Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 153 – Theatrical Mechanics

Part 153: Theatrical Mechanics

While supervising the removal of the 1924 Fort Scott Scottish Rite scenery collection, I stumbled across a variety of notes written on the inside the wooden sandwich battens. These battens were attached to both the tops and bottoms of each drop. Mathematical calculations, random notes, and small cartoons were jotted down in pencil during 1924. One batten even listed the organization of drops on line sets for the Fort Scott counterweight system. It was remarkable! My favorite discovery, however, was the pencil illustration of a counterweight rigging system that I immediately photographed and sent to Rick Boychuk. I recognized the familiar penmanship of Thomas G. Moses with its scrawling slant. His writing had been beautifully preserved for over ninety years, hidden in the center of the sandwich battens.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite batten with drops for degree productions listed. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett in 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite batten with drawing of counterweight rigging system. Location of artifact currently unknown as the battens were not reattached to the scenery once hung in the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. This onsite photograph was taken by Wendy Waszut-Barrett in 2015 during the scenery removal and transportation from Kansas to Minnesota.

I am intrigued with the men who not only painted scenery for the stage, but also designed the stage machinery. The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” always comes to mind when I think of those who were able to engineer and paint transformation scenes. For me, the combined position of artist-engineer makes complete sense and provided much less of an opportunity for possible miscommunication! In any case, the stage mechanic must have understood how the painted product will appear. Similarly, the scenic artist must also have understood how the stage machinery would work. David A. Strong was one example of a theatrical artist and theatrical mechanic. He was not only recognized as a superb scenic artist, but also member of the Theatrical Mechanics Association.

Yesterday, I mentioned the value of hands-on experience for both theatre practitioners and scholars. The University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat provided training for not only design and scenic art techniques, but also stage machinery and construction skills. Today I start looking at those who simultaneously functioned as scenic artists and stage carpenters. I think back to the nineteenth-century production that used multiple scenery designers for a single show. This has always intrigued me when I read the lists of those credited with the production of individual acts and am curious about the visual unity of the entire show. In some cases, when an individual and wasn’t identified as producing the stage machinery, I can only believe that those credited with “scenery” were also engineering and constructing their own stage effects.

Roles noted in theatre programs became more delineated by the end of the nineteenth century. Technical theatre positions appear to be introduced and defined with job specific titles and duties occur. It is possible that the appearance of scenic studios contributed to the further division of roles in the theatrical labor pool.

Enter Rick Boychuk and his continued research concerning Charles S. King and the appearance of the counterweight system in North American theaters. For the past year, I have occasionally searched for information concerning King, a stage mechanic who worked at Sosman and Landis during the late nineteenth century. Usually I come up empty handed. Boychuk first introduced to me to King and his role as stage carpenter for the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. As a side note, Thomas G. Moses was credited with painting the drop curtain for the Crump, so they worked together. Both Moses and King were employees of Sosman & Landis at the same time.

Last month, I stumbled across mention of King as a scenic artist and immediately thought of David A. Strong, also an employee of Sosman & Landis Studio! In 1887, C. S. King was noted as the professional stage machinist who came from Chicago “to build and paint the scenery, rigging and traps for the stage” at the Opera House in El Paso, Texas.

To be continued…


Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 152 – The University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat

Part 152: The University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat

I start today’s installment with a portion of John R. Rothgeb’s quote from yesterday: “Today the ad curtain is occasionally used in revivals of melodramas so that the audience can hiss at the villain, smile at the scenery, and feed self-satisfied with the sophistication of the 1980s.”

Various entertainment venues kept this type of entertainment alive in the 1980s whether it was commercial, academic, or community theatre. It attracts audiences because it is fun to be part of a communal activity. There is something delightful about viewing this type of production where you can cheer for the hero and hiss at the villain. Think about the popularity of sporting events and being part of a community who cheers together.

The original Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Postcard from the collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Postcard depicting the interior of the original Minnesota Centennial Showboat, docked in Minneapolis. Online image.

One longstanding example and educational training ground for theatre technicians and performers was the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat. This was an academic venue that drew in thousands of repeat audience members every summer, creating a high visibility for the theatre department in our region.

The new Minnesota Centennial Showboat, currently docked in St. Paul.
Interior of the new Minnesota Centennial Showboat, currently docked in St. Paul.
The interior in the new Minnesota Centennial Showboat, currently docked in St. Paul.

For me, the combination of painting Showboat drops, Lance Brockman’s scene painting class, and the scenery collections provided an ideal training ground. Brockman not only understood the need to preserve this particular heritage, but also its value as an instructional tool. Learning historical scenic art techniques is much more than a mere examination of the past, it is applicable to many contemporary design and paint projects.

The same painted scenes were reused for various productions. This is a production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Backdrop designed by Dahl Delu and profile piece designed by Rick Polenek, each the scene designer for a showboat production.

While attending the University, I had the opportunity to replicate historical sketches, enlarge sections of these compositions onto 5’ x 5’ flats with dry pigment, and then create full-scale scenery for a production. It was an invaluable experience that taught me how to “see.” This meant understanding how designs and compositions needed to be created when viewed from a distance. It provided me with an artistic foundation, similar to any drawing class or drafting lab. It was a necessary tool in my kit of techniques. Information that I learned while designing and painting Showboat drops was applicable to eight-story billboards for Times Square in New York, a theme park in Japan, local film productions, commercial murals, and many other projects during my career.


