Article by Chloë Catán

W
hen the Ontario Heritage Trust1 took on the ambitious project of restoring the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres twenty years ago, they were fully aware that this initiative would save one of the world’s last surviving double-decker theatres. What they were not expecting was to stumble upon the largest collection of original vaudeville sets in the world. This was a rare find because theatre sets of this sort were never made intentionally to survive as an artistic legacy; they were recyclable, reusable and ultimately disposable. Furthermore, they became redundant a few years after they were painted when movie screens filled the prosceniums. The irony of being shut away for nearly six decades without the damaging effects of light and human touch is that they now constitute a remarkable remnant of the history of Toronto, at the moment when the city was swept along by the world-wide urban revolution of the early 1900s.


The opening of Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre (now the Elgin) in 1913 reflected the needs of a city whose population had doubled in just fifteen years. Immigrants flooded in from rural areas and abroad, hungry for affordable entertainment: leisure time was now well within reach of the ordinary working person. New York entertainment mogul Marcus Loew joined in Toronto’s cultural boom by extending his theatre chain north of the border. His Canadian flagship was designed as the “ultimate money-making machine”: two working stages stacked one on top of the other. The double-decker theatre was a descendant of New York’s open rooftop theatres, and had evolved as a means of defying the weather and offering year-round summer pleasure. With two box offices charging between 10¢ and 50¢ a show, up to 14, 000 people a day came through Loew’s2. A continuous programme of 15-20 minute live acts designed to satisfy the social and ethnic tastes of a diverse public – playlets and sketches, musical comedies, acrobats, singers, animal acts, magicians, comedians, ventriloquists and later “talkies” – all referred to the daily experience of the average citizen in the modern world. Vaudeville shows were booked in the chain’s central offices, resulting in “the beginning of the continental standardization of mass entertainment”3. The sets therefore afford a glimpse into popular taste and culture in North America during the early twentieth century.

Scenery was also designed and painted centrally, in this case, at Loew’s Scenic Studios in New York. It was then transported to the theatres by train, the dimensions of the sets standardized to fit through rail car doors. Each theatre had its own collection of sets in order to accommodate most shows. These consisted of many flats: doors, arches, wings, drops and borders that were interchangeable and could be
set up in multiple combinations. A host of scenic artists was hired by the studio to design and paint huge numbers of flats, each focusing on an area according to his or her specialty.

The collective means of production encouraged multiple and diverse decorative influences; inspiration from popular culture, fine art, and technical innovations within the theatre, all played a part.

The Peacock Set was the stock “palace set,” designed to conjure up a sense of the luxurious and the exotic. This set was painted in the late teens or early twenties 4, which was the heyday of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The brilliant colours and sensuous oriental designs of their sets and costumes had already revolutionized the decorative arts in Europe. Across the Atlantic a few were displayed at the Metropolitan Opera as early as 1911, but New Yorkers saw Shéhérazade and other legendary performances for themselves in 1916, when the troupe toured the United States. An unprecedented publicity campaign launched by the Met must have brought Léon Bakst’s stunning designs to the attention of scenic artists.

In contrast to romantic palace scenery of the nineteenth century, the Peacock Set has no illusionist architectural detail.

It is an evocation of a palace, using instantly recognizable motifs. Peacocks had been much exploited by taste-makers of the art nouveau style; from Whistler’s Peacock Room of 1876-7 to Tiffany’s iridescent peacock feather vases, the exotic bird embodied their fascination with the Orient. Possibly more
influential, however, were the frequent references to peacocks in fashionable magazines. In 1909, a New York Vogue cover featured a woman feeding a peacock with its tail feathers arranged much as they appear in Loew’s Peacock Set.

An emblem of luxury and elegance, peacocks were chosen again for Vogue covers in 1911 and 19185. The way in which scenic artists collected visual references is evident from a collection of studio material from the Twin City Scenic Studios in Minneapolis, which operated around the same time as Loew’s. Large format scrapbooks, paint spattered and annotated, contain source material such as reproductions of European fine art, French seventeenth – and eighteenth – century interior design books, travel brochures of faraway
cities, black and white photographs of North American mountain and lake scenes, exquisite French stencil pattern books called pochoirs and clippings from popular magazines.6
Technical innovation also influenced the design process.

Gold and purple were effective colours for showing off the new electric lighting systems that were replacing gas lighting in theatres. Spot lights, floodlights, footlights and border had dimmers and could be manipulated from a central switchboard. Coloured lighting mixed warm and cool light in varying degrees to produce dazzling effects and subtle variations in mood on the stage. This was shown to best
advantage by painting the sets in brilliant colours rather than in the pale pastels of previous years. Bronzing powder and diamond dust added even more to this spectacle, and the gold cross-hatching on the borders of the Peacock Set would have glinted in a jewel-like manner. New painting techniques
originating in fine art, such as in French Impressionism, intensified surface texture and injected movement into previously monotone blocks of colour (a close look at the peacock feathers shows they are depicted in rapid multicolored flecks).

