Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 18 – A Prime Discovery

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is recovering from travel and catching up on current projects. She is reposting a few early installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her eighteenth post from March 3, 2017.

Part 18: A Prime Discovery

The 1931 typed manuscript of Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934) provides an abundance of information concerning his design process and the creation of the painted scenery. Moses first mentions working with the Valley of Fort Scott in 1923, noting that he felt they “were in line for the contract.” His story continues with his return during May 1924, writing, “I made a colored sketch for the decorations and then gave another showing of my scenes and closed the contract.”

By August of 1924 Moses finalized the onsite details, met with his carpenter and put in a full days work before continuing on his way to Colorado, Utah, California and Washington. In October he returned again for only a few days. He immediately departed with the intention of returning in two weeks to commence the painting, but poor health and unexpected work intervened. At this time Moses was battling a chronic cough and was beginning to have some severe health issues. He was 68 years old, overworked, constantly traveling, and taking little time to rest and recuperate.

Finally, on October 23, Moses left for Fort Scott and immediately started painting upon his arrival. He stayed until November 25, recording,” Fulton and I dug in to the work, and it was some hustle to get through, which we did on the 17th of November. At the finish I got a payment of $7,000, the balance to be paid within a month. Our extras brought the contract up to $22,000.00.” Moses did not return again to Fort Scott until August of 1925.

While we were onsite, I was able to identify where Moses had painted the majority of the scenery – 20’ above the stage floor on the stage-left side. His onsite studio in 1924 was accessible by a narrow ladder that climbed up the back wall of the theatre – on the stage left side.

A few days before our departure, one of the riggers was contemplating the removal of a converted sewing machine as a souvenir. It had been used to track the moon light box across a night sky in the Twenty-first degree. It was located on a ledge high above the stage floor. As he examined the machine, we asked him to look around and see if there was anything else of on the nearby platform.

“Just an old wooden barrel,” he responded. My heart started to race and I immediately asked if he could identify the contents.

“I can’t tell as it’s still sealed. But there is a pile of white stuff next to it and the same type of powder leaking out of the seams.”

“Oh my God,” I thought and my heart leapt. He found a barrel of whiting!

Barrel of whiting found onsite in Fort Scott, Kansas, above the Scottish Rite stage. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barret, November, 2015.

Now this might not sound exciting to many people – an old wooden barrel leaking white powder twenty feet above the stage.

What many people don’t know is that whiting was the product used by scenic artists to prime painted backdrops. The chances that this was an original barrel purchased by Moses and abandoned onsite after completing the job was very likely. Whiting was cheap and too heavy to justify shipping it back to the Chicago studio.

The traditional formula for drop primer was mixing strong size (diluted hide glue) with a fine powder that primarily consisted of silica, zinc, lead, or a mixture of thereof. The powder was soaked in a galvanized tub of water overnight, making sure that it was thoroughly dissolved and free from lumps. Then it was then “slaked” before using; this process separated out the gritty substance from the chalk. The chalk was scooped out and mixed with strong size. The primer was evenly worked into the fabric of the drop, thus providing a clean and uniform base on which to draw the design.

If an entire unopened barrel of whiting was up there, what other treasures could be hidden away under a layer of filth? Would I be able to verify that Moses used this space as a temporary onsite studio? We headed toward the ladder to check out this exciting new discovery.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 17 – Rolling the Drops

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is recovering from travel and catching up on current projects. She is reposting a few early installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her seventeenth post from March 2, 2017.

Part 17: Rolling the Drops

The drops were loosely rolled to transport down the winding staircase to the first floor in Fort Scott. There, they would need to be unrolled and rolled again onto cardboard tubes for shipping. Prior to any final rolling, however, they we carefully matched up with all of the corresponding scenes. Entire scenes were not lowered simultaneously; we slowly worked from upstage to downstage in succession for safety reasons.

A year earlier, I had completed this same task with Paul Sannerud and was absolutely dreading it. For the Winona scenery, we carefully flattened each scene on the floor and rolled each drop onto 6” tubes of PVC. This was an option due to the shorter length of twenty feet – the height of each scene. For Fort Scott we needed longer tubes -twenty-five feet, hence the cardboard tubes from North Carolina.

I had found a company that manufactured shipping tubes to order. Unfortunately, due to the initial contractual delays, the tubes were very late in arriving – so we had to alter my anticipated process. Instead of “lower, take downstairs, roll and stack” it became “lower, take downstairs, place somewhere, and wait to roll.” This meant that I had to divide each scene on the first floor and remember where all of the scenes were once we started rolling – as there would be a specific placement in order to unload the collection from the truck into the storage unit.

The difficulty of this task is always trying to roll a piece of fabric that is not flat. When a drop hangs for decades, the shape becomes altered over time and it is no longer a perfect rectangle. People fail to understand that the fabric continues to stretch from a variety of factors. Primarily, uneven pick points allow the weight of the batten at the bottom of the drop to reshape the rectangle into a trapezoid – often undetectable from the auditorium. Then there is the hourglass shape with curling edges on each side of the drop – very identifiable from the audience.

