Part 263: Thomas G. Moses Paints “A Day in the Alps” for the Electric Scenic Theatre
Thomas G. Moses records that he painted the scenery for “A Day in the Alps” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The concessionaire for the Electric Scenic Theatre at the Columbian Exposition was Mr. Arthur Schwarz. Located in the Midway Plaisance, a beautiful Swiss Alpine stage scene transitioned from day to night for each performance. Placards were placed outside of the theater’s entrance. They advertised, “Do not miss this chance of a lifetime” and “The Most Intellectual, Absolutely Interesting Spectacle of the Midway Plaisance.” They were competing with Freak shows and other spectacles. Other signs described the show: “Every phase of an Alpine Day is produced with startling realism.” These were supported by testimonials such as “The most beautiful sight I have seen at the fair!” The price for admission was $0.25 per adult or for two children. Single children were provided free admittance with an adult’s admission.
World Fair guidebooks reported, “The stage picture is a beautiful Swiss Alpine scenery, depicting in a realistic way every change of nature shown from dawn to night, as each gradually appears, and representing some of the most wonderfully realistic light effects ever produced by electric lamps. It is almost beyond belief that the visitor is not looking at a marvelous production of nature itself, instead of a picture created by an ingenious and artistic display of electric lights. The scene represents “A Day in the Alps.” Tyrolean warblers perform on their various instruments, and sing their tuneful lays. Their renowned “yodels,” as sung at each performance, are applicable to the scenery. The entire scenic effects are produced by about 250 electric incandescent lamps, operated from in front of the stage, in full view of the audience, by switches. The interior of the theatre is handsomely furnished with comfortable chairs. There are nine electric fans, producing a permanent current of fresh air, keeping the whole room at a low temperature and as refreshing as a sea breeze, it matters not how hot it may be outside.”
Other guidebooks noted that the scenic production “begins with sunrise, and over the mountain top appears the ruddy glow of early sunlight. Then, as morning advances, and the volume of light increases, the beauties of the mountain become more apparent until their full glory flashes upon the beholder. The shepherd boys and girls are seen with their herds, and every feature of Alpine life is faithfully portrayed. Then a storm arises, and the effects here produced by electricity are surprisingly beautiful. After the storm dies away and the clouds vanish Nature smiles again. Then the day begins to fade, and at last it is night, with the stars brooding over all.”
“Western Electric” (vol. 12, pg. 322) published that the mechanical apparatus used red, blue and white lamps that were arranged alternately. The article reported, “Each color and each locality in the setting was wired on a separate circuit, so that, by the introduction of resistance, it only becomes a question of skillful manipulation to give light of any shade or intensity desired. Of course, none of the lamps are visible, as they are arranged in the footlights and wings as well as overhead and behind the setting. The motion of the moon is produced by a tiny motor.” Just like for the 21st Scottish Rite degree production with the ruined abbey and moon that tracks across the sky.
This presentation was so popular that Sosman & Landis immediately created a replica for the new Masonic Temple’s roof top garden after the fair closed. Over the years the studio would create many more electric scenic studios, including the 1908 “A Day in Japan,” created for the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Exposition. It had value.
To be continued…
November 29 was a difficult day – not just for me, but also for theatre history and Masonic scholarship. It was a day when I hoped to celebrate a victory with a friend on his birthday.
The Winona Scenery Collection went up for auction and sold for $10,010.00. This was a minuscule fraction of the cost to replace the 73 pieces of this 1909 scenery collection by Sosman & Landis. The scenery is irreplaceable anyway. The bid came in at only ten dollars more than I recommended that my client should spend. I could not advise him to spend any more, even though some of it was going to replace Scottish Rite scenery that had been destroyed years ago. There was too much water damage to justify spending more. I had gathered a coalition of personal representatives and SGIGs from various Scottish Rite Valleys to bid on the Winona scenery. Why? Each Valley could use a portion as it would match their existing collections beautifully and start a new one. It would also stay within the Fraternity. My only current hope is that the scenery as been sold to some other Scottish Rite theatre in need of replacements.
You see every collection that I evaluate and take care of is like a child. I am their advocate. When the City of Winona decided to split up the collection I was devastated and compared it to keeping a teacup and abandoning the remainder of the Royal Doulton collection. I did everything within my power to keep the scenery collection together, or at least ensure that portions of it found their way to a Masonic home. It is possible I failed and only time will tell where the backdrops end up.
