to the Columbia Theater Company, incorporated with a capital stock of $200,000, of which, J. M. Hill was president and manager; J. S. McConnell, treasurer and acting manager; and C. H. McConnell, secretary. The change of name from Haverly’s to the Columbia Theater occurred at the close of the Irving engagement, Miss Ellen Terry, the actress, having had the honor of re-christening it.

When Burridge, Moses, & Louderback were working at the Columbia Theatre, publications show that the Chief Stage Engineer was Ohn Leigh. M. B. Olmsted was the Electrician. H. B. Branum was in charge of Properties. Unfortunately, the theatre only lasted until March 30, 1900, when the building was destroyed by a fire. Only five people were injured as the fire broke out during a cast rehearsal and not a performance.

The work of Burridge, Moses & Louderback during 1887 included “Gypsy Baron” for the Conried and Hermann Opera Company, 2 panoramas for Joe Murphy for “Donah,” and 2 complete productions of “Kerry Gow.” They also stocked the Grand Opera House in Columbus, Ohio and Foster’s Opera House in Des Moines, Iowa. In New York City, Moses notes that they produced the scenery for opera of “Dorothy” (Dorothea?) for the Duff Co at the Standard Theatre. Their contribution was the act one scene in County Kent, England. Finally, at the Chicago Grand Opera, the studio painted Steele MacKaye’s “A Noble Rogue” in 1888.

During these two busy years, Burridge, Moses & Louderback stocked six theatres with all of the necessary scenery – no small task. Incidentally, Ralph J. Terwilliger worked with them as their paint boy. He would later become the founder and first president of the North-West Side Commercial Association.

Ralph Terwilliger, paint boy to Moses, Burridge & Louderback. From Thomas G. Moses’ scrapbook, Sosman & Landis collection at the Harry Ransom Center.

In November of 1888, Burridge pulled out of the studio because he and Louderback couldn’t agree on the running of the business. Louderback came from a “managing art” background while Burridge came from a “creating art” background. From the records, it appears that Moses was the referee between the two, trying desperately to make the studio successful and appease these two “larger than life” personalities. He was unsuccessful.


To be continued…


Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 131

Part 131: The Scene Painters’ Show

Thomas G. Moses began working for Sosman & Landis in 1880. During his first decade at the studio, Moses continued to drift away and migrate toward other people, projects and partnerships. He was the proverbial “soaring star” and Sosman & Landis were could not entice him enough to solely work in their studio. By 1885, Moses formed a partnership with Walter Burridge and Mr. Louderback.

Advertisement clipping from John R. Rothgeb Paper at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

All three had participated in the October 12, 1885, Scene Painter’s Show in Chicago.

There was an article written by John Moran for the “Art Union, a Monthly Magazine of Art” (Vol. 2, No. 4, 1885, p. 85) about the Scene Painters’ Show. The magazine noted that “The American Art Union, a society of American Artists, including representations of all the different schools of art, has been organized ‘for the general advancement of the Fine Arts, and for promoting and facilitating a greater knowledge and love thereof on the part of the public.” The Board of Control for 1884-1885 included D. Hentington (Pres), T. W. Wood (Vice President), E. Wood Perry, Jr. (Secy.), Frederick Dielman (Treasurer), W. H. Beard, Albert Bierstadt, Harry Chase, Harry Farrer, Eastman Johnson, Jervis McEntee, T. Moran, and Walter Shirlaw. This was a BIG deal!

Cover of “The Art Union” from October 1885 that included the Scene Painters’ Show review. Image from online source.

“The Scene Painters’ Show. Chicago, October 12th, 1885

The first Exhibition of Water Colors by American Scenic Artists has been open free to the public for some weeks past, in this city, and the eighty-four examples hung on the walls of Messrs. Louderback & Co.’s galleries include some praiseworthy and valuable works. Such a collection proves that the broad pictorial treatment requisite for adequate stage effect does not incapacitate a man for the finer and more delicate manipulation essential to good aquarelles, and shows, moreover, a healthy progressive spirit among scenic artists. The name of Matt. Morgan has long been gratefully familiar to us, and he is represented by diverse and facile contributions. “Alone in the Forest Shade” (1), shows lumbermen with their load descending a wild ravine flanked on either side by towering pines. The feeling of solitude and gloom is forcibly conveyed and the tree forms and foliage broadly yet carefully handled. “The Lost Comrade” (27), and “Waiting for Death” (14), are strong and weird aspects of prairies life, the former representing a horseman, lasso in hand, who has come upon the skeletons of a horse and rider among the pampas grass, and the latter a bull calf standing over the moribund body of a cow, striving with futile bellow to keep advancing wolves at bay. A nude figure, “The New Slave” (71), standing expectantly against a rich low-toned drapery, is exquisite in drawing and color and charmingly beautiful in suggestion. Mr. Walter Burridge runs the gamut of landscape figure and decoration and is good in all! His “Spring” (9), “Autumn Leaves” (39), and “Old Mill” (49), are deftly washed-in landscapes, true to nature and aerial in quality, while “My Assistant” (16), a study of behind the scenes life, and a “Ninety Minute Sketch” (83), of his friend Mr. Ernest Albert, show character and a nice sense of texture. Mr. Ernest Albert’s “Winter Twilight” (12), is full of sentiment of the season and excellent in composition, and his “October Morning” (31), “moonrise” (40), “Sunset” (79), and “Autumn” (80), are severally individual as transcripts and prove his mastery over the vehicle he uses. “A Decorative Flower Piece” (84), by the same artist, groups of roses, pansies and forget-me-nots in a most artistic and harmonious manner. “Nobody’s Claim, Col.” (65) and “Near Racine, Wis.” (76) By Mr. Thomas G. Moses, are among his best examples and are freely treated and with fidelity to locale character and sky effects. Mr. Albert Operti gives us some reminiscences of his Lapland tour in 1884, which are realistic and worthy, and Mr. J. Hendricks Young, “A Busy Day on Chicago River” (38), which together with the local bits by Mr. Moses, Mr. C. E. Petford and Mr. Burridge, is of historical value as it is skillfully painted. “Rats, you Terrier” (59), by the same hand, is a “snappy” and bright treatment of a dog’s head and fully catches the spirit of the English. Mr. Henry C. Tryon’s “Source of the Au Sable” (34), powerfully conveys a sense of somberness and grandeur, and though ample in detail loses nothing of the vastness and breadth which such a landscape motion calls for. Other works deserving of notice are Messrs. George Dayton, Sr., George Dayton, Jr., the late L. Malmsha, C. Boettger, Chas. Ritter, H. Buhler and John Howell Wilson, whose “Country Road” (76” is especially fresh, verdurous and bright. It is to be hoped that this is only the forerunner of many like exhibitions and it marks a decided growth in the national art spirit.