Furthermore, the air currents bellow out the center. Think of it as the center of the drop moving forward and backward, gradually stretching the fabric, resulting in a central sagging. These alterations are almost unperceivable, until you lay the fabric on the floor. Some areas will form bubbles, like when you played “parachute” in gym class. Remember how all of the edges could be brought to the floor and the center puffed up? A similar thing happens to the drop when all of the fabric settles to the ground, there are still irregularities in the center.

Another way to understand the difficulty of this task is to think of rolling linoleum on a tube. The rigidity allows it to roll perfectly. This is not what happens with old fabric and wrinkles appear. When wrinkles appear during rolling, the fabric subsequently creases and the paint it cracks off, thus forming an irreparable line.

Even after restoration, wrinkles often occur during rolling. That is the reason why I am so adamant about only restoring scenery on site. You might have a restored a drop and it looks perfect on the floor, but the rolling and transport will damage all of your work. Therefore, you would need to do additional work once it arrived at the space; work that would be extra and drive up the overall expense. This was another point of contention with the CEO. He refused to believe that the drops couldn’t be restored off site and transported without harm. In the end, he found someone to restore them off site. Upon inspection of the first few “restored” drops during February 2017, all of my fears about transportation after restoration were verified.

In Fort Scott, there was not a single space on the first floor where we could fully layout any drop. This added an additional layer of complexity to the process. Prior to rolling, we had to loosely “accordion pleat” about two-thirds of the scene.

Preparing a drop for rolling in Forts Scott, Kansas at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

I had always rolled up the drops on the floor, but my lead rigger Brandon invented a rolling machine that saved our backs, knees and the painted surface on many drops! He called his invention the “rigger–mo’-roll!”

Rolled drop encapsulated in muslin on the “rigger-mo’-roll,” invented by Brandon Fischer of Fairhope, Alabama. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
Starting to roll the wood cut drop in Fort Scott. Notice the netting in the center holes. This was one of the early drops where I had not yet decided to remove the dirty netting. In the end, I regretted this choice as some of the old netting was left on but others restoring the scene. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

He picked up sawhorses and casters from Kansas City to create a fabric roller. It took a while to assemble, but I was amazed at the end result. Not perfect, but the weight of the fabric would keep the rolls mostly taut and minimize the wrinkles. In the end, each drop would weigh 100 lbs. and take four robust individuals to safely transport it anywhere.

 

To be continued…

Rolling the Egyptian backdrop at the Fort Scott Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
Rolled tubes and battens, all stacked according to each scene. This was necessary as the unloading into the final storage unit dictated the original packing order. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

 

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 16 – Stonehenge

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting early installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her sixteenth post from March 1, 2017.

Part 16: Stonehenge

Fort Scott Scottish Rite Stonehenge setting. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

I need to explain a little history about the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry prior to discussing the Fort Scott Stonehenge composition. I will simplify this history as much as possible so that your eyes don’t glaze over before getting to the scenery part.

The Scottish Rite is divided into two jurisdictions that are based on geographical demarcations. The Southern Jurisdiction is west of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio River. This means that the majority of the country belongs to the Southern Jurisdiction. I am not going to discuss what caused the division or the reason for the appearance of multiple Supreme Councils (governing bodies) in the North.

Southern Jurisdiction for the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry is represented in red.

In the past, I have argued (in various publications and in my doctoral dissertation) that the earliest degree productions were performed in the Northern Jurisdiction.

Why? My theory is competition.

You see, during the mid-nineteenth century there were competing Supreme Councils in the Northern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. This was not the case in the Southern Jurisdiction where one Grand Commander ruled from 1859-1891 (Albert Pike).

Albert Pike in full regalia.

If you are in competitive environment, WINNING requires more members and more money. Staging degrees was a great way to promote a superior ceremonial experience that would subsequently bring in more money. Keep in mind that during the 1920s there was even a candidate class of 1000! That is a pile of cash that results from initiation fees and membership dues.

Now in the Southern Jurisdiction, Grand Commander Pike passes away in 1891. Prior to his death, Scottish Rite stages were beginning to appear in the Southern Jurisdiction – especially Minnesota, a state that straddled the western geographical demarcation of the two jurisdictions. By the 1880s, small stages were appearing in Minnesota lodge rooms with settings for the obligatory (or indispensable) degrees. Each degree could be an individual play with the potential for multiple acts. Each act could have numerous scenes. Money determined the size of scenery collections. Some Valleys had small stage with a set of ten roll drops while others had massive auditoriums with over a hundred drops that would be lower from a fly loft.

Grand Commander Pike in the Southern Jurisdiction was against the elaborate staging of degrees, stating, “The Rite in this [Southern] Jurisdiction is a Rite of instruction, and not of scenic pomp and stage-show…I can not conceive of a more useless occupation than the arranging and performing of degrees, neither the effect nor the purpose of which is to make men wiser or better, but which are acted as melodramas…” This pretty much sums up why a lot of Masonic theaters didn’t appear throughout the Southern Jurisdiction until AFTER Pike’s death in 1891.

