Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 292 – The American Reflector and Lighting Company

Part 292: The American Reflector and Lighting Company

The American Reflector and Lighting Company has appeared in many of my searches over this past year. I first encountered the name of the company when looking through the papers of John R. Rothgeb at the Univeristy of Texas, Austin – Harry Ransom Center. As I was quickly compiling an inventory of the contents in this primarily unprocessed collection, I noticed the name American Reflector and Lighting Company. It was listed in the the paperwork for the final estate of Joseph S. Sosman’s wife, May P. Sosman. 25 shares of American Reflector and Lighting Company stock were noted and valued at $100 each. I was intrigued.

Photocopy made by John R. Rothgeb for his research pertaining to the Soman & Landis scenic studio of Chicago. His collection (John R. Rothgeb Papers) is at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin.

A year later, while I was examining the rigging in the Yankton Scottish Rite with Rick Boychuk, I saw the name American Reflector and Lighting Company again. We were crawling around the building, then – “Lo and Behold!” – I noticed the company’s name on a metal cover.

American Reflector and Lighting Company metal cover found in the attic of the Yankton Scottish Rite during November 2017.

By the way, one of my favorite things to do is explore the attics of Masonic buildings. They are treasure troves that contain a variety of artifacts providing information about the past. Luckily, few Masons take it upon themselves to organize a cleaning day for the attic, or space above the stage and auditorium. If they did, even more valuable artifacts would end up in a dumpster. I finally decided to continue the research concerning the American Reflector and Lighting Company that I started while in Texas during 2016.

American Reflector and Lighting Company opened its doors just before the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Pretty smart move, considering that the fairgrounds would need and extensive amount of street and specialty lighting – all done at the last minute. The world fair opened a few months after the American Reflector and Lighting Company. Sosman and Landis had also opened the annex studio in anticipation of the increased workload and were greatly diversifying their product.

Advertisement for the American Reflector and Lighting Company in a Sosman & Landis Catalogue from 1894-1895. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Lighting fixtures advertised in a Sosman & Landis Catalogue from 1894-1895. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

On March 24,1893, The Chicago Inter Ocean included the American Reflector and Lighting Company of Chicago as a newly formed business under the heading “Licensed To Do Business.” The company’s incorporators were listed as Perry Landis, William A. Toles and Robert Latham. The capital stock was valued $100,000. Charles Landis was listed as the treasurer. The Chicago salesroom was located at 271-273 Franklin Street where the company advertised 150 styles of reflectors for users of electricity, gas and oil. Their lighting fixtures used crystal glass lined with pure metallic silver to provide “the best practical reflecting surface.” The company advertised that their reflectors, for both indoor and outdoor lighting, “promised that the power of light was fully utilized, as its rays are saved from waste, strengthened and thrown in the desired direction.” The 1897 issue of “Western Electrician” included a plate with American reflectors manufactured by the company (Vol. XX, Jan. 2-June 26, page 505 and 518). “Paragon reflectors” were a specialty line of the company’s product, also made in a variety of forms.

Some of the lighting fixtures manufactured by the American Reflector and Lighting Company in 1897. Included in the December issue of Western Electrician, 1897.

William A. Toles, was the second of three incorporators to found the American Reflector and Lighting Company. He had a history with the reflector business in Chicago as he had also helped found and manage the Wheeler Reflector Company of Chicago. The two other incorporators for that company the Willard L. Gillam and George E. Plumb. The Wheeler Reflector Company sold the reflector designs of civil engineer and inventor, William Wheeler (1851-1932). Wheeler was widely known for his innovative patents that included not only lighting, but also water and sewage systems. In 1880, Wheeler filed a patent for a novel form of lighting. He commercialized his invention through the Wheeler Reflector Company of Boston, Massachusetts. The company was extremely profitable and remained an important manufacturer of street lighting until the mid-twentieth century.

One of many inventions by William Wheeler to reflect light for increased visibility.
One of many inventions by William Wheeler to reflect light for increased visibility.
One of many inventions by William Wheeler to reflect light for increased visibility.

An ex-employee in Chicago later accused Toles of bribing city officials to select their company when contracting work for streetlights during 1886 (The Inter Ocean, 4 April 1887, page 1). After the excitement of this accusation ended Toles created another business – the Western Wheeler Reflector Company.

The Western Wheeler Reflector Company was located at No. 88 Lake Street in Chicago. On April 13, 1888, the Chicago Inter Ocean reported the company’s incorporators as William A Toles, Willard L. Giliman, and George E. Plume. Same individuals, slightly different spelling of names in the newspaper announcement. This time, the company started with $50,000 in capital.

During the 1880s Toles started two reflector companies. By 1893, he was involved in a third – The American Reflector and Lighting Company. The Western Wheeler Reflector Company was also still in business at the time his third company opened. There were a lot of potential contracts to provide city lights, stage lighting and illuminate the Columbian Exposition. For Toles, it was a win-win. For Sosman & Landis, it was diversifying their interests and ensuring a healthy profit at the end of the day.

When Landis left the Sosman & Landis in 1904 and after Sosman passed away in 1914, Thomas G. Moses was primarily responsible for the running of the studio. Unfortunately, he was a scenic artist who mainly focused on the painted scenery and not all of the other areas of the company. The scenic studios who continued to thrive were those who diversified into fabric curtains, rigging and other stage hardware. As Moses continued to focus on a painted aesthetic, the world began to pass him by, as well as the Sosman & Landis studio. The entire aesthetic for the entertainment industry began to change and a company had to be willing to let certain products surpass existing favorites – like painted illusion. This was especially important as the Great Depression began.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 291: Back to 1892

