Lincoln was prepping for his sixth debate with Douglas in Illinois when the curtain went up on October 12, 1858 at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina – the same curtain, still on display, that is considered to be the oldest existing theater drop in America, painted by Philadelphia-trained landscape artist William Russell Smith.
Back in the 1850s, major theaters up and down the East Coast were in pursuit of the classically trained Smith to create romantic, ethereal landscape images on the gigantic canvas curtains that audiences saw when they entered opera houses. Typically framed by an ornate proscenium, the drop transported theatergoers to the work of make-believe, Moliere, and Macbeth – staples of the touring companies and troupes of the time.
Today, except for Wilmington’s Thalian Hall treasure, those grand masterpieces are gone, victims of time, decay, and impermanence like the superstars of yesteryear. It’s quite a miracle that Thalian’s original curtain has still survived, considering that it’s not painted in oil, but distemper – a less permanent, water-soluable medium, essentially colors ground into glue. When an artist applies the wet pigment, he sees the opposite color, which gradually turns into the “true” color when the paint dries. It’s a process that could only be executed by a skilled master, particularly on a 30-foot wide canvas. The surface of the curtain holds the granules (like a piece of paper holds pastel fragments).
No wonder Smith purpose-built a huge studio in his home with poles that could be raised and lowered as he worked on a gigantic scale first with a charcoal sketch, then with distemper (move over, Chuck Close!). When Smith finished painting his commission, he carefully folded the canvas, rolled it on a long pole, and had it delivered to the opera house.
Thalian Hall received its long-distance delivery this way, because Smith never set foot in North Carolina. The new opera house was designed by New York architect John Trimble, who built Barnum’s Museum and many New York theaters of the mid-1800s, including the New Bowery. Smith’s curtain was the finishing touch, depicting an Aegean sailing ship arriving at classical islands filled with temples dedicated to Apollo, evoking commencement of the ancient Olympiad.
The curtain was in service from 1858 until 1909, when a restoration was planned. Historians know it was hung again by 1938 (see the photo in our Flickr feed). It got hurt a little in the 1940 WPA renovations, and was known to be back in place in 1947, but disappeared after 1963. It was rediscovered in 1979, when Mrs. Juanita Menick, the president of the board, told the new Thalian director that she might still have an old curtain that she took years ago to her home for safekeeping. Thank goodness for those large, Southern homes.
Although only 15 feet of the original 30-foot drop remained, tribute was paid to the historic artwork. The fragile canvas was used as part of the set for Thanlian Hall’s 125th anniversary celebration, and now hangs, ready for its closeup, in the luxurious entry to the theater’s orchestra section.
Hear how executive director Tony Rivenbark rediscovered it, and watch historian David Rowland’s talk about the life of William Russell Smith (at 4:20), whose romantic landscapes of New England somewhat predated the Hudson River School; the imagery used in the magnificent theater curtains (at 30:22); and the astonishing discovery recently made in Smith’s grand studio (at 35:30) in this YouTube video.
You can read more about the historic theater on its website (and check out the video on Thalian’s “thunder roll” device, another “only remaining in America” theatrical wonder). Glimpse more of this theater’s grandeur and photos of the illustrious performers who have trod its boards on our Flickr feed.
In Wilmington, you can view this remarkable piece of theater history any time during box office hours.