Historical design selected by scene designer Rick Polenek for the Showboat production “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The U of MN Showboat also provided an opportunity to understand historical stage machinery. Where else could one study the creation and use of a roll drop? This is important knowledge as there remain many roll drops in venues scattered throughout the country. They are found in church social halls, Masonic lodges, Grange Halls, SOKOL theaters and other small public performance spaces. Their owners are often at a loss when a rope breaks or a scene is damaged.

Hands-on experience is essential in the preservation of theatrical heritage. There are theatre practitioners and scholars throughout the world who understand the necessity for this type of training, especially the exploration of past production techniques. For example, Chris Van Goethem has created a scale model of an 18th century theatre (1:4). He understands that physically manipulating stage machinery is essential for students to understand the complexity and purpose of the equipment. Similarly, Jerome Maeckelbergh’s research with under-stage machinery at the Bourla Theatre and his scale tmodel (1:10) demonstrate the incredible sophistication of the machinery and possibilities for contemporary use.

Chris Van Goethem and his theatre model.

In many areas, however, there seems to have been a loss of knowledge; at some point many forgot how technologically advanced theatrical productions were during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the trade techniques that created these complex stage settings. Painted scenery did not simply go up and down.  Brockman and many others understand the need to preserve our heritage, but their voices are often silenced. Without either the U of MN Centennial Showboat or the historical scenery collections I would not be the artist or designer that I am today. Unfortunately, the Showboat is no available for theatre students at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance for many reasons that I do not understand.

A wave of desolation washes over me when I contemplate the amount of scenery and skill that has disappeared since Rothgeb wrote the above passage. It is even more painful when I consider the recent loss of the Showboat and the destruction of the 1924 Thomas G. Moses collection at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. This is one of my incentives to write everyday as I continue to explore the life and times of Thomas G. Moses. It not only provides a rich context for his work, but also reminds people of our past and a theatrical heritage that should not be forgotten.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 151 – John Z. Wood and the Twin City Scenic Company Collection

Part 151: John Z. Wood and the Twin City Scenic Company Collection

John Z. Wood traveled extensively for work after the financial travesty caused by his stepson Horace C. Tuttle in 1896. After painting for the Winnipeg Theatre, Wood journey to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and painted scenery for a variety of venues. I often wondered what drew Wood to Minneapolis. It might have been the connections that another Rochester Art Club founder, Harvey Ellis, had to the area. Ellis settled in the St. Paul, Minnesota, during 1886 and worked throughout the region for seven years before returning to Rochester. Some of Ellis’ designs include the Mabel Tainter Memorial Building in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and Pillsbury Hall, at the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis (East Bank).

It was in Minneapolis that Wood worked for the Twin City Scenic Company. His designs for drop curtains are currently part of the Twin City Scenic Co. collection in the Performing Arts Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries. The backs of some designs include the name Robert J. Mork, a salesman for the Twin City Scenic Co. A few of Wood’s paintings also have competitive scenic studio stamps and markings on the backs, such as the Great Western Stage Equipment Co.

John Z. Wood design with Twin City Scenic Co. stamp and “Mork,” the name of a salesman. Twin City Scenic Co. Collection (PA43), Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.
John Z. Wood design with “Mork,” the name of a salesman. Twin City Scenic Co. Collection (PA43), Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

I keep referring to the scenery collections at the University of Minnesota and should explain its significance. Here is the link for the collections: https://umedia.lib.umn.edu/scenicsearch


Here is what the scenery collection search page. To do a search for John Z. Wood, type his name in the keywords box.
This is one of the examples from the scenery collection search on John Z. Wood that will pop up during a search.


If it were not for Lance Brockman’s passion to pass on historical painting techniques and acquire these collections to preserve a disappearing heritage, I would be doing something else entirely today.

From 1989-1991, I processed two scenery collections (Great Western Stage Equipment Co. collection and the Holak collection) while attending the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate student. A decade later, I help design, write the text, and assign all of the metadata for the online scenery collection database while completing my graduate work. All the while, I replicated the painting techniques for both small-scale renderings and full-scale scenery, mainly on my own time. My introduction to this material at the age of nineteen shifted my focus from performance to scenic art and design. I was immediately hooked on this aesthetic and the scenic artists who painted visual spectacle for popular entertainment venues – especially Scottish Rite theatres.

Lance Brockman was instrumental in acquiring the Twin City Scenic Collection for the University of Minnesota as an educational tool for theatre students, artists and all others interested in this theatrical heritage. Portions of the Twin City Scenic Co. collection were displayed in a museum exhibit and catalogue titled “The Twin City Scenic Collection: Popular Entertainment 1895-1929.” The exhibit ran from April 5 – June 14, 1987 and was curated by Brockman at the University Art Museum, located in Northrup Auditorium on the east bank of the Minneapolis campus. Ironically, this was the year that I started my college career, so I never saw the exhibit!

The catalogue that accompanied the show was dedicated to John R. Rothgeb. He had passed away in December of 1986, just four months prior to the opening of the exhibit. Rothgeb was a theatre professor at the University of Texas (Austin) who first linked the significance of Scottish Rite collections with theatre history. He contacted many Scottish Rite Valleys throughout the country inquiring about their scenery collections. Rothgeb’s scholarly contributions are monumental and worth study in their own right. Much of his research is located in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. He was particularly interested in Thomas G. Moses and the Sosman & Landis Studio. This was one of major reasons that prompted my trip to Texas last fall after the Scottish Rite photo shoot in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Twin City Scenic exhibit catalogue was dedicated to Rothgeb. Brockman wrote, “He will be missed, but the groundwork that he established will provide the necessary foundation ultimately to preserve for future generations both an integral link with nineteenth-century heritage of American theatre and an understanding of “the romantic tradition of painted scenery.”