Part 291: Back to 1892
For several installments I took a sidetrack to examine cycloramas, the American panorama Company and women scenic artists. These are all intricate pieces of a puzzle that mark a unique time in the history for visual entertainment. Prior to that, I was looking at Thomas G. Moses’ projects during 1892, as I continue to present his typed manuscript from 1873 to 1934, year by year. “Tales of a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center” is about the significance of this acquisition and the career of the collection’s artist – Thomas G. Moses. The purpose of this discourse is to provide context concerning its significance. Although much of the collection has been damaged beyond repair due to ill handling, this collection was once internationally significant in the world of theatre history and Masonic history. I’m providing a glimpse of why I recommended the purchase of the painted scenery collection while working as the Curatorial Director for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center during 2015.
Let’s venture back to 1892.
This is two years before Grace N. Wishaar’s scenic art career began in Seattle and thirty-two years before Moses would paint the Scottish Rite scenery for Fort Scott, Kansas.
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. There were many other projects completed by Sosman & Landis artists. Each of these projects is a worthwhile story to understand and appreciate Moses contributions to the Columbian Exposition. It is important, however, to recall that the Sosman and Landis studio was situated across the street from the Western Electric Building in Chicago. Their work for Western Electric and other scenic electric theatre displays makes complete sense. “Being in the right place at the right time” could have been their motto.
In the larger context of Chicago and the world of theatrical manufacturers, businesses were popping up all over the place and the Columbian Exposition gave many the “push” that they needed to not only survive, but also thrive in the following decades. For many scenic studios, panorama studios, fresco studios, and other decorative art firms, the formation, running, changing hands, and longevity were all up in the air. The individual artists would get together for a year or two, maybe five, and then split, quickly regrouping with another group of individuals.
So what made Sosman & Landis last so long? They partnered in 1877 and the business continued into the 1920s. They rapidly grew during the 1880s and by the 1893 World Fair started to soar. There success? They paired new technology with old – looking forward, but diversifying and branching into other areas – draperies, lighting, rigging, and scenery. Unlike many artists, they sold the whole package to theaters. If there was a product that they needed, they began to manufacture it, started a new company, or bought stock in in it. One of the side businesses of Joseph S. Sosman was a company specializing in lighting products – the American Reflector and Lighting Company. When I stumbled across the stamp up in the attic of the Yankton Scottish Rite, all I could think of was, “Of course, you sold it here too. Your biggest client – the Masons.”
Up in the attic of the Yankton Scottish Rite I noticed the American Reflector and Lighting Company stamp. Photograph from November 2017.
Detail of the stamp from another company that Joseph S. Sosman was involved in during the 1890s.
Advertisement for the American Reflector and Lighting Co. in a Sosman and Landis catalogue from 1893-1894.
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 290: The Final Game – Grace Wishaar, Chess, and Alexander Alekhine


Part 290: The Final Game – Grace Wishaar, Chess, and Alexander Alekhine

Grace Wishaar’s interest in chess as a recreation after a day spent scene painting is first mentioned in 1904. The San Francisco Call reported, “To complete the versatility of this remarkable young woman, she is an excellent musician and a clever chess player. When her eyes grow weary of color and the brush becomes a heavy weight she turns to chess for recreation” (October 13, 1904, page 6). Four decades later, Wishaar would become the Ladies Champion of the World Chess exhibition in Paris. She was sixty-eight years old, the same age as Thomas G. Moses when he painted the entire Fort Scott scenery collection.

Grace N. Wishaar Alekhine

Wishaar’s sixth husband was chess champion- Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946). Sixteen years her junior, Alekhine was born in Moscow. He grew up in an aristocratic and very wealthy family, learning to play chess at the age of six. He first encountered simultaneous blindfold chess games when he was nine years old and became enthralled with a visiting champion who competed in twenty-two games. Alekhine would eventually become one of the greatest blindfold players in history. He joined the Moscow Chess Club and won the All-Russian Amateur Tournament by 1909.In 1914 he emerged on the worldwide state, being one of the top five.

Alexander Alekhine in 1909

That same year, Alekhine was retained in Germany with ten other Russian chess players when war erupted. Fortunately, he escaped and returned to Russia. After the war, he began to travel again and compete all over the world, landing on US soil during 1923-1924. While in the states he participated in 24 exhibitions, even competing in one blindfold simultaneous game against twenty-one other players. Ten years later, he met Grace Wishaar in Tokyo.

Wishaar was also competing in a chess tournament. During the event, she played against Alexander Alekhine in a simultaneous exhibition. For her participation, she received one of Alekhine’s books and asked him to autograph her copy. Although sixteen years older than Alekhine, he was captivated with Wishaar and they married the following year. On March 26, 1934, their wedding ceremony took place at Villefranche-sur-Mer in France. This is about 6 miles southwest of Monaco. They lived in a magnificent chateau (La Chatellenie Saint-Aubin-le-Cauf was near Normandy), Wishaar maintained her art studio in Paris, and they traveled extensively for chess championships around the world.

Alexander Alekhine playing against Capablanca.

Both competed at the Hastings International Chess Congress in 1936/37 where Alekhine won the Premier. He won this same tournament in previous years (1922, 1925/6, 1933/4). Wishaar won 3rd prize in the 3rd Class Morning A class competition. By 1938, a civic reception was held in their honor at the Golden Jubilee Chess Congress in Plymouth.

Life wasn’t without challenges or struggles, however, as reports continued to depict Alekhine’s excessive drinking during competitions. Yet he continued to win, game after game, and excelled in blindfold simultaneous chess challenges.

During World War II, the Nazis took over their chateau and looted its contents. Alekhine was allowed to freely travel under Nazi occupation, but no exit visa was allowed for Wishaar. After the war, Wishaar sold the chateau and spent the last five years of her life in her Paris studio. She passed away on February 21, 1956 and is buried next to Alexander in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Grave of Alexander Alekhine and Grace N. Wishaar

Unbelievably, after the numerous years of solely receiving recognition under her maiden name, it is actually misspelled on her grave. The majority of information about Wishaar is linked to life with her sixth and last husband.