Albert Pike Consistory in Little Rock, Arkansas. A stage for degree productions was constructed in this 1896 building. The original collection was refurbished and installed at the Pasadena Scottish Rite in California.

At this point, the Supreme Council initially takes a “non-action” as no one wanted to stop the growth of the Scottish Rite. This neutral action enabled the expansion of degree productions and theatrical interpretations of the degrees.

But some of the interpretations went a little too far – especially in Kansas. New designs began to appear – Stonehenge – for the Vedic scene in the 30th degree. There are two extant scenic designs depicting this composition – so the drop in Fort Scott, Kansas wasn’t an anomaly. But was it regionally specific to Kansas? You see, many regions developed unique interpretations for each degree.

Just a few hours to the west of Fort Scott in Wichita, there was another unusual composition that appeared. The stagehands still refer to this as the “goddess degree.” And I first encountered it during the summer of 2015 on our road trip from Fort Scott to Guthrie, Oklahoma.

Wichita Scottish Rite setting with cut center. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, August 2015.
Wichita Scottish Rite setting covering for cut opening. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, August 2015.
Wichita Scottish Rite setting backing. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, August 2015.
Detail of foil strips in Wichita setting, similar to those used in hell scenes. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, August 2015.

 

Enter a new friend and kindred spirit Janet Wolter. Wolter co-authored “America, Nation of the Goddess: The Venus Families and the Founding of the United States” with Alan Butler.

“America Nation of the Goddess” by Janet Wolter and Alan Butler. See www.NationoftheGoddess.com

We met while volunteering at the Minneapolis Scottish Rite library. One of our first discoveries was a handwritten Grange ritual. It was at this point when I exploring the ritual for the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. Beginning in 1867, it too had secret meetings, oaths, and passwords, incorporating themes from Greek and Roman mythology. This intrigued me and I thought about the Stonehenge and Goddess scenes in Kansas, telling Janet about my discoveries.

She suggested that Grange characteristics might have been incorporated into the ceremonies of other organizations. Were these new Scottish Rite compositions a type of outreach to Grange members? Was the Grange in Kansas an overt influence on the staging of Scottish Rite degree productions?

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 15 – Raising Hell

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her fifteenth post from February 28, 2017.

Part 15: Raising Hell

Many Scottish Rite degrees can be narrowed down to three instructions: follow directions, respect others, and do the right thing. Doesn’t sound much like devil worship, does it? That being said, Scottish Rite Valleys are reluctant to show one particular stage setting to the general public – Hell. Throughout the country the composition is also referred to as Hades, the Dante drop, or the Inferno scene.

A simple explanation for the inclusion of this subject is that the scene depicts the fate for those who fall prey to temptation. It reinforces WHY you want to do the right thing. “Be a good person” doesn’t always work. “Be a good person or this terrible thing will happen to you” provides incentive. The setting often includes one cut drop and a backdrop, sometimes two cut drops for added depth and scenic effect.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite backdrop for Eighteenth degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite second cut drop for Eighteenth degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite first cut drop for Eighteenth degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

Compositions frequently include a variety of demons and tortured humans.

Painted detail from Hell backdrop for the Yankton, South Dakota, Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2014.

Very seldom did the scene remain as a red cave, but that is the case in a few Valleys, including McAlester, Oklahoma. Fort Scott included one of the most popular depictions and was NOT painted by Thomas Moses in 1924. This scene was painted much earlier in 1904 and enlarged to fit the Fort Scott space during the 1924 installation.

Top third of Hell scene backdrop during removal from Fort Scott Scottish Rite in 2015. Note the fabric additions on top and stage right side for an enlarged theater space. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

It matches the same scene used in other Scottish Rite theatres, including Grand Forks, ND, St. Paul, MN, and Santa Fe, NM. It was a stock design, and a shiny one at that, being replicated multiple times during the first two decades of the twentieth century. But what makes this scene special? What is the visual appeal? The sparkles.

Detail of foil strips on Fort Scott Scottish Rite Hell scene. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

The hell scene used foil paper strips to outline many of the figures and rocky outcrops. Why? It was a scenic illusion to reflect the fiery pits of hell. As the drop would slightly move, the crinkled foil strips would reflect the light and sparkle, thus creating the appearance of flickering firelight.

Pretty cool effect, but very labor intensive. Especially when you consider attaching each strip with glue after having already spent a significant amount of time attaching the netting to the cut drops. It was an expensive scene to purchase. Refurbishing the hell scene in 1924 would have saved a significant amount of money for the Fort Scott Scottish Rite and a significant amount of time for Thomas G. Moses.