This wasn’t just a group of artists linked by a common style or profession – this was statement made by a closely-knit community of passionate individuals. They shared their work, their lives and their passion for painting.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 130

Part 130: L’art pour l’art

The nineteenth century phrase “art for art’s sake” made me think of scenic artists interpreting fine art compositions for the stage. Although “l’art pour l’art” first emerged in French literary circles, the phrase rapidly spread to other countries and became a rallying cry for many artists. There was the perceived threat that the creation of art would become solely subject to utilitarianism. Taking an existing fine art work and retrofitting it for the stage, especially if mass-produced in a scenic studio, is pretty utilitarian. I started to ponder the eventual perception of painting scenery as a “lesser art.” Could this have contributed to the belief that art hung in a theatre was far less significant that that hung on a gallery wall? That backdrops were “just backings?”

Then I thought back to the late-nineteenth century artists who produced scenery for both the theatrical stage and the fine art galleries. There work was praised for both venues. They remained a respected part of the fine art world. I immediately thought of the the 1885 Scene Painters’ Show in Chicago and how the work of scenic artists were received by their peers. I also kept returning to the saying, “imitation is the greatest form of flattery.” This was the case for many art movements as a group of artists emulated a particular style, Scenic artists were also imitating the popular aesthetic, whether it be the Düsseldorf school or some other artistic movement.

The first historical example that I ever encountered of a scenic artist copying a fine art work in its entirety for a drop curtain was at the University of Minnesota Performing Arts archives. I stumbled across a paint-spattered print by Thomas Moran, copyright 1906. On the back of the print was written, “”Reverse and use right half of picture only. No figures. For West.”

“Sunrise in Old Mexico” by Thomas Moran, 1906 print. In supplemental box 1 of the Twin City Scenic Company Collection (PA43), University of Minnesota Performing Arts Archives.
John Z. Wood drop curtain base on “Sunrise in Old Mexico” by Thomas Moran, 1906 print. Inbox 2 of the Twin City Scenic Company Collection (PA43), University of Minnesota Performing Arts Archives.

It matched the drop curtain in the Twin City Scenic Company collection by John Z. Wood. I was so excited to identify the match. This occurred while I was assigning metadata for the scenery collection database and I immediately noted the pairing in the description about each piece. The design for the painted drop curtain was in box 2 and the print had been tucked away in supplemental box 1. The artist for the drop curtain was John Z. Wood, an unknown at the time. I wondered what his scenic art would look like, especially in light of his imitating Moran’s “Sunset in Old Mexico.” It was this encounter that made me first contemplate the eventual division between fine artists and scenic artists.

Initially the scenic artist was also the designer, respected for his creative vision and mechanical genius. David Austin Strong is a great example for nineteenth century American stage design. His painting, in conjunction with stage machinery, created magical effects during many visual spectacles for the stage, such as ‘The Black Crook.” He might have only created the scenery for one act of the production, but his contribution was well noted in the program. If his setting were successful, critics might be herald him as a genius, or note that his work the highlight of the production!

Then there was a shift during the early twentieth century as scenic artists became theatrical manufacturers in a studio setting. They now would make multiple copies of each other’s vision. Scenic artist still designed the compositions to show prospective clients. Then, a new position emerged in the form of a scenic designer and it became his vision that a legion of artists created. Some scenic artists were reduced to simple manufacturers of a painted product, almost as in a factory setting. I think of the same camp scene for the Scottish Rite’s 32nd degree that appeared over and over again across the country.

El Paso, Texas, Scottish Rite Camp scene.
Galveston, Texas, Scottish Rite camp scene.