For more information about Alexander Alekhine, see Pablo Moran’s book, “A. Alekhine, Agony of a Chess Genius.” The book examines the tragic last years of world chess champion Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), 45 of his match and tournament games in Spain and Portugal from 1943 to 1946, and 100 other late exhibition games are covered. Here is the link if you are interested in purchasing it (I did): https://www.amazon.com/A-Alekhine-Agony-Chess-…/…/0786459816. There is also a blog on his life and chess tactics by M. Silman. For those interested in Alekhine’s strategies and rise as a world champion, there is an amazing blog. It covers his life and techniques in seven parts. Here is the link to part 1: https://www.chess.com/…/alexander-alekhine-pt-1-and-the-gam…

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 289 – Grace N. Wishaar and Marian Smith Oliver

Part 289: Grace N. Wishaar and Marian Smith Oliver
In 1909 Grace N. Wishaar collapsed from overwork and exhaustion. Her house had recently burned to the ground, taking her entire art collection with it. Her doctor advised a “rest trip” for treatment.
Grace N. Wishaar’s Piedmont home and art collection were destroyed by fire in 1909.
This meant travel to escape all of life’s demands and worries. I am sure that there are many of us who would appreciate this type of medical treatment right now. I would, especially if it meant leaving on a world tour to sketch. Fortunately, Wishaar had a traveling companion who had also been prescribed travel for health reasons. Her friend was quite wealthy and could fund their entire trip.
Under the advice of a physician, Wishaar’s friend Marian Smith Oliver had already left for Australia during August 1909. She was not gone for long after learning of Wishaar’s series of unfortunate events. Oliver returned to California and planned an extended trip around the world with Wishaar. In 1910, Wishaar and Oliver journeyed to the South Sea Islands, New Zealand, Australia, the Orient, Mediterranean countries, and elsewhere. They ended up in Paris.
Mrs. Roland Oliver (Marian Smith Oliver), travel companion of Grace N. Wishaar.
Marian Smith Oliver married Roland Oliver in 1907. Oliver was the manager of the Leona chemical company, one of F. M. Smith’s properties. Marian was a former ward of F. M. Smith, a multimillionaire known as the Borax King. Oliver started as a miner without and funds or prospects when he stumbled upon the wealth of chemicals in Death Valley. There he staked out the wonderful borax deposits that paved the way for his immense fortune. In Oakland he developed the scheme Realty Syndicate, a plan that issued certificates carrying guaranteed interest against the enormous realty holdings the syndicate acquired with high finance. Out of borax was a future in Oakland real estate and a series of big investments. But of the most importance, the Realty Syndicate building housed Ye Liberty Playhouse where Wishaar painted scenery.
Mrs. F. M. Smith raised and educated several wards as her own children. Marian was one of her wards who received $250,000 worth of jewels and a few articles of her costly and famous wardrobe. When Marian married Roland Oliver, F. M. Smith also gave her an independent fortune in securities and realty holdings. The Smiths ensured Marian’s financial independence from her husband. It was this financial independence that funded her world trip with Wishaar, as no one could demand her return but cutting off her funding. There must have been a reason for the Smiths to provide financial independence for Marian. Maybe they knew he was a creep.
The San Francisco Call on October 16, 1910, reported “Wife’s Long Stay Abroad Gives Rise to Gossip” (page 31).
Gossip resulted from the extended absence of Marian Smith Oliver and Grace N. Wishaar on their world tour.
The gossip was that Oliver would stay abroad indefinitely to study music and performance. By 1911, Oliver was studying music in Paris while Wishaar set up an art studio. Newspaper articles began to report that Oliver’s health had greatly improved and that she was enjoying life upon the stage. By April 6, 1911 the Oakland Tribune noted that Mrs. Roland Oliver “has taken a career before the footlights” (page 1). The article also reported, “Her fascination for the stage led her to spend time among theatrical folk, and it was partly in this way that her friendship with Miss Grace Wishaar, the long time the scenic artist at Ye Liberty theatre formed.”
Grace N. Wishaar was the scenic artist at Ye Liberty Theatre in Oakland, California from 1904-1909. In 1910 Wishaar departed on a world tour with Marian Smith Oliver.
During August 1911, Oliver returned to the United States and was living in the home of F. M. Smith at Shelter Island.
The trip never really ended for Wishaar. By 1914, she was still living abroad and painting portraits in Paris. The April 5, 1914, issue of the Oakland Tribune mentioned Wishaar’s extended absence under the heading, “Oakland Artist Gains Triumph” (page 29). The Tribune reported that Wishaar was exhibiting three portraits at the Salon des Beaux Arts in the Grand Palais, beginning on April 12, 1914. Two of her portraits featured Giralamo Savonarola and Countess Walewska.
The article explained that exhibiting at Salon des Beaux Arts was an honor all artists look forward to, “a goal for which they strive.” It reported, “Miss Wishaar may be considered in every sense to have definitely arrived.” Her arrival at the Salon also meant her departure from the world of scenic art and painting on a bridge high above the stage. Fourteen years later, she would again be featured in the Salon, along with fifty-three other artists during May 1928.
Wishaar was lucky in many things, but certainly not in marriage. She soon married Archibald C. Freeman in Ceylon. This was her fourth marriage. Freeman was a dual British-American citizen who committed suicide in Bandarawella in the March 1931. It was her marriage to Freeman that granted her British citizenship, something she retained throughout the remainder of her life. After Freeman, Wishaar married and divorced Henry James Bromley. Not much is known of this relationship, other than it was disclosed on her sixth marriage certificate to Alexander Alekhine, the world chess champion.
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 288 – Grace N. Wishaar at Ye Liberty Playhouse