As part of the dedication page, Brockman included two paragraphs from Rothgeb’s unfinished essay. It is well worth including in its entirety here, as his sentiment is even more significant at this particular point in time:

“The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American are rich in theatrical history, but little remains of the romantic tradition of painted scenery. As each year passed, there are fewer who can recall the beauty and delight evoked by a finely executed painted drop. For the very nature of scenery implies its fugitive quality. One interesting aspect of this painterly tradition, the ad curtain is nearly gone and forgotten, for even those who remember seeing them in theatres have their memories dimmed. Theatrical history today tends to look upon turn-of-the-century through the eyes of the reformers of the “new Stagecraft” such as Hiram Moderwell: “We now rarely see and old-fashioned ‘drop’ scene, and have almost forgotten how absurd it looks.” [H. Moderwell, “Theatre of Today” (New York: John Lane Company, 1914), 21]. Today the ad curtain is occasionally used in revivals of melodramas so that the audience can hiss at the villain, smile at the scenery, and feed self-satisfied with the sophistication of the 1980s. The theatre of 1880, however, was vital almost beyond our imagination, consisting of perhaps 2,000 working theatres across the country with an audience made up of nearly every citizen. As a part of the scenic tradition of this period, the phenomenon of the ad curtain interestingly illustrates the commercial course of our cultural evolution. – John R. Rothgeb.”


To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 150 – Some of it’s Magic, Some of it’s Tragic


Part 150: Some of it’s Magic, Some of it’s Tragic

Despite his success in fine art and some early theatre designs, Wood’s career hit a major obstacle in 1896 that resulted in a substantial financial loss. This event was like let the instigator that prompted Wood to seek employment at theaters. At that time, scenic artists could be considered a very lucrative profession. The substantial amount that one could make producing a variety of painted scenes was indicated in the lists of business transactions listed in Thomas Moses’ typed manuscript. You just needed to be fast and talented.

A newspaper article popped up in one of my online searches for John Z. Wood. In it, he was listed as the stepfather of Horace C. Tuttle (b. 1863). A sad story unfolded, describing family betrayal and subsequent financial ruin. Here is the article in its entirety from the “Democrat and Chronicle” (Rochester, NY) 30 July 1896, page 9:

Bad Predicament of a Young Man. Horace C. Tuttle Spent the Money of His Parents. His Arrest Followed. The Man Represented to Them That He Wanted the Money to Engage in Business in New York – Taken on a Minor Charge. Horace C. Tuttle, a young man well known in the city, was arrested at Batavia last Monday on a charge of skipping a board bill. Young Tuttle’s home at No. 17 Chestnut Street with his stepfather, John Z. Wood, who is an artist with a studio in the Reynold’s Arcade.

Interior image of Reynold’s Arcade.
1876 drawing of Reynolds Arcade exterior.

Tuttle’s sudden downfall has excited no end of comment in this city, as it was the general impression here that he was prospering in business.   He was a member of the Yokefellow’s class of the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church and was at one time prominently identified with the Y.M.C.A. After graduating at the Free Academy he went to work in Miller’s piano store on State Street. He became dissatisfied at his small salary and the hard work he had to do and made up his mind to do business on a larger scale. He accordingly unfolded to his stepfather and his mother the outlines of a plan that he said would make him speedily rich. He told his parents that he had been engaged as a traveling salesman with Newby & Evans, piano dealers in New York city, and that of course it would take some money to get started. The cash was forthcoming and the young man departed for New York in high glee.

Philadelphia advertisement for Newby & Evans.

Once in the metropolis the young man’s mind began to work upon larger lines. He would make himself a member of the firm and get his foster parent to furnish more money. In proof of his assertion young Tuttle sent to his stepfather a letter written by John C. Johnson, stating that Horace was undoubtedly a man of unusual ability and was certain to make his mark in the piano business. If they could get hold of the money it would be an excellent scheme to furnish him with the necessary funds to make himself a member of the firm Newby & Evans.

On the strength of the letter from Mr. Johnson, represented by young Tuttle to be the vice-president of the company, and by virtue of the importunities of the young man himself. Mr. Wood was induced to send along about $4,000 in money to make his stepson a member of the firm. Tuttle visited home occasionally, and was always expensively dressed and invariably had lots of money. This, his parents thought, he had made as a result of his investment.

Newby & Evans vintage envelope.

About two months ago, as Tuttle had not visited home for some time, Mrs. Wood became alarmed at his long absence and wired Mr. Johnson, asking him where her son was. The answer came back from the firm Newby & Evans, but Mr. Johnson’s name was not at the bottom of the telegram. It said that there was no such man as “John C. Johnson” in the employ of the company and that they did not know any such person. Mr. Wood then called on Mr. Miller, the State street piano dealer, to find out something about Newby & Evans company. Mr. Miller did not know anything about them. Mr. Wood was shocked beyond measure. His stepson had represented to him that Mr. Miller was one of the leading officers in the company.

Other matters such as notes that were not met and board bills that had not been settled soon came to the notice of the unhappy couple and their eyes were soon opened to the fact that instead of investing the money the young man had been living on it and had spent most of the $4,000 that had been given him. Mr. and Mrs. Wood can ill afford to lose this amount and they are almost crushed by the news of the disgrace.”

The equivalent of $4,000 lots in 1896 is over $110,000.00 today!

