Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 216 – Thomas G. Moses and Jacob Litt

Part 216: Thomas G. Moses and Jacob Litt

Thomas G. Moses travelled a bit more than usual after completing the panorama with David A. Strong. One of his “short trips” was to Toronto, Canada. There he had a scenery painting project where he had to really “hustle” in order to meet the impending deadline. Moses wrote, “I enjoyed my short stay there, as I liked the city very much, so much like the U.S.”

Interior of the Academy of Music in Milwaukee. Image from John Beutner and posted online at www.urbanmilwaukee.com
Exterior of the Academy of Music in Milwaukee. Image from John Beutner and posted online at www.urbanmilwaukee.com

Moses also went to Milwaukee to paint some scenery for the Academy of Music. For this project, he was working for Jacob Litt and recalled that one piece was a wire fireproof curtain that was “hard to paint.” Moses never liked painting woven wire asbestos and would complain about them in later years too. Yet they were a permanent fixture in many collections. Occasionally they would be poorly shipped or hung, adding to his exasperation. He would reiterate that the curtains should never be folded, but always rolled, to prevent the huge dents that would ruin the painted compositions.

The scenery that Moses painted for the Academy of Music in Milwaukee was in the second-generation space. Milwaukee’s first Academy of Music performance venuewas an exact model of the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The auditorium was 100’-0” deep by 64’-0” wide, and was divided into a parquetted, dress circle and upper tier. It was furnished with patented seats arranged with “a view to comfort” (“The Chronicles of Milwaukee: Being a Narrative of the Town From Its Earliest Period to the Present, 1861” page 285). The newspaper article noted “it is impossible for the spectator to so locate himself that a full and comprehensive view of the stage cannot be obtained.” The stage was thirty-six feet and flaked by two private boxes. There were dressing rooms and an orchestra box in front. William P. Young was the builder and it was inaugurated on March 16, 1860. In 1876 a second Academy of Music was built in Milwaukee between Wisconsin and Michigan. The design was a commission of Edward Townsend Mix and had a 1,600 seat capacity. This was the stage that Moses provided scenery for in 1886.

Letterhead from the Theodore L. Hays Papers collection at the Minnesota Historical Society. Image used in Twin City Scenic Company catalogue.

My interest traveled briefly to Litt as I recalled an image of a letterhead with his name on it (Twin Cities Scenic Co. collection catalogue, Brockman, 1987). I started to scan newspaper archives for Litt in both Milwaukee and Minnesota. There is mention of Litt in 1886 when he ventured to Minnesota with his sister. On July 31 the St. Paul Daily Globe published, “Jacob Litt, the dime museum proprietor and manager of the academy of music, Milwaukee accompanied by his sister, is in the city, expecting to spend a week at Minnetonka” (page 3). It is possible that his trip was as much for business purposes as pleasure.

Jacob Litt is recorded as being “the first theatrical manager to amass a great fortune and reach the millionaire class solely as a result of his own labors” (“The Stage in the Twentieth Century” by Robert Grau, 1912, page 135). He began his theatre career in the box office of Milwaukee’s Grand Opera House. He soon became the first manager to arrange a circuit of theatres for theatrical combinations in the Northwest and became wildly successful. He leased theatres in Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Chicago, every endeavor becoming a lucrative success.

By 1889, Jacob Litt had taken over the People’s Theatre of Minneapolis that had opened on October 31, 1887 (20 Washington Avenue North). The venue was first owned by Lambert Hayes W. E. Sterling of Buffalo, New York as the theater’s first manager. By March of 1889,

Kohl and Middleton leased the theater. In July Jacob Litt took over, renaming it the ” Bijou

Opera House.” Unfortunately, a gas jet behind the scenes started a fire and burned the building to the ground on December 28, 1890. A second “Bijou Opera House” was built on that same site in 1891. Twin City Scenic Company began in the Bijou Opera House in Minneapolis. There were three principle employees who opened the scenic studio. Theodore Hays, manager of the Bijou, became the first president of Twin City Scenic Co. William P. Davis and William Knox Brown supervised the scenic art and stage mechanics departments. The company would later expand into St. Paul’s Grand Opera House for additional studio space.E. Sterling (the first manager of the People’s Theatre) returned to Minneapolis to open the New People’s Theater at 322 Marquette Avenue on March 24, 1894. By December 16 of that same year the theater was acquired by Jacob Litt, who renamed it the ” Metropolitan Opera House.” As a director and producer, Litt’s Broadway credits include “The Diplomat” )1902), “The Proce of Peace” (1901), “Caleb West” (1900), “The Ghetto” (1899), “Shall We Forgive Her” (1897), “The Last Stroke” (1896) and “Yon Yonson” (1894.)

It is important to recall what was also happening in the Twin Cities prior to the establishment of Twin City Scenic Company. In 1881, Charles S. King was brought in to install the stage machinery for the Grand Opera House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, he was thirty years old with seven years of practical experience in the industry. Keep in in mind that Moses had been working for Sosman & Landis since 1880. There is mention in the Minneapolis Tribune that “Mr. C. S. King, the stage carpenter at the Grand Opera House, was initiated into some of the mysteries of stage mechanism as exemplified in our new temple of amusement. Mr. King who was summoned here from Chicago, is regarded as one of the best stage-carpenters in the country, having had wide experience and possessing perfect knowledge of his progression. He says that our opera house will have the finest stage, the easiest worked, and will be the best appointed theatre west of Chicago, or of many large eastern cities” (page 5). When King was working on the stage at the Grand Opera in Minneapolis, the local stage carpenter for the venue was William Knox Brown, one of the three founders of Twin City Scenic Company.

 

Scenic artist John H. Young recalled in 1912, stating, “Jacob Litt always gave carte blache order for scenes, asking for the very best that could be painted, but if any breakaways were to take place in the scene such as a falling bridge carrying a man or woman with it, he always demanded that I be the first one to try it. This naturally had the tendency to make me arrange a safe fall. This method was adopted by the great Salvini at Wallack’s old theatre when he produced ‘Samson’ and the breaking away of the temple as he pushed aside the great stone columns, causing the entire building to collapse, was rather a trying test of my nerves” (Grau, page 230-231).

To be continued…

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