Part 288: Grace N. Wishaar at Ye Liberty Playhouse
Grace N. Wishaar was listed as the scenic artist at Harry W. Bishop’s Ye Liberty Playhouse in Oakland when it opened to the public in 1904. That was ten years after her scenic art career began and forty years before she would win the Ladies World Championship for chess. 
Ye Liberty Playhouse was located at 1424 Broadway in a portion of the Realty Syndicate Building. Twin arched entrances at the front led to the Syndicate Realty offices (left) and the theatre (right).
Entrance to Harry W. Bishop’s Ye Liberty Playhouse in Oakland, California.
“Henry’s Official Western Theatre Guide” (1907-1908) listed the seating capacity for the venue as 1,980.
1905 seating map for Ye Liberty Playhouse in Oakland, California.
It was a sizable house for Oakland and the space was illuminated with both gas and electric lights. The proscenium opening measured 36’ wide by 36’ high. The depth of the stage was 80’ with a 75’ revolve conceived by Harry W. Bishop. The height to the gridiron was 65’-0.” Ye Liberty was also considered to also possess an extremely fine stock company and present remarkable productions.
Harry W. Bishop’s Ye Liberty Playhouse, 1910. This is where Grace N. Wishaar was the scenic artist from 1904-1909.
Ye Liberty later became a movie theatre in 1917 and was renamed the Hippodrome. At this time, the venue advertised “High-Class Vaudeville Feature Photo Plays and Animated Weeklys.” Then the venue became known as the MacArthur Theatre before briefly reverting to its original name. By 1930 the space was renamed – again – the Century Theatre, and then finally became the Central Theatre. Sadly, the section of the Syndicate Realty Building that held Ye Liberty Playhouse was torn down and rebuilt into a retail space during 1961. A southern entrance to a Footlocker Store now marks the original site.
Some of Wishaar’s 1904 productions at Ye Liberty included “Frou Frou,” “Hamlet,” “A Gentleman of France,” “Merchant of Venice,” “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and “Held the Enemy.” Newspaper articles mentioned the combined efforts of the scenic artist Miss Grace Wishaar and Ye Liberty’s stage carpenter Walter Woener (Woerner). Woerner was also in charge of the mechanical department and later worked at the Fulton Theatre.
In 1905, Wishaar painted scenery at Ye Liberty for “Juanita of San Juan” and “The Light Eternal.” Grace Wishaar’s sets for “Juanita of San Juan” (Oakland Tribune, Oct 17, 1935) were held up with high acclaim. This same year, she was featured across the country in the article “Clever Woman Invades Scene Painting Field” (Albuquerque Citizen, 21 July 1905, page 3). The article reported “A woman sitting on a bridge at a dizzying height in the rear of the stage in an Oakland theatre, painting in with bold strokes skies and trees and castles, proves the ability of her sex to keep pace with the masculine gender in the following of any profession.”
1905 article about Grace N. Wishaar, scenic artist.
The article continued, “While Miss Wishaar has gained fame and a good living from her scene painting, she is devoting herself to a branch of art that no doubt in time will bring her fame of the highest type. Her miniature painting shows the most exquisite appreciation of the value of colors. A rare skill in catching her subjects likeness, combined with a most subtle blending of tones make her miniature work worthy of the praise of the most critical of critics.” Wishaar’s miniature portraits included the young daughters of author Jack London (1876-1916). London was an American novelist, journalist, and social activist. He is considered to be a pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction and became quite a celebrity.
Grace N. Wishaar painted miniatures of Jack London’s daughters.
Wishaar’s relationship with London and other California socialites would provide a variety of future opportunities. As in New York, she remained a curiosity to many who met her, captivating people with both her talent and intelligence. Wishaar also exhibited and won awards many art exhibitions, chairing a variety of artistic clubs.
Illustration of Grace Wishaar in the 1906 Oakland Tribune.
By 1906, Wishaar was again featured in the Oakland Tribune with a lovely illustration of her straddling a beam and painting scenery in bloomers – attire that she did not paint in. By 1907, Wishaar painted the elaborate scenery for “Cleopatra” at Ye Liberty and “The Toy Maker” at the Idora Park Opera House, resulting in rave reviews. For “Cleopatra,” an article described her stage settings in detail: “The play opened with the meeting of the beautiful queen of Egypt and the Roman conqueror at Tarsus. This scene was gorgeously set. Cleopatra entered in her brilliantly decorated barge seated beneath a canopy of gold. But this first scene was no more splendid than the other five that followed” (San Francisco Call, 31 December 1907, page 4). Wishaar’s career continued to soar in California, recognizing her artistic achievements on both the stage and in fine art galleries. Three failed marriages were behind her and Wishaar’s future looked bright. It was at this point that tragedy struck the Wishaar home, but once again life would provide new opportunities.
The San Francisco Call (3 July 1909, page 12) reported that Miss Grace Wishaar “narrowly escaped death” when her home at Piedmont Heights was burned to the ground. This was the same area where Harry W. Bishop also lived in his famous home. Wishaar’s home at Folkers and Lake Shore Avenue was burned to the ground. Piedmont had no fire protection, so the Oakland fire department was called to battle the blaze. However, the Oakland fire department was already responding to a small fire at the Empire foundry on Third and Broadway.
Wishaar’s fire was attributed to a defective grate, but she lost everything; her home valued at $5,000, all of her furniture and prized collection of paintings. Inhabitants of the Wishaar home were listed as Grace’s mother Mrs. M. I. Wishaar, her brother Louis Wishaar, and her son Carroll Peeke.
Despite the tragedy, Wishaar persisted with work for a variety of venues. On Oct. 10, 1909, she created a float “Where Rail and Water Meet” to represent Oakland in the grand Portola pageant in San Francisco. The float was 27 feet long by 14 feet wide and 9 feet tall, drawn by six dapple-gray horses in white harnesses.
But the fire, debts from her third failed marriage and loss of her home proved to take its toll on the young scenic artist. That following month, the “San Francisco Call” (6 Nov. 1909, page 9) reported that Wishaar “collapsed from overwork.” The article noted that she was compelled to take a “rest cure.” Enter the California socialite and ward of the “Borax King” who was also battling ill health and prescribed a “rest cure.” Ahhhh. To have permission to escape everything. With a doctor’s orders for rest and a wealthy friend to foot the bill, extended travel plans were in Wishaar’s future. This is when the already interesting life of Grace N. Wishaar becomes REALLY interesting.
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 287 – Grace Wishaar and Harry W. Bishop

Part 287: Grace N. Wishaar and Harry W. Bishop

Grace N. Wishaar painted scenery for a variety of venues along the west coast after leaving New York 1902. In Seattle, she was photographed painting with Sheridan Jenkins, the scenic artist for the Third Street Theatre. The following year, she began working in California. Even though she married for a third time in 1906, she continued to paint under her maiden name. Her first two husbands were Whitney Irving Eisler (1897) and Oscar Graham Peeke (1902).