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 149 – The Scenic Art of John Z. Wood

Part 148: The Scenic Art of John Z. Wood

The first mention of John Z. Wood as a scenic artist was from 1889. That year, he and Dennis Flood were noted as the scenic artists for the H. R. Jacobs Opera House in Syracuse, New York,. Flood would later be noted as Wood’s “life-time friend.” H. R. Jacobs was the owner of numerous theaters throughout the country, including the H. R. Jacobs’ Academy in Syracuse. Newspaper articles noted that they painted not only a 25’ x 28’ drop curtain, but also the set of stock scenery for the venue. The drop curtain depicted an elaborate conservatory with a tropical garden view in the distance. Spending several weeks on site, they painted remaining stock set that included a palace exterior, a fancy interior, a dark wood exterior, a classical garden, a rocky pass, a mountain landscape, a pastoral landscape, and a lakeside exterior.

As I was examining other performance venues in the city where Wood might have painted, it was the drop curtain at Syracuse’s Weiting Opera House that caught my eye. I came across a photograph of the drop curtain with two men in front of it, possibly the artists in front of their work.

Weiting Opera House drop curtain in Syracuse, New York, possibly painted by John Z. Wood and Dennis Flood.
Design for drop curtain by John Z. Wood in Twin City Scenic Co. collection (PA43), Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.
Design for drop curtain by John Z. Wood in Twin City Scenic Co. collection (PA43), Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

The composition and paint application is characteristic of many Wood designs contained in the Performing Arts Archives. It is the shape of the building, the draperies, and the placement of boats and figures that I believe are characteristic of Wood’s compositions. This drop curtain would have been for the old Weiting Opera house before it was destroyed by fire.

By 1898, Wood was also painting scenery with Gates & Morange for the New Baker Theatre in New York City. He produced all of the exterior scenery for the venue, while Gates & Morange produced the borders, trips, and other specialty drops. His travel to New York occurred shortly after a financially devastating incident that will be covered in the next installment.

By 1907, Wood left Rochester and moved to several other locations, including Winnipeg, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. For the 1908-1909 season, Wood was listed as the staff scenic artist at the Winnipeg Theatre.

1911 Photograph of scenery at the Winnipeg Theatre, possibly painted by John Z. Wood in 1909.

Previously, John C. Baatz and David M. Hartford were listed as the scenic artists for the 1906-1907 season as noted in the Souvenir Program.

John C. Baatz noted as scenic artist from 1906-1907 at Winnipeg Theatre in souvenir program.
David M. Hartford noted as scenic artist from 1906-1907 at Winnipeg Theatre in souvenir program.
Scenery by Hartford and Baatz pictured in 1906-1907 souvenir program.

Walker’s Winnipeg Theatre was over a decade old when Wood moved there in 1909. In 1897, Corliss Powers Walker and his wife Harriet, moved to Winnipeg from Fargo, North Dakota, at the suggestion of the president of the Northern Pacific Railway who understood Walker’s business ambition in the field of theatre. Harriet Walker was a musical comedy actress on the New York stage. Winnipeg was the northern terminus of the railway and provided an excellent opportunity to extend Walker’s Red River Valley Theatre Circuit, associated with the Theatre Syndicate in New York. This included several theatres he owned in North Dakota, also referred to a his “Breadbasket Circuit.” The extension of the circuit allowed Winnipeg theatregoers to enjoy the latest Broadway shows soon after they opened in New York, as well as international celebrities in operas and concerts that otherwise would never have gone beyond St. Paul. Walker promptly leased the old Bijou and renamed it the Winnipeg Theatre on September 6, 1897. He added a new raised stage and gallery to increase the seating from 500 to 800.

The Bijou was originally christened Victoria Hall when constructed in 1882. It was a brick-veneer wooden building with several stores on the ground level. In 1890, it was renamed the Bijou Opera House when Frank Campbell, a local entrepreneur, renovated the performance hall to house a stock company that he had brought to Winnipeg. The Manitoba Historical Society published an article in 2002 titled “On Stage: Theatre and Theatres in Early Winnipeg.” It noted, “Awkwardly placed pillars on each side of the stage supported an old-fashioned drop curtain that came down with a thump that shook the house at the conclusion of each act.”

Under Walker’s direction the Winnipeg Theatre inaugural program boasted that in terms of its size, stage, scenic equipment, and lighting, the theatre was superior to anything west of Chicago. The renovated theatre auditorium accommodated 1,000 persons, although the theatre still remained on the second floor. This became a point of contention with local citizens who grew increasingly concerned about audience safety during a fire. The theatre burned to the ground on December 23, 1926, taking the lives of four firemen.

The remains of the Winnipeg Theatre after the fire in 1926.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 148 – The Rochester Art Club and John Z. Wood

Part 148: The Rochester Art Club and John Z. Wood

John Z. Wood (1846-1919) was born in England and moved to London, Ontario as a small child. The family moved again when he was eleven years old and took up permanent residence in Rochester, New York. As many young men did in the region, Wood enlisted in the Union’s 54th Regiment during the Civil War. He returned to Rochester afterwards and began a career in art. Wood initially worked as decorative painter at Lang’s Children Carriage Factory and later as a sign painter for Fran Van Doorn.

In the late 1860s, he joined a local art club called the Goose Grease Club, attending informal gatherings at the studio of William Lockhart in the Palmer building. By the 1870s, Wood opened a private art studio at the Baker building with Lockhart. Seth C. Jones later joined their studio. During this same time he also worked for the Mensin, Rahn, and Stecher Lithographic Co., later known as Stetcher Lithographic Co.

