Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 346 – Thomas G. Moses and Walter M. Dewey

Part 346: Thomas G. Moses and Walter M. Dewey

The year 1895 closed without any fanfare or high profits for Thomas G. Moses. He wrote that 1896 “opened not any too good for me.” He had a difficult time keeping his studio warm enough to paint, commenting, “The studio space was just too large, so I leased a portion to a laundry company, which cut my rent I half – a great help.” It was a difficult time for Moses and he knew that he was failing; managing on his own might not be the answer.

Heading of the section that advertised the benefit for Walter M. Dewey (Inter Ocean, Feb 2, 1895, page 27). Thomas G. Moses contributed art for this charity benefit exhibition.

Into the first half of 1896, Moses was still struggling with managing his studio, securing contracts and retaining a crew. It was too much work for one person, but he stayed connected and continued to support his colleagues. Regardless of his own troubles, Moses was always available to help a fellow artist and friend. He exhibited some artwork with other “leading artists of Chicago” in a charity event during February. The art exhibition of watercolors, pastels, and oils was held on the evenings of Feb. 3 and 4, at 8 o’clock, in the rooms of the Y.M.C.A, No. 542 West Monroe Street. It was a benefit was for Walter M. Dewey.

The outpouring of support was significant. The Chicago Tribune reported, “The friends of Walter M. Dewey, a clever young Chicago artist, have been grieved to learn recently he has been sick for several weeks and it has been necessary to remove him to a hospital out of the city” (2 February 1896, page 20). He had been seriously ill for six weeks, to be exact. The article continued, “His fellow artists, in their sympathy for Mr. Dewey and his family have arranged an exhibition and sale of paintings for his benefit.”

Participating artists and their works included John H. Vanderpoel, head, in oil; F. C. Peyraud, “Autumn,” oil; Fred B. McGreer, landscape, water color; Charles Edward Boutwood [Boulwood], head, watercolor; Charles A. Corwin, landscape, pastel; Pauline A. Dohn, head, oil; T. O. Fraenkel, “Mackinac,” water color; William Schmedtgen [Schmeddtgen], “A Blind,” water color; Svend Svendson, “Autumn,” water color; William Clusman, sketch, water color; George E. Colby, “Moonrise,” water color; Albert Olson [Olsen], “Crystal Lake, Autumn,” water color; E. A. Burbank, “Charcoal Darky,” watercolor; Thomas G. Moses, “Interior Wood,” water color; Harry Vincent, sketch water color; William Horton, sketch, water color; and J. E. Colburn. In addition there were to be twenty canvases by Walter M. Dewey. Vanderpoel and Wiliam W. Vernon were in charge of the sale.

Dewey was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago and a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, who exhibited a few years earlier with fellow artists that included Walter Burridge, Hardesty Maratta, Ernest Albert, Oliver D. Grover, and others.

Walter M. Dewey participated in this exhibition during 1895 (Chicago Tribune 12 Dec 1895 page 3).

Dewey’s cause was not the first to be supported by his fellow artists. On January 17, 1894, the Chicago Tribune advertised that a “Charity Sale” of pictures had begun (page 8). A ‘charity sale’ of water colors and oil paintings held in the rooms of the Chicago Society of Artists, on the top floor of the Anthenæum Building. It continued ten days and the proceeds were turned over to the Central Relief Association for the benefit of the needy. Many of those who supported Dewey in 1895, had previously exhibited in the “Charity Sale,” including Burridge, Marratta, Vincent, Peyraud, Clusman, Schmedtgen, Corwin, Svendsen, Vanderpoel, and many others. Dewey had also exhibited with the group. It was natural that during his time of need, he was also supported.

One of the exhibitions that Walter M. Dewey participated in at the end of 1895.
Walter M. Dewey participated in the 2nd Annual Exhibition of the Students’ Art League by December 1895.
Walter M. Dewey participated in the 2nd Annual Exhibition of the Students’ Art League by December 1895. Selling “The Beach at Old Orchard, Me” for fifty dollars.

I can’t help but thing back to the Scene Painter’s Show of 1885. It signaled the beginning of an era; a period that one could consider a golden age of scenic artists in Chicago that meshed perfectly with their fine art activities. Both theatre and fine art were extensions of these remarkable men who thought beyond their own individual artwork. They were part of a community that not only supported each other, but also supported a variety of causes for the common good of mankind. They were contributing toward a beautiful future and experiencing the world of art together. But there was an exciting undercurrent that was spreading throughout exhibition halls and entertainment venues. The theatrical world was starting to change at a rapid-fire pace. Those who could blend what was already popular with a new technology would soar ahead of the competition.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 345 – Albert B. Mason, Scenic Artist

Part 345: Albert B. Mason, Scenic Artist

The death of Forest Seabury made me search for other scenic artists that passed way in 1895. Their departure signaled the beginning of a transitional period, as younger artists rose to prominence across the country. By now, Thomas G. Moses represented the old guard, even though he was just beginning to enter his middle aged years. We were beginning a key period in the history of American scenic art and stage design. Between 1885 and 1905, the entertainment industry would split and evolve in many different directions. Those in charge guided the future division of theatrical trades as the roles of theatre technicians became more defined.

