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…

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