This mass-production of a painted scene is just one of many factors that I think attributed to the shift. Other factors would include electrical lighting innovations, the emergence of a lighting designer, modern stage design and the onset of the scenic studio system. It seemed like the perfect storm to remove the scenic artist from the initial “vision” for the stage.

What I find fascinating is that during the early through mid-nineteenth century, artists easily shifted from the fine art studio to a paint bridge high above the stage. They could paint a picture, paint a show, paint a carriage, or paint a sign. Possibilities were everywhere. In some ways this might suggest that the establishment of scenic studios offered a position that eventually limited the aspiring artist. A full-time position in a studio would lead to working on a never-ending stream of projects depicting the artistic composition of others. This meant far less time for sketching trips or other artistic projects that would later appear in galleries. Prior to the studio system, artists would have a project, but then there would be a break and they would work on a variety of other artworks. Feast or famine; it is still a problem for those who freelance. A permanent position limits the opportunities for artistic escape.

Thomas G. Moses was just one example of an artist who crossed the line of stage art and gallery art, constantly trying to participate in art shows throughout the country. He joined a variety of groups, including the Palette and Chisel Club (Chicago), the Salmagundi Club (New York), the Laguna Beach Art Association (California) and others. As a young many, he had pondered, “Would I ever be able to paint pictures framed in heavy gold frames, my name on the corner, and hanging in an Art gallery?” Some of his contemporaries eventually made a permanent transition to the world of fine art, but most remained in the scenic studio, reproducing the artworks of others over and over again.

Examining historical scenery collections is a wonderful way to track popular fine art images for the stage and the artists who manufactured them. The Egyptian settings for the Scottish Rite’s thirty-first degree depict many popular fine art compositions, incorporating various aesthetic shifts and changes in painting techniques. It is one of the easiest scenes to identify discrepancy in interpretation, color palette and brush stroke.

David Roberts Temple of Philae, Nubia.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Scottish Rite.
The Great Collosi of Memnon, Ernst Weidenbach, 1850.
Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 129

Part 129: Isn’t It Lovely

The artistic seeds from the Düsseldorf School found fertile ground in the magical landscapes of the Hudson River Valley movement. Artworks associated with American Romanticism also appeared on the stage as theatrical settings. For Freemasonry, foreign lands rife with mythology and mysticism were perfect compositions to accompany their newly formed degree productions during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Exotic compositions romantically rendered by scenic artists for the stage must have been breathtaking for both fraternal and commercial audiences. Unlike fine art pieces, their theatrical imitations could be backlit. Radiant sunsets and spectacular thunderstorms would bring the compositions to life. Throw in a few performers and – voila – the audience was transported to another world!


It was the works of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, David Johnson, William Stanley Haseltine, Sanford Robinson Gillford, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Jervis McEntee, Thomas Moran, Samuel Coleman, Worthington Whittredge and many other American artists who greatly influenced the aesthetic for popular entertainment. Foreign scenes rendered with this romantic aesthetic were especially well received on the fraternal stage. One second-generation Hudson River School artist, Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) sought new subject matter and traveled to Nova Scotia, Ecuador, Mexico, Europe, North Africa, the Near East and Greece. His works were especially significant in the development of degree productions. Church’s compositions, like those of his instructor Thomas Cole, were a source of opulent light and life in foreign composition that gave many degrees a theatrical soul.

Sailing to Greece in 1869, Church captured images of the Parthenon, a structure that he called “the culmination of the genius of man in architecture.”

Frederick Edwin Church, The Parthenon, 1871.
Painted detail. Frederick Edwin Church, The Parthenon, 1871.

In looking at his work, I was reminded of a Scottish Rite setting for the fifteenth degree that depicted the Ruins of the Temple. Church’s renditions of the Parthenon and other ancient structures glowed under the radiant embers of sunset. His artworks may have been inspirational for many scenic artists who painted Scottish Rite drops, such as those created at Sosman & Landis studio.

Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail. Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

Scenic artists frequently transferred the work of others to the stage, a practice that has continued in our industry. Compositions from David Roberts’ (1796-1864) early nineteenth-century travels to the Holy Land appeared on both commercial and fraternal stages across the country.

David Roberts, The Forum, 1835. Manchester City Galleries.
David Roberts, The Ruins of Memnomium, 1855.

I have often documented images of landscapes, temples and other Egyptian ruins by Roberts that were repurposed for Scottish Rite degree work. However, it was the addition of the Düsseldorf and Hudson River School stylistic approach that brought his settings to life on the stage.

I keep returning to some of the same Scottish Rite scenery collections where I believe that Strong’s work remains visible. The “returning” is like looking for my car keys and knowing that I set them on a table, even though I have not laid eyes on them yet. You can see the stylistic rendition of one particular artist, but just need to figure out which one. Like the seascape, I believe the temple ruins settings were primarily painted by Strong. It was the painting of rocky outcrops and turbulent seas that made me recall 3rd degree production settings. It was the lighting and placement of the crumbling columns that made me think of pairing Church’s paintings with Strong’s technique.