In 1895, one of the top scenic artists at Sosman & Landis was murdered. This event was not only tragic, but also accentuated the absence of Thomas G. Moses from the studio. On February 14, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Albert B. Mason, scenic artist lies dead at his home, No. 130 West Van Buren street, the result of wounds received Saturday night in a fight with two thugs who assaulted and tried to rob him. He went to the drug store at 9 o’clock for some medicine. On the way home when crossing the alley between Jefferson and Desplaines streets he was jumped on by the thieves and knocked down.” The article commented that although Mason was a “big strong man” and “made a brave fight,” his assailants got the better of him. He pulled out his gun to scare them off, but they wrestled the weapon away; one held his arms and the other pounded him over the head with it until he fell unconscious to the ground. Later while stunned and bleeding, Mason still made it home to his wife. Two days later he expired at 11 o’clock in the morning. The post-mortem examination revealed that a large artery in the head had been severed and the skull fractured.

The last line of the article connected Mason to the Sosman & Landis studio: “Albert B. Mason had been painting theatrical scenery for the firm Sosman & Landis, No. 236 South Clinton street, seven or eight years and was one of their best artists. He leaves a widow and son.” This was one more name to add to the group of artists who worked for Sosman & Landis during their early years. Although, Moses was not working for Sosman & Landis at the time, he would have certainly known Mason, as their work for the studio would have crossed over.

The tragic tale of Mason continued, but Mason’s assailants were eventually apprehended after an eyewitness account and positive identification of the two. The policemen caught the thieves named Cornelius O’Brien and Harry “Butch” Lyons, noted as “two of the toughest of many tough footpads that infest South Clinton, Desplaines, and Halsted street districts.” O’ Brien received a twenty-year sentence and O’Brien was sentenced to death by hanging.

Article about the fate of Alfred B. Mason’s assailants, from the Detroit Free Press (Oct. 12, 1895, page 2).

What this also provides is a little insight into the type of neighborhood where Sosman & Landis had their studio on Clinton Street. Noted as 236 South Clinton Street, the address was actually 236-238 S. Clinton Street. When many of the Chicago Streets were renumbered, the final Sosman & Landis Studio address would become 417-419 S. Clinton Street.

In 1896, Moses returned to work for Sosman & Landis again. They would open another annex studio – also located in a rough neighborhood. Moses recorded that the new annex studio was located in the Alhambra Theatre. The Alhambra Theatre was located on State Street and Archer Avenue. It was dedicated on September I, 1890. H. R. Jacobs was the manager and retained management until April, 1897.

Of this studio and its less-than-ideal location, Moses wrote, “It was a long ride to Oak Park and I disliked the theatre. It was a very rough neighborhood – a hangout for all the big crooks.” His words take on a new meaning when considering the fate of Albert B. Mason near the main studio on Clinton Street.

I thought back to my own late nights when I left a theatre after painting all day. I was always alone, walking to my car with my senses on “high alert” for any potential danger. For many, it is the simple “knowing that there may be danger ahead” that is dreaded at the end to every day. It is the hoping that you will not meet anyone, and the knowing that if you do to not to make eye contact. It is the understanding that you may not make it home alive if you chance upon the wrong stranger. Moses was fortunate to always make it home. Mason was not. His carrying a weapon for self-defense hadn’t really made a difference in the end.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 344 – Forest Seabury, Scenic Artist

 Part 344: Forest Seabury, Scenic Artist

There were a few newspaper articles from 1895 that caught my attention, as they concerned scenic artists. The scenic artist S. Forest Seabury (Sr.) died at the Grand Opera House on July 17, 1895, in Oakland, California. Newspapers reported that the celebrated artist fell dead after expressing to the stage manager, “You drop is finished, and it’s a wonder” (The San Francisco Call, 18 July, 1895, page 4). Seabury had just placed his brush in a pot of water before he uttered his final words, having just completed the drop curtain for Morosco’s Opera house. He then turned to speak to the manager, Tom Andrews. It was 4:35 PM when Seabury took a few steps toward the washstand, staggered and fell, before taking his last breath. Only a few minutes earlier, Seabury’s son had shouted up from the stage floor, inquiring about his father’s health. After hearing a positive response from the flies, his son left.

An illustration of Forest Seabury accompanied his death notice in the San Francisco Call (18 July 1895, page 4)

Seabury was a busy man and had completed another drop curtain for the Grand Opera House the previous week. For the opera, his 38’-0” x 40’-0” painting depicted a colossal American flag against a cloudy sky; it was received with applause (San Francisco Call, 5 July 1895, page 7). Dr. Barrett conducted an autopsy on the body and determined that the cause of death was heart disease. Seabury was only forty-four years old. His young age reminded of another scenic artist from Chicago – Lou Malmsha. Malmsha has passed away at the age of 35. A talented scenic artist, he was at the top of his career when he suffered a similar fate after work.

Seabury’s obituary reported that his funeral was attended by many members from both the Actor’s Association of America and the Theatrical Mechanic’s Association of Oakland. Like many other scenic artists, Seabury was also a stage mechanic, having the ability to engineer and create all of the scenic effects for a production. At Seabury’s funeral, floral arrangements sent from his fellow artists included banners stating, “The Drop is Done,” “The Gates Ajar,” and “The Last Scene of All.”

Another obituary for Forest Seabury reporting the presence of “many prominent theatrical” people form the Oakland area.