The collection was sold by the City of Winona with a representative who never understood what they were losing. Even as I looked the auction description, all of the specifications were wrong. The city sited that the scenery tubes were 36’ long. No, they were 20’ long. The city explained to prospective buyers that the tubes were 2-3’ in diameter. No, they were two or three drops wrapped on 6” rolls. Incompetence? No. Simple apathy. It was a lack of caring for these artifacts that sealed their fate, not ever understanding that they represented a shared cultural heritage between the Fraternity and American Public. It is a loss of epic proportions. I can say no more.
Here is my goodbye to the Winona Scenery Collection…painted details from King Darius’ Festival Palace for the 16th Degree.
Part 262: It’s Electric!
The Columbian Exposition in 1893 introduced many new concepts and products. From a culinary standpoint, new products included Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, shredded Wheat, and Milton Hershey’s version of chocolate. But there was another product featured at the fair, and it was not contained to any one building – electricity. Not only was there an official building dedicated to electricity, but it dominated the White City. The mammoth white buildings gleamed and glistened with electric lights under evening skies.
There was battle across the country for who would light this land and the interior of every business. One of the first major battles for light occurred during the Columbia Exposition. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse both put in bids to light the fair. Westinghouse, armed with Tesla’s new induction motor submitted an extremely low bid and eventually won the contract. Originally, Tesla planned on using GE bulbs, but Edison who was still irked would not sell to Tesla and Westinghouse. In the end, Westinghouse came up with an even more efficient double-stopper light bulb. Tesla’s 12 thousand-horsepower AC polyphase generators created the City of Light. Some even referred to Tesla’s machines as “Teslas’ animals.” On May 1, 1893 approximately 100,000 lamps illuminated the White City. Electricity and AC current would soon spread across the country. In the next few years, AC power would become the standard for 80% of the country.
One of the most visited exhibits at the Columbian Exposition was the Electricity Building. It was one seven buildings that enclosed the Great Court of the Entrance. The Manufacturers building and the Electricity building were on the north end, the Machinery and Agricultural building on the south end, the railway station on the west end, and the Peristyle with its pavilions on the east end. The Administration Building was in the center of the group. Each had a common height of sixty feet to the top of its cornice with a foot print of 350’ x 700.’
The Electricity Building offered a variety of possibilities for the future of mankind with over 700 displays from all over the world, including exhibits from Germany, France, England, Canada, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Mexico and Russia. General Electric, Fort Wayne Electric, Brush Electric, Germania Electric, La Roche Electric Co., Akron Electric Co., Eddy Electric Co., Crocker-Wheeler Electric, Hansen & Van Winkle Electric, National Electric Co., Heisler Electric Co., Detroit Electric Works, Excelsior Electric, Electric Forging Co., Jenney Electric Motor Co., C & C Motor Co., Munsen Belting Co., Hornell Iron Works, Riker Motor Co., Perkins Lamp Co., New York Insulated Wire Co., E. S. Greeley & Co., Belknap Motor Co., Arnold Motor Co., A.C. Mather, Swan Lamp Co., were just a few of the business represented in the building.
However, no one anticipated exactly how much noise would be emitted from displaying all this new technology. Bright lights came at a price in a confined space! A deafening noise from the machinery accompanied the electrical displays. It was recorded that many people left after just a few minutes when they encountered the noise from the machines.
A guidebook explained “The next most prominent exhibit in the [Electrical] building is that of the Western Electric Company, of Chicago, immediately to the east of the main south entrance. This company has three pavilions, one an Egyptian temple paneled on the outside most uniquely with Egyptian figures and groups associated with electricity. For instance, there is a group of Egyptian maidens, of the time of Ramses the Second, operating a telephone board, and another group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. The conceit is very popular.”
This Egyptian Temple was created by Sosman & Landis and painted by Thomas G. Moses and his crew. Even though there was another Egyptian Temple on the fairgrounds, the Temple of Luksor that was located on the Midway Plaisance, Western Electric Company created “Hello Central.” Western Electric’s intention was to clash the past with the present – ancient hieroglyphs with the modern telephones.