Frederick Edwin Church, Broken Column, Parthenon, 1869. Oil on board.
Possibly the work of David Austin Strong for the Austin Scottish Rite Temple Ruins setting. Photograph of painted detail by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

This is similar to looking at someone’s handwriting and trying to identify their unique “S,” “I,” “E” or “Y.” If it all looks like chicken scratch, then you start looking for specific words to decipher, before letters. For the stage, you identify the movement, then the artist, and finally the composition. There are stoplights all along the way, clearly visible from a distance if you just step back. You just have to observant and see them approaching before you run the red light.

Strong painted some of the earliest fraternal scenery for Sosman & Landis when they were first producing Southern Jurisdiction installations. He was given most of the Masonic projects because he was a Mason. We know this from Moses’ typed manuscript, as he worked in the same studio with Strong when the projects were assigned to the artists. Strong had been a Freemason since 1852 and Chicago Scottish Rite Mason since 1876. By 1900, Strong was an old hand at both ritual and degree settings.

Painted detail. Pasadena Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail. Pasadena Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail. Pasadena Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

Although the original theaters where his drops first hung are long gone, many of the painted drops are still in use. They were resold to other Valleys and still hang above these stages. Original scenery collections for Guthrie, South McAlester, and Little Rock currently reside in their second homes at Austin, Yankton, and Pasadena. These are just three examples of dozens that have served double duty during their lifetime, many of which are still available to examine and document.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 128

Part 128: The Düsseldorf School

When I stumbled across the newspaper article where Walter Burridge commented on David A. Strong being the “only survivor of the Düsseldorf School,” I started to wonder what other scenic artists from his era might have been associated with the group. Burridge’s comment was made in 1892, and although the movement was not over, what was considered its “golden age” had certainly passed. I wanted to see if I could find some connections between the Strong’s painted scenes for the theatre and artists from the Düsseldorf movement. As I studied hundreds of works, numerous stage settings came to mind, especially for Scottish Rite degree productions. The rise of this movement occurring during the early development of Masonic degree productions appeared to be a perfect pairing.

The Düsseldorf School referred to a group of painters who either taught or studied at the Düsseldorf Academy (now Düsseldorf State Academy of Art). An extension of the German Romantic movement, it had a significant influence on nineteenth century landscape painting from the 1830s through the 1860s. The artists’ works were characterized by dramatically lit landscapes, often with historical subjects or allegorical stories. What a wonderful foundation for Masonic degree productions and the artists that created the stage settings!

The focal point of their compositions often fell in the middle ground with dark framing masses placed at the sides, using a realistic and detailed treatment for the forms. Roads, trails, streams, and other visual paths also drew one into the composition. I immediately recalled the forest compositions, the Road to Jerusalem, and the bridge scenes. As on the commercial stage, this was a popular method used in many theatrical settings.

Those associated with the Düsseldorf School also supported plein air painting, where you leave the four walls of your studio and work from nature. This remained a continued practice for many artists, including Thomas G. Moses and his contemporaries. I thought back to his numerous sketching trips where he sat in meadows, rocky mountain landscapes, and beside babbling brooks, to not only capture the beauty of nature for his future fine art works, but also record these same subjects for his future stage compositions. Moses’ trips to the Catskills, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Canadian Rockies, and many other picturesque locations were all incorporated into his small-scale and large-scale artworks.

When the Düsseldorf School was under the direction of Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789-1862) from 1826-1859, many American painters flocked to the school during this time. The methods taught there were spread to many other academies throughout Germany and other countries. Those connected to this artistic movement would also have a significant influence on the later Hudson River School artists of the United States. For more information about this school within an international context from romanticism to impressionism, please see “The Düsseldorf School of painting and Its International Influence 1819-1918” (Bettina Baumgärtel, Editor, 2012).

One example of the Düsseldorf School produced by Andreas Achenbach.

In looking back at some of the Scottish Rite compositions, such as the rocky seacoast, they are extremely reminiscent of both the Düsseldorf and Hudson River artists. The compositions remain basically the same, but the painting of the scene by the same hand at the Austin Scottish Rite, Fargo Scottish Rite, Salina Scottish Rite, Winona Scottish Rite and some others are truly unique. I believe that they are all the work of Strong.

Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail. Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Fargo Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2005.
Painted detail. Fargo Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2005.
Painted detail. Fargo Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2005.

There is a distinct departure from this “Düsseldorf approach” post-1911 as depicted in the setting for the Grand Forks Scottish Rite.

Painted detail. Grand Forks Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2013.

The Austin (original Guthrie scenery 1900), Salina (1901), Fargo (1903), and Winona (1909) settings have what Burridge suggested of Strong’s work as the only survivor of the Düsseldorf school with “the quality of opaqueness peculiar to his school.” I believe that the “opaqueness” referred to is the dark framing masses that make the middle for he composition glow, especially effective in the rocky seascapes. There is an underlying depth and rich quality to the masses. When compared with similar compositions across the country manufactured by Sosman & Landis studio artists after Strong’s passing, there is a much more even distribution of values throughout the seascape, even on the rocky shores.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 127


Part 127: David Austin Strong

David Austin Strong was born on January 20, 1830 in East Windsor, a town in Hartford County, Connecticut, to John Strong and Mary Curtis. As a young man, Strong moved to New Haven, Connecticut and became known as a decorative painter. By 1851, he began painting theatrical scenery. The following year, he entered the Fraternity, becoming a member of Hiram Lodge. That same year, Strong advertised as a sign painter, residing at Bishop’s Hotel.

