An unexpected find: Academy of Music restores historic scenic curtain
By STEVE PFARRER
Time was when all kinds of places had them: theaters, town halls, grange halls, opera houses, or any place else you might stage some kind of artistic performance.
Scenic backdrop curtains.
It turns out Northampton’s Academy of Music had one, too, but it had pretty much vanished from view years ago until Academy staff members discovered it two years ago when the building was being restored.
Now that 103-year-old curtain — evidently the largest known to exist on the East Coast — has been given a makeover by a Vermont conservation group that specializes in refurbishing these historic backdrops. On Tuesday, the Academy will unveil the curtain to the public during an open house from 5:45 to 6:30 p.m.
“It’s the largest [scenic curtain] we’ve ever worked with,” said Christine Hadsel, director of Curtains Without Borders, a conservation group from Burlington, Vermont. “It’s an impressive work.”
Hadsel, who with members of her team spent several days in August working on the curtain, said the Northampton backdrop measures 42 by 28 feet. Most of the curtains the group conserves are in the range of 18 by 10 feet, she noted.
Debra J’Anthony, director of the Academy of Music, said the curtain was designed in 1913 by Maurice Tuttle, a New York painter who created scenic backdrops throughout the United States and Canada. It was first displayed for the public in October 1913 as the main drop curtain for a performance by a theatrical group, the Northampton Players.
D’Anthony says she believes the painted scene was inspired by Paradise Pond on the Smith College campus in Northampton and by a tower that was part of a local factory and business, Maynard’s Hoe Shop, which was destroyed by fire a few years later. On the curtain, the tower stands alone and is surrounded by trees and framed against a blue sky. The lush scene could pass for a painting from the Romantic Era, with the tower representing an old medieval or Roman ruin.
A stylized graphic, with abstract motifs that may have been painted on with stencils, lines the painting on three sides.
Tuttle’s design, Academy staff say, was painted over one side of what had been the theater’s original main proscenium curtain, a blue-and-white striped canvas decorated in floral stencils and hand-painted pinstripes. That curtain dated from the building’s opening in 1891.
At some point — it’s not clear exactly when — the curtain was taken out of use and stapled to the back of the Academy’s cut-velvet main drape curtain, which dates from 1917, J’Anthony said.
After Tuttle’s work was discovered, J’Anthony got in touch with Curtains Without Borders; staff from the group made three visits to the Academy to assess its condition and develop a plan to conserve it.
A deep clean
In mid-August, several members from the group returned to the Academy to start that effort. First job: scrub a century’s worth of dirt and stains from the huge curtain.
To do that, it was removed from its risers and laid out flat on dozens of rented tables mounted on the Academy’s stage. Staff from Curtains Without Borders, on their hands and knees, rubbed the curtain — made from a cotton muslin, Hadsel said— with specialized dry sponges.
Curtains from those days, she added, “would absorb a lot of dirt. People used to smoke in theaters, dirt would fall from the ceiling, and it would accumulate.”
The conservators also planned to clean the backside of the curtain. Additional conservation work included vacuuming, repainting faded sections of the curtain, repairing tears and holes, and trimming ragged edges with iron-on patches.
“It’s the biggest curtain we’ve ever worked on,” Hadsel said. “It’s quite a job.”
Her group, started in 1996 as a project of the Vermont Museum & Gallery Alliance, has since surveyed and worked on hundreds of old painted curtains and backdrops in New England and in other parts of the United States. They’ve conserved one at the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield and are scheduled to work on one in Orange.
“These kinds of backdrops were very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially in New England,” Hadsel said. “Just about any place that could host a performance had one. Sometimes they’d have a whole set of them.”
While many of these backdrops featured pastoral scenes, some offered street scenes or interior views of houses; others would contain advertisements, usually for local businesses that supported that arts. Many of these “advertising” curtains are in grange halls, Hadsel notes, as granges used the revenue to pay for the artistic work and upkeep, while town hall curtains were paid for by donations or public money.
“They’re really great examples of American folk art,” she said.
She’s cataloged many of the curtains her team has worked on in a new book, “Suspended Worlds: Historic Theater Scenery in Northern New England.” The colorful backdrops detailed in the book recall the era before TV, radio and the internet, when live theater was the main form of community entertainment.
J’Anthony says the Academy is thrilled to have its painted curtain — a missing piece of the city’s history — back in place. In addition to Tuesday’s free unveiling, it will be available for viewing during future history tours, special events and selected performances at the theater, she said.
1913 Maurice Tuttle Historic Curtain Reveal
Tuesday, September 13 at 5:45 pm – 6:30 pm