The company was most known for its beautiful fruit crate labels and nurserymen crates. After becoming a fairly recognized artist, Wood began teaching at the Mechanics Institute in Rochester.

In 1872, the Rochester Sketch Club was organized by a group of artists that included John Z. Wood, James Hogarth Dennis (1839-1914), J. Guernsey Mitchell (1854-1921), James Somerville (1849-1905), Harvey Ellis (1852-1904), and William Lockhart (1846-1881).

Photograph of Harvey Ellis.

Wood was the instigator, organizer and promoter of the group. Five years later, the sketch club would morph into the Rochester Art Club, with charter members: Dennis, (president), Emma E. Lampert (vice-president), John Z. Wood (treasurer), W. F. Reichenbach (secretary), Ellis, Mitchell, Lockhart, Anne H. Williams, Joseph R. Otto, E Kuichling, Julius W. Arnoldt, Libbie S. Atkinson, Helen W. Hooker, Mary G. Hooker, Sara A. Wood, Ellen L. Field and Horaio Walker. The club incorporated in 1882. Wood not only served as Treasurer (1877-1882), Vice President (1889-1891) and President (1894). He seems to be quite successful as a fine artist, also working as an instructor and advertising his classes in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY).

Advertisement listed by John Z. Wood for art classes.

The inclusion of so many women surprised and delighted me.

1934 Newspaper recalling the Powers Gallery in Rochester, New York.

In 1874, the Rochester Academy of Art, also emerged as an offshoot of the Rochester Sketch Club. It soon received a collection of paintings purchased by Hiram Sibley in Italy. This became the core of their permanent collection. It was later displayed in the Powers Art Gallery, founded by Daniel F. Powers in 1876. This gallery also promoted and sold works by members of the Rochester Art Club.

For the educational training, a room was secured at the Rochester Savings Bank Building. This became their headquarters with a small faculty consisting of Horatio Walker (water color), James H. Dennis (oil), John Z. Wood (drawing), Harvey Ellis (composition), and Ida C. Taylor (painting). It is important to note that Ellis was primarily an architect who designed several of Rochester’s buildings and would later design in the mid-western region of the United States.

Harvey Ellis designed the Mabel Tainter in Menonomie, Wisconsin.
Harvey Ellis designed Pillsbury Hall for the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities campus.

Unfortunately, the Club soon lost the first of its resident members, Walker. His renowned as a watercolor artist soared and he left the region to accept a variety of commissions across the country. Mitchell was the next president, but also soon departed. His sculpting career lured him away to Paris where he opened a studio. Dennis became the club’s third president in 1885 and remained in the role until 1889. It is exiting to examine the convergence of personalities and talents, watching their careers part and reconnect over the decades. I am always amazed to see how frequently these early artists travelled throughout the country. Forming brief partnerships and then amicably parting for new adventures.

During the 1880s, it was the annual art exhibition and sale of pictures that established a successful course for the Rochester Art Club.

The event drew in artists from throughout the region and resulted in profits to keep their venture going. By the 1890s, the club was sending representatives to New York City to secure additional works for their annual exhibition. A series on the history of the Rochester Art Club was published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle during June of 1934. In 1893, Wood traveled to the Chicago World Fair with fellow artist James Somerville. Around that same time, he became a member of New York’s Salmagundi Club, the same fine art group that Moses joined in 1904. Their paths possibly crossed during the turn-of-the-century in New York as this was before Wood left the region to primarily work as a scenic artist.

In 1907, Wood began traveling throughout the country and working as a scenic artist at various theaters. He travels brought him to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Los Angeles, California. In 1917 he returned to Rochester and was “recognized as a scenic painter for the Masonic Temple and other theaters in the city” (Rochester Art Club history records). His work was for the new 1917 Masonic Temple building that included a theatre on the third floor. I am currently corresponding with the Club’s historian to see if this is one of the primary reasons for Wood’s return to the area.

Interior view of 1917 Masonic Temple theatre in Rochester, New York.
Interior view of 1917 Masonic Temple theatre in Rochester, New York.
Interior view of 1917 Masonic Temple theatre in Rochester, New York.

Only two years after his return to Rochester, Wood was reported as suffering from cardio vascular renal at the Sellwood hospital in Portland, Oregon, as reported by the Oregon Daily Journal. However, this would not be a contributing factor to his death two years later. In 1919, Wood’s name would appear in the newspaper one final time when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident. On November 13, 1919, George C. Newel caused the death of John Z. Wood, residing at No. 144 South Ave. Wood was hit by Newell’s automobile when crossing the street. The court ruled against Newell as he was driving too fast and unable to stop in time.   Wood was only 72 years old.

The Rochester Art Club records that Wood was “known for his sense of humor, ability at mimicry, and telling a good story.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 147 – The Search for John Z. Wood


Part 147: The Search for John Z. Wood

There is that certain feeling that I get when looking for something that I have misplaced. I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye, repeatedly going back to the same spot over and over again. Eventually I locate the lost object, often in the exact same location where I knew it had to be!

I experience this same feeling while doing research, whether it be on scenic artists or Masonic scenery. There are certain places and times that I keep returning to, expecting something to finally appear. It was this same intuition that worked well for me at Fort Scott, Kansas, when we were removing the historical scenery collection for transport. It was one of the reasons why I crawled on my hands and knees through the filth digging in the crack between the wall and floor that was twenty feet above the stage. I am usually successful if I follow my instinct, whether it is research or painting. This persistent search resulted in the discovery of Thomas G. Moses’ personal artifacts. I knew that something was up there waiting to be found, so I just kept looking.

