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New England Scenery

Friday, August 28, 2015
Brookfield, Vt. — The most famous landmark in Brookfield is the Floating Bridge, which sits directly atop the water of Sunset Lake in the center of this picturesque Vermont village. It also hangs suspended above the stage at the nearby Town Hall.

The latter version is captured in a mural of water-based paint on muslin that can be rolled up or dropped down, and 80 years ago it formed the backdrop for plays, vaudeville acts and other forms of entertainment in the town decades before television and the Internet made juggling and pantomimes quaint memories.

The work by New Hampshire artist Robert Naves — water-based because oil-based paints were more expensive and would crack when rolled — is one of about 500 theater scenic curtains found — and half of them restored — in recent years in town halls, Grange halls and other public venues around Northern New England. A group of conservators and vernacular art enthusiasts called Curtains Without Borders has made this their mission.

Now the fruits of the group’s labors have been collected in an art book, Suspended Worlds: Historic Theater Scenery in Northern New England, by the group’s director, Christine Hadsel of Burlington, with photography by Carolyn L. Bates.

Hadsel said in an interview the work focuses on Northern New England because that’s where the conservators are based. But she said the group recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to take the search for the historic curtains nationwide.

“It’s really out of just admiration for the curtains,” Hadsel said. “I’ve always said the curtains speak for themselves. Once somebody has seen a curtain, or two or three, they instinctively know what I’m talking about because they are so big, they are colorful and they are so central to people’s lives. And I think that’s the real fun of doing this, that you take something that’s dirty, on the verge of just being abandoned or lost or taken to the dump, and you say, ‘Not so fast.’ ”

Aside from photographs of the works, the book includes information on restoration techniques and fascinating short biographies of the artists. One of them was Frederick Wesley Morse, a fish skinner in a cod factory in Maine and an amateur photographer who later went pro. He painted a seascape for a theater curtain at the Islesford Community House in Islesford, Maine, in about 1920.

Morse “developed an interest in photography and moved away to study,” the book says. “He ended up with a studio in San Francisco and lost everything but one lens in the big earthquake of 1906,” according to the book. “He sold that lens to pay for the train fare home, where he worked in the general store, painted and sold photographs.”

Many of the theaters had collections of scenic curtains: a rural one, an urban street scene, home interiors fancy and plain, and often one that featured advertising for local businesses. A 1933 mural kept by the Hillsborough Historical Society in New Hampshire looks a bit like a diner menu with ads in boxes around the edges. They include Taskers — “Men’s Wear and Boys’ Too” — and Boynton’s Market — “If it’s the best, we have it,” with a blimp in the shape of a milk jug flying overhead advertising the Hillsborough Dairy Co.

Maggie Stier, a field representative with the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, said the theater murals “are wonderful historical documents. They are great pieces of folk art. They make underutilized halls really come alive.”

The alliance has focused on refurbishing old town halls and other community centers, and Stier said restoration of the theater scenery can serve as inspiration for the larger project.

“It’s letting the townspeople know that these halls were once filled with activities. It’s inspiring to try to recreate some of that community spirit,” she said. “It can be the catalyst for programming that will see greater use of the town hall and the Grange hall.”

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