(HOST) Vermont preservationists have recently turned their attention to a particular kind of artifact from a by-gone era of popular entertainment, and commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman says the results are exciting.
(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN) I was in northern Vermont a few weeks ago, standing in a beautiful old building, completely mesmerized by the image covering most of its far wall. Before me was a crystal lake and green fields flanked by snow-capped mountains larger than any we’d see on our daily commute. The pastoral scene was draped in luxury, surrounded by lush curtains adorned with tassels and gold accents, its folds deep, full and inviting. Who knew that a hundred year-old backdrop could have such a commanding presence!
Before the advent of radio, motion pictures and television, folks in Vermont amused themselves by attending vaudeville, home talent and minstrel shows. Town Halls, Opera Houses and Grange Halls across the Green Mountain State were transformed into places of dreams, myths and legends by the simple act of lowering a curtain – a painted curtain. Produced by local artists, or purchased from scenery-painting companies, these giant canvases became stage sets, travelogues, and advertising opportunities.
The building my husband and I live in once housed such a curtain. Originally built as a church and converted to a school several decades later, the second floor of the brick structure was used for variety of things – from Town Meetings to traveling shows. This was where everyone in our village came to get away from the drudge of the mills and take proverbial flight. There was a stage on the second level of the structure when we purchased it, and a massive rolled-up curtain, some twenty feet in length, lying on the damp dirt basement floor.
Unfortunately, there was no recouping it. Whatever delights it contained were held tightly to itself by mold so pervasive that it rotted through the canvas. With great reluctance and deep regret, we relocated a piece of unsalvageable local history to the town dump.
Happily, however, other curtains like it have been saved from such a fate due to the efforts of the Vermont Painted Theater Curtain Project. Started in 1998, with a survey to find and assess the condition of Vermont’s collection of painted curtains, over one hundred and seventy have been identified to date. More than half of those have since been conserved. Vermont is the first state in the nation to acknowledge these artistic artifacts for the role they played in our cultural celebrations and community identity. And for that, the Project has been recognized by the both the White House and the Vermont Legislature. A few of these popular masterpieces can be found on display at the Shelburne Farms Carriage Barn, but if you really want to treat yourself, you can enjoy many in their original settings, functioning as they were intended. For a start, there’s the Hardwick Town Hall, the Vergennes Opera House, or the Broadbrook Grange Hall in Guilford. And there’s the Roman chariot in Westminister, the streetscape surrounded by names of local merchants in Concord, and the Dutch Scene in Franklin. I promise that these curtains, wherever you find them, will bring a smile to your face and a song to your heart!
Deborah Doyle-Schechtman is a writer and historian who specializes in cultural heritage tourism and divides her time between the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom.
For more information on the Vermont Painted Theater Curtain Project, go to their web site