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.
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…