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Curtains

08/08/08 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares, who failed his high school drama class,  has enjoyed following his wife's work around Vermont to find and repair painted theater curtains.

(MARES) Last week, half-a-dozen volunteers gathered in the Canaan Historical Society to help a team of conservators re-hang an 80 year old painted theater.  The curtain's still-vibrant colors depict a silhouetted jazz band playing against a backdrop of party balloons that advertise Leon's Café, Beecher Falls Garage, Cummins Chevrolet, and a gaggle of other local businesses in the northeastern corner of Vermont.

For the last ten years, my wife has directed a project to repair scores of historic theater curtains, which were painted between 1880 and 1940 and hung in Vermont's town halls, community theaters, opera halls and Grange halls from Canaan to Pawlet and from Richford to Guilford.  These curtains were used as backdrops for plays and vaudeville in the days before television and radio.  The team of conservators have now finished over 130 of the 177 known curtains across the state.  These large curtains, averaging 12 X 20 feet in dimension, have been rescued from lofts, attics, closets, even trash barrels.  The team carefully avoids the term "restore."  Instead, they speak of "stabilizing" the curtains, cleaning them with dry sponges and vacuum cleaners, mending tears, and judiciously in-painting water-stains or the mended tears.  In every town, the conservation team find local volunteers who enthusiastically join the work in the work on "their" curtains.
             
On these broad expanses of muslin are displayed marvelous imaginary scenes of European lakes and castles, American coastlines and Western caravans, and even a chariot race in the Roman Colosseum.  
           
Some show identifiable Vermont locations, such as Lake Willoughby and Mount Ascutney, while others depict futuristic streets devoid of people and vehicles, as if the painter were practicing perspective.  Some curtains, like that in Canaan, were primarily advertising media. For today's viewer it's fun to scan them, looking for the names of druggists, feed stores, banks, fuel or car dealers still in business.   The painters were both locals, and itinerants who came through town to paint curtains and then move on.  The most prolific and fascinating artist was Guilford-born Charles Henry, who did over 40 paintings and died in North Ferrisburgh in 1918.  He would arrive in a town, paint one or more curtains to be used as sets for a play he would write - and then perform it with members of his own family.

Almost all of the curtains are back on display for school plays, musicals, dances, variety shows, town meetings, and even weddings.  They are helping to rejuvenate town centers across the states.  
                
As Rick Kerschner, a conservator at the Shelburne Museum, said, "People talk a lot of Vermont's sense of community. Well, the performances and gatherings in front of these curtains helped build that community, long before radio, television and cheap gas put people in their own little envelopes."   Maybe the high price of gas will also help bring more people back downtown, where the suspended worlds of the past will spur today's imagination.
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