Another part of Western Electric’s pavilion in the Electricity Building was a painted stained glass window illuminated by incandescent lamps. As on the stage, the stained glass composition was panted with dye on a piece of fabric. When the translucent material was lit from behind, it took on a magic of its own – glowing for all to see.
Western Electric contracted Sosman & Landis to design not only the Egyptian pavilion and this stained glass translucency, but also a small electric stage. They created a small stage diorama that would demonstrate the use of electric light for theatre productions. There was a switchboard with a combination of arc and incandescent lights to illuminate the small display. But this was not the only electric theatre at the Fair.
Another gained immediate popularity on the Midway Plaisance – the Electric Scenic Theatre where “A Day in the Alps” was presented. This was also the product of Sosman & Landis Studio and painted Thomas G. Moses. That will be the topic for tomorrow.
To be continued…
Part 260: Thomas G. Moses Painting for Buffalo Bill’s “A Lady of Venice”
Thomas G. Moses created painted scenery for a variety of productions during the Columbian Exposition in 1893. One project was for Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Buffalo Bill wanted his Wild West show to be part of the Columbian Exposition. The Committee of Ways and Means standard tariff for a concession was fifty percent of gross proceeds, not fifty-percent of the actual profits. Cody did not appreciate the high percentage and withdrew his request. He then forged ahead with his own plan and leased approximately fifteen acres of land adjacent to the fairgrounds and constructed an 18,000 seat coliseum.
On March 20, 1893, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” arrived in Chicago. 100 former cavalry troops, 46 cowboys, 97 Cheyenne and Sioux Indians, 53 Cossacks and Hussars, and several herds of animals were unloaded from the cars at the railroad. In a bold move, Cody opened on April 3 – a full four weeks before the grand opening of the World Fair. This is especially ironic as the White City was behind schedule in the overall construction process.
His show included wild animals, bronco busters, a cowboy band, a choreographed Indian attack on the Deadwood stagecoach that was vanquished by mounted troopers, a realistic staging of Custer’s last stand, and Annie Oakley’s shooting at impossible targets.
Columbian Exposition officials were less than pleased with Cody’s presence. The relationship continued to head south throughout the duration of the fair. When fair officials refused Mayor Carter Harrison’s request for a day with free admittance to the poor children of Chicago, Cody immediately announced a “Waif’s Day” at the Wild West. He offered every child from Chicago free train tickets, free admission to his show, and all the ice cream and candy that they could eat.
His show even closed one day AFTER the fair officially closed. During the fair, his show averaged 16,000 spectators for each of the 318 performances. His profits were estimated at one million dollars, today’s equivalent of approximately twenty-six million dollars.
During the Columbian Exposition, Cody also financed “A Lady of Venice,” starring Viola Katherine Clemmons (1870-1930).
“Katherine” Clemmons was born in Palo Alto, California, and first appeared on the stage of McGuire’s Opera House in the mid-1880s. She was cast in a series of Shakespearean plays and traveled to England to study theatre. It was there that she met Cody after she attended one of his shows. Acting as Clemmons agent, he purchased and produced “A Lady of Venice” for her. He established a theatrical business (The Lady of Venice Company) and hired Sherman Canfield to function as her co-manager.
The production opened on September 4, 1893. Newspapers published that it would be “mounted in an extravagant fashion.” The scenes were placed in fifteenth-century Venice and Genoa. The plot dealt with Italian intrigues, politics, and love. Written entirely in blank verse, it was advertised as “a romantic story that admits picturesque accessories.” Clemmons played the character of Nina, an Italian princess and devoted wife who made many sacrifices for an unworthy husband. In the fourth act, Nina dons a man’s armor and attempts to save the city and her husband’s honor, battling her husband’s enemy to the death. She then seeks her Genoese prince, only to find him in the arms of a fair Florentine girl.
Four railroad cars were needed to transport the settings and properties for “A Lady in Venice.” Many newspapers commented on the wonderful mechanical and illumination effects for the stage. Settings included a moonlit masked Fete and Dance, a military encampment, water scenes and canal gondolas. The October 6, 1893 issue of the Buffalo Evening News reported, “The scenery is picturesque and realistic.” This was scenery by Thomas G. Moses.