The Butterfly Set of c.1915 also incorporates gold and lavender, but the colour scheme is used to suggest a domestic setting. In his appraisal, Lance Brockman compared the “light interior” set to today’s TV sitcom lounge: it had to be cheerful, familiar and fashionably modern. It would have set the stage for a short, light-hearted comedy and typical themes might have been marital blunders or farcical immigrant
experiences. A door, windows, fireplace and wainscotting indicate a room, and yet the purpose of the large butterfly motif goes beyond mere ornament; it is also the main signifier of atmosphere. By the time this set was painted, the butterfly was an archetypal art nouveau image; not only did their translucent wings provide abundant material possibilities for designers, but they carried with them the symbolic power of metamorphosis. A pleasing, familiar insect was chosen to denote a familiar ambiance.

Both the Peacock Set and the Butterfly Set curiously combine art nouveau and art deco features. In the latter, the art nouveau butterfly pattern is contained within orderly lines and the top heavy design is balanced out by stark geometric art deco tracery in the windows below. Interestingly, this mix draws attention to some of the common sources shared by art nouveau and art deco. The way in which artists of both styles renewed their decorative vocabulary by foraging into non-western cultures, for instance, is visible in the Peacock Set. The graceful black lines with oval scrolls on the side flats resemble the free asymmetric lines of Japanese art which inspired art nouveau illustrators. The shiny black and gold borders recall Japanese lacquer work, a technique favoured by art deco designers searching for novel ways of decorating surfaces.

The Scarab Set is another “light interior” dating from the early to mid-1920s. This date was mainly established through the scarab motif, a symbol of the Egyptomania triggered by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. And yet, the scarabs in this set suggest rather the entomological prints from a natural history museum catalogue than the stylized streamlined form of Egyptian scarabs.

Their spiky, lop-sided legs dangle down in a sinister way. Half camouflaged by foliage, it is unclear whether they are scuttling in or falling out of the border. A threatening insect was chosen to denote an unfamiliar, foreign ambiance.

In the Butterfly Set, nature is tamed by a regular framework, but in the Scarab Set it takes over in an alarming way.

The whiplash lines of art nouveau had gone out of fashion by the 1920s, but the scenic artists may have chosen them over the geometric rectilinearity of art deco to build an atmosphere of exotic sensuality that went with the scarab motif. The oriental flowers around the doors and windows are typical of the way artists mixed historical and cultural styles in order to achieve an exotic feel. Economy may have also counted; scenic artists often reused existing – hence outdated – stencils and pounces as a way of cutting costs and time in a competitive and pressured environment.

The puzzling omission of a floral detail in the vertical stripes above one door in the Butterfly Set, for instance, may signal the way flats were freshened up for a new season by adding ornament.

What makes the scarab design most unusual is that performers would have found such a dynamic background difficult to compete with7. The activity in this design may be construed as a preliminary step away from the single plane representations of former theatrical sets and a move towards the more three dimensional, comprehensive approach of modern day scenography. What is certain is that the progressive abstraction in all three sets discussed here foretells the experimentation with nonrealistic stage design that took place during the latter half of the twentieth century. As for their heterogeneous compositions, scenic artists were not interested in adhering to any particular style or artistic movement. They assimilated iconic material from disparate contemporary sources that lay readily to hand, mingling them to create an instant impression for a mass audience. The eclectic nature of their designs is enchanting but is not a novel formula. It converges with a form of visual expression that threads from the Victorian to the postmodern 8.

Chloë Catán is a freelance editor, translator and art historian.
She has worked on exhibitions and catalogues for the Getty
Conservation Institute, Los Angeles; MoMA, New York; Museo Rufino
Tamayo and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.

1 Formerly The Ontario Heritage Foundation.
2 Quotation and figures from Hilary Russell, Double Take: The Story of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres, Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1989, p. 112.
3 Russell, p. 101.
4 According to specialist Lance Brockman’s appraisals in 1986.
5 Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva, In Vogue: The Illustrated
History of the World’s Most Famous Fashion Magazine, New York,
Rizzoli, 2006, p. 28.
6 This collection can be seen in Lance Brockman, The Twin City Scenic
Collection: Popular Entertainment 1895-1929, University of Minnesota,
1987 and on http://digital.lib.omn.edu/scenery/index.htm.
7 Mentioned in Lance Brockman’s appraisal and Russell p.97.
8 The Butterfly and Scarab Sets are on display in the cascading
lobbies of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre.
* Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, owned and operated by the
Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Government of Ontario.


Image: Peacock Set.
Late teens to early 1920s.
Medium tempera paint (chalk, glue, dry pigment & bronzing powder)
on muslin canvas affixed to pine frames.
Photograph: Ontario Heritage Trust*