This is one of the scenes that make evaluations and restorations a delight. People always want their picture taken with this setting – especially if there is an entire group. The caption reads, “Work is Hell.” But then there also is hanging the restored of the scene and shouting “Let’s raise hell!” Or the response you give to your spouse when he asks, “How was work today?” and you respond, “It was hell.”

To be continued…

 

 

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 14 – Lost in Translation

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her fourteenth post from February 27, 2017.
 
For additional installments, visit www.drypigment.net
Part 14: Lost in Translation
 
There are few Scottish Rite scenes that were solely designed for Masonic degree productions. Most stage settings that were used by the Fraternity originated for other venues. Many compositions had been used for centuries in a variety of theatrical and operatic productions. Palatial interiors, cathedrals, catacombs, dungeons, classical interiors, mausoleums, Egyptian temples, dessert scenes, forests, rivers, landscapes, Gothic armories, rocky coasts, and garden scenes were all used for both commercial and fraternal productions.
 
The “INRI Peristyle” scene for the eighteenth degree, however, was unique. It would become a standard setting in many Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rite theaters during the first decade of the twentieth century. This scene used a translucent lighting effect. The words “Infinity,” “Nature,” “Reason,” and “Immortality” were typically placed at the tops of columns.
18th degree setting designed by Thomas G. Moses for the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas (1924). Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
Same 18th degree setting created for Tucson, Arizona. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
18th degree setting by Sosman & Landis Studio for Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
The first letter of each word (I.N.R.I.) was backed with red silk, allowing it to glow. Thomas Moses’ design and painting for this Fort Scott scene placed the words at the base of each column – something new. Four corresponding light boxes with backlit words appeared at the appropriate time.
 
I am frequently asked questions about the subject matter and necessary symbolism in degree productions, especially for the 18th degree. And thus I find myself working as a “Masonic Outreach Specialist,” promoting the benefits of Freemasonry to society. When approached by theatre technicians, however, there is the additional question concerning the design process. How did the artists know what to paint? How did the Masons ensure appropriate symbolism on each backdrop without revealing any secrets?
 
My standard response includes a discussion on the appearance of theatrical manufacturers who became Masons. Scenic studio owners, regalia suppliers, and publishers greatly profited from Masonic membership and their Fraternal relationships. These individuals directed how the degrees would be staged and the appropriate costumes and props for each production. Was profit their sole reason for becoming a Mason? I like to believe that their motivation for joining the Fraternity wasn’t profit, but this association was a lucrative endeavor.
 
Did all of the scenic artists understand what they were painting on drops? Absolutely not, and the pelican in the 18th degree is a perfect example. Not even Moses in 1924 (the year before he joined the Fraternity and became an active member at the Scottish Rite in Pasadena, California) understood the symbolism of the pelican.
1931 design for the 18th degree by Thomas G. Moses. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Pelican detail in 1931 design by Thomas G. Moses. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
 
The pelican is an integral part of the Peristyle composition, either appearing as a painting on the backdrop, painting on a cut drop, or included as a set prop. Sometimes this set prop was even illuminated as a large light box. The symbolism of the pelican is sacrifice; piercing its breast to feed its young. This image was also found in many churches, often in a stained glass design.
 
In Fort Scott and many other Valleys, however, the pelican holds a worm in its beak. Salina, Kansas, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Winona, Minnesota are just a few examples where a pelican does not pierce its breast. How was this symbolic detail lost in translation?
Painted detail on 18th degree cut drop for Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
The design failed to show the detail of blood, so the artist just improvised.
Painted detail on 18th degree backdrop for the Scottish Rite in Yankton, South Dakota.
 
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 13 – Getting My Hands Dirty

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her thirteenth post from February 26, 2017.
 
Part 13: Getting My Hands Dirty
 
The rigging crew would later admit that no one knew what my contribution would be prior to the project, even Ty Prewitt, owner of BellaTEX. Would I sit with my camera in the auditorium slowly photographing the removal process, or would I actually get my hands dirty? It is important to understand that when I was went to Fort Scott, my directive was to solely supervise and not to help out as a “common laborer.” That was a directive by the CEO.
 
It is important to understand that throughout the duration of my career I always worked alongside my crew, never expecting anyone to perform a task that I wouldn’t do myself. I realized long ago that this type of attitude and a general willingness to get one’s hands dirty had a positive impact on any work environment. Showing great appreciation for your staff and lending a hand is such an easy thing to do and it always pays off in the long run.
My hands after an hour of handling the Fort Scott Scottish Rite scenery on site. Although I often wore gloves, not ever task could be accomplished while wearing them. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
In addition to this instilled work ethic, I was raised to conquer obstacles and take pride in my work. Therefore, when I encountered the thick layer of contaminants coating the scenery and set pieces, I couldn’t ignore it.
Removing loose contaminants on Pepper’s Ghost unit in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett from November 2015.
Removing loose contaminants from the backside of a drop in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett from November 2015.
Removing loose contaminants from the backside of a drop in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett from November 2015.
It is possible that others would have ignored the dirt, rolled the drops, shipped them, and dealt with the consequences later. That was not an option for me, so I tackled this initial obstacle, knowing that it would add many hours onto the project in Fort Scott.
 
