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Artists at the Great Western Stage Equipment Company created this sketch of Solomon’s Audience Chamber which is now part of the Great Western Collection at the University of Minnesota. The art of preserving our past will be part of a special session at the 50th Annual Conference & Stage Expo in Kansas City, Missouri.

Images/Courtesy C. Lance Brockman

Preserving Our Past

C. Lance Brockman
Scene Design Commission

For the celebration in Kansas City, Missouri of USITT@50, one particular session should not be missed. Preserving Our Past: Documenting, Digitizing and Restoring Our Theatre Heritage celebrates the efforts to preserve the collection of Masonic sketches produced by the Great Western Stage Equipment Company of Kansas City (1925-1960s). This local scenic factory, like the legion of studios located across the country, equipped vaudeville and legit theatres as well as Masonic Temples providing richly detailed painted and illusionary backdrops until 1929.

The Great Western Stage Equipment Company building.

With the rise in popularity of picture shows, followed by the advent of television, most of the surviving studios turned their energies away from painted illusion and focused on producing rigging, lighting, seating, and occasionally painted drops for the numerous academic theatres built during the period from 1930 through the 1960s.

For many, the sense of theatrical heritage is limited to a few surviving historic theatres and movie palaces restored as a means of economically revitalizing downtown business districts in America. However, the important ingredients that always seems to be missing in those lovely gems is extant examples and representation of the theatricality that filled those stages with beautifully painted scenery, lavish costumes, and extraordinary spectacle.

A page from the 1927-28 GWSE catalog.

Fortunately, for a fuller understanding of American theatre history, many collections of sketches, photographs, and extant memorabilia are now emerging allowing us to fully comprehend and appreciate those essential elements while “preserving our past.”

This session is devoted to efforts to process and digitize two immense treasure troves: the Great Western Stage Equipment Company Collection at the University of Minnesota and, more recently, the Daphne Dare Collection at Ohio State University. The latter visually documents the extraordinary work of a designer who created costumes for theatre, television, and film on an international stage. Join us for a discussion of how these collections came to light and how they were processed and ultimately disseminated through the Internet to interested students, designers, and theatre scholars. In addition to these critical design documentations, full-stage scenery is being discovered requiring a whole “new” approach to preserving theatre’s past. Many of these artifacts are located in Scottish Rite Temples of Freemasonry that were built in every large emerging city in America throughout the 20th century. These valuable assets give designers and painters a necessary connection to a rich past and previously “lost” craft. For those Temples that are still financially viable, the scenery and vintage stage mechanics need specialized attention.

A GWSE paint frame.

In addition to the discussion about archiving the design materials, this conference session will introduce the newest challenges of preserving these historic treasures. Hopefully, this will be followed by a session at a future conference devoted to this important subject.

Participants include: C. Lance Brockman, designer and historian, University of Minnesota; Nena Couch, curator for the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, Ohio State University; and Wendy Waszut-Barrett, coordinator for the Digital Scenery Collection and scenery preservationist, University of Minnesota. The presentation will be 3 to 4:15 p.m. Saturday, April 3.

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