Seabury was a Pacific Coast artist and decorator whose work was known throughout the region. He had painted drop curtains and decorated prosceniums in all of the principal playhouses in California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. However he primarily worked in the Oakland area. In 1892 he created a drop curtain, “The Dawn of Spring” for Stockwell’s Theatre in Oakland that the newspaper reported was “a beautiful work of art” (Oakland Tribune 2 July 1892, page 7). During the 1880s, he had been the scenic artist for the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco. However, he also painted scenery for other venues, such as the Pasadena Opera House (Los Angeles Herald, 28, Oct, 1887, page 12). His obituary commented that one of his best works was a scene of the Golden Gate on a drop curtain in the opera-house in Sonora, Tuolumne country.

Seabury was also a member of the Republican Alliance and presented a decorative banner (12×12) of Harrison and Morton and an artisan at work. “Around the boarder are pictures of flags and other ornamentations. A shield bears the name of the club” (Oakland Tribune, 2 Oct 1888, page 1).

One of Seabury’s major accomplishments was his work for the Kiralfy Bros. He was listed as one of the scenic artists for the 1887 production of “The Black Crook” (Chicago Tribune, 13 March 1887, page 6). The others were Harley Merry, Geo. Bell, Porter Robecchi of Paris, and Magnani. This interesting group of artists was credited with creating “all new scenery” for a production that was “exactly as reproduced in January at Niblo’s Garden.” The show opened at McVicker’s Theatre in Chicago. The scenery for the production was estimated at $15,000. (The Times, Philadelphia, 19 Nov 1887, page 3). Advertisements reported that there were two entire carloads of scenery for the production “with all its glittering grandeur” (The Ottawa Journal, 21 May 1887, page 1).

Poster for the Kiralfy Bros. production of “The Black Crook,” painted by Forest Seabury and other well-known scenic artists.
Poster for the Kiralfy Bros. production of the “The Black Crook,” painted by Forest Seabury and other well-known scenic artists.
One of the sets for the Kilrafy’s production. Posted at https://actonbooks.com/2016/12/13/kiralfy-brothers/
Advertisement listing the scenic artists for the 1887 production of “The Black Crook.” 2 (Chicago Tribune, 13 March 1887, page 6).

Not everything was perfect in Seabury’s world. Two months before his death, Seabury’s second wife committed suicide by taking carbolic acid. The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “She was found dead in her room by her husband. A photograph of him was clasped to her breast” (18 July 1895, page 8). There had been trouble in the Seabury family and for some time the wife and husband had been separated. Mrs. Mary Jane Seabury of Massachusetts (second wife) was found dead in her bed at 917 Larkin Street. The autopsy by Dr. J. S. Barrett showed that her death resulted from carbolic-acid poisoning. The article noted that a dose of carbolic acid causes great pain and those who swallow it involuntarily will groan in their agony or scream, but no sound was heard from her room; her husband did not occupy the same apartment, yet he was the one first one on the scene.

When discovered, she was clutching a photograph of her husband, a letter written to him from another woman (from 1891) and a suicide note. Her written request stated, “Make sure that I am dead before burying me, as I do not want to be buried alive.” She was 24 years old and had only been married to Seabury for three years.

Seabury had two sons, Arthur and Forest Jr., from his first marriage. Both sons also worked at Morosco’s Grand Opera House as scenic artists and actors at the time of his death. There is more to the Seabury story as newspapers covered the continued troubles of the Seabury family. His second son Arthur was found in a mentally unhealthy state and returned to his mother in 1907. His mother’s concern increased as she observed Arthur did not sleep well. Then he started to explain that he had visited hell, frequently accosting people and stating, “How do you do. I’ve seen you in hell.” His mother eventually bought her son brought before Judge Hall to determine his sanity. The physicians decided he was on the verge of insanity and he was sent to the Stockton.

Of Arthur the paper reported ,“Young Seabury was with his father most of the time and was considerable as an artist himself. He worked on the paint-frames and filled in many a fine piece of artistic work from his father’s brush” (Oakland Tribune 19 April 1897, page 2). But the story is a little more complicated as some articles suggested that Seabury never remarried and only had one wife.

Throughout all, his second son and namesake, Forest Jr., continued to paint and act, doing fairly well in the theatre profession.

Forest Seabury, Jr. with the Allen Stock Co. This image was taken the same year that his brother went insane and was committed to the Stockton sanitorium. Morning Register (Eugene, Oregon), 22 Sept 1907.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 343: “The Artist in the Flies,” Second Half

 Part 343: “The Artist in the Flies,” Second Half

This is the second part of an article, “Artist in the Flies,” started yesterday from the New York Tribune (4 Aug 1895, page 14).

“[The scenic artist] is often interrupted in his work, when rehearsals are going on, for while the frame is being lowered it makes a horrible noise, which naturally interferes with the work of the actors.

“Oh, say, up there, won’t you give us a chance to hear ourselves think?” or “Say, just wait a few minutes until se get through the scene and then you can make all the noise you want,” are common cries. Sometimes the assistant, whose work is to run the windlass, pays no attention to the calls from below, and goes right ahead, making all the noise possible, until the stage manager in despair mounts the paint bridge and in a forcible language commands the young man to desist; this he does after growling and grumbling about the delay.

After the scenery has been painted it goes back into the hands of the stage carpenter and his men. In a wood scene or a rural scene there is a great deal of cutting to be done. The leaves and branches are cut away from the canvas which has not been painted.