We covered both the stage floor and auditorium floor with heavy duty plastic to catch the majority of the dirt that fell off of the drop as it was lowered to the floor and stripped of both battens and hardware. I purchased both dry mops and wet mops to clean the plastic as often as possible so that dirt from one backdrop, wouldn’t contaminate another backdrop. We also occasionally replaced the plastic sheeting.
 
Then, the drop was placed on the auditorium floor face down. I used my handy Festool dust extractor to remove the majority of loose contaminants with its special HEPA filter. The drop was then flipped face up so that I could vacuum the loose particulates from the painted surface. This initial cleaning was to protect the painted surface during shipping and limit the amount of airborne particles in the space on site.
 
Dirt and pigment would continue to dust off during the rolling and transportation, necessitating additional vacuuming and extensive cleaning with archival sponges before any necessary repairs or restoration could take place. The vacuuming for each drop in no way made the surface either completely clean or free of contaminants. After vacuuming both sides, it took four of us crawling across the floor on our knees to loosely roll the 24’x36’ long drop. This loose roll meant it could be carried down the winding staircase to the first floor where it would then wait to be rolled onto 25’ cardboard tubes.
 
The drops couldn’t be rolled immediately after vacuuming on the second floor as the winding staircase could not accommodate a 25’ rigid tube. This was the process prior to rolling, wrapping, and loading each drop onto our shipping truck. Multiply this procedure ninety-two times.
 
The need for any additional cleaning prior to restoration was a point of contention with the CEO as I had already vacuumed each drop in Fort Scott. Even after several conversations, I could not convince him that this initial cleaning was not sufficient. Nor would he believe that the drops had to be stabilized or any repairs made prior to hanging. It was impossible to convince him that the dusting pigments and other surface contaminates were dangerous to both the performers on stage and the audience members alike.
 
When I saw the drops hanging at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage center during February 2017, there were still sections of the original netting attached to the drops and contaminants were visible. My heart sank as I wondered if anyone had ever been told of the dangers that I described to the CEO and the general director.
 
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 12 – The Volcano Scene

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her twelfth post from February 25, 2017.

 

Part 12: The Volcano Scene 

The 17th degree of the Scottish Rite can be one of the most exciting degree productions on a Masonic stage. Lighting flashes, thunder rumbles, the ground trembles, and a volcano explodes, toppling buildings in the foreground of a painted composition. A red plume of lava shoots into the air, while rivulets of lava stream down the mountainside and gradually spill into a lake. Slowly, the sky and water become a bright blood red.

17th degree scene from Scottish Rite in El Paso, Texas.

The first time I documented this scene was at the Winona Scottish Rite Theatre, were volunteers assisted in successfully presentation.

17th degree setting before volcanic explosion. Scottish Rite scene in Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
17th degree setting after volcanic explosion. Scottish Rite scene in Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
Stage hands working rigging for the collapse of painted structures in the 17th degree setting during the volcanic explosion. Scottish Rite scene in Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.

This scene is often labeled “17th degree Vision” and could include a variety of scenic effects, all dependent on the amount of money that the client was willing to invest. The Fort Scott scene was like Winona and quite elaborate, using netting, transparencies, translucencies, and a variety of rigging mechanisms to lower painted panels on the front of the cut drop.

The staging relates to the breaking of the seven seals in the Book of Revelations. Cataclysmic events occur and a variety of painted visions are magically revealed in transparent sections of the composition. Fort Scott had five small drops for the visions.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite 17th degree setting before revelation of a vision drop. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite 17th degree setting after revelation of a vision drop. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

These small paintings were almost always the work of an inexperienced artist as it was a perfect opportunity for them to show their skills in drawing and figure painting. If it really was a horrific end product, it wouldn’t matter due to its placement on stage, plus the dim lighting would conceal most of the flaws.

Painted detail from vision drop in Winona Scottish Rite collection. photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, August 2014.

I have often wondered whether these small scenic art projects were the work of the owner’s nephew at Sosman & Landis Studio. Over the years, I have stumbled across comments concerning this familial relation who was constantly given an opportunity to prove his artist ability and consistently failed. This might have been the perfect project to prevent him from ruining the remainder of any Masonic installation.

In my mind I imagine the following dialogue:

Artist 1: What are we going to have him paint this time? He doesn’t seem to be getting any better and he’s so slow!

Artist 2: Give him the Vision drops again.

Artist 1: But he can’t paint figures and it will take him forever!?!?

Artist 2: I know, but at least it will keep him busy and you can’t see much of the painting during the degree anyway.

Artist 1: Well, the art does represent the end of the world.

Painted detail from 17th degree vision scene at Winona, Minnesota. Note placement of breasts, hair, and size of hands in this poorly drawn figure. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, August 2014.

