Saturday, July 25, 2009

Scottish Rite Restores Backdrops


Quick: where is the largest Scottish Rite stage in the SR's Southern Jurisdiction?

If McAlester, Oklahoma didn't spring immediately into your mind, you can be forgiven. But if you've never seen the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in this modest town of about 17,000, have a look. It is amazing.

McAlester is the biggest city in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. It's the home of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, as well as the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, where virtually every bomb used by the U.S. military gets made. McAlester is also the headquarters of the Masonic-related youth group, International Order of the Rainbow for Girls.

First constructed in 1907, the Rite outgrew the building, and an expansion and major redesign commenced in 1928, to accommodate more than 6,000 members. The result was a state-of-the-art facility with the biggest stage in the Southern Jurisdiction, including more than 130 of the most massive painted backdrops ever painted, which are still in use today. Will Rogers received his SR degrees here.

One of the largest pipe organs in the entire country was installed in the Egyptian-themed auditorium in 1930. The custom Kimball organ has a 51-bank console and over 3,100 pipes.



The west side of the building is the home of South McAlester Lodge # 96, and the facade is decorated with a giant representation of a 'certain point within a circle' and its parallel lines. One of the most curious items connected with the building is a tall tower topped with an 8 foot diameter glass ball that is illuminated at night, dubbed "The Great Light in Masonry."

The reason the McAlester Scottish Rite Masonic Center came to my attention was from a newspaper article describing their recent program to restore 113 of the massive theatre backdrops. Minneapolis' Wendy Waszut-Barrett is an expert on the restoration of Scottish Rite painted drops, and she is spending the summer at the Rite with a team, as part of a 3-5 year restoration project.

From the article in the McAlester News:

She motioned toward the mammoth 80-by 120 foot backdrop as it lowered to the floor.

“This is the largest size in the Scottish Rite,” she said.

Waszut-Barrett has assembled a team of a few paid workers and some volunteers to work on what will be a long job this summer.

In all, there are 113 of the huge backdrops that need her attention. She plans to spend part of her summers working on the project over the next three-to-five years.

Don Jones, general secretary of the Masonic Center in McAlester, said Waszut-Barrett is considered the foremost expert in restoring theatrical backdrops in Scottish Rite Centers in the United States. She recently obtained a doctorate in the field.

The Center received a matching grant of $75,000 from the McCasland Foundation in Duncan for the project, Jones said.

“They told me they were very interested in historical preservation,” he said.

Many consider the historical backdrops in the Masonic Center in McAlester to be priceless.

“In 1953 they were approved for insurance at $175,000,” said Mark Halyard, the director of work at the center.

Those helping Waszut-Barrett with the project on Friday included Tammy Benson, Monte Hendrix, Michael Brakensiek, Jonathan Lalli, Bill Erkin, Johnny Allford and James Hendrix.

Together, they would lift the rolled-up canvas backdrops and then place them onto a series of tables set up adjacent to each other.

Waszut-Barrett is very familiar with the artist who originally painted the backdrops, Thomas Gibbs Moses. He was born in Liverpool, England in 1856 and died in 1932, she said.

“These were painted between 1928 and 1930,” she said, Moses died in 1932, just two years after finishing painting the backdrops in McAlester.

Moses viewed his work in McAlester as quite an achievement, according to Waszut-Barrett.


Wendy's beautifully illustrated article, “Theatrical Interpretations of the Indispensable Degrees” appeared in Heredom No. 12. It discusses how the Scottish Rite grew so fast and so large, principally by its use of theatrical presentations.

Be sure to take the online tour of McAlester's Scottish Rite Masonic Center here.

3 comments:

Kevin said...

I visited Little Rock's SR Center in 2006. Apparently, McAlester's is even more impressive. The electrical setup (Little Rock) is from a firm in New York, installed in the early twentieth century, and still in use today. FYI, you must show your dues card for a tour of the Little Rock SR Center.
I will now put McAlester SR on my list of "to do" things to see. Thanks, Chris

The K.N.O. said...

Very cool.

Russ Spice said...

Does anyone collect, restore, or buy old S.R. backdrops? When the S.R moved out of the Detroit Masonic Temple, they left their backdrops behind. I would love to see them preserved. I am afraid we will have a show in there someday and may need to hang stuff and just take down and toss the S.R. stuff. That would be horrible. We need to preserved them before that. But how??