In 1854, he began to partner with an artist named Thaddeus Frisbie. Frisbie & Strong advertised as sign and ornamental painters, residing in various residences in New Haven over the next few years. Interestingly, they would eventually end up sharing a grave plot at the end of their lives, so close was their friendship. In 1863, Frisbie married Huldah and the partnership seems to have dissolved. For a year, Strong disappeared from the New Haven directories.

In 1864, Strong briefly popped up in a Washington D. C. directory, living at 334 E Street N. This particular appearance of Strong in the Capitol City is fascinating as Thomas Moses mentioned Strong in his typed manuscript as being employed at Ford’s Theatre the night that Lincoln was assassinated. His memoirs recorded, “The Doctor who attended Lincoln was a personal friend of Strong’s, and as the Doctor was cutting Lincoln’s hair to get at the wound, he put hair in his coat pocket instead of throwing it on the floor. He forgot until sometime next day. He gave Strong a bit of it, which he kept to his dying day.”

It was not until 1864 that Strong moved to New York City and immediately fell in with a successful group of scenic artists producing sets for a variety of productions. He stayed in the region until 1874. Strong was part of the technical crew that created the original scenery for the production of “The Black Crook” in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden Theatre.

View of auditorium from Niblo’s Gardn stage, New York City.
View of stage from auditorium at Niblo’s Garden, New York City.

His fellow scenic artists included, Richard Marston, Robert Smith, Lafeyette W. Seavey, and William Wallack. That same year, he also painted “Rip Van Winkle” with E. Hayes. By 1868, he painted another act for “The White Fawn” at Niblo’s.

“The White Fawn” at Niblo’s Garden in New York City.

Marston, Sachetti and Thorpe also produced scenes for this same production. In Chicago, Strong painted at Crosby’s Opera House where some of the New York Scenery was brought in for other performances of “The White Fawn.” The show was a lavish production of a burlesque pantomime and ran for seven weeks.

In 1871, he painted for a variety of venues and different entertainments, including the “Panorama of Ireland” that first was displayed at the Apollo Theatre. By 1874, Strong moved permanently to Chicago and joined the Scottish Rite two years later (Oriental Consistory). It was here that Strong met a fellow scenic artist named Walter Burridge (1857-1913), who initially worked with Harley Merry in New York. In later years, Burridge would affectionately refer to Strong as “Old Trusty” and a member of the Dusseldorf School. In a newspaper article, fellow artists heralded Strong’s skill, his “facile brush,” and “the quality of opaqueness peculiar to his school” (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 18, 1892).

Austin Scottish Rite scene possibly painted by David A, Strong (1830-1911). I believe that this scenery, later re-sold to the Valley of Austin, is the work of Strong, based on company records and technique. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Austin Scottish Rite scene possibly painted by David A, Strong (1830-1911). I believe that this scenery, later re-sold to the Valley of Austin, is the work of Strong, based on company records and technique. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Austin Scottish Rite scene possibly painted by David A, Strong (1830-1911). I believe that this scenery, later re-sold to the Valley of Austin, is the work of Strong, based on company records and technique. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Austin Scottish Rite scene possibly painted by David A, Strong (1830-1911). I believe that this scenery, later re-sold to the Valley of Austin, is the work of Strong, based on company records and technique. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

From 1880-1885, Strong was working for a variety of venues that included Haverly’s Theatre in Chicago. He also worked with Malmsha at McVickers Theatre, painting “The Two Orphans,” “Danities,” and “Unknown.” At this time, he would began working for the Sosman & Landis Studio and remain there until his death in 1911.

His wife, Esther Hosmer (b. 1835) preceded him in death during 1894. She had also been born in New Haven, Connecticut, but little is known about her background. Strong’s last residence was at 78 Van Buren Street. The “Inter Ocean” reported that Strong dropped dead of a heart attack in front of 34 Washington. At the time he had been living at the Best Hotel.

Moses lamented the loss of Strong, writing, “Our beloved David Strong fell dead on the Street February 5th. He was a grand old man – past 80 years…His color was deep and rich and his drawings very correct.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 126

Part 126: Scenic Mechanics for Masonic Stages

When I look at the key figures, such as David Austin Strong, in the development of Masonic theaters, I always return to the same thought: the system worked extremely well for the unskilled – the Masons. Did the development of the design also take this factor into consideration, or was it all a happy coincidence? Handling scenery in commercial houses was complicated and needed a specific skill set. Installing rigging systems for fraternal theaters required extensive knowledge in the stage machinery, painted illusion, and stage work. Once properly installed, the raising and lowering of dedicated lines, did not.

Being able to sell and install more scenery due to closely spaced lines also contributed to the evolution of Masonic stages as lines were often spaced 2” to 4” apart. However, the lines would still be handled by unskilled labor. The Masonic stagehands would be businessmen, farmers, ranchers, and others who had never stepped foot on the stage, let alone examined the rigging that raised and lowered painted scenery.

Scottish Rite counterweight system in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendt Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Looking up into the flies and seeing the bottom battens of drops and the counterweight system. Scottish Rite in Pasadena, California.

