Part 302: The Scenic Art of Fred McGreer
In 1900, Fred McGreer described his artistic process to the Cincinnati Enquirer (15 April 1900, page 12). The article’s heading was “Vast Amount of Artistic Labor Contributed by Scenic Artist Fred McGreer Toward the Success of Many Pike Productions. Will Be Shown in Details of Presentation ‘Quo Vadis.’ Some Interesting Light on the Architectural Side of Scene Building – The Artist’s Work.”
McGreer worked for two years as the official scenic artist for the Pike Theatre after venturing south from Chicago with Thomas G. Moses. The Cincinnati article is certainly worth posting in its entirety, especially as the newspaper scan is barely legible and I have spent hours deciphering the faded font. The article provides invaluable information pertaining to the scenic art process during the 1890s.
Here is the first section of the article:
“Perched up in a little room on level with the head of a big white lady who holds a cluster of electric lights, over the right proscenium box at the Pike, is a small room in which an unseen factor in many successes at that house toils industriously day after day making for success on the Pike Stage.
The potent influence is Mr. Fred McGreer, the capable scenic artist, whose stage settings at the Pike have been a prominent feature of the 60 odd productions seen at the house during two seasons he has worked there.
The writer, after climbing up a narrow flight of winding stairs and stumbling over bits of scenery reached this little den the other day, and found Mr. McGreer hard at work sketching out the stage plan for Nero’s banquet hall which will be seen there this weekend in ‘Quo Vadis.’ Rich in scenic opportunities, Mr. McGreer had spread himself on this big production, and, judging solely by the care and work he has lavished on it, the scenic side of the piece promises to be a triumph. Leading man and lady, villain or adventuress, or the others have thrilled with the applause at the Pike for their efforts, but Mr. McGreer who has contributed a great share to the stock company’s weekly offerings, seldom hears the same applause for his art as distinctly worthy as that of the players.
If the reader will follow we will take journey into his little den off the third landing of the winding stairs and see if we can’t get a faint peak at the amount of work a new production means to the indefatigable artist. You can imagine you climbed the stairway and arrived at the room, him half out of breath, with the writer who felt how sadly he had neglected his athletics. A generous part of the room is Mr. McGreer, a young man attired in a well-frescoed pair of shoes highly daubed overalls pulled over his other clothing. His sketches are works of art and marks the backdrops used in the course of a season, while at the other end a big roll of paper stands awaiting instructions.
When the photographer arrived, Mr. McGreer had just finished the elevation for the Nero palace. He gave clear insight into the business side in painting a theatrical setting, which the average playgoer sitting in front would never realize from simply looking at it. “We’ll begin at the beginning,” said Mr. McGreer when told that his description of how a scene is built up was wanted. “The first thing that I do is to read the manuscript of the play to be put on. Then comes a consultation with the stage director regarding the practical openings for each setting of the play as every exit and entrance must be letter perfect so that the players will be kept within the point or sight and at the same time be able to make their exits properly. This done I map out the stage plans for the carpenter with the elevations for each set, and he sets to work to make the wooden frames for the various scenes.”
On these plans the frames are all cut out and placed just as they go. Then the heavy drill cloth is fastened to the braces which are attached to the paint frame. This is worked by a windlass that can raise or lower the canvas at will. The artists work on what is called the bridge while painting the scenery. This is a narrow platform suspended about 30 feet above the stage at the rear wall and the paint frames operates up or down close to this so that we can work up to the height on the drop merely by moving the windlass in whatever direction desired.”
To be continued…