Last week, a friend mentioned that for their Halloween party, the Scottish Rite Signature Theatre group planned to unroll from the rafters of their stage the drops depicting hell. That sounded like very promising party décor, but it also sounded like an unusually well-stocked theatrical stage.
In fact, when I visit a few days later, Deb Campbell, the Signature Theatre director, confirms the bounty of available stage sets. Above the stage at the Scottish Rite Temple, more than 100 other watercolor canvas drops are ready to be unfurled, all of them hand-painted, and all of them more than 100 years old. Some stretch all the way across the stage, and others are smaller legs that fill out a scene, adding dimension to the main batten, or frame the stage.
They have been ready to go, and have often been used, since 1905. The Masons bought the original building at First Street in Topeka (originally a YMCA) in the 1800s, rebuilding and adding on in what would be the first of three renovations there. They ordered the scenery drops from a company in Chicago, Sosman and Landis, which did most of that sort of painting for stage at the time, and much of it for the Scottish Rite stages in the Midwest. The drops were shipped by train, and men from Sosman and Landis travelled to Wichita to install them. They have been used since then.
The paintings seem both familiar and unlike anything on local stages. They suggest realism in one glance and in another an enhanced, dreamy vision. Surely you need to tell your most trusted theatrical friends about the possibilities the stage offers. And then you tell someone, who promptly exclaims, “I love the stage at the Scottish Temple.”
Deb, who has worked with many of those drops for performances, confirms the plans for the Halloween party, and admits she has long wondered when she would put Hell into service.
“The kids always wanted to do Hell, but there’s no show with Hell.”
As the theatre director, she directed many shows with the painted canvasses, but she takes them into consideration more now when choosing a work to do. Deb describes staging Little Women and not being happy with the set. “It wasn’t a successful set show because we didn’t have great drops. So we started changing our emphasis. We asked, Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel? We don’t need to do Little Women. Shakespeare is fabulous here. I can’t imagine a Shakespeare show that they don’t have drops for.”
Deb points out Chet Hockett, the stage manager.
“There’s the guy you ask questions. He’s the guy that knows everything about this place,” Deb says, as a man who appears busy and also ready to end sudden glitches, enters the auditorium. She asks him if he is free.
“Free? I may not be free, but I’m dirt cheap,” Chet says jovially, and joins us.
“A lot of them are Egyptian,” he says of the scenes on the drops, “because basically they were painted for the Scottish Rite.” He mentions other drops depicting ancient places. “A lot of our roots go back to medieval days. Actually, on back as far as you want to go.”
The origins of the Masonic group can be hazy, and recent movies that include tales of Freemasons or similar groups (Tom Hanks’s Angels and Demons and Nick Cage’s National Treasure) throw into its history extra exciting fiction, compounding the muddle, at least for those who aren’t Masons. Masonic websites and others, however, do seem to agree that while the fraternity had been around in some form for many centuries, it became the organization that it is today during the time of the American Revolution. (And while the sites correct misconceptions, they seem to also, tongue in cheek, leave a smidgen of room for the reader to imagine what she or he will.)
Traditionally, the Masons, a private organization, have been the only ones to use their facilities. And while Chet can’t help but refer several times to the stage as a “hidden treasure,” the auditorium these days is not exactly undiscovered. The Masons continue to use it, and the Scottish Rite Signature Theatre uses it for both their Shakespeare group and their children’s theatre.
But these days, the Masons also rent areas of the building to others for performances, weddings, and other events. In “today’s world,” Chet says, “the building is a bit of a white elephant.” Rentals help pay the enormous heating and cooling costs. The Sweet Adelines and the Air Capital Men’s Chorus choirs rehearse there weekly. A huge variety of outside groups rent it for concerts, theatre, and even –despite the carpeting—dance.
Sections of the building and furnishings are quite old—some carpet there now was installed at the last turn of the century—but they were clearly built to survive and have been cared for since.
Part of the reason for the stage drops’ longevity, Deb says, is “Chet and the men who came before him. The other reason most drops don’t last is they’re constantly taken down, folded, taken back out, put up. These don’t come down.”
The commitment of those who maintain the stage is apparent, both in their knowledge and in their affection for the place. The two introduce Ross Smith, still a part of the staff at age 87 and who appeared on the same stage with his sister 80 years ago.
Performers new to the stage eventually love it, Chet says, but they can be skeptical about its unique features at first. For one thing, the stage is carpeted.
“The acoustics on this stage are nothing short of marvelous,” Chet says. He describes reactions of the professional singers who visit. “They look at the stage and say, ‘Oh, it’s carpeted,’ which will deaden the sound. I say, ‘That’s okay, just go ahead with your rehearsal.’ About halfway through their first rehearsal, they’re looking at me, smiling. ‘Yeah, this will work.’ ”
Deb confirms the experience of adjusting to carpet. “When I first came in I was very [she makes a face of surprise], ‘Oh my gosh, carpet!’ But it is fabulous. It’s also great because of the various things you can do as an actor. It’s a little bit of cush when you land. And it’s cleaner with the costumes. There are great things about it. But I had never seen a stage without carpeting.”