Supporting roles were played by Effie Germon, Francis Carlyle, Clarence Handyside, Richard Ganthony, Erskine Lewis, Helen Russel, and Marion Bender. The show left Chicago for Albaugh’s Opera House in Washington D.C. where it opened on September 19. By September 25, the show was at the Broad Street Theatre in Philadelphia and performing for Buffalo audiences by October 6 (Star Theatre), moving onto the Duquesne Theatre on October 30. By November Clemmons was acting at Globe Theatre in Boston. After a whirlwind tour, the production arrived at Harry C. Miner’s Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York during 1894.
Unfortunately, Boston and New York critics condemned Clemmons’ performance as “amateurish” and the delivery of her lines as “monotonous.” Cody had met the actress in London during 1887 when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was touring throughout Europe. The November 5, 1893, issue of the Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa) published, “It was Buffalo Bill’s money that sent [Clemmons] to Europe for a stage education. It was his money which provided for her elaborate scenery, beautiful costumes, and enterprising manager and a good company.” The article continued to explain that he “spent something like $40,000 in putting this young star upon the road, and it is hoped that she is achieving a success that will in time enable her to return to her distinguished friend the large sum of money which his generosity led him to invest in her.” Cody later claimed to have lost $60,000 on Clemmons’ career during 1892, 1893 and 1894.
Unlike Clemmons, the production was praised for its lavish expenditure on scenery and costumes. The cash outlay for scenery and stage effects was reported in excess of $25,000. The Boston Enquirer (7 Oct 1893, page 3) noted that, “the play was sumptuously staged” and “the scenery well painted.”
Cody hired Sosman & Landis to design and paint the scenery for the production. The Daily Inter Ocean (22 August 1893, page 6) published, “A great many managers are stocking with scenery just now in this city. Sosman & Landis have big contracts for stocking new opera houses at Ithaca, NY, and Scranton, Pa., then they are painting an original scenic outfit for “The Lady of Venice,” Effie Elishler’s “Doris,” Heywood’s “Edgwood Folks,” Spring & Welton’s “Black Crook,” and Cheeney’s new spectacular production of “Pharaoh.” Moses was in charge of “A Lady of Venice” and many other projects during 1893. This was just one small fraction of his work with a large profit going to the studio.
To be continued…
Part 259: Thomas G. Moses and the Columbian Exposition, 1893
Thomas G. Moses and Ella found a number of good prospects while house hunting in 1893. They eventually selected one particular house in Oak Park, Illinois, that was relatively new – only a year old. Moses wrote that their new home had “very fine wood-work, a large stable, driveway, and a 60 x 178 foot lot.” They bought the house for $8,575.00, today’s equivalent of $222,238.22. Although the amount was much more than the couple wanted to pay, Moses wrote that it appealed to them as no other one had. He had a perfect spot for a home studio with plenty of light.
The couple moved into their new house on May 1, 1893 – the same day that the Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago. Moses noted that their new home now provided plenty of room to entertain World Fair visitors.
The Columbian Exposition lasted from May 1 until October 30, 1893. It was organized to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in the New World. By 1890, the U. S. Congress had the job to select a city that would host the World Fair. Potential exposition sponsors made enormous pledges to become principal contenders as New York, Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago all vied for the honor to host the world fair. It was Chicago banker Lyman Gage’s ability to raise several million additional dollars in a 24-hour period that bested New York’s final offer, prompting Congress to vote in Chicago’s favor. This was just the beginning of many struggles surrounding the site selection, property rights, traffic congestion, the construction process, exhibit selection and identification of exposition authorities. The eventual decision to construct a “White City” with neoclassical structures also prompted debate. Regardless, this event not only became a defining moment in the history of Chicago, but also became a defining moment for many other areas of industry.
There were two distinct areas of the fair: the White City and the Midway Plaisance. Taking lead from the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, the midway included representations of various people and cultures. Chicago’s exposition directors placed the Midway under the direction of Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam. He was also selected to organize the fair’s Anthropology Building. Putnam’s Midway vision was to create a living outdoor museum depicting various countries, especially those with “primitive” human beings that would educate fair visitors. Visitors had an opportunity to “measure the progress of humanity toward the ideal of civilization” (http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1386.html). All of the ethnographic villages and most of the other attractions in the Midway, however, were simply commercial ventures organized by entrepreneurs who obtained concessions through the Ways and Means Committee of the World’s Columbian Commission. The Midway Plaisance country exhibits included: an Indian Village; an Americas and Indian Village; Dahomey Village, Austrian Village; German Village; Panorama of the Burmese Alps; Dutch Settlement; Chinese Village,Theatre and Tea House; Japanese Bazaar; Javanese Theatre; Morocco Exhibits, Panorama of Kilaueau; a Roman House; the Eiffel Tower; Model of St. Peter; National Hungarian Orpheum; Algeria and Tunis Exhibit; a Street in Cairo, a Moorish Palace, a Turkish Village and many other commercial ventures that had specific products to market such as the Exhibit of Irish Industries; the French Cider Press, the Venice Murano Glass Company and the Bohemian Glass Company.