Suddenly, there was a group of unskilled stagehands handling the scenes for Masonic degree productions. This was a secret society and a unique situation where trained individuals could not simply be hired to run the show. Therefore, the system of scenic mechanics for degree production needed to accommodate the unskilled. Again, the installation of a counterweight system is complicated, but the running of dedicated line sets is easy. Some lines that I have handled were weighted so well that I could lift a line no effort whatsoever.

Arbor cage with counterweights at the Scottish Rite in Austin, Texas.
Arbor cage at the Scottish Rite in Grand Forks, North Dakota.


Thomas Moses credits David A. Strong as being the “Daddy” of Masonic design. Up until recently, I had believed that his comment primarily indicated the design and painting of compositions for the earliest fraternal stages. I now wonder if he wasn’t referring to the new scenic mechanics for the stage that Rick Boychuk covers in his book “Nobody Looks Up.” Strong was intimately familiar with the transition scenes used in east coast theatre, especially New York City. He brought this knowledge to the theatre and scenic studio in Chicago. He was in New York when the Theatrical Mechanics Association was formed and there when it arrived in Chicago. He was at Sosman & Landis, one of the earliest studios to create Scottish Rite scenery.

Instead of Strong being solely a scenic artist, what if he was really a stage machinist who could paint extremely well? Is it possible that he developed the Scottish Rite installations with the stage machinist Charles S. King, another Sosman & Landis employee? Think of those unique individuals who can create new technology and skillfully communicate their ideas to others, and then create art? Maybe Strong was equally equipped to design both the stage mechanics for Scottish Rite theatres as well as the painted compositions, but was best used in the studio as a scenic artist.

Then there is another factor to consider: Strong’s familiarity with the Fraternity. He had been a Mason since 1852, living in both the fraternal and theatrical worlds.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 125

Part 125: Scenic Mechanics

While researching the scenic artist David A. Strong (1830-1911), I stumbled across his membership in the Theatrical Mechanics Association (TMA) during 1891. Strong was an employee of Sosman & Landis and Haverly’s Theatre and credited by Thomas G. Moses as the “Daddy”of Masonic design. He became a Mason in New Haven Connecticut during 1852 and joined the Chicago Scottish Rite in 1876. I recently read an article noting Strong’s attendance at a TMA meeting in 1891. If you recall, Strong was one of the original artists for the 1866 production of “the Black Crook.”

Illustration from an article depicting “Up Above the Flies” at the 1866 performance of “The Black Crook.”
The original 1866 program of “The Black Crook” with David A. Strong as one of the scenic artists.

Intrigued with his involvement in a theatrical mechanics group, I carefully examined the article and was surprised to discover a recount of the association’s New York origins in 1866. I thought of those working on the various “Black Crook” transformation scenes that same year.

The July 27, 1891 issue of Chicago’s “The Daily Inter Ocean” newspaper (page 2) noted that Chicago Lodge No. 4 (of the TMA) had a recent meeting where they appointed a reception committee for the TMA, including Strong. Chicago Lodge No. 4 was organized on April 16, 1884 and its first President was John Barstow (stage carpenter at McVicker’s Theatre). The first meeting was at the Grand Opera House and some seventy-five names were enrolled as charter members. Certificates of organization were filed with Barstow, John E. Williams, and Frank F. Goss as organizers and first directors.

1891 “Inter Ocean” article about the Theatrical Mechanics Association.

Now the Theatrical Mechanics Association was new to me. I had only researched the Protective Alliance of Scene Painters of America (est. 1895). For the TMA in 1891, it listed that there were 78 members and 28 lodges in attendance at the Chicago convention, including Chicago Lodge No. 4 members James Quigly, John Bairstow (Bartstow) William Faber, Thomas McGann, John Foust, Frank Faber, L. B. Savage, F. V. Sauter (became a Scottish Rite Mason in 1892), David A. Strong (became a Scottish Rite Mason in 1876), Frank A Lathrop, and Wallace Blanchard (became a Scottish Rite Mason in 1899). After the morning session at the convention, the committee “took forcible possession of the conference.” The main topic of their discussion was the World’s Fair plans.

Later, the Grand Master James McCurdy spoke at the convention and recalled the New York origin in 1866. McCurdy was recognized in the article as being connected “with nearly every theatre of prominence in the East” and also one of the charter members. The organization first met with not only managers from the houses but also men working as mechanics. The initial membership in sixteen rapidly increased to thirty in their first year. The TMA motto was “Charity, Benevolence, and Fidelity.” By 1891, the membership in New York membership was 250 with a nationwide membership of 2,300. Wow!

A second lodge was organized in Boston and then Philadelphia “fell into line.” By 1891 they had already paid out $6,000 in benevolent purposes. The 1891 article continued to note, “Perhaps the public does not know it, but it is a fact that the theatrical mechanics deserve as much credit for a successful performance as the actors themselves. If one will only stop to think of the improvements that have been made in the last few years, the worth of the mechanic must be recognized. The ugly, heavy, and unweilding scenery which twenty years ago littered up the stage has given place to scenery that is the work of artists and that is handled by skilled mechanics. No longer are there dreary waits between acts. All this was accomplished, and much of it due to the association, by means of which have been given and taken.”