In the past, I have posted painted details of anatomical oddities from various Vision scene figures: breasts that were placed just below the collar bone, hair that defied gravity, hands that were unbelievably large, and faces with unnatural eye placement. Similarly, figures from the York Rite’s Sepulcher scene were often sporadic in terms of quality too. I frequently post these details with my standard comment,” and this is why drawing classes are important in scenic art training!”

The two Marys at the empty tomb encounter this angel. Sepulcher scene for York Rite degree at Winona, Minnesota.

The figures for Fort Scott were an interesting mixture of skill, but very inconsistent. I was reminded of the Vision scenes in Winona, Minnesota where one was “okay” and four were “pretty awful.” Although Thomas Moses was not a fabulous figure painter, I wondered if his onsite assistant was responsible for these paintings.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 11 – Wooden Battens

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her eleventh post from February 25, 2017.

Part 11: Wooden Battens

Most drops in Scottish Rite facilities have wooden sandwich battens at the tops and bottoms of each drop. This means that the fabric is “sandwiched” between two pine boards. The battens at the top were typically 1×4 boards, whereas the battens at the bottom were 1 x 3 boards.

End view of bottom sandwich batten from the Fort Scott Scottish Rite scenery collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
View of top sandwich batten on Fort Scott Scottish Rite scene while still hanging on site. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Drops were rolled in the studio without the battens and attached onsite during installation. Lumber for battens was ordered from companies specializing in theatrical lumber and shipped separately in linear feet, not pre-cut to shipment. Typically, the Scottish Rite Valley and the name of the recipient were stenciled onto the battens for shipping. I have frequently encountered these markings. Two examples that stick out are William Hayes Laird for the Winona Scottish Rite, and Charles Rosenbaum for the Little Rock scenery (moved to the Pasadena Scottish Rite in 1924). In the case of Fort Scott, Dr. Chas. Van K was the recipient.

Shipping label on wooden sandwich batten from Fort Scott scenery collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Once the drops and the lumber arrived on site, the lumber for the top batten was laid in a straight line on the stage floor. This would become the backside of the top batten. It was secured to the stage floor with clout nails to prevent shifting while the top of the fabric backdrop was attached to it. The top edge of the drop was tacked down every four inches.

Tacks that secured the painted drops to the wooden battens for the Fort Scott Scottish Rite scenery collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Once the fabric was secured, a second batten was placed on top to “sandwich” the drop. At this point slotted screws secured these two battens together. The entire batten was pried from the stage floor and the clout nails were hammered over into the wood. Half-inch holes were then drilled into the top batten for the pick points. A similar process happened to the bottom of the drop, but without the holes for pick points.

Bottom battens were especially important as the weight stretched out apparent wrinkles while hanging. Eventually wooden batten were replaced with pipe pockets. Usually the bottom battens were rounded, allowing them to easily pass by each other and not catch during raising or lowering of scenes. The shapes of wooden battens were anywhere from perfect ovals to angled edges. In Fort Scott, both the top and bottom battens were beveled at forty-five degree angles.

To transport or restore a scene, the battens are removed from the fabric. This is a slow process due to the initial assembly.

Most people don’t realize that these wooden battens contain a treasure trove of information pertaining to the transportation, installation, client, and artist. Fort Scott was the best example of “hidden text” that I have ever come across in my career. Often I have encountered a shipping stencil or the individual who would receive the lumber on site, but Fort Scott was truly unique. One example scribbled on the inside of these boards was the preliminary ordering of scenes.

Preliminary order of scenes found on the inside of a Fort Scott Scottish Rite wooden batten. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Another depicted how a counterweight rigging system worked to raise and lower the drops.

Drawing of counterweight system on the inside of a Fort Scott scenery collection wooden batten. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Mathematical formulas were written and corrected everywhere. Even the onsite paint frame was disassembled and became part of the top wooden battens.

I was meticulous in documenting every hand written detail because I would later need this information to analyze the collection in its entirety. Clues were everywhere, and I had little time to catch them all. As the crew stripped the battens and hardware from the drops, they would shout out “Scribbles!” and I would come running with one of three cameras to make sure that a picture wouldn’t be blurred or lost.

The majority of the writing was that of Thomas Moses. I knew this as I was familiar with his writing. In most cases he was carefully explaining installation details to his crew

You can imagine the panic that I felt while sitting in the audience at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center concert February 2017 when I noticed that all of the wooden battens were missing. I immediately realized that those who “restored” the Fort Scott scenes had replaced the wooden battens with pipe pockets. My mind was reeling as I kept thinking, “All of that history is now lost.” I desperately hoped that the unused wooden battens were safely sitting in a storage unit somewhere, preserving the history for someone.

There is also the physics involved in sewing canvas pipe pockets onto old and fragile fabric. Often the pipes selected are not heavy enough to pull out the wrinkles. When the pipes are heavy enough, the stitching works like a perforated page and the pipe eventually falls to the floor.

