Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 332 – Thomas G. Moses and the Lowell Opera House in Massachusetts

Part 332: Thomas G. Moses and the Lowell Opera House in Massachusetts

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses recorded that he painted “a number of scenes and a drop curtain for Lowell, Mass. opera house.” This was one more stock scenery collection delivered by the Moses that year. I wondered how he made the initial connection and received the contract. After all, there were plenty of well-known regional artists who could have created the painted settings for any theatre in Lowell. It was a substantially-sized community. Was Moses that popular, or did he have an inside connection? I think that it was both.

The town of Lowell was founded in 1826. It is situated at the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord (Musketaquid) rivers, approximately 25 miles northwest of Boston. The major nineteenth-century business in the area was the Merrimack Manufacturing Co. (incorporated in 1822). It greatly contributed to the city’s dramatic growth over the decades and the area became primarily known as a manufacturing center for textiles. The industry wove cotton produced in the South and also shipped some of their product back to the south for slave garments. Both the bolts of fabric given to the slaves and the resulting clothing used the name “lowells.”

By the 1850s, Lowell boasted the largest industrial complex in the United States. Immigrants came in waves to Lowell; the Catholic Germans, French Canadians, Portuguese, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Greeks and Eastern European Jews all established small communities and many worked in the Merrimack factory or for other businesses in the area. The town continued to thrive and by 1875, a Club Dramatique was established, providing come semblance of local entertainment. In the 1880s Lowell’s first opera house was constructed with a seating capacity of 1,500. Harry Miner’s American Dramatic Directory reported that the proscenium measured 30’ x 30’ and the stock scenery collection included 20 sets. The size of the stage was 45’ wide by 33’ deep.

By 1896, the population of Lowell had grown to 100,000. The Fay Bros. & Hosford became the proprietors and managers for the “new” Lowell Opera House. Their first season was announced during the spring of 1894 with the statement “The indications are that under the new and energetic management the Opera house next year will surpass all previous records” (The Lowell Sun, 19 May, 1894, page 1).

Advertisement for the Lowell Opera House when Fay Bros. and Hosford became the proprietors and managers of the venue in 1894. Lowell Daily (24 Aug 1894, page 2).

The new managers immediately began planning for the future, and began to renovate the venue. This included a new stage with new stock scenery collection by Moses. J. B. McElfatrick & Sons was the architectural firm responsible for the alterations of the space in 1895. The firm was located in New York and had previously worked with Moses.

The front entrance for the opera house in Lowell, Mass.

Located on the ground floor of the building, the Lowell opera house had a seating capacity of 1,500. The auditorium and stage were illuminated with a combination of both gas and electric lighting. The new space included a square proscenium opening that measured 34’-0” wide by 34’-0” high. The depth from the footlights to the back of the stage measured 45 feet with the distance between the footlights and curtain line at 3’-0.” The distance between the side walls of the stage was 60’-0” and 48’-0” between the girders. The stage to rigging loft was 80 feet with the depth under the stage at 10.’ The architects implemented a new spatial design, seating plan, and technology in their design. The venue desperately sought to attract popular touring productions to the area with an improved facility.

Advertisement in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide for the Lowell Opera House (1896).Stock scenery for this venue was painted by Thomas G. Moses.

So, how did Moses get this job? As suggested above, I believe that the theatre architects recommended him; they knew and respected him from previous projects. This was a similar to the situation for the New Lyceum Theatre in Memphis, when architect Frank Cox recommended Moses to create the stock scenery. The architectural firms recommended specific artisans for certain aspects of the designs. So I started to explore other theatres designed and constructed by J. B. McElfatrick & Sons during the late-nineteenth century. I was pleasantly surprised with my findings, thinking that I might be onto something with the evolutions of the backstage area too.

It was in Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide (1896) where I noticed an advertisement for J. B. McElfatrick & Sons. They marketed theatre buildings as their specialty, listing seventy-one theaters and opera houses by 1896. This architectural firm was a significant contributor to the evolution and construction of “modern theaters.” I will discuss these characteristics in tomorrow’s post.

B. McElfatrick & Sons was especially prolific during the thirty-year period from 1880 to 1910. Although the founder had established offices in Philadelphia, Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, the 1896 advertisement noted that their offices were located in the Knickerbocker Theatre Bldg., New York. J. B. McElfatrick & Sons were responsible for the new Lowell Opera House as well as many other venues where Moses had worked over the years. They designed and built theaters all across the country, including the English Opera House in Indianapolis. Interestingly, George H. Ketcham was the proprietor of the English Opera House, the Grand Opera House (Columbus), and the Valentine Theatre, all with stock scenery collections painted by Moses in the 1890s.


To be continued…

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