On August 14, 1906, Wishaar married her third husband, John Bruce Adams. However, the marriage was short lived and in 1907 the Oakland Tribune reported, “Mrs. Grace Wishaar Adams is in Matrimonial Trouble” (July 17, 1907). Adams deserted Wishaar and left a lot of debts in her name. At the time her marriage with Adams ended, she was painting all of the scenery at Ye Liberty Playhouse and Idora Park.

In California, she also worked at San Francisco’s Majestic Theatre and few other performance venues in San José. One of her greatest supporters was Harry W. Bishop (1872-1928), considered to be one of “the pioneers of California theatredom” (Oakland Tribune, 15 June 1928, page 33).

Harry W. Bishop’s obituary photo from 1928. Bishop employed Grace N. Wishaar as his scenic artist at Ye Liberty Playhouse in 1904.

Bishop was the adopted son of Walter M “Bishop” (1849-1901), otherwise known as Walter Morosco, the proprietor of Morosco’s Royal Russian Circus.

Harry W. Bishop’s obituary reported that he “began his career as a showman in San Francisco and ended it brokenhearted and poor as a sometime real estate operator.” But the story couldn’t be that simple. Oliver Morosco adopted Walter and Leslie Mitchell, orphaned sons of Sir John Mitchell and Dora Esmea Montrose of Utah. Some sources reported that Walter ran away from home at the age of 17 to join the circus as an acrobat.

After Walter left his circus career, he took over the Howard Street Theatre in San Francisco and started his new venture as a producer and manager. He later took over the Burbank Theatre in Oakland, as well as the Union Hall and the Grand Opera House in San Francisco. It was at the opera house that Harry W. Bishop began his career and Oliver Morosco was the treasurer. Fire destroyed the historic opera house in 1906, two years after he constructed another theatre – Ye Liberty Playhouse.

Harry W. Bishop’s Ye Liberty Playhouse (Oakland, California) where Grace N. Wishaar was the scenic artist (1904-1909).

Harry W. Bishop opened Ye Liberty Playhouse in 1904, boasting the first revolving stage in the western United States. By 1905, Bishop managed the San Francisco’s Majestic Theatre, Central Theatre, the American Theatre and Bell Theatre. In Oakland, he managed Ye Liberty Playhouse, where Wishaar began as his scenic artist. Bishop would later build what became known as the Fulton Theatre too. His obituary reported that “he won a reputation as a star-maker and while his productions, both dramatic and stock, concert and musical were famous, he was not in the commercial way. Throughout his career he remained a dreamer and his sole use for money was to return it to the theatre in the way of more lavish productions and finer casts until the profit was reduced to a minimum.”

Bishop was ahead of his time, not only offering Wishaar the opportunity to paint at his theaters, but also offering other women positions as ushers and ticket takers. There was another aspect to Bishop that I find fascinating as it would have greatly affected the venue where Wishaar worked. Bishop was an inventor, filing for patents relating to theatre design and stage construction.

In 1908 Bishop filed for a patent. His invention was “to provide a theater structurally arranged to permit the elevating or lowering of the main stage; to provide a vertically movable stage, horizontally ‘revoluble,’ and means for accomplishing this action; to afford a stage adapted to be bodily raised or lowered and simultaneously revolved if so desired, or lowered, and have a portion of its area revolving in one direction while another portion is rotating reversely.” Bishop stated that it was also “desirable to raise or lower certain scenes, suspended from or secured to the rigging-loft.” It goes onto describe that the principal advantages of his invention was in “the possibility of setting up all the scenes each completely, on the surface of the stage, the area of which may be divided into scenes as desired, and of suspending all the drops, hanging pieces, ceiling borders, ceiling pieces and border and other overhead lights that may be used, for all the scenes each completely, from the gridiron or rigging-loft, and of then revolving the stage and the rigging loft in a horizontal plane so that each scene is, in its proper sequence, aligned proximate to the proscenium.” He proposed that there was incentive “to devise a theatrical structure that will admit of building or setting scenes of as nearly normal and natural effect as is possible to attain, by elevating or lowering all of the visible matter within the proscenium.

Harry W. Bishop’s patent filed in 1908.
Harry W. Bishop’s patent filed in 1908.

Here is the link: https://www.google.com/patents/US1136860?dq=ininventor:%22Harry+W+Bishop%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1772s46fYAhWM5YMKHXT_Du8Q6wEIMTAB

In 1914, Bishop also engineered a new and improved proscenium opening and structure. The ultimate purpose of his invention was “to produce upon the mind an impression of the picturesque, unmechanical production and to eliminate the rigidness given by architectural ornamentation common to arch work and prosceniums.” This was enhanced by “providing a curtain movable just behind the rear edge of the frame and which may be decorated with a scene harmonious and introductory to the arrangement of property on the stage so that when the curtain rises the transition is a continuation of the introductory scene on the curtain.” Lights were placed in a concavo-convex contour at such a depth that it projects somewhat in front and behind the wall.”

Harry W. Bishop’s patent filed in 1914.
Harry W. Bishop’s patent filed in 1914.