Wooden battens were removed and replaced with pipe pockets at the St. Louis Scottish Rite. Almost all have failed. This is a common occurrence as the seam that attaches a new pipe pocket to the aged fabric will fail. It is like creating a perforated page. The weight of a pipe acts like someone tearing out a sheet of paper from a notebook.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 10 – The Ascension

 

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her tenth post from February 24, 2017.

Part 10: The Ascension

Fort Scott Scottish Rite Ascension scene. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Another Fort Scott stage effect was the Ascension scene, a standard setting in many Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rites theaters that had originally appeared on Northern Jurisdiction stages. The ascension and other eighteenth degree scenes from Jesus’ life had been used for decades in Passion Play productions across the country. It was not only a way to generate outside income, but it was also an event that brought the general public into a Masonic building. In many ways it was a positive outreach program for potential membership. A good example of this phenomenon occurred at the Scottish Rite in Bloomington, Illinois. Starting in 1924, the Bloomington Masons annually presented “The American Passion Play,” an elaborate production that was over three hours in length, with fifty-six scenes and up to two hundred and thirty actors.

1928 program from the Bloomington Passion Play, performed by the Scottish Rite Players at the Scottish Rite Temple theater.
1928 program from the Bloomington Passion Play, performed by the Scottish Rite Players at the Scottish Rite Temple theater.

In most Scottish Rite Valleys, however, the image of Jesus was presented as a small cutout set piece, ranging from thirty inches to forty inches in height. This image was often part of a staged scenic tableau, devoid of people and accompanied by music. Occasionally, actors played the role of Jesus and were securely strapped into a harness, slowly ascending out of sight. Just remember that this was not “Flying by Foy” and the rigging to raise actors high above the stage was sketchy at best. At Fort Scott, the Jesus cut out, or profile piece, was approximately 5’-6,” the size of an average male.

Profile piece of Jesus while still installed at the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

We staged the effect to document the scene during November 2015. Tracking down the Jesus cable to a small machine behind the fly rail, we flipped the switch and hoped that it would work. The machine immediately came to life and started to whirr! Slowly Jesus descended from the fly loft. I ran to the stage and carefully filmed about sixteen seconds. “Got it!” I shouted, only to immediately realize that I had filmed the “second coming” and not the “ascension!”

We now set the scene with Jesus starting in the appropriate spot on stage – partially hidden behind the painted bush in the center of the cut drop. Again, I began to record the stage effect. His ascent was painstakingly slow and you could hear the noise of the engine as the cable was slowly coiled back onto the spindle. My patience lasted even less than sixteen seconds this time before I figured we had enough video. In the back of my mind, I wondered how loud the music needed to be to drown out the sound of this motor.

Our local Scottish Rite contact had given his permission to remove the unit, as many of us fancied the idea of owning this particular stage artifact. Unfortunately, the motor remained in place as there was little energy to take on any extra task during the final days of the Fort Scott project.

Removing the ascension cut drop and others proved to be a challenge due to the excessive amounts of dirt that clung to the 1” opera net and the bobbinet (open weave netting , similar to mosquito netting or tutu material). For the first few scenes, netting and bobbinet were left in the openings of the drops, but I became increasingly concerned that the dirt would become transferred to the painted surface, possibly permanently damaging the scene during rolling and transport.

As previously stated, I had never encountered this particular type of surface contaminant before during any restoration project. Very soon, I made the call that all netting on cut drops would be gently removed prior to rolling and transport. Again, this was an unanticipated time-consuming step that I had not factored into the overall project timeline. It would help out the restoration in the long run as all of the netting would be replaced on each scene; you never leave partial pieces of netting on a scene as this doesn’t support the cut opening. Unfortunately those who eventually “restored” the Fort Scott scenery left portions of the original netting on the back of the cut drops.

After removing the cables from Jesus, we carefully propped him up near the exit of the theatre. His silhouette against a white wall would frighten each of us multiple times throughout the duration of the project. We would catch his shape in our peripheral vision and it would literally make us jump as we perceived an unexpected visitor. This would lead me to use the phrase, “Remember, Jesus is watching you.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 9 – Pepper’s Ghost

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her ninth post from February 23, 2017.

Part 9: Pepper’s Ghost 

I met the rest of my Fort Scott crew on the second day. We started the morning by setting up the catacomb scene for the 30th degree. This would prove to be an ideal project, allowing us to start the day with something really fun. This scene included a stage effect called Pepper’s Ghost, an absolutely delightful scenic illusion – even for seasoned theatre people.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite Catacombs setting for the 30th degree. Note reflection of skeleton in central door unit. This scenic effect is called Pepper’s Ghost. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite Pepper’s Ghost unit that is placed behind the Catacomb backdrop. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

We rolled out the large and dirt encrusted Pepper’s Ghost chamber. This unit, as everything else on the stage, was coated with a thick layer of oily black residue. I had never encountered this particular type of surface contaminant before and was starting to feel a little uneasy about what it might be.

