Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 257 – The Ben-Hur Chariot Race 

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).

Poster for Klaw & Erlanger’s 1899 production of “Ben-Hur” on Broadway with designs by Ernest Albert, a friend of Thomas G. Moses.

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 design for the stage to accommodate the famous “Ben-Hur” chariot race on Broadway.

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.

Scientific American presented the complex mechanical device that facilitated a race on stage with eight horses and two chariots.

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…

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