Historic painted curtains take center stage

CORNWALL — Christine Hadsel and Suki Fredericks picked up what looked like a ratty, rolled-up drop-cloth and placed it on an expansive table in the Cornwall town office conference room late last week.
But as they gently unfurled the fabric, it became clear that this was not a piece of throwaway fabric.
Each turn of the roll revealed more real estate of a beautifully painted, late-summer lake scene, replete with lush trees surrounding an azure waterway with rolling hills in the background.
It was a scene typical of many Addison County locales — except this two-dimensional version was scarred and smudged by a combination of Father Time and hungry rodents. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the painted theater curtain that once adorned Whiting’s town hall stage — and will soon grace Cornwall’s. But Hadsel and Fredericks will soon restore it to its former glory, as they have done to almost 200 similar, vintage curtains pulled from various municipal building attics, Grange hall closets, opera houses and old boxes throughout the state.
“They were once a focal point of each community,” said Hadsel, director of the Vermont Painted Theater Curtain conservation project.
“These are still the largest works of art in many communities.”
Hadsel explained the painted curtains were oftentimes created by traveling performers who fashioned their own scenes for plays or vaudeville variety shows staged in community halls, largely between 1880 and 1940. The performer-artists sometimes created several different curtain scenes for each town in which they would put on a show. Those curtains — some depicting majestic townscapes, coliseum settings, or pastoral landscapes — added a colorful flourish to a town hall’s décor and ambiance long after the troubadours had left.
“It was permanent scenery,” Hadsel said. “It was not done for a single play.”
But the painted curtains — some of them called “grand drapes” — ultimately took a backstage to movie theaters and television. Suddenly, demand for live shows ebbed and most of the curtains were either discarded or rolled up and stashed in crawl spaces, under stages or in people’s homes.
The Vermont Painted Theater Curtain conservation project was initiated in 1996 to find that forgotten artwork, repair it and see it once again prominently displayed in public venues.
Hadsel and her team of professional conservators identified, through a survey, 185 painted curtains stashed throughout the state. Funded by state, federal and foundation grants, the team has spent the past several years inspecting the curtains, restoring them and instructing locals how to display and care for them.
“This has the honor of being the last curtain that we are doing, from soup to nuts, in the entire state,” Hadsel said of the Whiting Town Hall curtain, which will be on long-term loan to Cornwall. Hadsel noted the Whiting Town Hall’s stage area is not fully accessible and might not be for a while, so officials determined it would get greater visibility in neighboring Cornwall — which has no curtain of its own.
“We have no record whatsoever of what was in Cornwall,” said Hadsel, who nonetheless believes the town had such a curtain.
Hadsel believes the Whiting curtain was painted by a Guilford artist-entertainer named Charles Henry (1860-1918). Since backdrop curtains were never signed, conservators must go by artistic clues and flourishes left by the individual painters.
“He was a traveling showman; he painted curtains, he wrote plays, silly poems and vaudeville songs and his wife sewed costumes,” Hadsel said. “All his children and he acted in vaudeville and variety-type productions.”
The Henrys took their shows throughout the state, putting on plays and leaving many painted curtains as they went. Charles Henry retired from the performing circuit around 1915, moved to Ferrisburgh and worked for around a year as director of the Vergennes Opera House.
While Henry died in 1918 (and is buried in Ferrisburgh), his curtain artwork lives on. Around 35 of Vermont’s surviving stage curtains have been attributed to Henry, and Sudbury alone has five of them.
Hadsel described the Whiting curtain, estimated to have been made circa 1905, as being in “fair” condition. It has some very conspicuous tears along its periphery — the work of rodents, according to Hadsel.
“This is the only time we have ever seen mouse damage; most mice won’t eat painted fabric,” Hadsel said.
Thanks to the fine work of conservators like Fredericks, a Leicester resident, the tears and gaps in the curtain will be filled with iron-on patches that will be painted to fill in the incomplete picture. Water stains will be disguised. The edges of the curtain will be lined and adjusted so that it fits the Cornwall stage. All of the work will be reversible, Hadsel stressed.
“The idea is, these curtains are around 100 years old,” Hadsel said. “We want to give them another 100 years.”
Conservation of the Whiting curtain was scheduled to be completed this week. It will then be installed on the Cornwall stage.
Other curtain unveilings are scheduled, including one in Bristol on Dec. 3. On that day, a renovated Holley Hall will be showcased, with its stage adorned by a magnificent curtain featuring a “Ben Hur” scene. The curtain is not original to Bristol (which had a Venice scene); it was found folded in a closet at the University of Vermont, according to Hadsel.
“It is the right size for that stage,” she said.
Though the Whiting curtain was the final big project on the restoration team’s list, the group will revisit some of its earlier work and plans to publish a book about its experiences.
“It has been a remarkable project and experience for communities getting these pieces of functional art back in working order,” Fredericks said.
More information about the project can be found at www.curtainswithoutborders.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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