Part 303: The Scenic Art Process of Fred McGreer
In 1900, Fred McGreer described his artistic process to the Cincinnati Enquirer (15 April 1900, page 12). Here is the second half of the article:
“I am able to outline the scenes after they have been coated with glue priming, for which a particular glue is used that will not crack. After the priming had dried I sketch the outlines with charcoal, and meanwhile the assistants are mixing their paints in buckets, and when I have concluded they set to work painting the scenery. In this process, first the broad colors are laid in and then comes the ornamentation, such as the figures on the walls of interiors, or colors for the moldings to get the lights and shadows. This is ended with the detail work of what we call bringing the scene together. It is like the finishing touches you see the rapid-fire artists put on their pictures in the vaudeville theaters when a form emerges out of what is apparently a chaos of conflicting colors. At this period I may discover too much red at the base of a scene, or not enough red beneath the cornice of an exterior, and these must be toned down.
With the scene painted it is again hustled off the paint frame to make room for another act. The painted set goes back to the carpenter to be cut out and attached to the lines running to the rigging loft, there being three lines to each drop. The columns and solid sections which will be noticeable in “Quo Vadis” are made of what we call profile board. It is a wooden veneer and is pre-hinged to a stand shipping. These columns also stand by themselves as though apparently part of the setting.
In the first scene for “Quo Vadis” the case is different. The entire scene was originally painted on one big drop and then after it was completed I ‘red lined’ the whole scene. This is to outline the columns and vases with a delicate red line, which the carpenter follows in sawing out these separate sections. They are then all placed in position on the stage and the stuff that has been cut out is fastened together with a delicate netting which is invisible to the audience. The perspective created the impression that they are standing alone though really the entire set is one big drop. Some idea of the work required can be gained from the explanation that a single drop of this description generally requires the efforts of the carpenter and four assistants an entire evening to fix up. On the drop for this garden scene we used 1080 feet of cloth and about 75 pounds of paint. In order to attach them to the rigging loft about 300 feet of rope is also used. Now another heavy scene is in the arena setting for the last act, in which over 700 feet of platform space is required, built up to a height running from two feet and reaching the topmost platform 15 feet above the stage. These platforms are all hinged and made so they will fold for shipment as the piece goes on the road after it is used here.
In ‘Quo Vadis’ every scene is numbered and arranged so that it can be put together hurriedly and when brought into a theater is very much like the animal puzzles that are so popular with the Children at Christmas. Only the stagehands will just know where every piece goes without being puzzled.
Mr. McGreer in conclusion estimates that he has painted over 30,000 feet of canvas for the big production this week and used about 2,000 pounds of paint in doing it, in addition to five barrels of whiting alone was used, while the paint was distributed among 20 or more colors. For ‘Quo Vadis’ everything had to be made new as nothing like it had been produced at the Pike.
Mr. McGreer during his two seasons at the local theater has mapped out and painted over 220 stage settings, and of these the ratio ran about three interiors to one exterior. The mere mechanical work of making the scenes is antedated by studies of the costumes as the ladies dresses and the scene colors must harmonize, and historical research as historical accuracy is demanded in these times. In all his stay, nothing has been used over much, excepting the solid doors that figure in Pike productions. These doors have been doing service for three seasons. They have been slammed by the impetuous Nigel or gently brought to by the careful Todman, but in all that time the same old doors groaned under the weight of added paint until now they are so heavy it takes a firm grasp and a long pull to draw them open.
But this is digressing from Mr. McGreer. Next week this popular artist will bid adieu for the summer, at least to his den back of the big white lady. He goes to New York, having been engaged by Gates and Morange, the scenic artist there. If long and varied experience will count for aught, Mr. McGreer is sure to make his mark there for few visiting attractions as the first class houses have exhibited scenery which compares to that which has been in evidence so frequently at the Pike.”
During the summer of 1900, McGreer left for New York to work for Gates & Morange. This was the same year that both Thomas G. Moses and Grace N. Wishaar were painting scenery in New York City too. It was the place to be that later led to many other projects across the country for inspiring young artists. By 1901 McGreer was listed as creating the scenery for Morosco’s Grand Opera House in San Francisco. It doesn’t appear that Fred McGreer ever returned to Cincinnati.
To be continued…