After the properties have been made – they are usually of papier-mâché – they are sent up to the paint bridge to be touched up with a coat of paint. The stage cloths or carpets are also painted by the artist. The getting up of the scenery is the most expensive part of a production. It is no wonder that a manager is leery of putting on a new piece. The great cost incurred before the curtain goes up makes him hesitate about engaging in a venture which the audience may find dull.

The most expensive scene drop is one which requires a number of faces painted on it, to represent an audience, for instance. Here the services of a portrait painter are generally called in, and each face is actually a likeness. Of course the faces in the background are not as perfect as the front ones. After one season of wear and tear in traveling, the scenery is not a thing of beauty. It is hardly worth storage room. When a piece is to be played a second season, the scenery goes back into the hands of the scenic artist and stage carpenter to be patched up and retouched. A great deal of this old scenery is bought by small out-of-town managers, to whom scenery is only a second consideration. In one-night towns it is often a puzzle to find out “where the actors are at.” The backdrop represents a French chateau and the house in the foreground is an English Inn. The properties used “have nothing to do with the case,” but they help to fill the stage.

It is a small wonder that scenery is in such a tattered condition when it returns after the season is over. The carting of scenery is an important to the stage carpenter, who travels with the company, as the box office receipts are to the treasurer.

In New-York may be found wagons especially built for the transportation of scenery, but few other cities have these wagons.

Advertisement for scenery transfer in Chicago. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1906.
Detail from scenery transfer advertisement in Chicago. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1906.
Detail from scenery transfer advertisement in Chicago. Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, 1906.

When “Rob Roy” was on its travels last spring, the scenery was being carried from the theatre to the railroad station. The wagons were not long enough to carry scenery properly, and the tower of Sterling Castle hung way out of the back of the wagon and touched the ground. This almost drove the stage carpenter to despair, until a happy idea struck him. He borrowed a wheelbarrow, and then hired a sturdy boy to follow the wagon, with the top of the tower resting in the barrow. This scheme worked beautifully for a few blocks, until the boy got tired. He demanded his pay, and said the work was too hard. He could not be induced to resume his journey. Again the stage carpenter put on his thinking cap. “Come, boys, let’s have a drink,” he said to his employees. All retired to the nearest barroom, and when they returned each and every many was perfectly willing to carry the tower on his shoulders down to the train.

All of the big railroads have cars especially adapted for the transportation of scenery. Francis Wilson rents a whole house for the storage of his scenery. He has complete sets with properties, costumes, etc., of all his operas from “The Oolah,” his first production, to the “Devils’ Deputy.” In case of accident by fire or railroad disaster, he will not be obliged to close his season, but can resume it after a few weeks of rehearsals, of one of his former operas. The final resting-place of all the beautiful grottos, ballrooms, etc., is the furnace in the boiler-room down in the cellar of the theatre.”


To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 342 – “The Artist in the Flies,” First Half


Part 342: “The Artist in the Flies,” First Half

Throughout my research, I have encountered a series of delightful articles. They were not only enlightening, but also changed my understanding of theatre history and the late-nineteenth-century scenic art. In many cases, I transcribed these unknown bits of writing and posted them online. I believe that might have worth to other theatre historians and practitioners.

I discovered “The Artist in the Flies” after reading “Stage English” (installment #310) and tucked it away for the time that I would cover the year of 1895 (4 Aug 1895, page 14). The article really resonated with me and reminded me of Thomas G. Moses. This story is a slightly different presentation from the somber depiction of the artistic process described in yesterday’s post. This will be posted in two sections due to the length. This is a wonderful article to read before continuing with the activities of Thomas G. Moses in 1894-1895. Enjoy!

“No Summer Vacation for Him. He is turning out castles, forests, and interiors by the hundred yards in these warm days.”

“The busiest men connected with the theatrical business at present are the scenic artists and their assistants. Before the artist begins his work, the frames have passed through many hands. To begin with, a number of sewing women are engaged to sew the canvas together, for which they receive a certain amount for each yard. After the canvas has been sewed together, it passes into the hands of the stage carpenter, who has put the frames together. The canvas is stretched taut over the frames, and glued and nailed to the wood. This is a trade itself. When the frames are ready they are put upon an immense frame, which is behind the paint bridge, usually at a great height from the stage, up in the flies, where the different drops may be raised or lowered as needed. The paint bridge stretches across the stage from fly loft to fly loft on either side. Here the artist is away from the madding crowd. The scenery receives a preliminary coat of paint, and when dry is ready for the different colors needed in the scenes.

As a general rule, the artist outlines the different scenes and puts in the most difficult and delicate touches, and then allows his assistants to fill in the rest. He is guided by his model, which is set in a complete stage by itself. One artist in an uptown theatre has a small room in the flies where he builds his models on a small scale, and has a complete electric light apparatus, by which he can judge the effect of the different lights on his models. This is a great help to him in his work. The paint bridge is usually crowded with pots of paints, and the uninitiated would wonder how the artist could move around without sending a few of them on to the stage below.

An amusing accident of this kind happened at the old Standard Theatre before it was burned down. The dressing-rooms of the chorus were on a level with the fly loft, and occasionally the bridge was used by the chorus of people who had to make an entrance on the opposite side of the stage. Instead of going into the cellar under the stage, they took this crossing.

