Anyone who has a cubbyhole - the kind of basement, attic, closet or crawl space where forgotten things languish for a very long time - understands that cleaning it out can be an archaeological expedition. You never know what you're going to find, or how old it will be. That's exactly what happened at the University of Vermont's theater department a few weeks ago, when chair and scenic designer Jeff Modereger was poking around a long-ignored storage unit at the Royall Tyler Theatre and something rolled up, well, rolled out.
"He knew some things had belonged to a previous professor," says Chris Hadsel, the Burlington-based director of Vermont's Painted Theater Curtains project. "Jeff called me, we opened it out and, by gum, it was one." That is, a vintage, hand-painted theater curtain similar to those Hadsel and her crew have been locating in other cubbyholes around the state for the past 11 years. Conservation on the curtains began in 2002, a project of the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance. At this point, Hadsel says, 177 curtains have been found in Vermont; 111 have been worked on.
Between roughly 1880 and 1940, when vaudeville and other shows were appearing at town or grange halls, old opera houses and community theaters, these curtains were commonly used to adorn the stage. They are not draperies per se, but rather flat, cotton backdrops often painted with trompe l'oeil techniques to mimic drapes, with a scene of some sort in the middle. The image on UVM's curtain, signed by artist J. Marto, is a Ben Hur chariot race, which Hadsel says was "wildly popular" in the late 19th century - another was found in Westminster, Vermont. "In this one they're right on top of you, very up close and personal - the horses are snorting and evil," she says. "It's very aggressive, much more dramatic than most curtains; they're usually pretty pictures or landscapes."
Hadsel says she's not sure of the curtain's age - maybe 1920s or '30s - nor can she be 100 percent certain it's from a Vermont venue. "But I see no reason it wouldn't have been," she says. "We knew [late professor] George Bryan liked to go to summer theater around Vermont and was interested in old theaters. I suspect he was somewhere in Vermont and someone said, 'Hey, you want this old thing?' and he said yes." Hadsel surmises it came from a town hall.
Modereger's discovery ties in neatly with another bit of serendipity: One of Hadsel's three conservators, Michele Pagan, is a UVM alum, and she had been invited to give a talk about the theater-curtain project even before this one was found. "UVM focuses on a different department each year for the alumni," Hadsel explains, "and this year it's the theater department." Pagan, who splits her time between Brookfield, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., is a professional textile conservator who has worked at the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History. She is also "working on conserving the collection of flags at the Vermont Statehouse," says Hadsel.
The Ben Hur curtain has been cleaned and hung in Royall Tyler, where it will stay through alumni weekend in June, Hadsel explains. "After that, I've arranged to take it to the Statehouse downstairs conference room for a month. We will have a statewide treasure hunt - unless we find its home before then. My hope is," she concludes, "we'll find the home stage and, with a certain amount of ceremony, will take it back. UVM will get recognition as the donor."