Preserving McAlester's Scenic Treasures

Court of King Cyrus Scene

By Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett, Ph.D.

Photo: McAlester’s court of King Cyrus for the 15°, Knight of the East (All photos courtesy Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett)

The inability to use a painted scene during degree work is often the only instigator to refurbish or replace drops. In 2008, the Valley of McAlester decided to invest in the future by preserving their past. Joining a small minority of Valleys, the Scottish Rite in McAlester, Oklahoma, aggressively launched a restoration campaign in 2008 to preserve their scenery. Nearing the end of an intensive restoration project, small groups of local residents have painstakingly repaired this incomparable backdrop collection over the duration of two summers.

When the McAlester Building Restoration Committee sought recommendations from local theatre industry representatives for possible refurbishment, they failed to attain any definitive advice from regional experts. Believing their collection in peril, chairman Bill Kincead sought the advice of a Minnesota-based backdrop restoration company, Bella Scena, LLC, during the fall of 2008.

As the owner of the company, I have repaired over 400 painted drops across the nation; including Scottish Rite scenery in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Grand Forks, and Santa Fe. Travelling to McAlester, Oklahoma in January 2009, I completed an on-site evaluation of their backdrop collection, presenting the committee with a history of the scenery, a prioritized list for restoration, and procedural explanations of the repair procedure. Considering extreme temperature swings and high humidity in Oklahoma, the majority of the backdrops were in remarkable shape for being 80-years old.

Historical Significance

Scottish Rite scenery collections form a time capsule for both theatre historians and practitioners, offering a rich resource that depicts aesthetic shifts in the field of scenic art and stage design. Fraternal scenery collections represent a primary source for historians to explore painting techniques and color palettes otherwise unavailable. Painted scenery for commercial theatres was typically discarded at a production’s close, leaving only secondary sources in the form of playbills, reviews or other photographic documentation. Much of the scenery used for current degree work originated between 1900 and 1960. Many of these backdrop collections are in imminent danger of disappearing. Humidity, water damage, dry rot, punctures, sagging cables, warped battens, and many other factors contribute to the rapid deterioration of Masonic scenery throughout the Southern Jurisdiction.

To appreciate the value of McAlester’s scenery, one must understand the early inclusion of staged spectacle into fraternal ceremonies. It was this theatrical interpretation of degree work that skyrocketed the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry to the forefront of the American fraternal movement, captivating members with a unique ritual experience.1 The transformation of communicated degree work into fully conferred theatrical productions utilized a drop-and-wing format, imitating American Victorian popular entertainment as produced by theatre manufacturers. Mid-nineteenth-century Scottish Rite legislation mandated the use of stage scenery for the indispensable degrees (4°, 14°, 18°, 30°, and 32°), thus identifying full conferrals or degrees conferred in full.2

Although Scottish Rite stages initially appeared in the Northern Jurisdiction, it was in the Southern Jurisdiction’s rapidly expanding western region where theatrical interpretations flourished. Across the western frontier, a literal race ensued to construct increasingly impressive edifices with theatre spaces. Such was the case in 1929 when the Valley of McAlester built the largest fraternal stage in the Nation, measuring 80′ × 100′ with 125 line sets. Sumptuously ornamented in an Egyptian theme, this 1,000-seat auditorium includes a 60′ × 60′ proscenium arch. This exceptional collection of 112 drops (42 leg drops, 42 cut drops, and 28 backdrops) was the last fraternal stage design and scenic art produced by Thomas Gibbs Moses (1856–1932) at the age of 73.3 A prolific scenic artist and president of Sosman & Landis Studio of Chicago, his work appeared in theatres, amusement parks, world fairs, churches, and various fraternal stages throughout the Nation from 1873 to 1932. Starting with the Little Rock Scottish Rite in 1896, Moses’ Masonic work included fifty-five Scottish Rite Temples, seven Shrine Temples, fourteen Knight Templar Commanderies, and nine Grottos.4

Scenic Composition

The McAlester backdrops, as most other extant scenery, were produced with dry pigment and “size” water. This historical painting methodology combined pure color with diluted hide glue (“size”). Scenery restoration work must utilize this paint system as alternative artistic media will appear differently under stage lights. A brief explanation of the nineteenth-century scenic composition is necessary to appreciate its adaptation to degree work. Three elements characterized a fraternal stage composition: backdrops, cut drops, and leg drops.

