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September 21, 2018

New Search for Historic Theater Scenery


A search for historic painted scenery is now underway in the northern half of New York. These local treasures were created between 1890 and about 1940, the heyday of vaudeville and variety shows. They are still to be found in town halls, grange halls, opera houses and community theaters, even though they are rarely used for theatrical performances today. They often contain richly painted romantic scenes with country or street scenes. They are usually “roll drops” on wooden or metal rollers and they sometimes feature advertisements for local businesses such as dairies, piano movers, car dealers and beauty parlors. With the arrival of movies and then television, the use of town halls and grange halls as cultural centers declined, and after WWII, the tradition of creating painted roll drops simply disappeared. However, much of the historic scenery remains either on stage or in storage, sometimes in good condition but more often neglected, torn and very dirty.

Curtains Without Borders is a conservation team that has stabilized all 185 historic painted theater curtains in Vermont. In 2009, we surveyed New Hampshire where we documented over 130 pieces of historic scenery and in 2010 we began a survey for the state of Maine. In New York, we are concentrating on the northern half of the state, where scenic studios from Troy and Buffalo produced roll drops all over New England. At www.curtainswithoutborders.org you can find photographs and information about many of these local treasures.

The goal of this project is to locate and document as many pieces as possible. Eventually, Curtains Without Borders intends to do a national search, along with research about artists and scenic studios. We also want to encourage people to care for these huge treasures, whether they simply wrap them in Tyvek to protect them from dirt and mice, or whether they decide to restore them for public display. Funding for the New York survey has been provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Bay and Paul Foundations of New York. Another partner in this effort to locate and document New York’s historic scenery is the New York State Grange.

We need your help! For more information and to contribute any information, please call Christine Hadsel at 802-598-5867 or email: [email protected]

One Response “New Search for Historic Theater Scenery”

  1. Lana DuBois
    January 12, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    My great grandfather, Allen E. Worden of Fulton painted theatrical scenery. He had a studio, part of which was 2 stories tall on Academy Street in Fulton. He traveled all around the state painting scenery, too. The Fulton Historical Society has photos of some of his scenery that was painted for the Quirk Theater in Fulton.

    Not many years ago, we were told that a piece of his scenery was in the upstairs stage area of Chubby’s in Fulton. When we went to see it, we were told that it was purchased by someone who had a bed and breakfast in Phoenix. Our family was hoping to see some of his work in person, as he died in 1920. We also heard that a grange out in N. Volney / Vermillion area might have one of his scenes, but we were never able to locate it.

    If anyone ever finds one of A. E. Worden’s scenes, please contact us. We would love to see it.

    Lana DuBois
    Martville, NY

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