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…

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