Last month, I finally tracked down a scenic artist that I have been searching for since receiving an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grant to process the Great Western Stage Equipment Company collection for the Performing Arts archives. At this same time, I was introduced to the Twin City Scenic Company collection and the art of John Z. Wood. I immediately was under the spell of Wood’s paintings and enthralled with his designs and painting techniques. Since then, I have spent thousands of hours of my own time searching telephone directories, census documents, and fine art books to track him down. I wrote letters to historical societies and museums, made onsite visits to peruse various archives, and even traveled across the country to view fine art.

Wood’s paintings were unique and very different from all of the other scenic art designs from the other historical scenery collections. There was a greater depth to his compositions and the color palette was much richer. Wood’s paintings also incorporated an interesting finish, giving each painting a slight sheen. This suggested that he was using either a different binder, applying a final warm glaze, or sealing his final product. However, it was his foliage painting that absolutely captivated me as a nineteen-year-old artist and a technique that allowed me to identify even unsigned his art works. There was a lacey quality to the foliage painting that I had never seen in any other fine art piece – except once at a thrift store. I immediately bought that battered print because it reminded me of his work. It now hangs on a wall where it is one of the first images I see every morning.

Detail of John Z. Wood foliage painting. John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).

Wood’s paintings were very romantic. He painted large soft areas of warm color and then allowed individual leaves to magically emerged from these welcoming masses. For me, this was absolute magic. As artists, we always talk about developing our own individual style. I desperately wanted to develop a style like John Z. Wood.

Over the years, I kept going back to many of the same places to continue my research and was able to track down a few bits and pieces of Wood’s fine art pieces. However, his personal life or professional appointments remained shrouded in mystery. His fine art primarily hung on walls at residences along the east coast and I had to wonder what had brought him to work in the Midwest at the Twin City Scenic Company in Minneapolis. Why leave an obviously successful career in fine art for the theatre career much later in life?

John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).
John Z. Wood design for a drop curtain. Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin City Scenic Company collection (PA43).

In 2001, I tracked down another Wood painting at a private residence in New Jersey. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to make a side trip to see the painting while visiting close friends in the area. Melissa Semmes-Thorne and made a special trip to Chatham, New Jersey.

Mrs. Glover in front of her John Z. Wood painting in Chatham, New Jersey.

There, Mrs. Glover offered us a cold drink and explained everything she knew about the artwork and the artist – which was virtually nothing. My heart sank when she started the conversation with, “Well, I actually know very little about him.” She had no idea that Wood also designed for the theatre and my trip seemed to be a waste. Mrs. Chatham could only explain that her father purchased the painting from the actual artist, known to be a very famous painter in the region. That was really my only clue – he lived in the area – at some point. So Wood was a resident of New Jersey or New York? Based on her story, he was also still living when her father bought the painting around the turn of the century.

Since that trip, I have discovered very little additional information – until last month. The continuous scanning and uploading of historic documents have changed everything for my research. In many ways, Wood’s story paralleled that of Thomas G. Moses, just ten years earlier as he was born in 1846. He was a prolific fine artist and had connections with Minnesota artists.

To be continued…


Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 146 – The Second Time Around

Part 146: The Second Time Around

Although theatre is often considered ephemeral, some scenes were stored and repurposed for new productions. Scenery was not only reused and resold for Masonic venues. I had previously used the Austin Scottish Rite as an example of second-hand scenery. The used settings were originally manufactured by Sosman & Landis for Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1900 and sold to Austin in 1913. Regardless, for both fraternal and commercial theatres, it was an expensive investment. I have often wondered when drop rental houses really started as an option for theatre companies. In any case, the actual painting had to be in good shape, without dusting or fading for later reuse.

Stereoscope card depicting the interior of the Opera House in Elmira, New York.
Stereoscope card depicting the interior of the Opera House in Elmira, New York.

The 1893 Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) published an interesting article that noted the reuse of old scenery for a current opera (page 5). Previously painted scenes by Harley Merry and Sosman & Landis were once again hung in the theatre. The author of the article writes, “It is a dear old scene, almost as dear as it is old,” the author wrote when referencing a setting by Merry originally used for the laboratory scene of “Herzog, the Black Crook.”

1876 Production of “The Black Crook” in Philadelphia.
1876 Production of “The Black Crook” in Philadelphia.


In addition to the laboratory setting, Merry’s forest scene “with the gnarled oak growing up in the middle and spreading its umbrageous branches upon the soubrette and the low comedian alike” was also used for the production, as was his “Subterranean Vault in the Castle of Wolfenstein.” In addition to Merry’s scenes, there was also the old “Rocky Pass” scene by Sosman & Landis.

In 1893, the author of the article wrote, “Next time you see these scenes have respect. They are old, true. But old masterpieces are infinitely better than new trash, and see the tribute that the manager of the “Black Crook” paid them. Who, but a connoisseur would have discovered that these despised pieces of canvas are genuine Harley Merry’s and real Sosman & Landers [sic.]. Our respect for the opera increases.”

As I was digging through old newspapers, I stumbled across other scenery painted by Merry for the Elmira Lyceum. In 1902, he was credited with the scenery for “The Fatal Wedding, a melodrama in four acts.”

Elmira Opera House was replaced by the Elmira Lyceum in 1904 after fire destroyed the building.
Program of production at the Elmira Opera House.

