Today's rural Vermonters think nothing of driving an hour to see a stage show in Burlington, Middlebury or Montpelier. Not so in the old days, when drama was a delivery business. Before everyone had an automobile, traveling theater troupes brought all kinds of entertainment -- vaudeville, opera, serious plays and comedies -- to town halls, opera houses and granges across the state.
Starting around 1880, the host venue typically provided a stage and "scenery" in the form of hand-painted stage curtains. Most towns had between one and four idealized "landscapes" to choose from: urban street scenes, dramatic seascapes, frontier interiors -- even Western covered-wagon scenes and Roman chariot races were rendered in vivid detail.
"The general purpose of the curtains was romance," says Chris Hadsel, former executive director of the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance. "This was as long ago and far away as anybody was ever going to get."
But as the entertainment landscape changed and travel became more accessible, the colorful community curtains started coming down. Some ended up in the dump, but many more were rolled up and stuffed into musty municipal closets, attics and crawl spaces.
Until six years ago, that is, when Hadsel started making inquiries about them. "The town halls were pretty organized," but "granges weren't at the time," she recalls, noting her first communications were pre-email. "Who knew we had this large number of interesting cultural items that nobody was paying any attention to?" Or that more and more would keep turning up? The latest curtain call, from Canaan, allegedly depicts jazz musicians in silhouette. "It's been a real treasure hunt."
With an initial $30,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Hadsel launched a preservation project known as "Painted Theater Curtains of Vermont." In the past two years, she's overseen the "stabilization" of 80 theatrical curtains -- of 160 located so far -- in numerous, far-flung Vermont towns, including Albany, Guilford, Hardwick, Barnet and Pawlet. Last week, in stifling heat, the conservation crew was hard at work on three of the four in the old town hall in Huntington.
All of the Huntington hangings are works of Charles Washington Henry, Vermont's most prolific curtain painter. Hadsel has found about 50 of his creations across the state, including one waiting in the wings in Westford. "After a while you can recognize 'Henry' scenes. He loves blues," says Hadsel, gesturing to a large garden scene that takes up an entire wall in the basement room, which was a workshop all last week. On the opposite wall, Peter Isles is painting over water stains on a large, suspended muslin tableau of a generic downtown.
Huntington's "grand drape," which is too large to hang, is spread out face down on a table in the middle of the room. One textile conservator is sponging the surface clean while another worker mends and reinforces the edges. An earlier snapshot of the curtain reveals it's a pastoral scene featuring an arched bridge and a horse-drawn carriage.
Born in Guilford, Henry may have been "our main man in Vermont curtain painting," as Hadsel puts it. But the self-taught artist was also a playwright and performer. He incorporated all his talents on stage, in family traveling shows. "He'd make a small painting while baby Grace sang a song," Hadsel explains. "Then he'd auction off the artwork." Appropriately, the performance artist's gravestone in Ferrisburgh memorializes him as a "show man."
Henry eventually settled in Vergennes, but Hadsel recently tracked down his descendents in Essex Junction. At her urging, great-granddaughter Kay Gannon unearthed family photographs of Henry in his heyday -- images that will no doubt accompany an exhibit of his curtains at the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn in fall 2006. "I have a wonderful picture of him in blackface with a banjo," Hadsel notes.
Hadsel says she's learned as much about Vermont social history in the last two years as she has about curtain conservation techniques and fundraising. She more than matched a federal "Save America's Treasures" grant with $150,000 in local monies.
The project has also been a crash course in how Vermont towns are structured -- literally. In Huntington, Henry's curtains are headed for the newly renovated "library," formerly the Union Meeting House. But a contingent believes they should stay where they were, in the seriously sagging town hall.
Either way, the draperies' encore performance will likely help set the stage for future community building.