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…


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