Here is the link: https://www.google.com/patents/US1008886?dq=ininventor:%22Harry+W+Bishop%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwievLW83afYAhWe8oMKHYRTC0gQ6wEIODAC

In 1918, Harry W. Bishop lost the majority of his fortune including his home in the exclusive Piedmont residential district. Wishaar had also lived in Piedmont with her family. A decade later Bishop passed away, leaving his widow Florence and five children: Mrs. George Stimmel, Lester K., Walter K., Dalton, and Beverly Bishop. By 1928, Wishaar was still in Europe and continuing on with her own adventure that had begun in 1914. California remained far behind her.

To be continued…

Happy Holidays and keep it clean with Santa Claus Soap

“Tales of a Scenic Artist and Scholar” will return on Tuesday, December 26.

Until then, here is a delightful advertisement for Santa Claus Soap that I stumbled across in the Weekly Pioneer-Times (Deadwood, South Dakota) from March 30, 1893 (page 2). This just made me giggle!

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the following: “Ride a cockhorse, to Chicago of course, to get some of Santa Claus’ Soap which is boss.  Its merits for cleaning and washing the clothes, assure it a welcome wherever it goes.  Fairbank’s Santa Claus Soap is the best for every household use.  All grocers keep it.  Made only by N. K. Fairbank & Co., Chicago.

Have a wonderful Christmas eve and day!


Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 286 – Grace Wishaar and Lee Lash

Part 286: Grace Wishaar and Lee Lash

Image of Grace N. Wishaar published with an article in 1903 that appeared in numerous papers throughout the country.

The rise of Grace Wishaar as a scenic artist has many fascinating twists and turns that brings her from coast to coast and back again. However, her career as an artist began at the San José Art School. Interestingly, her first drawing instructor there would later rise to fame as a scenic artist in New York – Lee Lash (1864-1935). The Lee Lash Studio was founded in 1891 and continued operations until approximately the mid-1940s.

Lee Lash Studio Advertisement in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guid in 1902-1903.
Thomas G. Moses working at the Lee Lash Studio (holding lining stick). Clipping from his scrapbook at the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin.

When the Wishaar family left California for Washington, she continued with her artistic studies. In 1894 she completed her first scene painting project. The Washington Standard heralded her success, reporting, “Seattle has a young lady scenic painter, in Miss Grace Wishaar. A new drop curtain, at Cordray’s which is universally admired, is from her brush” (30 Nov. 1894, page 2). Wishaar was eighteen years old when she painted the Cordray drop curtain.

Five years later, she ventured east to continue her artistic training at the William M. Chase School of Art and continue her scenic art career in New York. One of the first individuals that she sought out was her first instructor – Lee Lash. However, Lash he was not supportive of his former pupil entering the field of scenic art. A 1903 interview with Wishaar reported that he “coolly turned her down” and said that “scene painting was no work for a woman; that her sex would make her unwelcome among the workmen, and that women were too ‘finicky’ for work that demands broad effects” (San Francisco Call, October 13, 1904, page 6).

Painting with signature by Lee Lash, nd.

It was after the rejection of Lash and many other scenic artists that Frank D. Dodge gave her a chance.

I cannot imagine what Wishaar was subjected to as she went from shop to shop, looking for work. I read her story and start to feel slightly nauseous as I wonder when the glass ceiling will break and at what point women will achieve equality. Here we are 118 years later and many of us are still encountering horrific prejudice because of our gender. A 1903 newspaper article written by Marilla Weaver provides a small glimpse into the extreme hardships encountered by Wishaar while searching for work in New York. Weaver reported, “There was success for her, but not till after a struggle so hard and bitter that it ought to make American men bow their heads and a dull red flush of shame dye their cheeks when they remember the mothers that gave them life. It was the old struggle against sex prejudice. Here was this slender, gifted, graceful girl, a skillful scenic artist, a stranger, away from her parents, seeking honorable employment at work she could do as well as the best. Men who should have welcomed her turned from her with ominous muttering and black scowls. Sex jealousy!”

Scenic artists active in New York at the turn of the century included Ernest Albert (1857-1946), Charles Basing (1865-1933), Wilfred Buckland (1866-1946), Joseph Clare, Homer F. Emens (1862-1930), Frank E. Gates, George Gros (1859-1930), J.M. and T.M. Hewlett, Lee Lash, H. Robert Law (1880-1925), St. John Lewis, W.H. Lippincott, John Mazzonovich, P. J. MacDonold. L. A. Morange (1865-1955), Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934), Joseph Physioc (1866-1951), Hugh Logan Reid, Edward G. Unitt, Charles G. Witham, Joseph Wickes, and John H. Young (1858-1944). Fortunately, Wishaar’s drive and talent caused her to excel in a world primarily dominated by men. Wishaar became so successful that she soon went into business for herself. I do wonder if she left the studio because of her male co-workers. It could have been that it was far easier to work alone than suffer the animosity and daily heckles of your male colleagues.

What I find the most fascinating is Wishaar’s versatility, painting both miniatures and scenery. She spanned the entire artistic spectrum!

An article in 1904 reported “Miss Wishaar’s talent sweeps over a wide range. Not only is she adept with a broad brush and tricky “distemper” of the scene painter, but she is even more skillful with the tiny “camel’s hair” and oil of the miniature artist.” In the article, Wishaar was quoted saying, “I love my work. It is progressive, there is room for originality, and results are quick. I do wish you would say something about the medium I use. People generally think that scenery is painted with a whitewash brush and that some kind of wash is used. But the distemper with which I work is an opaque watercolor. It is delightfully effective, but plays some tricks sometimes on those unfamiliar with its vagaries. The first trick it played on me was with a garden drop. I fairly reveled in the delicious greens that paled and deepened under my brush, but when it dried! I wish you could have seen it.” Wishaar was noted as laughing heartily when she remembered the “dull picture” into which her work had faded.