The Columbian Exposition provided theatrical manufacturers, such as Sosman & Landis with many lucrative opportunities. Massive profits were gained in a very short period of time. Moses wrote, “We were simply swamped with work and the prices were big.” Sosman & Landis, like many others anticipated the final push towards opening day. Their decision to open an annex studio on the West Side of Chicago would be a convenient space to construct a variety of painted scenery for performance venues and other exhibits. Although the space was initially pitched to Moses as his own personal studio for subcontracted work, it really was the studio that would be ideal for fairground production. Studio space anywhere near the White City would be at a premium and clients would be scrambling at the last-minute to secure a variety of manufacturers. Their annex studio wasn’t so much for Moses as the anticipated workload in conjunction with the opening of the Columbian Exposition. I have to wonder at what point Moses realized this factor.
Sosman & Landis had a great many exhibits to do at the Fair as well as scenery for outside shows. Moses’ typed manuscript personally documents his involvement in scenery for a variety of productions that included “The Outsider,” “Columbus” for Mr. Leavitt, “Fabio Romana,” “The Black Crook,” “A Day in the Swiss Alps,” “South Sea Islanders,” “Kansas State Exhibit,” “The Laplanders,” “Streets of Cairo,” Javanese Theatre, Chinese Theatre, a dozen big floats, “Lady of Venice” for Buffalo Bill, W.F. Cody and many others. He also worked on productions that were nearby the fairgrounds such the Trocodevs, the Empire Theatre and the Isabella Theatre. But there were many others produced by the Sosman and Landis studio, such as the various displays in for Western Electric Co. Each of these projects is a worthwhile story to understand and appreciate Moses contributions to the Columbian Exposition.
The next series of posts will examine the Chicago projects that Moses worked on in 1893, both inside and outside of the fairgrounds.
To be continued…
Part 258: A Crossroads in 1892
At the beginning of 1892, Thomas G. Moses wrote, “I was again itching to get out for myself.” In other words, he was ready to leave the Sosman & Landis studio as he had five years earlier. In 1887 he left the company to form Burridge, Moses & Louderbeck. It was short lived and Moses soon returned to the company. It was the constant struggle between artistic freedom and the stability of a studio salary.
In 1892, Moses wrote a letter to Landis, suggesting that he might leave Sosman & Landis again. Moses recalled that Mr. Landis sent him “a good sharp letter” in response, telling him that they were going to fit up an outside studio for Moses to handle increased production and special work, so he had nothing to say about the matter. This was the same year that Sosman & Landis opened their annex studio for Moses, promising him all of the company’s subcontracted work and providing him with both a space and supplies at no charge. I guess that would be why Landis wrote that Moses had “nothing to say” about any eminent departure from the studio, even if he was “itching to get out” for himself.
Unfortunately, Moses was seldom in town to use the new annex space or the promised supplies. As he traveled, Ed Loitz was left in charge of the space. I wondered for quite a while why he was constantly sent on the road and then came to the realization – marketing. Moses on the road was a better advertisement and could market the company more successfully than any advertisement or catalogue. On site, Moses was well-known, popular, and soon secured the much of their future work. He impressed the locals with both his personality and talent, resulting in additional projects at nearby venues. He was too valuable to stay hidden within the annex studio of Chicago. But this also kept him away from his family and the possibility of greater profits.
Lets look at just a few projects from the year that he contemplated leaving Sosman & Landis. In 1892, Moses designed and created scenery for productions such as Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur,” William Haworth’s “A Flag of Truce,” and Charles Davis’ “Alvin Joslim.” He was constantly traveling across the country to paint scenery onsite for other theaters from California to Massachusetts. West Coast performance venues included the Yo Semite Theater in Stockton, California and the Fischer Opera House in San Diego, California. Small halls and other projects often resulted from these large theater jobs.
