Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Copyright © 2017 by Wendy Waszut-Barrett

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Part 311: A “Jonah” of a Job

Thomas G. Moses encountered a series of misfortunes while working at the New Lyceum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee. Moses wrote, “The job proved to be a ‘Jonah.’ This was a long-established expression among sailors, specifying a particular individual whose presence on board brought bad luck or endangered the ship. Later the meaning was extended to being someone or something that carried a jinx that brought bad luck to an enterprise. Possibly a common phrase in the Moses Household, since his father Lucius Moses, was once a sea captain.

The greatest loss at the New Lyceum Theatre, however, was the death of Moses’ stage carpenter, Joseph Wikoff. Moses wrote, “the bridge broke and poor Wikoff was so badly hurt that he died a few weeks after the accident. Some of the other boys were hurt, but all recovered.”

Newspapers reported that the paint bridge broke at the New Lyceum theatre on December 5, 1894, due to “defective timber in the frame work.” This was after the Dec. 3 dedication of the Theatre by Otis Skinner. The project wasn’t completed for the opening and Moses’ entire staff was still a work two days after the official opening. One article titled “Fell Forty Feet” described the “accident of four scenic artists and their assistants” (Times Herald, Port Huron, Michigan, 5 1894, page 3). The injured listed as scenic artists Al Morris, John Vorhees, Charles Wallace; assistants A. E. Well, John Wiley, Horace Posey; and stage carpenter Joseph Wikuft. Some of the articles further misspelled as Wikuft’s name as “Wipupt.” Whether Wikuft or Wipupt, the stage carpenter was who Moses referred to as “Wikoff” in his typed manuscript.

Wikoff was mentioned earlier by Moses in 1890. That year, Sosman & Landis sent Wikoff with Ed Loitz ahead of Moses to Ogden, Utah (see installement #232). Wikoff and Loitz would go ahead to prepare the theatre so that Moses’ could start painting immediately on his arrival. Moses enjoyed the elevated position of not having to do any of the ready work for any venue by that time. Sosman & Landis had the onsite work down to a science and I have to wonder of some installations were compleed on site because their studio was booked with work.

Beyond that singular reference to Wickoff little is known of this stage carpenter who so tragically died in Memphis I think that part of it is due to the various misspellings of his last name. I also doubt that Moses used the correct spelling, as he often spelled names, places and events phonetically. Like me, Moses had a great weakness when it came to spelling, and would often create his own version of a particular word. He could spell the same word three different ways over the course of a single year.
Then there are the standard typos in print as I think of Julius Cahn’s Theatrical Guide as Sosman & Landis was spelled various ways by the theatre managers submitting information for the publication. Sosman & Landis became Susman & Landes, Sussman & Landis, Sosman & Landus, and Sosman & Lambas, and. It makes research a tad complicated.

To be continued…

Here are a few images of paint frames at the end of the twentieth century to understand this substantial collapse.

Illustration of paint frame, ca. 1878.
Illustration of paint frame ca. 1890.
Illustration of paint frame ca. 1899.
Photograph of Grace Wishaar on paint frame ca. 1902.


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