One night one of the girls did not heed the flight of time until she was recalled to her senses by the sound of music, which was her cue to go on stage. She rushed through the fly loft and over the paint bridge, not heeding the paint pots with which it was covered. Away went the young woman in a heap on the floor of the bridge, luckily escaping the fate of two pots of paint, which fell to the stage below, completely deluging a “super” who was awaiting his cue to go on the stage. The accident was seen be some of the gallery urchins, who set up a shout of delight. After the accident the paint bridge was the sacred property of the scenic artist.

To be continued…

Here are some images from a Sosman & Landis collection created in 1898.  It was for the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry stage in Yankton, South Dakota.  The was a “used” scenery collection, originally created in 1898.

Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Originally painted in 1898, two years after the article was written for the newspaper. This is a Sosman & Landis installation.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Stage left side with Rick Boychuk taking photos for research (he provides scale).
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Looking toward stage right side.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. JBM tomb back.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. JBM tomb front.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Stage left side and counterweight system.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. 1898 flat construction.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Front of flat.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of painting. Sosman & Landis Studio, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of painting. Sosman & Landis Studio, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of painting. Sosman & Landis Studio, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of wooden batten at bottom of the drop. Sosman & Landis installation, 1898.
Scottish Rite stage setting in Yankton, South Dakota. Detail of netted edge. Sosman & Landis installation, 1898.

For large picture files, join FB Group Dry Pigment.

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 341 – Green Room Gossip From 1895, the Scenic Artist

Part 341: Green Room Gossip From 1895, the Scenic Artist

Thomas G. Moses worked as the scenic artist at Chicago’s Schiller Theatre during 1895. He painted the settings for all of the productions on their paint frames. He also rented the old Waverly Theatre space as he had more work than could be completed at the Schiller.

I understand that it is hard to appreciate the complexity and demands of the painting process at the time that Moses was working, especially as I discuss the many projects that Moses’ was simultaneously completely during the late-nineteenth century.

Below is an informative article about the artistic process and the role of the scenic artist, published in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on February 10, 1895 (page 22). Here is a portion of the article from the “Green Room Gossip” section of the Times-Picayune. It provides additional context for Moses’ story as we move forward:

Heading from the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, February 10, 1895, page 22) that details activities related to the theatre.

“When a manager has finally decided to produce a new play, his troubles have just begun. One of the first things to demand is the proper pictorial equipment. Just as the editors of illustrated periodicals of to-day send their accepted articles to the artist for illustration, so the theatrical manager puts his play in the hands of the scenic artist. Sometimes periodical illustrations cause the reader to wonder whether the illustrator read the story before he made the drawing or whether the cuts got mixed in the composing-room. The play illustrator is too important a factor in the box-office success to admit of similar mistakes.

[The manager] sometimes employs a scenic artist by contract, but usually the necessary assistant rents the space he needs in the theatre and charges the manager for work done for him, just as he charges outside managers for work done for them. The scenic artist, then, receives the manuscript from the manager, reads it carefully, notes from the authors description of scenes whether the locality is special or general, and where the scenery must be “practical” – with real doors to open, trees which may be climbed, fences that may be jumped- and where it is possible to make it purely representative.

The locality is the first point, naturally. Even if none be mentioned, in these days of photography, it is far more satisfactory to find a real locality which would fit the play, and which would, therefore, be more likely to differ from a thousand and one other scenes which have already been used as backgrounds for other general plays. From photographs or sketches of real bits of scenery, the artist most often draws his ground plans for what he considers a good stage picture suited to the action of the play.

These models are then placed convenient to the eye and hand in his studio, the main feature of which is really the back wall of the theatre, with a great paint bridge running about 25 feet above the stage floor. There is a space about a foot wide between the bridge and the wall, and in the space hangs the paint frame. When the stage carpenter has built the scenes according to the artist’s model, the paint frame is lowered to the stage floor, a piece of scenery is attached to it by means of a narrow ledge at the bottom, drops are tacked on and set pieces fastened at convenient points, then the frame is raised until it is where the artist wants it as he stands upon the bridge. The frame can, or course, be moved up and down, at the painter’s need.

The prime coating of the canvas is made of a mixture composed of whiting, glue and water. The artist has several assistants, many of whom are virtually learning the trade, but in exterior scenes the scenic artist himself usually does all of the painting; in the interiors he makes the finishing touches. Of course the work is done by daylight, and it takes a very skillful worker in colors to know just what the effects the various kinds and degrees of artificial light will have upon the painted scenery.

And yet the scenic artist is not too highly valued from a financial point of view. It takes, usually, six or eight years to attain the necessary skill and an average income of $80 a week is considered very good. From the manager’s point of view there is a difference. The necessary scenery for a play will frequently cost $1500 for the carpenter work and twenty-five hundred dollars for the coloring, without taking into account the sums paid for costumes, properties and the innumerable other accessories to proper play-producing.