In an earlier article, she commented, “Distemper is a really beautiful medium. You can produce such fine effects with it! But it’s very tricky unless you know just how to handle it.” This article appeared throughout the country: the Topeka State Journal (May 25, 1903, page 8), the Racine Journal-Times (Wisconsin, 27 July 1903, page 7), the Wilkes-Barre Record (Pennsylvania, 7 May 1903, page 2), the Wichita Daily Eagle (Kansas, 3 May 1903, page 22), the Richmond Item (Indiana, 2 May 1903, page 10), the Marion Star (Ohio, 2 May 1903, page 10), the Decatur Herald (Illinois, 14 June 1903, page 19), the Lincoln Star (Nebraska, 5 May 1903, page 9), and many others publications that are not digitally available to date.

Wishaar was able to overcome many gender barriers and still rise to the top of her profession in a relatively short period of time during the early twentieth century. But wait, there’s more!

Image of Grace N. Wishaar painting scenery in 1904.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 285 – Grace Wishaar and D. Frank Dodge in New York

Part 285: Grace Wishaar and D. Frank Dodge in New York

Grace Wishaar described her entry into the New York scenic art world in 1901 when she was interviewed by the Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo News in the article “She is a Scenic Artist” (April 4, 1901, page 3). Wishaar was quoted saying, “I am convinced that I am a curiosity…People catch sight of my skirts both here [New York Theater] and at the Herald Square, where I sometimes work, and they stop rehearsal and bet on what I am and call up to me to find out.” Of her career in scenic art, Wishaar explained to another reporter, “The work is intensely interesting and I sometimes consider it as instructive as what are sometimes erroneously called the ‘higher forms of art.’” She was also a portrait painter.

Grace N. Wishaar in 1901. Here is a link to her image: http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sayre/id/11725/rec/1 University of Washington Libraries. Photographer was Brass, 1901 in the J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs (JWS22863).

When Wishaar first arrived in New York, she visited many of the studios to seek out possible employment. She explained that the scenic artists at the Metropolitan Opera House and elsewhere laughed at her for even thinking of entering into the profession. She then systematically went from one scene painter to another, asking to do only one piece. The standard response was “A girl in the flies? Absurd! Why she’d have to wear bloomers!” To each, Wishaar insisted, “a scenic painter was made, not born.”

Within four months time Wishaar was a member of Frank D. Dodge’s staff and working with five men to produce all of the scenery for “The Casino Girl” and “The Prima Donna.” Dodge was the official scenic artist for both the Herald Square Theatre and the New York Theatre. She described that every morning at 5 o’clock she appeared with the other scenic artists where she worked all day on the bridge or on her high solitary platform.

Sheridan Jenkins and Grace Wishaar in May 1902, Seattle. Jenkins was the artist at the Third Street Theatre in Seattle. From the J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs (JWS24539): http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sayre/id/13233/rec/2 University of Washington Libraries.

In a 1905 article “A Lady Scene Painter,” Wishaar reported to have been engaged in painting scenery with Dodge or more than four years, explaining that not all of her work was confined to New York City. She would go “at Mr. Dodge’s request, to all parts of the country.” Wishaar also explained the current artistic process: “When we receive an order for an important production, a consultation is held with the author of the play, and if the scenes are laid in another State, either I or Mr. Dodge take a journey to the particular locality and make sketches. If the scene is laid abroad, we have to read up on it, and when the play is English we get many a useful hints from the beautiful production, “Country Life.”

This is exactly what Thomas G. Moses and many other scenic artists were still doing. Although the rise of the studio system confined many scenic artists to a single location where painted scenery was produced and shipped to the appropriate venue, there were still projects that made more sense to complete on site after a series of sketches were made. Moses had been very active in this aspect of his career. What I find fascinating is that as a female, she wasn’t being hidden inside a scenic studio where her work would be examined as part of a group project. She was being sent out on location as an artist representing the studio of Frank D. Dodge.

Illustration of Grace N. Wishaar in the 1906 publication of “Success Magazine.”

An article in “Success Magazine” from 1906 featured Wishaar in the segment “Life Sketches of Ambitious Young Men and Women” (page 32). The article started with “What Miss Grace N. Wishaar Has Accomplished in a Field in Which She Seemed Totally Unfitted.” It was followed with “pluck, enthusiasm, and conscientious work have enabled Miss Grace N. Wishaar to become the only woman scenic artist in the United States.” History was rewritten for Wishaar a bit in this article. In it, she politely writes to Frank D. Dodge in New York. After receiving no response, she appears at his studio to make a personal plea. The article continues,

“Mr. Dodge looked at her smilingly. He liked the enthusiasm she displayed, although he felt he had no use for women in his studio. The idea of women painting huge pieces of scenery on a bridge away up under the roof of the theatre struck him as being somewhat amusing.

‘I don’t see what I can do for you,’ he said. ‘Women are not adapted to this work. Besides, my men would certainly go on strike if I should put you among them on a bridge.’

‘I don’t believe they would at all,’ replied Miss Wishaar, ‘and so far as lack of adaptability for the work is concerned, I intend to show that I am adapted for it; I’ll disguise myself as a boy, – if I find that nobody will give me a chance as a woman.’

‘Well,’ he finally said, ‘come back to-morrow, and I’ll take the matter up again.’ The next morning, Miss Wishaar appeared with a satchel in hand holding her artist’s painting dress. She was ready to go to work. “This business-like method strengthened the good impression she had made on Mr. Dodge, and without further delay he put her to work in the model room, and a few days later gave her an opportunity to do real scenic painting on the bridge.” His artists protested, but were told they must give the young woman fair play. Within a week she had won their good will, chiefly because she asked no favors and had shown that as a craftsman she could “hold up her end” with any of them.”