On top of everything else, the Chicago Sunday Tribune recognized Moses as one of the country’s top scenic artists that same year. However, that recognition came at a price as the article also noted that he had “small opportunity to exercise his creative faculty.” Moses was unhappy with the status quo and began to think about his future at Sosman & Landis. I believe that Moses needed some form of validation that he was not wasting his talents in the Sosman & Landis studios. He was ready to move on.
Regardless of the outcome, Landis’ letter to Moses changed the tenor of their relationship. It must have been a blow to Moses’ ego. He was 36 years old and knew he was at a crossroads in his career. Moses was determining whether the stability of a studio job was worth sacrificing his artistic potential and started to reflect on both his future and past in his writings. At this same time, Moses also began to reconnect with a variety of familial relationships as he continued to travel for work.
During March 1892, Moses traveled to Woonsocket to see his sister Lucia. He recorded that he hadn’t seen his sister in over twenty years, writing, “I certainly enjoyed my short visit. Lucia had grown stout and was happily married. Had two children – Gertrude and Theodore.” The visit took place on his way to paint scenery for an unidentified small hall at Athol, Massachusetts.
In May 1892, Moses’ wife Ella journeyed east to join him while he was working in Maine. While on the East Coast, the couple visited Moses’ Uncle Horace in Boston where they “enjoyed some atmosphere of a truly artistic home.” They also visited many other aunts and uncles. These relatives were curious to see their “wild and wooly” relatives from the West were like, “West” meaning Chicago. In visiting with their extended family who, had “never been out of sight of the salt water,” Moses recalled that he always felt like giving an Indian “war whoop” to prove their suspicions. He commented that many of their questions regarding the West suggested that they expected him to carry a tomahawk and dress with a blanket and feathers.
While traveling, Ella left the children in Chicago in the care of her sister May and Grandmother Moses. May was living in their house with Ella and the children as Moses traveled for work. Ella returned to Chicago at the end of May and Moses wrote, “The children were glad to see her, as their grandmother Moses looked after them during the day and I don’t think they enjoyed her.”
By the end of 1892, Moses had made a profit of $5,000, today’s equivalent of $130,000. The couple was doing financially well despite Moses’ constant travel. It was time to look toward the future and they began planning for a new chapter in their lives. It was just around the corner, as well as the Chicago World Fair. At the beginning of 1893, they started house hunting in Oak Park.
To be continued…
Part 257: The Ben-Hur Chariot Race
One of the things that I love about theatre is the magic – the “how did they do that?”
Just like a good magic trick, or slight of hand, I want to understand the magic on the stage. The simple illusion of Pepper’s Ghost in Fort Scott captivated seasoned stagehands by the simple reflection of a skeleton on plate glass. This scenic illusion and many other “smoke and mirror” effects still captivate audiences. We love the theatre magic that facilitates our willing suspension of disbelief during a production.
Wednesday’s post examined Thomas G. Moses’ involvement in creating a model and scenery for “Ben-Hur in Dramatic Tableaux and Pantomime.” This 1892 version was still touring the country when other productions, such as the 1899 Broadway show appeared on the stage. The 1899 production was produced by Klaw & Erlanger, adapted to the stage by William Young and designed by Ernest Albert (more about Albert in installments #131, 133-139, 145, 154, 179 and 2480).
An August 7, 1899, an article in the Indianapolis Journal quoted Marc Klaw in an interview discussing the 1899 production. Although not going into detail, he stated “Our scenic calls for six acts, with the chariot race as the fifth act.” Klaw continued, “We are not quite ready to give out the exact details of the different acts, but the principal events of the book which will be dealt with will be the appearance of the three wise men, the chariot race, the galleon fight, the scene in the grove of Daphne, the boat ride of Iris, the scenes at the palace of the Hurs and the famous Palm Sunday scene.” The sixth act was to depict Palm Sunday with music that included the singing of Hosanna, “Star of Bethlem,” by Edgar Stillman Kellman who was a professor of Oriental and Greek Music.
The Indianapolis article also published, “The most extensive research has been resorted to in selecting the designs for the costumes and obtaining accurate scenes. Our artists spent weeks searching the libraries and old book collectors to find scenes of ancient Jerusalem…All the old books in Columbia University have been kindly placed at our disposal.” Ernest Albert was known for his close attention to detail and historical accuracy.
