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…

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