The Lyceum Theatre in Elmira, New York, began as an opera house. The earliest image that I have been able to locate is a stereoscope card depicting an interior setting, artist unknown.  In 1864, the bustling town of Elmira became a city and the development of the theatre block began. Silas Haight and his son-in-law Dr. Henry H. Purdy secured three lots on Lake, Market and Carroll Streets to construct an entertainment venue in a central location for its citizens, seating approximately 2000 people. The Opera House occupied the upper floor with seven stored beneath the theatre, costing a staggering $89,000. The main entrance was on Lake Street, with a side entrance on Carroll Street. It opened on Dec. 17, 1867.

Harry C. Miner’s American Dramatic Directory for the season of 1887-1888 lists the Opera House in Elmira, New York, with a population of 30,000. The proscenium opening was 30’ x 25’ with a stage measuring 48’ x 75.’ The height from stage to groves was 16 feet with a rigging loft at forty feet above the stage. The depth under the stage was 10 feet. The directory specifies that there were thirty-three sets of scenes for use. The stage carpenters were Matt Lockwood and John Brown. No specific scenic artist was listed for the creation of the scenery collection. This suggests that multiple scenic artists or studios created the painted settings.

Lyceum Theatre in Elmira, New York.
Lyceum Theatre in Elmira, New York.

In 1904, the Lyceum Theatre was rebuilt after being destroyed by a fire. The majority of images available online depict the Lyceum’s interior and scenic art by W. R. Clark. Clark also is also credited with the scenery for the Victoria Opera House in Goderich, Ontario, Canada.

Interior of Lyceum in Elmira, New York, with scenery by W. R. Clark.
Interior of Lyceum in Elmira, New York, with scenery by W. R. Clark.
Interior of Lyceum in Elmira, New York, with scenery by W. R. Clark.

By 1906, Julius Cahn’s Theatrical Guide, Vol. 11, describes the new Lyceum in a city of 40,000. The new venue now accommodates 1,675 people, the proscenium measures 38’ x 38’ with the height to the rigging loft at 66.’ The height to the fly gallery was 25’ with a paint bridge. W. R. Clark was noted as the scenic artist and H. Bouille as the stage carpenter. The new building included 18 fire exits.

There were two other performance venues in Elmira, the Academy of Music and Stancliff Hall.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 145 – Harley Merry’s “Parsifal” and Scenic Realism

Part 145: Harley Merry’s “Parsifal” and Scenic Realism

In 1893, Merry was credited for his “innovation in scenic realism” at the Holmes Star Theatre. His scenery for “The Pulse of New York” was advertised as “a perfect picture of city life” with “elaborate scenic embellishments” and “wonderful mechanic effects” (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 30, pg. 10). Merry’s stage settings introduced well-known points of interest and scenes from everyday metropolitan life, including a bustling elevated railroad, activity around a river pier, a famous Bowery resort, a steam pile driver at work, and a building on fire. The rescue scene showcased the “leap for life” – the new the method adapted by the New York Fire Department for saving human lives. This final scene would later be developed into the Luna Park attraction “Fire and Flames.”

Poster for “The Pulse of New York,” a production designed by Harley Merry.

At the time, Merry was exploring a new type of stage entertainment; one that that went beyond any romanticized visual spectacle. I believe that it was a late-nineteenth century version of our current “reality TV.” It was understandable that Merry gravitated toward creating realistic settings for both the stage and film. He soon partnered with the Edison Manufacturing Company and was involved in an early film production “Parsifal.” This short film was based on the New York Metropolitan’s Opera that ran for approximately one half hour.

1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.
A scene from the 1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.
A scene from the 1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.
A scene from the 1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.
A scene from the 1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.
A scene from the 1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.
A scene from the 1904 Edison film “Parsifal” with scenery by Harley Merry.

Each copy of the film was sold with an illustrated lecture on the life and works of Wagner, the story of Parsifal, and a synopsis of the different scenes. The movie was divided into eight reels, each reel containing a separate scene running from 20 feet to 382 feet in length: (part one) “Parsifal Ascends the Throne;” (part two) “Ruins of Magic Garden;” (part three) “Exterior of Klingson’s Castle;” (part four) “Magic Garden;” (part five) “Interior of the Temple;” (part six) “Scene Outside the Temple;” (part seven) “Return of Parsifal;” and (part eight) “In the Woods.” The production team was relatively small: Edwin S. Porter (director and photographer), Edison Manufacturing Company (producer) and Harley Merry (scenery). The cast included Adelaide Fitz-Allen, as Kundry and Robert Whittier as Parsifal. Unfortunately, due to the expensive price and unfamiliar medium, the film only sold only a small number of copies. Merry almost certainly lost his $1800 investment.

Advertisements in Motion Picture World (Dec. 7, 1907, page 655) noted “In Parsifal we offer the greatest religious subject that has been produced in motion picture since the Passion Play was first produced by the Edison Company about eight years ago, and there has been a constant demand for this picture during all these years, and continuing up to the present day. At the same time, there has been not only a demand, but a long-felt want for a new religious picture of interest and merit similar to the Passion Play.

Harley Merry acquired the motion picture rights for Parsifal and brought his idea to Edison and Porter. Edison had been experimenting with ways to combine silent films with recorded music and the fit seemed perfect. This is the same year that Edison films for many other topics also appeared, including spectacles at Coney Island, such as“Fire and Flames.”

