The second day we had the theater, Dean and I climbed the steps that led from the orchestra pit and stood center stage. I looked outward at a sea of unoccupied seats, but he pointed directly over our heads. “That’s a real fly loft,” he observed. Backstage was taller than I had imagined.
I laid my head back, and, dizzy, took in all the weight hanging above us. The proscenium’s high gilded arch, viewed from the orchestra, had been deceptive. Three or four stories above the stage hung a series of long metal pipes, horizontal and suspended from steel cables. Each bore the imposing weight of a curtain. Dean explained that the “counterweights” along the side walls (attached to each cable) allowed a mere mortal to raise or lower these acres of heavy cloth lightly and quickly.
The curtains were like dresses in a closet, but, beyond the asbestos fire curtain which had another purpose entirely, this lady had only two things to wear, a plain red velvet everyday curtain stained at the edges, and something very dark and heavy — I could just make out the giant tassels. Much later in our year there, a particular staff member would spend all the hours of one night — from ten to six A.M. — hand vacuuming this exquisite curtain. Its tassels were four feet high, each one thick as a heavy rope. Painstakingly, he stripped away the layers of dust, almost heavier than the red and gold brocade it clung to.
The formal house curtain was our proudest possession, really no possession at all--because we were just renters. A member of the Theater Historical Society, unaware that we were not the curtain’s owners, offered us $40,000 for it: there were theaters in Manhattan that knew what to do with such a treasure. Later, when the landlord turned off the heat, and still later when I couldn’t pay the electric bill, I entertained fantasies of curtain theft. But this would have been a violation, like the forced cutting of a beautiful head of hair. The gilded figures in the alcoves left and right might have seemed to avert their plaster gazes, and the very boards of the stage might well have moaned.