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/

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