Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 160 – Scattered Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind

Part 160: Scattered Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind

In the performing arts we leave a part of our self, or our art, behind after the production closes. Whether visual or verbal, our “scattered pictures” become references for future endeavors. We seek training and inspiration from our predecessors. As I examine the lives of scenic artists, stage carpenters, and others theatre practitioners, I have noticed many share a common thread. There is a desire to leave some sort of legacy behind, whether it is art or technology. It can be material or intangible, but we want something to remain after our earthly adventure ends. For Thomas. G. Moses and others, it meant leaving a written record of their journey.

When I first read Moses’ typed manuscript I was awestruck. For decades, he carefully made daily entries in a diary. He also clipped and pasted newspaper articles in his scrapbook. Moses saved information pertaining not only to his own accomplishments, but also those of his friends. Somewhere along the way, his intention was to publish a book, “Sixty Years Behind the Curtain Line.” In the end it remained an unpublished manuscript simply titled “My Diary.” His writings included poetry, reflections of the time, admiration for his colleagues, frustration with employers, the challenge of family, brushes with fame, devastating events, and everyday affairs. Throughout it all, his passion for art and his wife shone through the text with an unbeatable enthusiasm for life.

In a 1932 letter to his son Pitt, Moses wrote,

“While I hope to enjoy a few more years of painting, the sudden passing of Ellie, Frank and Lucia has forced me to realize that I have only a few more years at the most and when I do pass out, I want to feel that my life has not been wasted, and my work will live on for many years after I am gone.” Amazingly, many of his paintings for both fine art and scenic art remain hanging in Scottish Rite theaters across the country. During the installation of scenery collections, Moses often donated a fine art piece to the Valley, or a local friend. For many years, his work has remained tucked away at various archives, museums, and private residences.

Painting by Thomas G. Moses. His gift to the Pasadena Scottish Rite in 1925. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Detail in landscape painted by Thomas G. Moses and presented to the Pasadena Scottish Rite in 1925. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail from backdrop painted that was by Thomas Moses for the Winona Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2014.

 

I believe his legacy really lives in his memoirs, thoughts and plans recorded in small annual diaries that he began to write in 1873.

But why did he start making diary entries that year? I had always wondered. With his busy schedule, why had he took the time to record his thoughts at the end of each day, every day, for sixty years. I discovered the answer while examining a research file on Moses kept by John R. Rothgeb this past fall. It is one of many random and unprocessed documents contained in the Rothgeb Papers at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas, Austin).

Moses’ father, Lucius M.(1822-1891), wrote a letter to his son on March 14, 1873. It accompanied a trunk that was from Sterling, Illinois to Chicago. Lucius was fifty-one years old when he sent the following letter to his seventeen-year-old son “Tommy,” living at #208 Fifth Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.

He wrote, “My Dear Son Tommy,

Mother has fixed up your shirts and packed your trunk. I shall send it in by the 6 o’clock train to-morrow (Saturday morning). I could not possibly get it off to-day as I was very busy this morning. Frank got your old books all mended up and they are in the trunk. I shall pay the expressage on the trunk. I will do all I can to keep you in clothes and when you are really in need let me know. Mother put in some paper for you to write home on also some envelopes. I have bot [sic] you a little diary for you to make memorandums on and it has a cash a/c where you can keep a/c of money received and spent. I would have got a larger one, but mother thought your pockets were too shallow for a large one. You will find $5.00 and some stamps in the Diary.” The letter continues with financial advice and instructions for recording wages and living expenses, ending with “P.S. The diary is in the trunk.” It was signed, “From your affectionate father, L. M. Moses.”

 

I immediately thought of parents everywhere sending children off on their own adventures. We set them free, hoping that they won’t need help, but wanting to make sure that they know it’s available if needed. During many goodbyes, we offer those final parting words of wisdom, or last minute advice. Whether it is on their first day of college, before their wedding or after we leave this world, there is the hope that we have given them all of the tools to not only survive, but also thrive and enjoy life. Moses’ parents were sending clothing, books, financial advice, some money, and a diary – all of the essentials for a boy on his own in the big city.

Moses continued to write daily in a small diary continuously, even during the last five years of his life. I believe that his diary entries signified an unbreakable connection with his father when he first left home in 1872. Although his father passed in 1891, Moses continued to record his daily activities and income. Last fall, I transcribed Moses’ 1931 diary and am currently working on the years 1929, 1930, 1932 and 1933. These are the only remaining handwritten diaries by Moses. His small diaries depict more of a daily struggle, instead of the romanticized reflection of his 1931 manuscript. His reflections at the age of seventy-five are colored by age and his growing hope to leave some positive mark when he passed from this world. Moses’ diaries are his legacy as much as his fine art or 1924 Fort Scott scenery collection.

Thomas G. Moses Diary from 1931. Private collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Thomas G. Moses Diary from 1931. Private collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

Already in 1922 at the age of sixty-four he wrote, “I trust my diary will be of some interest to my relatives and brother scenic artists. I feel sure that my work will be of some interest inasmuch as I was compelled to travel over the United States a great deal from Maine to California, which gave me a great chance to meet big people of the dramatic world in the days of real actors and plays of real merit.”

I first read this statement at the age of nineteen and was determined to make a positive mark on the world too. Maybe not one that was recognized in my lifetime, but some small contribution to a much larger picture that preserved theatrical heritage for future generations to enjoy. Maybe my purpose is to make sure that Moses’ voice remains of interest to his “relatives and brother scenic artists.”

To be continued…

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