Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 310: Thomas G. Moses and Frank Cox


Part 310: Thomas G. Moses and Frank Cox

In 1894, Thomas G. Moses recorded getting the contract for the New Lyceum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee. Located at the corner of Third and Union Streets, the old Lyceum Theatre had burned to the ground during November 1893. The theater was on the lower floor of an athletic society building and the total loss was $360,000. Only three years old at the time of the fire, construction immediately began to build another theater on the same site.

The original Lyceum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, 1890. The building burned to the ground in 1893.

Opened by H.L. Brinkley, the New Lyceum Theatre cost $235,000 and had a seating capacity of 2,010. It included an oblong proscenium that was illuminated with exposed light bulbs, similar to the electric scenic theater on top of the Masonic Temple Roof Garden that same year. This was a feature was called a luxauleator, or “a curtain of light” invented by Steel MacKaye for the Spectatorium in Chicago (see past installment #265). The New Lyceum was credited as being the first theatre in Memphis to have electric lighting.

The auditorium included open metalwork railings for each of the three balconies and boxes. Ironically, it was this decorative aspect that would ultimately postpone the opening as there was a delay in the arrival of the iron work (Montgomery Advisor 7 Oct 1894, page 9). The final dedication occurred on Monday, December 3, 1894, with Otis Skinner opening the venue. His productions were “His Grace de Grammont” and “The King’s Jester.”

The New Lyceum theatre designed by Frank Cox with scenery by Thomas G. Moses, 1894.

Moses wrote, “The firm wanted this badly, but the architect insisted on my work.” “The firm” was Sosman & Landis and the architect was fellow scenic artist Frank Cox. Tignal Franklin “Frank” Cox (1854–1940) was also the theatrical architect who was designing several other opera houses that same year.

Tignal Franklin “Frank” Cox (1854–1940), scenic artist, decorator and theatre architect.

His projects in Texas alone included remodeling the opera house in Sherman, a new ground-floor theater in Galveston, the Stanger Theater in Waco, the Peterson Theater in Paris, and the opera house in Gainesville (The Times-Picayune, 8 April 1894, page 27).

Newspaper articles would note Cox as the “well-known scenic artist and architect of theatres.” Cox worked as a scenic artist, architect, decorator, builder, and developer throughout the course of his career. During the time that he the theater in Memphis, he was still running Cox Bros. and working with his brothers and Clark (1861-1936) and Eugene (1869-1943). Their ages at the time were 40 (Frank), 33 (Clark) and 25 (Clark). The three men had five other siblings with a father who had started work as a Boston painter in 1871. Eugene Cox had a son named after him, Eugene Jr. (1889-1967), who was also a scenic artist, so it gets a bit confusing.

Eugene Cox (1869-1943), scenic artist and decorator, was part of the New Orlean scenic studio, Cox. Bros.
Clark Cox (1861-1936), scenic artist and decorator who worked for Cox Bros. scenic studio at the New Orleans Opera House.

Here is a little background to place Frank Cox in context of nineteenth-century scenic art. Harry Miner’s American Drama Directory (1882-3) credited Frank Cox with the scenery for the Opera House in Batavia, New York and Smith’s Opera House in Tarrytown, New York. By 1890, Cox was working as a scenic artist, decorator and architect in the New Orleans area. He continued to work as a scenic artist throughout the decade, being credited with scenery for Temple Theatre in Alton, Illinois (1899) and Klein’s Opera House in Seguin, Texas (1903-1904). Like Moses, Cox also worked in oil and exhibited his fine art. In 1894, he participated in an art exhibition with his brother Clark. Both were members of the Artists’ Association in New Orleans (The Times-Picayune, 13 Dec. 1894, page 3). This was one of many art shows where the Cox brothers exhibited their work.

This brings us to another interesting aspect of the Cox family – the family feud. Frank, Eugene, and Clark operated a scenic and fresco business known as Cox Bros. in New Orleans. However, it was referred to as “Frank Cox’s Studio at New Orleans,” him being the eldest and most experienced. They had quite a large staff by 1891 that included the scenic artist Emile Nippert and stage machinist James A. Kee (Fort Worth Daily Gazette 11 August 1891, page 2). The Cox Bros. studio was located in the Grand Opera House of New Orleans. Frank withdrew from the partnership in 1896, but the partnership continued to operate under the same name of Cox Bros., despite Frank’s public declamation that the firm was dissolved. Eugene and Clark published a rebuttal, wanting to make it “thoroughly understood” that they would continue to operate the scenic and fresco business under the name Cox Bros. By the way, there appears to be no immediate familial ties to the Jesse Cox Scenic Studio of Estherville.

There is something interesting to ponder when thinking about the Cox family. Frank understood painted illusion for both the stage and auditorium. He would have been the perfect theater architect as he understood the aesthetic and mechanical demands of the venue. A variety of historical sources explain that architects would often hand over the stage design to a scenic studio. The studio would identify the layout and materials for the space, thus securing work from the architectural firm. I wonder if after guiding architects, Cox decided to work directly with the client and avoid working with a middle man -the architectural firm. Cox’s position as the architect would also secure work for his company Cox Bros., in the form of both scenic and decorative art. His position could have provided an endless stream of projects, as apparent in 1894. Maybe he was expecting too much of his younger brothers and swamping them with work, too much for them to handle without his help in the studio. Maybe that was why Cox reached out and specified other artists for his multiple projects – like Moses.

The big picture is that there was history and friendship between Cox and Moses, plus they were only two years apart in age. He was a friend of Moses and greatly respected his art. When you look at the front curtain for the Lyceum Theater, it is understandable why Cox wanted Moses in charge of the scenery for the New Lyceum . Moses and his crew painted a beautiful exterior landscape with his signature “babbling brook.” Decades later in 1931, Cox would again request that Moses paint some Fiesta floats in California, although Moses would decline.

Interior if the New Lyceum Theatre (Memphis, TN) with drop curtain painted by Thomas G. Moses in 1894.
Detail of Thomas G. Moses’ drop curtain for the New Lyceum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, 1894.

Regardless of the reason, Cox’s selection of Moses over Sosman & Landis in 1894 had to have been quite a blow to the scenic studio as the project would not be supervised by their company as planned. That was their ultimate goal after opening the annex studio -controlling all of Moses’ subcontracted work and keeping him on a leash. By doing this they maintained a position of control and ultimately determined which contracts they would pass down to Moses, yet benefited by his name. The New Lyceum Theatre was one in a series of projects where architects and clients specified that the work solely go to Moses. This was the beginning of his second departure from the studio of Sosman & Landis.

To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *