Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Part 326 – Thomas G. Moses, Gustave Frohman, and the Schiller Theater


Part 326: Thomas G. Moses, Gustave Frohman, and the Schiller Theater

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses was the scenic artist for the Schiller Theater. He painted several productions for the German Opera House, and used the paint frames to create scenery for outside projects.

Photograph of the Schiller Theatre, ca. 1900. Notice the Masonic Temple in the distance with roof top garden. That venue also had scenery contracted by Sosman & Moses.

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses was the scenic artist for the Schiller Theater. He painted several productions for the German Opera House, and used the paint frames to create scenery for outside projects. In 1895, Thomas G. Moses was the scenic artist for the Schiller Theater. He painted several productions for the German Opera House, and used the paint frames to create scenery for outside projects.

The exterior of the German Opera House in the Schiller Building, referred to as the Schiller Theatre, had extensive decorative terra cotta work. This is an advertisement by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Co. depicting their work on the Schiller tower.

This was a common practice for many scenic artists at the time, as the theater where they worked became their studio. On March 24, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Thomas G. Moses, the scenic artist of the Schiller Theater, has recently finished a new drop curtain for the Schiller Theatre. In his judgment a subject embracing foliage and water is restful to the eye in the act intervals and a relief from the high colors and action of dramatic scenes, so he selected a forest scene upon the Bronx River, New York, with a rustic bridge in the foreground and a perspective showing the windings of the river stream. It will be placed in position tomorrow evening” (Chicago Tribune, 24 March 1895, page 36). The Inter Ocean added that the drop was “painted from a sketch taken on the Bronx River in New York. The locality is a lovely one and is a favorite sketching point for New York artists, and the scene represented has been made the subject of three drop curtains in the country” (23 March 1895, page 3). Rivers were his signature pieces and he would even write a poem called, “The Brook.”

The German Opera House that was first called the Schiller Theatre. It would later be renamed the Garrick Theatre as noted on the postcard.

Here is a brief description of the Schiller Theater to provide context as I continue to discuss his work there. It was in a 7-story building designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, of the firm Adler & Sullivan, for the German Opera Company. With a 1,400 seat house, it was originally funded by German investors, including Anton C. Hesting, a former “Illinois Staats-Zeitung” publisher. It was intended for German-language operas and social gatherings, but ceased emphasizing German cultural events after some of the original investors backed out. The second story arcade also boasted a series of terra cotta busts depicting prominent German figures.

Link to the Schiller Building drawings: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schiller_Building,_64_West_Randolph_Street,_Chicago,_Cook_County,_IL_HABS_ILL,16-CHIG,60-_(sheet_7_of_11).png
Link to the Schiller Building draftings: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schiller_Building,_64_West_Randolph_Street,_Chicago,_Cook_County,_IL_HABS_ILL,16-CHIG,60-_(sheet_7_of_11).png

The venue would later be known as the Dearborn Theater from 1898 to 1903, and finally the Garrick Theater.  “Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide for 1885-1886” listed that the Schiller’s proscenium opening measured 28’-10” wide by 29’-8” high.

Page describing the Schiller Theatre in “Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide,” 1896.

Distance from the footlights to the back wall was 37’-7.” The measurement from the stage to the rigging loft was 76’-0” and there were nine bridges: the first was 15’-2” from the curtain line with the full length being 31’-9.” The depth under the stage was 16’-4.” There were 4 traps: two traps each 9’0” ft. on off center; one trap 6’-0” from the curtain line and a final trap 9’-0” ft. from the curtain line. The staff included G. E. Stephenson (electrician) and W. H. Bairstow (misspelled as “Bairston,”stage carpenter), Thomas G. Moses (scenic artist), Michael Coyne (prop man) and Ira La Motte (manager).

The only extant photograph of Gustave Frohman, taken by Raymond Patterson, Washington correspondent of the “Chicago Tribune.”

The Inter Ocean reported, “Gustave Frohman, through Ira J. La Motte, who will be resident manager of the Schiller Theatre after Aug 24, has expressed himself with respect to the policy which will govern that house in the future. The Schiller is to be made a purely dramatic house, playing the best combinations to be had, and probably at no very distant day supporting a stock company. It is Gustave Frohman’s intention, during the coming season, to make one or two productions by way of experiment, demonstrating at the same time his theory that actors should be engaged with respect to their personal fitness for certain parts, no less than in consideration of their reputation in a given line. The policy of the house will be opposed to Sunday night performances, and it is probable that the result will be a revival of the custom of presenting German plays by a local company on that night. During the six or seven months of his stay here last year, Gustave Frohman spent a large part of his time at the theaters and expresses great confidence in the future of the Schiller as a home of drama pure and simple” (15 August 1895, page 6).

Frohman and Moses were only two years apart in age and both entered the theatre business at the age of seventeen. Moses had a sibling who also found employment in the theatre – his sister, Illinois “Illlie” Moses. Frohman had two brothers who also led theatrical lives and formed the Frohman trio (Gustave, Charles and Daniel). In 1895 Gustave’s business alliance with his brothers was considered “the largest factors in the productive field” (Inter Ocean, 4 Aug. 1895, page 33).

Daniel Frohman
Charles Frohman

All three rose to prominence in the industry as theatrical managers of numerous touring productions. Julius Cahn, of Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guides, was the Manager of the Charles Froman’s Booking Department at the Empire Theatre.

Advertisement for Charles Frohman’ Booking Department listing Julius Cahn as manager in the first issue of “Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide” 1896.

In the foreword to his theatrical guide, Cahn stated the “need of a complete and official Theatrical Guide that would give the managers of theaters throughout the country, the managers of traveling attractions and others closely interested in their affairs, a complete and exhaustive volume pertaining to the various braches of business, arranged in a concise and clear manner, so as to make it both valuable and available as a book reference” (Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1896, page VII).

“Greeting” in first issue of “Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide” that notes the professional relationship between Julius Cahn and Charles Frohman.

Sadly, Charles was lost when the RMS Lusitania sank, but Daniel was still in working in the theatre at the time of Gustave’s death in 1930. Gustave retired from the profession in 1918.

The Frohmans are often credited with the originating the “road business” for complete theatre companies. Prior to this time, stock companies permanently resided in a city and supplemented hosted visiting theatrical stars. In other words, the “star” worked with local stock companies while touring from theater to theater. Managers discovered that taking an entire theatre company on tour was more economical that hiring a continuous line of costly “stars,” so the “star system” was gradually replaced with the “combination system.” Touring companies began their tour after spending the summer season in their home city. In 1895, Frohman had several touring productions that included “The Fatal Card,” “Mexico,” “The Wife,” “The New Boy,” “The New Dominion,” “Jane,” “The Lost Paradise,” “Sowing the Wind,” “The Girl I left Behind Me,” “The Colonel’s Wives,” and “The Witch.”

This was the secondary type of business venture entered into by Sosman & Landis with Hunt when they established their theatrical management firm Sosman, Landis & Hunt in the 1890s (see installment #304). The logistics were complex, but the endeavor could be very profitable.


To be continued…

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