To be continued…


Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 124

Part 124: Memories of Malmsha

When Malmsha passed away, scenic artists from across the country bemoaned the loss of his painting skills for the stage. Although he died in Chicago, the New York Times on 21 October, 1882 (page 4) published comments by a fellow artist, “Mr. David A. Strong, scenic artist at Haverly’s theatre, says that Mr. Malmsha, as a scenic artist, had no superiors and only two equals in the country – Marston and Roberts.” Remember, Strong was credited by Moses as the “Daddy” of Masonic stage design in his typed memoirs (see previous installment #65). He was a well-recognized artist himself and one of the original artists for the 1866 production of “The Black Crook” at Niblo’s Garden. The two artists that Moses credits Malmsha as the only two equals are Richard Marston (1842-1917) of New York and David Roberts (1796-1864), the famous English artist and scene painter.

One of David Roberts images from his portfolio depicting the Hold Land.

Henry C. Tryon also wrote a tribute to Malmsha that appeared in the Salt Lake City Herald on October 22, 1882. Tryon was born in Chicago in 1847.  At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the army in a regiment attached to the Second Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, serving until the close of the Civil War. He later became a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Design, intending to become a landscape painter and was a pupil of Thomas Moran and William Hart. Tryon work with Malmsha at Wood’s Theatre in Cincinnati and later at McVicker’s Theatre in Chicago.

The title of Tryon’s article was “Louis Malmsha. A Tribute to the Great Scenic Artist.” Here is the article in its entirety:

“Editors Herald: Malmsha scenic artist of McVickers Theatre, Chicago, reputed the best in his profession, died last night. The above appears in the Associated Press reports in the morning papers.

As an humble follower, ardent admirer, friend, and confrere of this dead artist I felt it my duty to render tribute and homage to his transcendent genius. He was “the best in the profession.” Every artist who has seen his work has without qualification given him this position as a matter of simple fact. I have seen samples from the hands of the best scenic artists in England, France, and Italy, and from what I have seen and learned. I am convinced that Mr. Malmsha was the greatest scenic painter in the world. His identity appeared to be unbounded. The most familiar with his work could not guess how he would paint next. Week after week and year after year his productions were a constant succession of surprises. He was entirely an artist, and used none but purely art means to accomplish even a mechanical object. His compositions (the motive of which was ever noble and elevated) were entirely original, and were produced with astonishing rapidity. He united power and strength with the sweetest, tenderest delicacy, dignity with grace, sublimity with loveliness. I have yet to see in American any art example which manifest the wealth of genius that this man proved that he possessed. I am quite certain that had he turned his attention to the painting of pictures, that he would have ranked as the greatest artist that our country has ever produced, for his genius was certainly preeminent. His position in his profession was an isolated one. He had no peers. His place, vacant now, there is none can fill. We have great artists among our scene painters, but no Malmsha; just as there was but one Charlotte Cushman among many great actors.

Mr. Louis Malmsha commenced his career as a scenic artist at Crosby’s opera house, Chicago, in 1865. He was then a mere boy, and while working in the auditorium under the employ of a fresco painter, he saw the scenic artist painting the scenery for the stage. He became so infatuated with this (to him) new art, that he could not be kept at his work, spending all of his time from his employers. From this time forth fresco painting was distasteful to him, and he accompanied the artist to New York. He there improved his advantages to such a degree that in a few years he was the peer of the best of his brother artists.

Hammersmith Bridge, for reference only.
Examples of the boat races at Hammersmith Bridge.

He returned to Crosby’s Opera House about the year 1869, producing “Hammersmith Bridge” and an English boat race at Putney. This scene astonished Chicago –(no easy matter) as it was the finest of the kind that had ever been painted there. He remained at Crosby’s for several months, until engaged by Mr. McVicker to paint the entire stock of his rebuilt theatre. (It was by the study of his beautiful work at this time that I drew my own first impressions of the possibilities of scenic art.) He remained at Mr. McVicker’s until the destruction of the theatre by the great fire in 1871.

Illustration of the great fire of Chicago in 1871.

The following fall and winter he was engaged at Woods’ theatre, Cincinnati, returning the next summer to Chicago to paint scenery for Aiken’s Theatre and for Myers’ Opera House.

Wood’s Museum became known as Wood’s Theater, where Tryon worked with Malmsha. Note yellow highlight crediting Malmsha with the scenery

His drop curtain at Aiken’s Theatre (Dearborn Theatre) was undoubtedly the finest and most artistic of any in the country. He then left Chicago for a year or more returning to McVicker’s theatre where he remained until the time of his death.

Such is the brief career of this brilliant young man. He was (I judge about) 37 years of age. For the past ten or twelve years he had been afflicted with consumption so that it was difficult for him to exert himself violently or to do more that two or three hours a day, but as he was for the past few months required to do none but purely artwork, other artists doing all of the preliminary work possible to make his labor easier, he was enabled, no doubt up to a recent period to astonish and delight the audiences at McVicker’s with the exhibition of phenomenal genius. He will be sadly missed in Chicago, and now that he is dead the general public will join the artists in appreciating as he deserved to have been appreciated during his life.”

Detail of McVicker’s Playbill with scenery credited to Malmsha.
McVicker’s Theatre Playbill with scenery credited to Malmsha.


