Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 155 – W. K. Brown

Part 155: W. K. Brown

The stage effects that were discovered in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theatre were just a few common examples in a long history of designing spectacle for the stage. The 1924 version of Pepper’s Ghost for the 30th degree and the volcanic eruption for the 17th degree were relatively tame when compared with the commercial touring shows from the early twentieth century.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite setting for Pepper’s Ghost illusion in the 30th degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite setting for Pepper’s Ghost illusion in the 30th degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
The man changing into the skeleton. Pepper’s Ghost illusion for the 30th degree in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

Stage carpenters and scenic artists, such as David A. Strong, initially designed scenic spectacles for Masonic degree productions. C. S. King of Sosman & Landis and W. K. Brown of Twin City Scenic repeatedly constructed certain stage effects for Scottish Rite theaters when degree productions initially appeared in the Southern Jurisdiction. They were just two individuals of the hundreds employed by scenic studios throughout the country. Today I look at Brown who was responsible for designing the stage machinery for many Scottish Rite Valleys, including the Minneapolis Scottish Rite where he was a member.

Twenty years after Charles S. King installed the stage machinery at the Grand Opera House in Minneapolis, a newspaper article discussed the venue’s first stage carpenter, William Knox Brown.

William Knox Brown, stage carpenter and Scottish Rite Mason in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Published on January 13, 1901, the article was titled, “Experts Behind the Scenes.” It included a brief synopsis of Brown’s career as a stage carpenter. The main title line was followed by a subheading that stated, “Ability of Men Who Are Not Visible to the Audience is Tested by Such a Production as Hanlon Bros. Le Voyage En Suisse.” A series of illustrations followed, exploring the duties of stagehands, examining “Who They Are and What They Do – Some of Their Peculiar Experiments.” It was the image of stagehands working the lines that initially caught my eye.

Stage hands moving the lines in the 1901 article that described “Le Voyage en Suisse.”
1901 article, “Experts Behind the Scenes” with summary of W. K. Brown’s experience as a stage carpenter.

Brown, Theodore Hays and William P. Davis started the Twin City Scenic Company, initially working out of the Bijou Opera House in Minneapolis. A wonderful history has already been written about the company and was published in the 1987 exhibition catalogue, “The Twin City Scenic Collection: Popular Entertainment 1895-1929.” It was Brown’s connection to touring spectacles and Davis’ history at the Chicago Civic Auditorium that I would like to highlight today as I continue to examine those who engineered stage effects. Theodore Hays was the business manager, Brown was in charge of the stage mechanics, and Davis led the painting at Twin City Scenic. All three had the necessary connections to make their endeavor a success. Brown had worked extensively for the Hanlon Bros. while Davis had functioned as the primary scenic artist at the Chicago Civic Auditorium.

The Star Tribune article noted that the “ruler of this realm behind the footlights” was titled “stage carpenter,” then proceeded to explain all of the different jobs associated with the technical elements of many productions. What really caught me eye was the description of the Bijou stage space in 1901.

Illustration in 1901 article depicting scene change for “Le Voyage en Suisse.”

Here is an excerpt that I found fascinating:

“The stage proper was divided by the old system of grooves, which were used to hold up the scenery into divisions, one, two, three and four, where the stage was extra deep, sometimes five and six. Grooves are a mechanical contrivance in which the scenes slide back and forth. This methods of stage setting is very seldom employed at the present time, the more modern arrangements of setting scenes in a box shape, supporting them with braces and connecting them by lash lines, being more common use. One as styled above is the first space back of the curtain line, and is five or more feet in depth, according to the size of the stage. Spaces two, three and four are equal to the distances from one, towards the rear. There are few theatrical productions that require more extensive stage room than the Hanlon Brother’s greatest spectacle, ‘A Trip to Switzerland.’”

The article noted that Brown was a “mechanic of experience” and “one of the best stage carpenters in the country” with a “thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the art of stage mechanism.” It then went on to describe his experience since first arriving in Minneapolis as a stage carpenter in 1882.

He was in his second year of presiding over the Bijou and credited with “that rare quality of being able to control men without trouble.” Brown started his career in Minneapolis as stage carpenter at the Grand Opera House in 1882. He also worked at the Grand Opera House in St. Paul before eventually transferring to the Bijou and the People’s Theatre. Brown left the area for work at a variety of opera houses by 1887, including Burd’s Opera House in Davenport, Iowa, Harris Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Henrietta Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. He was later hired by the Hanlon Bros. as their master machinist for the production of “Superba.” Brown not only directed the staging of “Superba,” but also was engaged at the Hanlon Bros. for their private stage and workshop in Cohaset, Massachusetts. At this facility, Brown repaired and tested new stage effects and machinery.

The production of “Superba” by the Hanlon Brothers. This is the show where W. K. Brown was the stage carpenter.

I immediately thought of the “Albert, Grover and Burridge Studio” in Chicago where they had a space to light and display the completed scenes. Were the studios in Chicago and Cohaset part of a movement to construct spaces with theatrical stages to design, test and market new products for their clientele.

Chicago studio of “Albert, Grover & Burridge.” The space had a place to stage competed scenes for clients after they were removed from the paint frames.

To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *