Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 154 – An Initiation into the Mysteries of Stage Mechanism

Part 154: An Initiation into the Mysteries of Stage Mechanism
The Sosman & Landis Studio in Chicago employed many notable individuals over the years besides Thomas G. Moses. Two nationally renowned stage machinists, David A. Strong, and Charles S. King, were also employed at the studio during the late nineteenth century. We know very little of King beyond information published in a few newspaper articles. Unfortunately, many newspaper articles can get it wrong, as the authors don’t always understand what they are writing about. Imagine the difficulty in describing the complexities of stage machinery and histories of the stage carpenters.
An article titled “An Old Stager,” provides the most information about King’s past. On October 30, 1889, “The Republican” mentioned that C. S. King “began his career as a stage carpenter and stage machinist in 1859, which he has followed ever since except an interval of three years, which he served in the Union Army during the late war, and another brief period that he was manager of a large company on the road” (page 4).
The article went on to explain that for the last fifteen years, King had been in the employ of Sosman & Landis of Chicago “which of itself is sufficient recommendation of his abilities, and has fitted up some of the finest opera houses in the country as well as in Canada and Mexico.” Well, this contradicts many other newspaper articles and company advertisements that site the opening of Sosman & Landis Studio as 1877, not 1874. However, it is possible that King had been working with Sosman on stage installations since 1874. Sosman’s scenic artist career began in 1872 when he started assisting the Chicago-based artist, T. B. Harris. King and Sosman could have worked on the same projects since that time. This would actually make sense as an ideal group of individuals would be gathered to form a company when Sosman met Landis in 1876. Remember that Landis was primarily a salesman and never really worked as a technician or painter for the studio.
Finally, the author of the “Republican” article wrote, “Mr. King came to Columbus Sept. 11, and commenced on the bare floor of the new theatre to construct the various stage machinery, mount scenery, and everything connected with stage settings, all without drawings or specifications, except those stored in his head from long experience.” I became fascinated with this statement and started to think back to the need for trade secrets. Like those operative masons who formed lodges during the building of the great cathedrals; trade secrets were essential to market your skill and win work over your competitors.
1889 Crump Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. Stage machinery by C. S. King and scenery by Thomas Moses of Sosman & Landis. Walter Doup was the first stage carpenter for the venue.
Crump Theatre drop curtain painted by Thomas G. Moses in 1889.
An early stage setting at the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. Exact date unknown.
Six years earlier in 1881, King was brought in to install the stage machinery for the Grand Opera House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, he was thirty years old with seven years of practical experience in the industry. On January 27 of that year, the Minneapolis Tribune published, “Mr. C. S. King, the stage carpenter at the Grand Opera House, was initiated into some of the mysteries of stage mechanism as exemplified in our new temple of amusement. Mr. King who was summoned here from Chicago, is regarded as one of the best stage-carpenters in the country, having had wide experience and possessing perfect knowledge of his progression. He says that our opera house will have the finest stage, the easiest worked, and will be the best appointed theatre west of Chicago, or of many large eastern cities” (page 5).
The Grand Opera in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Stage machinery by C. S. King in 1881. W. K. Brown was the first stage carpenter for the venue.
I thought back to the creation of the Theatrical Mechanics Association in 1866 and their Masonic-like structure, complete with a Grand Master and local lodges. The statement “initiated into some of the mysteries of stage mechanism” would certainly be an initiation ritual for entry into the Theatrical Mechanics Association in 1881. Elaborate initiations were simply a popular practice of the time with most fraternal societies. I bet the stage mechanics ritual was a hoot!
When King worked on the Crump Theatre, he was working with a local individual who would function as the permanent stage carpenter for the venue – Walter Doup. Similarly, when King was working on the stage at the Grand Opera in Minneapolis, the local stage carpenter for the venue would be William Knox Brown, one of the three founders of Twin City Scenic Company. Brown began his stage work in Minneapolis at the Grand Opera House in 1882.
You can only imagine my surprise when I stumbled across an article describing the training and responsibilities of stage carpenters in a 1901 Minneapolis newspaper article entitled “Experts Behind the Scenes.”
To be continued…
Here is a link to the history of the Crump Theatre for more information: www.historiccolumbusindiana.org/jscrump.htm

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