Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 133 – Albert, Grover & Burridge

Part 133: Albert, Grover & Burridge

Walter Burridge went on to form another partnership after leaving Burridge, Moses & Louderback. I have pieced together much of the story surrounding Burridge from bits of information I gathered from Thomas G. Moses’ typed manuscript, the John R. Rothgeb papers at the University Texas, some architectural books, and a few newspaper articles. The most valuable source was discovered online -a publication titled “The Coming of Age” (Vol. 3-4, 1900) by Benjamin Orange Flower and Anna Cyrene Porter Reifsnider. There is a section called “The Development of Scenic Art, and Its Relation to the Drama.” One of their stories focused on Walter Wilcox Burridge (1857-1913).

At an early age, Burridge apprenticed himself to Mr. Baylis, a sign painter from Hoboken, New Jersey. He soon engaged in scenic painting for New York theaters after Fred Chippendale introduced him to George Tyrrel, Gabriel Harrison and Harley Merry at the old Park Theatre in Brooklyn. By 1870, he was working full-time at Merry’s Brooklyn Studio; he was thirteen. From Brooklyn, Burridge accompanied Merry to Chicago and Philadelphia. It was under Merry’s wing that young Burridge received the much encouragement to become a successful scenic artist. It seems that the successful scenic artists all had mentors who took a great interest in shaping the career of a young apprentice.

Merry was the first President of the Protective Alliance of Scenic Painters of America, organized in 1895. At one point, Merry was called away from the studio, leaving Burridge to complete a backdrop that depicted a great waterfall. This was a pivotal point in his early career as it gave him the opportunity to prove his worth. From the onset, he showed an aptitude for a variety of scene painting projects. His talent and magnetic personality pulled people to him and soon he had numerous supporters, including the actress Mrs. John Drew.

Burridge did considerable work at the Arch, Broad, and Walnut Street Theaters in Philadelphia. Later, through the strong recommendation of scenic artist Russell Smith, he was called to the Academy of Music, in Baltimore, to execute some scenery for that venue. After Baltimore, Burridge returned to Philadelphia and then went to New York City where he accepted an engagement under J. H. Haverly. It is interesting to note that Burridge worked at many of Haverly’s theaters from New York to California, including the Fifth Avenue, Fourteenth Street, Niblos’ Garden, Broad Street, and Chestnut Street theaters. By 1876, Burridge was working with Phil Goatcher at the Chestnut Theatre in Philadelphia. The historic house was then “famed for the magnificence with which it mounted its attractions.” There, he painted the “Siege of Paris” for the Centennial and later produced the “Battle of Gettysburg.” It seemed that Burridge was always in the right place at the right time.

He moved to Chicago in 1882, settling in suburban La Grange with his wife and securing work at the Bijou and 14th Street Theatres. Burridge was also under contract with John A. Havlin from 1882 to 1885 at the Grand Theatre. He then worked at the Standard Theatre painting scenery for the opera “Santenella.” For six years, Burridge was the scenic artist at the Grand Opera House and at McVicker’s Theatre. He had been Lou Malmsha’s replacement.

By 1890, Burridge went on sketching trips with Ernest Albert (1857-1946), Oliver Dennett Grover (1861-1927), and Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934). They were all around the same age and accomplished artists. These outings must have been an absolute delight for all involved. Early in 1891, the three formed “Albert, Grover & Burridge, Scenic and Decorative Painters” located at the Studio Building, 3127 State Street, Chicago. Much of the information about this business venture was published in “Chicago and its Resources Twenty Years After, 1871-1891: A Commercial History Showing the Progress and Growth of Two Decades from the Great Fire to the Present Time.” The publication described their establishment as a marked departure from previous studios as they implemented advancements in the methods of mounting and presenting stage plays.

Advertisement for Albert, Grover & Burridge posted in the Dramatic Mirror, 1892.
The new studio of Albert, Grover & Burridge in Chicago, 1892.

They leased the old Casino building on State Street, just south of 31st street. The publication described the three scenic artists and their particular artistic strengths. Albert as a designer of modern interiors who “is most happy either in the rendering of correct architecture, or when depicting fabrics or soft and consistent color schemes.” The article described Grover as “known throughout the entire art world as an academician and figure painter of high rank – a strong draughtsman and colorist.” Burridge was further noted as “being strong in exteriors and admittedly the foremost foliage painter in the country.” All areas of scenic art were covered!

The article goes on to explain where the three men had previously been employed: Albert was the scenic artist for the Chicago Auditorium, Burridge was at the Grand Opera House and McVicker’s, and Grover held a professorship at the Art Institute and was also the chairman on one of the World’s Fair committees.

It was a perfect formula for success. This had to have been one incredibly talented and well-connected team. Albert, Grover & Burridge did a considerable amount of business for the World’s Columbian exposition of 1893, including the “Volcano of Kilauea.” The firm accepted an engagement to paint a cyclorama picture of the great volcano and sent Burridge to the Hawaiian Islands to make a faithful reproduction of the natural phenomenon. The final composition measured 54’ x 412.’ So successful was the exhibit that it was a major attraction at the Mid-winter Fair in Sacramento. Chicago had six panorama companies in 1893 and six panorama rotundas.

Postcard depicting the work of Walter Burridge, 1908, sent from Burridge to Thomas G. Moses. John R. Rothgeb Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Photograph of image by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Image of another cyclorama created for the 1893 Mid-Winter Fair in California. This was based on the success of Burridge’s attraction at the World Fair. Image from “Gems of the World’s Fair,” Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

Albert, Grover & Burridge had a studio with over 12,000 square feet of working area, and another 2,500 square feet devoted to storage and sewing rooms. They had twenty paint frames, ranging from 56 by 35 feet to 30 by 20 feet. The article noted another interesting fact about their studio, stating, “The studio is so large that it permits the artists to introduce a novel feature in the art of painting scenery, which has been in their thoughts for some years. That is after a scene is painted, it can be hung, set and lighted in an open space the full size of any stage in the country, so that a manager can not only inspect it as an entirety, and thus suggest alterations, but he can bring his company to the studio and rehearse with the new scenery.” This information is earth shattering as this shows that scenic studios went well beyond the mere painting of backdrops – they were the visionaries who combined painted illusion, lighting innovations, and stage mechanics. They remained at the forefront of technological advancements, integrating old techniques with new technology.

Unfortunately for Albert, Grover & Burridge, their business venture went bankrupt in two years.

To be continued…