Until applause greets him on the momentous “first night” and large audiences greet him for many nights thereafter, the manager, be ever hardened, endures endless anxiety from the minute the new play is chosen. If one proves a failure, he will be out a considerable sum at the best, for critics will know if he attempts to use the same costumes and special properties later on, or if he saves the scenery until it can be worked in other plays, a piece at a time; and critics seldom keep anything to themselves. He may have a new scene painted on the back of the old and save a part of the carpenter’s bill, but this is frequently the best that can be done. With all his risks and frequent failures, the theatrical manager is usually the last one to complain. When a play does not go, he simply pays the piper and tries again.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 340 – Captive on the Carousel of Time


Part 340: Captive on the Carousel of Time

At the end of 1895, Thomas G. Moses wrote, “I made a total of $46,000.00 for the year. My expenses were very heavy and I had about $3,500.00 for my salary – pretty bad – I needed a good business partner, for I had much to look after.”

Thomas G. Moses painting on a drop curtain, date unknown. Image from the Thomas G. Moses scrapbook. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin.

Moses knew that he needed someone else to help shoulder the burden of running a studio. That was one of the reasons why Sosman & Landis had done so well for almost two decades. Sosman was in the studio, or painting on location, while Landis focused on sales and negotiating new contracts. Landis marketed a product that Sosman and his crew produced. Moses was trying to do everything by himself. To succeed in the studio business, someone had to solely focus on increasing clientele and securing the jobs. No matter how talented you were, you needed a fantastic sales department and someone to negotiate the final contracts. Moses could not do all of the production and administrative duties by himself. He had tried and failed – twice.

Of 1895, Moses commented “Too much of my time was consumed in making models, and too much of the artists’ time was taken up with preliminaries before a production was actually under way.” He reflected that he funded a lot work completed by carpenters and helpers “always done to start the show on its way, and for which I never received a dollar in return.” He wrote that regardless of the loss, he had continued to make a name for himself. All he needed to do was manage another year, and hopefully he would be back on his feet again.

Moses was financially worse off than two years earlier when he wrote, “My expenses were very heavy this year, and I should have made a big profit, but the best I could do was $6,850.00.” He complained many times that he was not making enough money for the hours that he spent in the studio. Moses realized that there was no incentive for the profits to “trickle down” to any employee, no matter how valuable if he returned to Sosman & Landis too. The scenic artist was at the studio owner’s mercy; when times were plentiful, there was work and when times were slow, salaries were immediately slashed in half. Remember the scenic artists salaries plummeted at the close of the 1893 World Fair as studio owners redirected their massive profits toward other business ventures, or lined their own pockets and journeyed abroad.

I can only imagine Moses’ internal struggle during 1895 as he produced an astounding amount of work – much more than during the world fair – yet received a salary that was significantly smaller. By the beginning of 1896, Moses knew something had to change; he might have to return to Sosman & Landis, in order to keep his head above water. Throughout 1895, Moses continued to lose financial ground and had suffered an unbelievable series of set backs from 1894 throughout 1895. From the paint bridge collapse in Memphis, that injured seven of his crew, to the unpaid duties attached to each production. he was always losing ground

Moses was still  traveling and apart from Ella and the kids. No matter how hard he worked, or how many connections he made, there was never any assurance of a secure future. He made a national name for himself, immediately gained the respect of theatre owners and touring stars, but continued in a downward spiral. At the age of forty, he was growing older and the work wasn’t going to get any easier. He could only look back and envision what should have happened.

“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.”       
(The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell)

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 339 – Thomas G. Moses and Charles B. Hanford


Part 339: Thomas G. Moses and Charles B. Hanford

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses was credited with creating the new scenery for Hanford’s Starring Tour. He led a crew that included Ernest Albert and Milton C. Slemmer. The repertoire for the tour was “Virginius,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Othello,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Damon and Pythias,” “Venice Preserved,” “The Hunchback,” and “Julius Caesar.” Frank G. Connelly managed the tour. Two representatives were sent ahead of the show to pave the way for the tour that opened on September 23 in Wilmington, Delaware and would reach Washington state by November 18. The company was composed of eighteen people, with the “Tripple Alliance” of Hanford, Elihu R. Spencer and Miss Nora O’Brien in the leading roles.

Charles B. Hanford

Charles B. Hanford (1859-1926) was 35 years old when the show toured. Born in Amador County, California. he made his debut with the “Barrett Club” of Washington, D. C., in May 1881, at the National Theatre in the part of Cassius in “Julius Caesar” (Opera Glass, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1895, page 18). He started with small roles in his first professional engagements when working with William Stafford. He was playing much larger roles by the end of his first season. The next two seasons were spent working with Thomas Keene where he continued to act in small roles. He eventually attracted the attention of Lawrence Barrett and became a prominent member of Booth’s Company. He acted in Booth’s, Booth-Barrett, and Booth-Mojeska companies. Hanford was soon working with Julia Marlowe in light comedy parts, such as “Mercutio” and “Malvolio.”

By 1895, Hanford owned the magnificent Booth and Barrett production of “Julius Caesar.” In “Julius Caesar,” Hanford originally played the role of Marc Antony, while Edwin Booth played Brutus and Lawrence Barrett played Cassius. In addition to this show, his company carried new special scenery for each of the other six plays in their repertoire. The Evening Star reported, “The new scenery is from the brush of Thomas G. Moses, one of the best known scenic artists in America. It has been found necessary to carry four men to handle this elaborate production and a special car will be used for its transportation”(Washington, D. C., 14 Sept 1895, page 8).