In terms of Pepper’s Ghost, it was obvious that a theatrical manufacturer did not professionally construct this unit. It also appeared to be a second-generation artifact, constructed by Masons during the mid-twentieth century. It is important to note that many Scottish Rite stage props and set pieces were “updated” or “touched up” with paint in the late 1940s through mid 1960s. Sometimes the originals were simply thrown out and rebuilt. Second generation replicas were often the product of industrious Masons or an ambitious stage crew, all with the mind set of “Hey, I know how to make this even better!” In some cases it worked, in most instances it failed – miserably.

The manufacturers of the Fort Scott unit proudly stenciled their creation with “A.A.S.R. Senic Building Corporation of Fort Scott, Kansas.” I wondered if the misspelling of “scenic” was intentional. Maybe “senic” was a play on the word “senior;” probably not. Regardless, it was a delightful piece of both theatrical and Masonic history that could be treasured by future generations. I immediately decided that it was coming with me.

Now it’s really important to understand what happens on the stage prior to the Pepper’s Ghost scenic illusion. The central opening of the drop is covered with a painted panel that will eventually fall to the floor.

Door that covers Fort Scott Scottish Rite opening in the 30th degree Catacombs backdrop. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

To the immediate stage left side of this space is a translucent section in the drop with a passage of text. When front lit, this translucent section looks like a painted stonewall.

Translucent section of the Fort Scott Catacomb backdrop. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

When backlit, portions of the wall reveal a text from the ritual: “He who shall overcome the dread of death shall ascend beyond the terrestrial sphere and be entitled to initiation into the Greater Mysteries.”

Same section on the Forts Scott Scottish Rite backdrop lit from behind. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

The text is illuminated and on cue, the painted panel slams to the ground, beckoning the actor to enter this dark chamber. After entering the space, the audience witnesses man’s mortality where the actor transforms into a skeleton. Pretty magical, isn’t it?

 

Here is how this stage effect works:

The unit is placed immediately behind the practical opening in the catacomb backdrop where hooks connect to eyebolts on the backdrop’s wooden supports.

Here is the diagram for a similar Pepper’s Ghost unit where a ghost plays an organ.

In the corner of this “L” shaped unit is a moving piece of plate glass. This plate glass is placed at a 45-degree angle to the drop opening and the audience. At the correct moment, the glass slides “soundlessly” into place, moved with a hand crank and a cable.

Actor in chamber with plate glass slid into place. Only actor is illuminated. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

The actor walks over the fallen door panel and through the opening; he remains in full view of the audience. He is fully lit with his own miniature spotlight in the chamber. This plate glass rolls into place, separating him from the audience while remaining entirely visible. The glass is undetectable.

Lights go up on the skeleton and its reflection appears on the plate glass. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

A second light illuminates the skeleton, reflecting its image onto the plate glass. The lights on the actor go down and only the reflection of the skeleton remains. The mechanized skeleton with glowing red eyes even gestures to the audience with his bony hand! This is nineteenth century theatrical magic at work!

Lights only appear on the skeleton. All lights on the actor are turned off and only the reflection of the skeleton is visible on the plate glass. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

Eventually, the lights on the skeleton are turned off as the lights on the actor are turned back on, allowing the skeleton’s reflection to be replaced with that of the actor. The plate glass is rolled back and the actor is allowed to immediately exit the unit.

We were able to stage this effect and I witnessed the delight of my crew. In this instant, I knew that Pepper’s Ghost was going to accompany the drop collection back to Minnesota, including all six feet of plate glass and paper maché skeleton. Why restore a catacomb scene without the scenic effect? This was what made audiences gasp in wonder and delight. I even took a video so that the CEO and general director of Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center could understand the importance of the scene, but never received any response from either of them.

The mechanics of this unit were fascinating to examine. Behind the fly rail we had encountered another hand-made mechanical device; a converted sewing machine with cables to raise Jesus during the Ascension scene (18th degree), thus replacing the original hand crack.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite Ascension setting with profile piece that is raised. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
Hand crank that raised profile piece at the Fort Scott Scottish Rite theater in Kansas.
The profile piece in Fort Scott, Kansas, in the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
The machine that replaced the original hand crank to raise the profile piece. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.

They were both delightful examples of mid-twentieth century ingenuity conceived and built by fraternal stage crews. These unique machines captivated my crew and they eagerly anticipated the discovery of other artifacts.

It proved be an ideal start for the second day and the duration of the entire project. Ty Prewitt of BellaTEX had assembled a good combination of unique personalities and individual expertise. The crew and I tentatively shared stories about each other, our families, and homes in the beginning. Each man was hardworking, easy going, accommodating, and fun. I was very lucky to have this particular crew as there would be numerous challenges around the bend. Every day would bring an unanticipated surprise.

To be continued…

Poster for the “Original Pepper’s Ghost” by the Spectral Opera Co. I stumbled across this on a Pintrest page and just had to include it in this post.

Here is the link to a great article on Pepper’s Ghost. http://blog.cmog.org/2012/09/11/ghosts-and-magicand-glass/