To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 123

Part 123: Malmsha and McVickers

Thomas Moses was initially exposed to the world of scenic art through the painting of Charles S. Graham. However, scenic art skills were introduced to him while working as an assistant to Lou Malmsha (1847-1882). Malmsha was the head designer at Jevne & Almini, having worked for the company since 1863.

Advertisements for Jevne & Almini (Fresco Painters) at 101 Washington Street in Chicago. From 1863, the same year that Malmsha started with the decorating firm.

In Moses’ typed manuscript, he commented on his work for Malmsha at the decorating firm, writing, “He had a number of small panels to paint on paper which were afterwards pasted onto the ceiling. I was certainly very fortunate, being to green to be fresh in my work. I was soon working on portions of his work.” It was Malmsha’s after hours work at McVicker’s Theatre that provided Thomas G. Moses with his first scene painting opportunity.

Jame Hubert McVicker, Scottish Rite Freemason and theatre owner, belonging to the Oriental Consistory in Chicago.

McVicker’s Theater was built by James Hubert McVicker and opened On November 5, 1857. It was remodeled in 1864 at a cost of $90,000 and destroyed in the great 1871 fire.

McVicker’s Theatre, 1866. Lithograph plate drawn by L. Kurz and printed by Jevne & Almini.

McVicker’s rebuilt the building at a cost of $200,000 and reopened on August 15, 1872.

McVicker’s Theatre built after the 1871 fire and published in “The Landowner.”

In 1883, the building Adler & Sullivan remodeled McVicker’s Theatre at a cost of $145,000, then again destroyed by fire on August 26, 1890. What is interesting to note is some of the technical specifications and information published in “Harry Miner’s Theatrical Guide” from 1884-1885. Rick Boychuk pointed this out the other day. At that time J. H. McVicker was still the manager. The scenic artist was Malmsha’s previous partner, J. H. Rogers and the stage carpenter was John Bairstow (also listed as John Barstow).

Adler & Sullivan remodel of McVicker’s Theatre in 1883.
Photograph of McVicker’s Theatre in 1890. Note the painted foliage work.
Photograph of MicVicker’s Theatre 1890. Note the painted foliage below the proscenium arch.
Painted curtain for McVicker’s, date unknown. I believe it is from the 1890s due to the proscenium arch detail.
Partial view of another front curtain in the McVicker’s space. I believe that this was also from the 1890s due to the proscenium detail.

For a third time, McVicker’s Theatre was rebuilt and reopened on March 31, 1892. McVicker died in 1896 and his widow assumed management until she sold the theater to Jacob Litt in 1898, for a term of ten years. The building was demolished in 1922 and again rebuilt. The last McVicker’s Theatre was owned by the Balaban & Katz theater chain and was demolished in 1985.

Balaban & Katz design for new McVicker’s Theatre in 1822.

Much of Malmsha’s history was published at the time of his death in the Inter Ocean from Chicago, Illinois (Saturday, October 21, 1882). The obituary noted that C. Louis Malmsha, the noted scenic painter of McVicker’s Theater, died at his residence on Thursday evening. Mr. Malmsha was suddenly seized with hemorrhage while at work on a watercolor at his home that evening and died before his wife could reach him from an adjoining room. This an other newspapers note that Malmsha “was ranked next to Marston of the Union Square Theatre.”

Born in Goetenburg, Sweden during 1847, he was only 35 years old at the time of his death. The Inter Ocean article notes that from an early age, Malmsha demonstrated a strong talent for painting, immigrating to America at he age of sixteen in 1863. He initially found employment with Jevne & Almini fresco painters in this city, but soon became interested in painting for the stage and assisted Mr. Arragon at Crosby’s Opera House.

Crosby’s Opera House, Chicago, Illinois. 1865.
Crosby’s Opera House, Chicago, Illinois. 1868, Harper’s Weekly.
Crosby’s Opera House, Chicago, Illinois. 1860s.

In 1866 Malmsha went to New York where he executed the first scene for “The Black Crook.” In New York he also was engaged multiple times at the Union Square Theatre, as well as Dan Bryant’s Old Hall on 23rd Street and Kelly and Leon’s Minstrels. Leaving New York, Malmsha traveled through the country with fellow artist Barney MaCauley of Cincinnati. In September 1871, he returned to Chicago and began working at McVicker’s with J. Howard Rogers, who had already been there for twelve years. A few weeks into this job, the great fire of 1871 occurred and Malmsha returned to Cincinnati.

Returning to Chicago in 1874 he began working at McVicker’s and remained there until his death. It was noted that he ignored the advice of his physicians to “seek a more salubrious climate,” and remained in Chicago to continue his art. He was widely known for his exterior scenes at McVicker’s, including those for “Little Innocents” (1877), “After Dark” (1878), and “The Parson” (1880). It was when Malmsha returned from New York to work at McVicker’s Theatre that Moses began as his assistant.

In 1878 he ventured north to St. Paul, Minnesota, and painted the scenery for the Opera House. He possibly would have met Peter Gui Clausen at Jevne & Almini in 1866 before he departed to New York. Clausen also worked at the Opera House in St. Paul. He and Clausen’s paths might have crossed in the Twin Cities, if they did actually work on the job together.

To be continued…