Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New Stage Machinery in 1873

In an article “the New Theatre” published in the New York Times on 1873 (not to be confused with Claude Hagen’s new theatre that occurs 40 years “ish” later) also reference James Schonberg as contributing to designing the stage. The building is being done by architect, Frederick Draper. The proscenium “will be of original form and construction, the plans for it having been designed by Mr. Dion Boucicault, and will be so formed as to act as a sounding board.” The stage is described as having many improvements by Boucicault and Schonberg. The stage is described as 40 squares, each 3’ which can be raised and lowered. These could also be used to create steps. This article describes a patent by Schonberg for supporting and setting the scenery, but also describes traditional scenery (defining it by two types, English and French). The article describes French Stage shifting equipment as a truck beneath the stage with a ladder / frame that the scenery is mounted to. (Pictures below are from French Theatrical Production Nineteenth Century by J P Moynet). The article discusses advantages and disadvantages of this system. They describe the English system as having the scenery supported from above, by “grooves” or “parallel fillets”. This technique is said to be faster than the French system and able to be done in front of the audience. Disadvantages are that everything is square and that grooves must be masked. It also talks about stage screws and braces; obviously we have inherited many of these practices despite European theatrical influences. The article names Mr Flechter and the London Lyceum as advancing a system blending the techniques for shifting scenery, also including Boucicault and Schonberg. The new Lyceum Theatre (in NY) would be built with mechanisms described within the article (too lengthy to quote but freely available on the NY Times Archives Website).

In “Mr. Fechter’s Theatre”, published in the New York Times Jan 20, 1873, we see a continuation of the description of the theatre. It has a very elaborate account of the building itself. Included are items that involve fire safety such as doors that swing in both directions. The theatre was outfitted with gas lighting (that could change color and strength). The stage itself moved as well. The theatre includes a second “sounding-board” (proscenium) which moves upstage – downstage by way of stage machinery. The scenery is lifted from traps “upon what are termed parallel boats, are then attached to the stage, which, with the scenery upon it, can be moved completely out of sight of the audience.” Credit to the system was given to James Schonberg who was a stage manager at the Wallack’s Theatre, and the article states that he patented the system. W. Lester, a machinist, built the system. Absent from this account is Dion Boucicault’s contributions. Under the stage, the area is described as “a perfect labyrinth of cranks, wheels, parallel boats and other mysteries, all worked by hand”. The workshops are also under the stage, while the scenic painter’s gallery is behind the stage, in use by painters Hosford and Laran.

Further New York Times articles indicate that James Schonberg was also a playwright.

His patent can be seen online as well: US 123735

As a side note, I have come across many references to technicians referred to bay their last name only (though very politely). This makes tracing these names more difficult, if not impossible, at least with the fairly searches that I am doing within this research. I assume that they have shorted the names to save space, or because they considered the first names unimportant and not that there was an assumption that they were so well known that first names were not needed. I say this because many names that I am more familiar with are fully spelled out.

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