Elihu R. Spencer

Elihu R. Spencer was thirty- years old when he toured with Hanford. Born in Buffalo, Spencer’s early acting career was supported by the Meech brothers, who were managers in Buffalo. They recommended Spencer to Steele Mackaye, who then hired him to play a minor role in the premiere of “Paul Kauvar.” Spencer worked his way up the acting food chain, and by the fall of 1891 became a prominent member of Julia Marlowe’s company. After two seasons with her, Hanford cast him in the role of “Cassius” for his production.

Nora O’Brien

Nora O’Brien was born in Baltimore, Maryland and was only eighteen years old when she made her debut as Juliet, playing at Ford’s Opera House in Baltimore. After graduating from Loretto Convent near Niagara Falls with high honors, she entered the acting profession. In less than a year, she joined Hanford’s tour.

The Buffalo Courier reported that after the Hanford’s Star tour was completed, Elihu Spencer purchased the scenery, costumes, and properties used by the Hanford-Spencer-O’Brien Company (27 Sept. 1896, page 8). The article commented, “The scenery was painted by Thomas G. Moses, Ernest Albert, and Milton C. Slemmer, the three best scenic artists in the country.”

Charles B. Hanford’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” 1907. Image from: http://www.seattletheaterhistory.org/
Charles B. Hanford’s “Julius Caesar” (Act IV), 1907. Image from: http://www.seattletheaterhistory.org/

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 338 – Thomas G. Moses and the Belle City Opera House in Racine, Wisconsin

Part 338: Thomas G. Moses and the Belle City Opera House in Racine, Wisconsin

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses recorded that he negotiated, “A good contract for Racine, Wisconsin, Opera House” and the project lasted a few weeks. He was referring to the renovated Belle City Opera House in Racine. Moses previously worked in Racine at the Belle City Opera House during 1883. He painted a second set of scenery for the same venue after it was renovated (see installment #184). While painting for the Belle City Opera House in 1883, Moses also painted scenery for the Blake Opera House, another venue in Racine. The Blake was located on 6th Street and managed by W. C. Tiede.

The original Blake Opera House (1882-1884) in Racine, Wisconsin. Thomas G, Moses painted scenery for this venue in 1883.

The local newspaper commented about Moses’ work in 1883 for the Belle City Opera House, “The scenery at the Opera House is handsome in every particular, Mr. Moses, the gentlemen who designed and painted it deserves the highest commendation” (The Journal Times, 3 Feb 1883, page 2).

His work for the Blake Opera House was equally admired. The Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin) reported that “Thomas Moses, the scenic artist, who painted all the handsome scenes at the Blake Opera House, departed for Illinois to-day. During his stay here Mr. Moses has made many warm friends, who wish him every success, wherever he may go” (14 March 1883, page 2). That message must have meant a lot to Moses. It also says a lot about his personality and character. To have such a warm farewell message published in a local newspaper after a relatively short stay it quite something. Time and time again, it appears as if the people genuinely liked Moses as an individual.

Unfortunately, the following year all of his painting was destroyed when the Blake Opera House burned to the ground in 1884, just two years after it was constructed. It was a very short life for the 1200-seat venue and is often overlooked by historians.

Detail of front curtain on a Belle City Opera House program. This drop was possibly painted by Thomas G. Moses.

By 1895 when Moses returned to Racine, the Blake Opera House’s manager, W. C. Tiede, was managing the new Belle City Opera House. It must have been a pleasant reunion for Moses and Tiede when he arrived for work. As to the specifics of Moses’ scene painting for the Belle Opera House in 1895, it is unclear whether Moses painted stock scenery or supplemental pieces for a specific production.

As with almost all of the theaters that Moses provided stock scenery for in 1895 this venue was a theater located on the ground floor. The renovated Belle City Opera House, located at the intersection of State and Main Streets. It opened on February 11, 1890. The address was 211 Main Street. It original building was constructed in 1876. The 0pening was reported in the Racine Country Argus, “Racine people will always patronize a first-class entertainment, now that they have a good house to go to. The Belle City Hall, as remodeled, makes a fine little Opera House, only a few improvements being necessary to make it as good as any, and the people appreciate it” (January 6, 1876). This venue ceased operations by 1883.

The renovated opera house had a seating capacity of 1,200. At this time, Racine’s population was approximately 30,000. The theater was illuminated with a combination of both gas and electrical lights (volt 110). The proscenium opening was 30’-0” wide by 28’-0” high. The depth of the stage from the footlights to the back wall was 32’-0.” Distance between the sidewalls was 60 feet and the distance between the fly girders was 45 feet. The height of the grooves from the stage was 18’-0” and could be taken up flush with the fly gallery. The distance from the stage to the rigging loft was 50’-0.”

Postcard depicting the original Belle City Opera House, renamed the Racine Theater in 1906.

The Belle City Opera House was across the street from a more prominent theatre. The competitor was known by a variety of names, including the Bate Theatre, Orpheum Theatre, RKO Theatre, and Main Street Theatre). On August 16, 1906 the Belle City Opera House was also renamed to the Racine Theatre. It was rechristened again on May 14, 1914 as the Rex Theatre and became known as a vaudeville house. Eventually the entertainment turned toward cinema. By 1959, the building was transformed into a bowling alley. In 1978 it was demolished to connect State Street and Lake Avenue.