The backdrop is the center to the stage composition. It provides not only a background, but also the necessary subject matter for the scene. When painted fabric is positioned on either side of the backdrop, “legs” are created, providing a foreground. The middle ground is created with cut drop, or backdrops with central openings that are structurally supported with opera netting, theatrical gauze, or scrim. Depending on a theatre’s resources and the depth of the stage, numerous cut drops or leg drops may be placed in front of a backdrop. Such is the case in McAlester where two leg drops, two cut drops, and a backdrop construct a scene from the 15th Degree in King Cyrus’ palace.

Volunteers perform restoration workPhoto: Three full-time volunteers (l. to r.) Ill. Bros. Billy F. Erkin, 33°, Almoner; Mark Halyard, 33°, Director of Work; and Clem Peppers, 33°, Building Superintendent, performing restoration work

Cut drops are often the greatest concern when restoring a backdrop collection. Damage to any netted section affects the structural integrity of the entire piece, possibly interfering with neighboring lines. Traditionally, one-inch cotton net prevents the opening in a drop from sagging and stretching the painted fabric. Netting is attached to the back of the opening with hide glue. The glue is either dotted on the netted knots or slathered along the perimeter of the opening. Replacing original netting is especially difficult as the glue hardens over time, causing the edges to severely curl. First, the old netting must be removed and any hardened glue scraped off. Next, the entire drop is cleaned so that the painted surface can be stabilized with a water-based sealer. This prohibits the pigment or color from dusting off the surface. During the stabilizing process, the edges are softened and flattened, thus aiding the application of new netting. Prior to laying out new netting, the drop is “squared” to make sure that the netting will be placed perpendicular to the bottom and sides of the drop. Over time, the uneven distribution of weight from damage and rigging inaccuracies will stretch the drop’s fabric and alter its the original shape.

Theatre Installations

It is crucial that the netting remains square; otherwise, the netted scenery will appear crooked when hung. Once cleaned, stabilized and squared, the drop is flattened with stage weights and low-tack tape so that all areas of the netting make contact with the fabric. During the 1920s, studios began slathering on glue over entire sections of a cut-opening perimeter, such is the case in McAlester. This practice caused the fabric to shrink and created unsightly wrinkles on the painted surface over time. My preferred method of glue application adheres to an earlier technique: one drop of glue per each knotted section. This “one-drop” method provides greater flexibility and longevity for not only the netted section, but also the entire drop.

Painted and netted scenery was rolled and shipped to each Scottish Rite location, usually by rail. During theatre installations, drops were “sandwich-battened” with pine boards at the top and bottom of each piece; painted fabric was placed between two 1″ × 4″ pieces of rounded planks. Traditionally, the top wooden batten incorporated three to five “pick points” that connected the drop to a hemp-and-cable counterweight system. McAlester has five pick points that span the near sixty-foot width. Infrequent maintenance of the rigging system often resulted in uneven tension; causing the unequal distribution of weight and subsequent batten bow. Over time this stretched shape alters the composition. One procedure that prevents the bowing of wood over great distances is the insertion of steel into the sandwich batten as utilized at McAlester. McAlester’s top batten includes a steel T with five forged pick points, a unique procedure that ultimately prevented each drop from extreme bowing. Wooden battens will often warp from water damage or excessive humidity, inadvertently harming neighboring lines. Typically, drops were installed every six inches on center. In McAlester, this standard spacing was reduced to four inches on center. Over time, warped battens will wear off the paint or snag the hardware on a nearby line.

After cleaning, stabilization, and patch repair, the restored drop is prepared for netting and future hanging. This means that the drop must be “squared” so that the sides will be perpendicular to the floor and battens. Using the 3-4-5 triangle method, lines are snapped for the top and side edges. These guidelines provide the basis that netted squares are secured to openings in cut drops. These lines also mark the top and side parameters; later these were trimmed, glued, and folded, thus preventing future wear and tear during degree work. Prior to hanging a drop, the top battens are carefully secured to the drop. Staples replace original tacks to attach the fabric to the batten. Staples create smaller holes in the fabric, thus preventing areas for future weakness. After stapling the fabric to the back batten, the front top batten is positioned and screwed into place. Phillip-head screws replace the original slotted screws for ease of later adjustment. This process in McAlester became somewhat more complicated as it involved the careful positioning of steel between the two battens with nuts and bolts.

