Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 156 – Glamour of Stage due to Carpenter

Part 156: Glamour of Stage Due to the Carpenter

William P. Davis, another Twin City Scenic Company founder, worked as the primary artist for the Chicago Civic Auditorium before moving to Minneapolis. John Barstow, and later his son William H. Barstow, were two of the Auditorium’s stage carpenters. Bartstow’s last name was occasionally spelled as “Bairstow” in various publications. While researching stage carpenters, I discovered a wonderful article about their work and the contribution of John Barstow when he designed the Auditorium stage.

Image of shifting stagehands scenery on and propping up flats with stage jacks. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine 1893, Vol. 36, No. 5.

On September 28, 1907, the Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Oregon) published an article in their Sunday Supplement “Among Men who Work with Hand or Brain.” Jonas Howard wrote an article titled, “Boss Jack of All Trades. Glamour of Stage Due to the Carpenter” (page 49):

“The only jack of all trades who has mastered them all is the stage carpenter. What the stage carpenter doesn’t know or can’t find out could be written in a small book. He must be not only a carpenter of the first rank, but a plumber, machinist, painter, blacksmith, sailor, tailor, artist and common laborer as well. In fact, the stage carpenter must be an all around genius or he wouldn’t hold his job five minutes.

Shifting scenery. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine 1893, Vol. 36, No. 5.

Stage carpenters begin their careers as assistants to the property men or scene painters.

The scenic artist at work painting a backdrop. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine 1893, Vol. 36, No. 5.

During the first year of their apprenticeship they do nothing but the rougher jobs around the stage, such as moving scenery, repairing frames and helping the electrician. Later they are allowed to work some of the ropes that are used to manipulate the scenery and gradually work into the positions as fly men. It is not until a stage carpenter can make and repair “trick” stuff that he is called proficient in his business, and as “trick” stuff is as intricate and varied as the tricks themselves it is only the keen witted carpenters that reach the front of their profession.

“Trick” stuff is that part of the stage machinery that is used to bring about various spectacular scenic effects that are so common on the present day stage. Sometimes there is an automobile race to be brought off, and it is up to the stage carpenter to devise a scheme that will make an automobile run a mile or more at top speed in the space of 20 or 30 feet. To do this there must be a set of rollers under the floor to turn the automobile’s wheels. The country through which the race is run must be painted on canvas and wound up on upright rollers so it can whizz by at the rate of 90 miles an hour or so. All of this arrangement must be put together with skill or it would not endure through the performance.

Stage tricks are so numerous that there could be no accounting of them. Nearly every show has some mechanical device to produce its stage effects and the stage carpenter must be enough of a mechanic to be familiar with all of them.

In the Auditorium theatre in Chicago which has one of the largest stages in the world, there is 2,000,000 feet of rope and cables. To handle these and keep them in repair requires the services of a man who knows as much about ropes as a sailor.

In the producing houses more stage carpenters are employed that are used in the theatres where the stage productions are shown after they are once set up. When a play is produced all of its scenery must be made and painted and the work is under the supervision of the stage carpenter. Each piece of scenery must be made so that it can be used in the average theatre throughout the country, for it would not do to make the scenery to fit any one house.

John Barstow, former stage carpenter at the Auditorium, the stage of which he built, has been in the business nearly fifty years. He began his career in Europe, coming to this side shortly after the civil war. Before the Auditorium was built Mr. Barstow was sent to Europe to learn all he could about the stage arrangements of the best theaters and on his return he incorporated all of the best features of these houses in the Auditorium stage. His son, William H. Barstow, is the present stage carpenter at the Auditorium.

Most of downtown theatres in Chicago employ a staff of 10 or 15 stage carpenters, while the Auditorium requires the services of 30 men. Altogether there are 450 stage carpenters in Chicago and most of them belong to the union.

The average pay for the work is $5 for each eight hours [equivalent to $125 in 2017] and in the larger houses the work is done at 9 o’clock in the morning and works until 6 at night, then there is another shift to work in the evening, during the performance. When the play that is showing carries an extra lot of scenery or has a good many “tricks” some of the day men are required to be present during the evening performance. During the grand opera season the stage carpenters at the Auditorium report at 8 o’clock in the morning and do not get away until midnight.

Some of the best stage carpenters work in the cheap theatre. It is in these places that the thrilling melodramas are given and it is plays of this class that tax the ingenuity of the stage carpenter. It is only by a skillful handling of ropes and scenery that an automobile can be made to jump safely across the opening gulf between two blades of a jackknife bridge. A single slip might result in the death or injury of an actor.”

To be continued…

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