Within a year and a half after her arrival in New York, Wishaar had become the director of scene painting in “an important theatre” that remained unnamed. She must have been quite something to rise that quickly as it took many men years to make the jump from staff painter to director.   A large order for painted scenery for a theatre in Seattle was received by Mr. Dodge. As this was Wishaar’s home city, the idea of returning as “a successful worker in her chosen field” appealed to her. Arrangement was made for Wishaar to go to the Pacific Coast where she began painting scenery in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco and Oakland.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 284 – Grace Wishaar, Scenic Art in Seattle

Part 284: Grace Wishaar, Scenic Art in Seattle

Grace Norton Wishaar (1876-1956), scenic artist who began her career in Seattle, Washington.

Grace Norton Wishaar was born October 26, 1876, in Beverly, New Jersey. She died on February 21, 1956 in France. Wishaar’s story goes from being a scenic artist during the 1890s in Seattle to being the Ladies Champion of the Paris Chess Championship in 1944.

She was the daughter of Émile Bernard Weishaar and Marie Ida Smith. The Wishaar family moved around a lot and eventually settled in Seattle, Washington where her mother became a playwright and her father was dramatic editor for a newspaper.  Both Grace and her sister Jennie (b. 1880) were encouraged to develop their talents. Grace studied art, opening a portrait studio, while Jennie McGraw Wishaar, (born 1880) studied music.

On July 7, 1896, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer” reported that Grace Wishaar was “Seattle’s talented young artist” (page 9). The population at the time was approximately 65,000 people. The article commented that with “a few years study [Wishaar] would develop into genius that would enable the young lady to make herself riches and fame” She had just completed a series of painted portraits.

One day, the Seattle Theatre needed an artist to paint a drop. Grace’s father mentioned the prospective project to his daughter and encouraged her to contact the manager, Mr. Russell. Although he laughed at the idea of having any woman paint for his theatre, Russell gave Wishaar the opportunity to prove herself. The drop was such a success that she continued to paint for theaters in the area, including both the Seattle Theatre and the Cordray Theater over the next two years.

The Cordray Theatre in Seattle, Washington, where Grace Wishaar painted scenery.

Neither of these venues was small and the drop could have easily measured approximately 34 feet wide. Her work at the Seattle Theatre was for a house of 1300 people. Located at the northeast corner of Third and Cherry Street, the building had thirteen dressing rooms, eight properties room, and was lit by electricity. The proscenium measured 33 feet wide by 36 feet high and the stage was 40 feet deep. The height to the rigging loft was 64 feet with two bridges, suggesting that the drops were flown. The official scenic artist for the venue was listed as T. Masis in the 1897 Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide. However, this might have only meant that he created the original scenery for the venue as Thomas G. Moses was listed as the scenic artist for the Tacoma Theatre at the same time that was approximately 35 miles away.

Later newspaper interviews covering Wishaar noted that she also worked for actress Katie Putnam (actress and wife of producer and manager Henry B. Emery), as well as with Sosman & Landis at this time. As I read Sosman & Landis, I got goose bumps; Moses was in the region at the time as it was just before he left the scenic studio to work in New York! Of all the scenic studios and artists that were working in the Pacific Northwest at the time, Wishaar mentioned working with Sosman & Landis! Both she and Moses left for the East coast approximately at the same time too.

In 1900 Thomas G. Moses left Sosman & Landis to start another scenic art partnership with Will Hamilton. Moses & Hamilton produced scenery for opera, Broadway and Coney Island from 1900-1904, when he returned to Chicago. It was after working with Sosman & Landis that Wishaar also decided to head east where she would get training in Boston and then paint scenery in New York. What was the possibility that Moses met Wishaar? It is unclear which Sosman & Landis artists Wishaar worked with, so the question remains unanswered. But someone encouraged Wishaar to leave Seattle and forge ahead.

Wishaar also had an extremely interesting personal life – the kind that is the subject for a great book. In 1897, Wishaar married Whitney Irving Eisler (September 13, 1897). This was at the time that she began painting for theatre in Seattle. In 1898, she had a child. However, that child was named after the man who would be her second husband by 1902, Peeke.

1917 photograph of Carroll Earl Beauchamp Peeke (1898–1991), son of Grace Wishaar.

Carroll Earl Beauchamp Peeke (1898–1991) was the son of Oscar Graham Peeke. Lt. Col. Carroll Peeke grew up in Seattle, fought in WWI, and graduated from University California at Berkely. Hejoined the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1922 and later worked as city and diplomatic editor at the Times Herald in Washington, D.C.

Carroll E.B. Peeke (center) in photograph with other members of the press and Charles Lindbergh (second from left). This was taken during Charles Lindbergh’s visit to Monterey, California. [California Heritage Collection, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley]. Here is the link: http://www.coltautos.com/cagotm201406.htm
The year after Wishaar gave birth to Carroll, she left Seattle for New York with a determination to succeed in the world of scenic art, later returning in 1902. There is something about a woman continuing with her career even after giving birth during the 1890s that greatly intrigued me. During the fall of 1899 Wishaar studied at the Chase Art School, only briefly returning to Seattle, before looking for work in New York by January 1901.

Four months later, she was interviewed by the by the Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo News (April 4, 1901, page 3). They published an article, “She is a Scenic Artist,” reporting that Miss Grace Wishaar had recently arrived from Seattle and was working with the scenic artist Frank D. Dodge. Wishaar was described as dressed in a denim apron with “forty kinds of paint” on it. The journalist also commented how pretty this small “slip of a girl” was with her brown hair and dark eyes.

The article also made it clear that Wishaar had no interest going out or being distracted while working in New York. At the end of the interview she simply explained, “I am here to work. I confess I don’t like theaters and the cafes very well, and if I had wanted society, I should have stayed in Seattle for that. I love my work. I love it! There is no place in the world, you know, where it is taught. I have been lucky enough to be born able to do it a little, and I won’t share my time with anything else.” She continued, “They told me at half the theaters in town that a woman couldn’t do it. Any way, I have proved one woman can.”

To be continued…