Once the top batten is stabilized, the pick points are rigged for lifting. Typically, the rigging lines only lower to a height of 13′ above the stage floor. This means that the drop must be raised to that height, prior to attaching. After the drop is raised and examined for any remaining wrinkles, the bottom battens are attached. Placing the battens last facilitates the removal of wrinkles. Jigs and dozens of clamps aid the laborious process of attaching bottom battens.

Restoration Work

Restoration work must occur on site due to the size and fragility of each piece. The experience gained over two decades has reinforced two beliefs: (1) nothing is ever beyond repair and (2) the best assistants are volunteer members committed to the Rite’s future. Sadly, there is more restoration work than one individual could complete in a lifetime and few who understand the historical techniques necessary to repair or replicate the paintings.

For decades the scenery has not received the necessary maintenance or repair work it required. If amateur repairs were attempted, they often did more damage than good, occasionally accelerating the overall deterioration. Nationwide, many Valleys are facing a difficult decision as the scenery becomes more expensive to repair than replace, and there are few qualified to complete the work. Some Scottish Rite Valleys opt to replace their old scenery with new renditions. Attempts to replicate extant scenery often lead to unsatisfactory results for three reasons: inexperienced artists, unfamiliar paint methods, and inferior artistic media. A close approximation of the extant composition will be produced, yet the modern painting techniques never carry the same fluidity of motion nor technical manner in which the original backdrops were painted. Few artists are proficient in the historical painting methods used by the early scenic studios to recreate these masterpieces, such as those produced by Thomas Moses. Even if each brush stroke is reproduced, the overall composition will fail to convey the fluidity of movement characteristic with the original artwork.

Once regarded as innovative and attractive to members, American Victorian drop-and-wing scenery now appears anachronistic to many young members. As twentieth-century theatre technology surpassed that depicted on the fraternal stage, much degree work became antiquated. The American Victorian drop-and-wing format constructs a marked obsolescence as painted scenery further removes the member from a contemporaneous interpretation of the degree work. Scottish Rite scenery continues to rapidly disappear as fraternal members seek presentational alternatives for degree work.

Many seek innovations to contemporize the ritual. The degree work, however, is locked within a historical format due to the architectural confines of the space and visual aesthetics of painted illusion. Some believe the digitization of extant scenery for future technological manipulation signifies a future trend. They believe that a rear-projection will adequately replace the dimensional space created with multiple layers of painted scenery. Although photographs capture the image of an artwork, they always lack the essence; slide projections become lifeless facsimiles of original scenery. Many members do not see the need to maintain or restore backdrops as long as their scenes appear on clue. The necessary repair or replacement of painted scenery is perceived as optional. Active passivism could result in the disappearance of this primary resource unless interest can be generated concerning the significance of our fraternal heritage. The Rite now stands at a decisive moment; they will either return to the past and glorify it or abandon the past and construct a new identity. Let us hope that these beautiful accounts of fraternal and theatrical history will remain available for future generations.

Works Cited
1. Waszut-Barrett, Wendy Rae. “Scenic Shifts Upon the Scottish Rite Stage: Designing for Masonic Theatre, 1859–1929.” Ph.D. dissertation. University of Minnesota, 2009.
2. For further information pertaining to the early Scottish Rite legislation governing theatrical scenery for degree work, see Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett. “Theatrical Interpretations of the Indispensable Degrees.” Heredom 12 (2004): 141–62.
3. For further information regarding the life of Thomas Gibbs Moses (1856–1932), see C. Lance Brockman. “Thomas G. Moses: Profile of a Scenic Artists.” Heredom 1 (1992): 83–99.
4. Moses, Thomas Gibbs. My Diary and Scrapbook. Unpublished Manuscript used with permission from Doris Moses Finks. Theatre Arts Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, with the John R. Rothgeb Papers, Austin.