Antique stage curtains restored across Vermont

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(Host) When audiences attend future performances at the Hardwick Town House, they’ll be treated to an added attraction. Two century-old painted theater curtains will be on display.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the curtains are part of a statewide effort to preserve a lost art form.

(Zind) Like many old small-town halls, the Hardwick Town House is a simple space with wooden seats and unadorned walls. Its plainness makes the colorful curtain at the front of the stage all the more striking. The curtain is painted to look like an ornate set of drapes, framing…

(Addy Smith-Reiman) “…a European lake scene with what looks like the Alps in the background, with a castle and a carriage.”

(Zind) The romantic scene, in a style called a grand drape, was painted in 1903 by Guilford native Charles Henry. Henry was a vaudeville entertainer who earned extra money painting curtains. Addy Smith-Reiman is the director of the Northeast Kingdom Arts Council, which is refurbishing the Hardwick Town House.

(Reiman) “Charles Henry and his family were a travelling troupe. They would go from opera house to opera house in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, and in order to extend their stay, Charles Henry would offer to paint their theater curtains.”

(Zind) One hundred years after Charles Henry painted the grand drape and another curtain at the Town House, they are being restored.

(Chris Hadsel) “This curtain is 26 feet long, so it’s longer than most.”

(Zind) The work is part of a statewide effort by the Painted Theater Curtain Project of Vermont. In the last five years, the project has discovered painted curtains in town halls, grange halls and opera houses in Vermont.

The majority were painted between 1880 and 1930. Most, like the Hardwick curtain, depict romantic scenes from nature in places far from Vermont. Chris Hadsel is the director of the Painted Theater Curtain Project.

(Hadsel) “These were in places that had no electricity. The light would have been kerosene lamps, perhaps gas lighting, perhaps candles. You would have come in the dark and you would have had this romantic image as you settled in before the curtain rose. So I think they were part of an attempt to take people away.”

(Zind) Hadsel says Charles Henry painted at least 30 of the curtains that have been cataloged so far. Others were painted by unknown itinerant artists. Like Henry, it’s doubtful any had ever been to the places they painted.

(Hadley) “They were professional artists, but they didn’t go to art school. They taught themselves. They probably copied most of their images from the kind of etchings that you might have seen in Harpers Bazaar or magazines that featured primarily European romantic spots.”

(Zind) Hadsel calls the work of the painted theater curtain project low-tech restoration, mostly involving mending and cleaning. It’s paid for through federal grants, state money and community support.

Hadsel says the state’s collection of painted theatre curtains is unique in the nation. Nearly 150 have been located so far, compared to just a handful known to exist outside of the state. Vermont’s curtains have been designated a treasure by the National Trust. They capture an era before travel and television when performances at the local hall or opera house were the only means of escape and entertainment in small town Vermont.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Hardwick.

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