The final contract to produce “Parsifal” was between Edison Manufacturing Company and Merry Scenic Construction Company, giving Merry a royalty payments based on the linear feet of each film sold. Merry was to receive two cents foot for a film that measured 1,975 feet long. Each copy was sold for approximately $335 dollars (today’s equivalent of over $9,000). Although several full-page ads were placed in the New York Clipper, the film did not sell well at all. Interestingly, the Library of Congress restored the film in 2001, taking the soundtrack from surviving copies of the original Kinetophone cylinders.

Advertisement for the Kinetophone by Thomas Edison.

What I find fascinating about Merry’s career as a scenic artist and designer is the he continued to adapt his scenic art form to new technology. Merry, as well as Ernest Albert and others, were continuously integrating new technology into their final painted product, whether it was stage machinery or Kinetophone.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 144 Spectacle at Coney Island – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Thomas Moses

Part 144: Spectacle at Coney Island – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Thomas Moses

The past two posts have delved into the world of Coney Island spectacles. This is part of my continued exploration of the life and times of Thomas G. Moses, the creator of the Fort Scott scenery collection.

Moses also designed and painted many attractions for Coney Island from 1902 to 1904, having arrived in New York during 1900. Although he initially painted for Broadway, he was soon caught up in the excitement of Luna Park on Coney Island. In many ways, I think that this may have been the happiest time in his life. He was on an artistic ascent and jobs were plentiful. He would only leave this region after Joseph S. Sosman pleaded for his return to Sosman & Landis Studio in Chicago during 1904.

Postcard deppicting the entrance to Luna Park on Coney Island.

In 1902, Moses recorded that Fred Thompson had started to build Luna Park, opposite Dreamland and Steeple Chase Park on Coney Island. Thompson and Elmer “Skip Dundy” became the park’s creators after creating a wildly successful ride, “Trip to the Moon,” for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. They transported the attraction to Coney Island an experienced a wildly successful season during 1902.

“Trip to the Moon” attraction on Coney Island.

At the end of the season, they immediately began planning their own amusement park, leasing Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park. Their sixteen-acre park soon expanded it to twenty-two acre park after acquiring some more adjoining land. Advertising that new park had cost one million dollars to construct, it opened on May 16, 1903. At eight o’clock on the evening of the first day, 250,000 lights illuminated their venture, outlined the buildings and creating a magical land.

Luna Park at night.

Moses was involved in creating a major attraction in Luna Park called “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” with his partner Will Hamilton. In his typed manuscript, Moses writes,

“Our first big job for ‘Luna Park’ was ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ It was a very unique show and kept us busy for several months. We had a real submarine boat in front of the show that actually sank with the passengers and was totally submerged. The passengers were then taken out of the boat through a passageway into another boat, a duplicate of the one they first entered. Then, the effect of under the sea was sprung on them and it worked perfectly. The illusion was very convincing.”

Crowds on street in front of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” attraction created by Thomas G. Moses and Will Hamilton.

This illusion took visitors on a trip beneath the seas in the Nautilus submarine. Passengers boarded the vessel, the outer hatch closed, and passengers dove deep beneath the ocean’s surface. Through portholes, one could see monsters of the deep, sunken ships and huge coral reefs. The ship journeyed from the Indian Sea to the North Sea. During their journey, they hit an iceberg during their ascent to the surface. When the passengers unloaded from the ride they were treated to the Arctic’s cold atmosphere, created from ammonia gas, and a spectacular view of the Aurora Borealis. They also experienced Eskimos in fur skins who had emerged from their homes, eager to meet the new arrivals. The total cost for this illusion was approximately $180,000.

Same building transformed from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” into “Dragon’s Gorge” in 1905.

In 1905, this attraction was replaced by “Dragon’s Gorge” – an indoor scenic railroad coaster that allowed visitors to witness magnificent scenes from the North Pole all the way to the Grand Canal. So popular was ride that it remained open until 1944 when it was destroyed by fire.

Moses and Hamilton also produced the attraction called “Fire and Flames.”

“Fire and Flames” at Coney Island. Note backdrop to left of building created by Thomas Moses and Will Hamilton.
Photograph of “Fire and Flames” attraction.

This was the reenactment of the actual burning of a four story brick buildings over the space of a city block. Fire engines raced to the scene and over sixty firemen rescued people from the burning buildings. Visitors watched people leap from smoke-filled windows onto a net below. Moses recounted this project, writing, “Real fire, real engines and an awful mob of street vendors and loafers. A lot of good comedy and it did good business. It was so popular that a similar attraction called “Fighting the Flames” immediately appeared at “Dreamland.”

Moses and Hamilton also did several other small shows at Luna Park, including “The War of Worlds” for which they received $2,900.00. Moses even notes their $2,200.00 profit, as they painted it in less that one half the time we thought it would take. It was all painted in oil as the scenes all worked through a tank of water. The attraction included battleships that were large enough to hold the “good-sized boy” who operated them during in battle scenes. Moses recalled this “big hit,” but one having “too much powder and noise.”

Luna Park proved to be a lucrative investment for many scenic artists as Coney Island. Elaborate venues with massive spectacles really showcased their art. This was a unique period in time when new opportunities were abundant for theatre manufacturers and suppliers. New technology was integrated into old pictorial illusions. The inspiring artist and investor had many opportunities to experiment with spectacle. Amusement park attractions also proved to be inspiration for early films.

Thomas Edison even made a short movie depicting the 1904 “Fire and Flames” attraction at Coney Island. The scenic realism and early movies of Moses’ contemporary Harley Merry continue tomorrow. In the meantime, here is the link to the short film for a wonderful step back in time: (https://letterboxd.com/film/fire-and-flames-at-luna-park-coney-island-an-attraction-at-coney-island/)

To be continued…