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…


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