The September 22, 1899, issue of the Laredo Times (Laredo, Texas, page 1) published an article, “Ben Hur Chariot Race.” The article stated,” “General Lew Wallace’s ‘Ben Hur’ is to be dramatized and presented on the stage. For twenty years General Wallace refused to allow this dramatization because he believed that no mechanism could be devised to give lifelike imitation on the stage of the great chariot race, around which the historical novel centers and because ‘Ben Hur’ with the chariot race left out would not be ‘Ben Hur.’” Moses’ design in 1892 for “Ben Hur in Dramatic Tableaux and Pantomine” was just that – a stage picture for the audience with a live narration.
The staging of the Broadway race included eight horses and two chariots. It absolutely fascinated theatre audiences. As with other scenic effects for the theatre, the chariot race’s treadmill was even examined and illustrated in “Scientific American” (August 25, 1900, Vol. 83, issue 8). The Laredo article continued, “A New York manufacturer of stage appliances, however, devised a chariot race illusion which General Wallace believes will give the audience as stirring a portrayal of the great contest as he has given in the novel.” The production necessitated the tearing out of the Broadway Theatre stage and bracing it with steel beams in order to support the unusual weight and heavy impact of all the horses as they came thundering down the stage. The treadmill mechanism involved an amphitheater as well as an arena to create a panoramic effect.
Here is the November 5, 1899 New York Herald’s description of the great chariot race:
“The stage has been propped underneath by enormous cross-beams and great uprights until it is impossible for the eight horses that pound away for dear life to break through. The great treadmill, large enough for eight horses and two chariots, is neatly fitted into the floor and seems to be part of the stage, so that you don’t notice that it is any different from the roadway.” The article went on to describe how the thunder of the horses hooves and whirr of chariot wheels drowned out any noise of the treadmill and moving panorama. The rubber and felt coverings were credited with the mechanism’s success. The article explained that the great moving panorama of painted crowds in coliseum seats moved as the chariots raced side-by-side. The cloaks and skirts of the chariot drivers fluttered in the wind, caused by powerful electric fans, placed immediately in the off-stage area and near the chariots. Furthermore, an additional blast of air from under the horses’ hooves and under the chariot wheels would throw great clouds of real dust through holes in the stage floor. The final “smash-up’ of the chariots is caused when Ben-Hur drives his chariot against Messala’s. A wheel is knocked off and the chariot goes spinning off the stage. When this catastrophe occurred every stage and auditorium light goes out for a moment, plunging the space into darkness. At this same time, the moving panorama stopped and 150 actors raced onto the dark stage. The lights go up to reveal the victor amidst cheering crowds.
On October 8, 1899, the Salt Lake Herald published an article, “The Chariot Race in ‘Ben Hur’” that looked at the preparation for this stage scene (pg. 8). It noted, “For more than a month expert horsemen have been training for this scene. Twelve horses are needed, says a New York paper. More that sixty have been tried and only eight competent ones found. They have to run at full speed on a mechanical device, a thing that some horses will by no means do. Eight horses will be on the stage at a time, and there will be four trained “understudies.”
There will be four bays for Ben Hur’s chariot, “chosen for beauty as well as speed.” Messala’s chariot will be drawn by two blacks and two whites. The substitutes will be two bays, a black and a white. The illusion, so far as the running of the horses is concerned, will be produced in a manner similar to that used by Burgess in the race scene in “The County Fair,” only on an enlarged scale. It is the treadmill principle. There will be eight treadmills built into the stage, one for each horse.
The framework and endless chain of slats which form the running surface are of selected hickory. The slats are two inches wide, and enough space is left between them to allow them to run over steel wheels about eight inches in diameter at either end of the machine. Between the larger end wheels, their tops forming the support for the running surface slats, is a mass of smaller wheels. There are 196 of these in each machine, 1,568 in all. They are of steel, about four inches in diameter and each has a solid rubber tire.
As the horse attempts to run each movement of his hoofs sends the movable platform back, running swiftly on the scores of perfectly balanced rubber-tired wheels beneath. The faster he goes the faster spin the wheels and the more perfect the illusion.”
The intricacy of this mechanical effect is astounding to me. If only I had a time machine to witness this production firsthand.
To be continued…