A LITTLE HISTORY
A hundred years ago, grand drapes and painted backdrops were primary artistic features in the cultural life of almost every village and town in northern New England. The “curtains” provided color and escapism in institutions that varied greatly in size and professional capacity. The scenery was permanently installed, available as set backdrops for traveling troupes, speakers, locally-produced variety shows and various societies and clubs.
In Vermont, where a survey of historic scenery unearthed 180 painted curtains, three-quarters of them were made for town halls, where politics, education, social occasions and entertainment all took place in one central building with a stage. In grange halls, the curtains also played a part in degree ceremonies. New Hampshire and Maine have another 300+ painted curtains, and there are unknown numbers in the rest of the country. This type of “rolldrop” scenery does not seem to have been as popular south of New England, where higher humidity may have played a significant role in the deterioration of the fabric, as well as different styles of community buildings.
Most historic scenery was created using water-soluble paint on cotton muslin attached to a wooden or metal roller. The scenes feature country views (often with a European flavor), streets or interiors, but a number of them are also advertising drops that document relationships between local business sponsors and the arts. Many advertising curtains are in grange halls, since that is how Grangers paid for them, while town hall curtains were paid for by donation or public money. Some pieces are by local artists, whereas others were purchased from large scenic studios in Boston, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Omaha, or the many smaller, regional studios throughout the country.
The restoration process includes stabilizing the fabric, providing minimal in-painting and consolidation of the paint layer, and improving or re-creating the rolling and installation mechanisms on stage. A few pieces are prepared for safe storage because they are too fragile to display or the stage is in disrepair. The professional conservation team works with local volunteers to become “curtain caretakers” through their participation in the treatment of their own scenery and instruction in care and handling. (See Conservation Methods)
The most striking painted scenery is often a GRAND DRAPE, noted for the illusion of elegant, painted drapery that is pulled aside to reveal a scene within a decorative frame. A grand drape is always located at the front of the stage, right behind the proscenium arch. It usually contains a romantic scene with mountains, a castle or a dramatic view. Occasionally a local scene is used, but only if it is sufficiently dramatic in its own right. If modern “velvet” drapery has also been installed, the historic grand drape is usually positioned behind it but as far forward as possible, although some become backdrops.
Huntington, VT Town Hall Grand Drape, now at the Library
Alumni Hall Grand Drape originally from
the Woodsville Opera House, Haverill, NH
Moving upstage, one finds a variety of BACKDROPS ranging from an urban street scene to a seascape, to a formal or country interior. A woodland or country scene is usually positioned as close to the back of the stage as possible.
Rustic Interior, North Jay Grange, ME
Country Scene, Townshend Town Hall, VT
Some sites have additional pieces that work together with the roll drops to complete a scene. These pieces range from overhead TEASERS used to block stage lights or support structures, to pairs of side EARS or LEGS that create depth and provide entry points for the actors.
A set of double-sided ears in Saxtons River, VT, that
can form either an interior or a woodland scene.
GRANGE HALL CURTAINS are in a category by themselves and are characterized by their local advertisements. These drops usually combine the romance of a central scene and at least some painted drapery, but they are dominated by advertisements for tractor dealers, funeral parlors, banks, and piano movers. Sometimes a street scene is created entirely out of blocks of ads. Granges use their painted curtains for ceremonies, as well as variety shows. They also have interest as early examples of business support for the arts.
Brownington Grange Hall with Lake Willoughby
Wheelock Town Hall with a blimp
Not all advertising curtains are in grange halls. This one from a former Red Men’s Hall is now displayed at the Canaan Historical Society.