The original Belle City Opera House was renamed for a second time in 1914 when the entertainment venue became the Rex Theatre.
A view depicting the Rex Theatre, originally the Belle City Opera House. Notice the fly loft on top of the building.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 337 -The Jacques Opera House in Waterbury, Connecticut


Part 337: The Jacques Opera House in Waterbury, Connecticut

In 1895, Thomas G. Moses wrote that he secured “a good $1,000.00 job at Hillsboro Theatre at Waterbury, Conn.” During my research I found no mention of any performance venue in Waterbury called the Hillsboro Theatre – either before, during, or after Moses’ visit in 1895. Keep in mind that Moses’ painting project in Waterbury, Connecticut, occurred thirty-six years before he created his 1931 manuscript. Moses based this manuscript on his handwritten entries from annual diaries. It is important to understand that Moses was preparing a book, “Sixty Years Behind the Curtain Line.” Looking at some of the very few existing diaries and his 1931 translation, a lot was omitted from the final manuscript. Subjects were glossed over, or presented with a much more optimistic outlook. He was reflecting on his career at the age of seventy-five. In addition to misspelled names, there were variations for the titles of the productions that he worked on. I think that some details were fuzzy and he simply improvised.

Here is what I did discover while researching Moses’ stay in Waterbury during 1895, as there was a stock scenery collection created for a refurbished opera house at that same time. The newspapers document a painting of drop curtain and scenery that coincides with Moses visit to the area.

Interior of Jacques Opera House, 1896. Illustration is from “Town and City of Waterbury, Connecticut,” written by Joseph Anderson and Anna Lydia Ward, 1896.

Waterbury is located on the Naugatuck River, 33 miles southwest of Hartford, Connecticut, and 77 miles northeast of New York City. The town was associated with the manufacture of brass during the nineteenth century, as factories harnessed the waters of the Naugatuck and Mad Rivers. By 1853, Waterbury was incorporated and known as “the Brass Capital of the World.” Later the clock making industry also became linked associated with the town.

During the summer of 1895, the interior of the Jacques Opera House was thoroughly remodeled and new scenery purchased for the stage. I believe that this was the theatre project that drew Moses to Waterbury to paint $1,000 worth of stage settings. Up until the time that Jacques opened his opera house, there was only the People’s theatre. This early performance venue had provided marginal entertainment in mediocre accommodations. Jacques wanted a larger, and much more impressive home, to host touring shows for his community. I was curious to learn more about this ambitious individual.

Jacques Opera House was founded by Eugene “Jean” Jacques (1855-1905). Jacques initially worked for his father, a physician and pharmacist. He was involved in many business ventures, such as the Jacques & Fenn skating rink that was later transformed into the Casino and eventually into the People’s Theatre. Jacques and the community recognized the limitations of the venue, prompting him to construct his new opera house during the summer of 1885. Located at on the corner of Abbott and Phoenix Avenues, it was constructed for $50,000.

Program for 6th Dramatic Season of Jacques Opera House, estblished in 1885.

After opening the 1885 Jacques Opera House, he constructed another building with a stage called the Auditorium during 1891. It featured a hard-maple floor, measuring 5,000 square foot with a stage at the end of the room for dances and social events. The space was intended for dancing and also boasted a smoking room, a ladies room, a kitchen and other accessories. I found it interesting that historical records noted that no dramatic presentations of note took place at the Auditorium, but the space was used by a variety of fraternal groups, such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.). Jacques also founded the Diamond Bottling Works.

Postcard of Jacques Opera House.

The “Town and City of Waterbury, Connecticut,” written by Joseph Anderson and Anna Lydia Ward in 1896, provides much information about the interior of Jacques Opera House in both 1885 and 1895 (pages 1095-1096). Here is a brief description of the original 1885 interior:

“The auditorium was built in the shape of a fireman’s trumpet, with the stage at the mouthpiece, and the seats were so arranged that the stage was visible from all parts of the house. All corners were rounded, and all rails curved, no angles being visible to mar the general effect. The decorations were bright, warm and cheerful, the woodwork being Tuscan red, terra cotta and gold, and the tints of the walls, ceilings and draperies harmonizing with it. A unique feature was the scene of the drop-curtain, which was a view of the celebrated glen in High Rock grove. The stage was large and thoroughly equipped with modern appliances. The orchestra pit was below the level of the floor, separated from the house by a curved rail. There were sixteen boxes, four on each side of the stage. The dressing rooms, lobby, etc., are in the basement, under the stage.” The original seating configuration was reconfigured a few years later, when several rows of plush covered sofas were put in.

Here is a description of the 1895 interior after the remodel with the scenery that was likely painted by Thomas G. Moses during his visit to Waterbury that year:

“The tone of the decoration was entirely changed, lighter and more delicate tints replacing the old color scheme. Eight boxes, of new and graceful design, replaced the sixteen of former days, and new seats were added to parquet and balcony, the seating capacity of the house being thus increased. A new and handsome drop-curtain, new sets of scenery, improvements in lighting facilities, etc., made the opera house seem almost like a new building, and added much to the comfort and pleasure of theatre-goers.”

Jacques future wife performed at his theatre during 1887. He married the actress Annie Louise Ames (1865-1915) two years later in 1889, and she gradually withdrew from show business to raise their daughter. Jacques Opera House had no competition until Poli’s Theatre opened in 1897. Poli’s was located just around the corner on East Main Street.

Postcard of Poli’s Theatre, 1897. This was the first competition fo Jacques Opera House.

To be continued…