The second day we had the theater, a group of us climbed the steps that led from the orchestra pit and stood center stage, looking outward at a sea of unoccupied seats, then directly over our heads. “That’s a real fly loft,” a buddy observed. Backstage was taller than I had imagined.
I tilted my head, 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. 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 at the St. George, 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 and a half 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. In recent Internet travels, I’ve located a professional service which does, at great cost, what one man took all of one night to do on his own, with only an Electrolux canister for company.
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 beyond grand larceny — and probable jail time — 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.
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The above is a republished blog post, to which I’d like to add an interesting footnote: An organization called “Curtains Without Borders,” headquartered in Vermont, just completed the restoration of a scenic curtain/theater backdrop at the Academy of Music in Northampton, a project that seems to have taken all summer, involving “the largest scenic curtain on the Eastern Seaboard” — 42' x 28'. The backdrop was introduced in 1913 for the Northampton Players company, and appears to depict part of the original landscape of the town, including Paradise Pond on the Smith College campus. The St. George Theatre had no pictorial curtains in its fly loft, but many Vaudeville houses — especially older theaters and opera houses — had these particular backdrops in storage, enough, apparently, to keep a hard-working group of post-millennium Vermonters busy. Check it out!