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Around The Grange
Curtains Without Borders finds antique stage curtains in Maine

By Leslie H. Dixon, The Sun Journal, Maine (12/29/11)

  JANUARY 2, 2012 --

A stage curtain in Norway Grange 45 on Whitman Street, Norway, Maine, is being documented as part of a regionwide effort by the Vermont organization Curtains Without Borders to conserve and protect stage curtains throughout New England and beyond.

Curtains Without Borders Director Christine Hadsel, who is documenting stage curtains across northern New England, said Wednesday that the project has already found 130 stage curtains in Maine.

The curtains have been found in 83 locations throughout Maine. In this region, in addition to the Norway Grange Hall, stage curtains have been found at the Excelsior Grange 5 in Poland, Lakeside Grange 63 in Harrison, North Jay Grange 10 and the Androscoggin Grange Hall in Greene. Bryant Pond's grand stage curtain has been lost, but a backdrop curtain depicting a street and country scene survives, Hadsel said.

The town of Sweden has a stage curtain, but Hadsel said she has not seen it yet. Neither has she been able to see the Norway Grange curtain because it has been in storage until recently.

“It's been rolled up for the last 11 years,” Ethel Lacourse, longtime Norway Grange secretary and now state deputy, said. It was recently repaired and hung over the second-floor stage. The curtain, which is believed to have been painted by noted artist Vivian Milner Akers in 1910, shows a scene at Lake Pennessewassee, probably from the western shore.

“The hall was built in 1909, but whether the curtain was put up the next year I have no idea,” Lacourse said. She remembers the curtain when she, her parents and brother transferred from the Frederick Robie Grange in Otisfield, which they joined in 1945, to the Norway Grange 45 in 1947.

Lacourse said the curtain will remain hanging this winter and rolled up an stored when the Oxford Hills Music and Performing Arts Association returns for a new season.

Hadsel said that during her work the last few years she has found that 75 percent of stage curtains in Maine are in Grange halls, while in Vermont Grange halls only hold about 25 percent of the stage curtains. The other 75 percent are found in town halls. In New Hampshire about half of the stage curtains are found in Grange halls.

Other stage curtains were probably in opera houses such as the 1903 New Empire Theater in Lewiston. But as the buildings were destroyed by fire or torn down, the curtains disappeared, Hadsel said. In Norway, where the Norway Opera House is under renovation, the stage curtain has disappeared.

Hadsel, who toured the Norway Opera House, said there doesn't seem to be any evidence that its stage curtain is still stored somewhere. “All the curtains seem to have disappeared. They're gone, really gone,” she said of the multiple curtains the Norway Opera House probably used.

“In Maine the town hall doesn't seem to be the place where people would go for entertainment,” she said.

Stage curtains provided the only color in town, Hadsel said. “They were big and gaudy and probably the only piece of art in town. They were public art. No one then even thought of them in those terms, but they were public art.”

Hadsel said the Grange Hall in North Jay has perhaps the grandest stage curtain she has seen in Maine. It depicts a camel and a large white stallion in front of pyramids.

She said she believes that around 1900 with the coming of the railroads, entertainment such as singers, musicians and vaudeville acts became available to many small communities in northern New England. Many households also ordered pianos and sheet music. “Local entertainment exploded,” she said.

Hadsel said the stage curtains were put in before electricity and therefore the paintings were very clear depictions so that audiences, who sat in rooms lighted by kerosene lamps and heated by wood stoves, could get a good view of the curtain scenes. Many of the curtains had advertising on them.

“The life of the curtain depends on the life of the building,” Hadsel said of the curtains in Maine that range from fairly primitive to very sophisticated and are housed in buildings whose conditions range from fully restored to almost caving in.

Many stage curtains were painted by local artists, but many were also ordered from scenic studios in places such as Boston. The Paris Hill Academy in Paris has a grand stage curtain depicting a woodland scene, and the Grange Hall in Greene also ordered its stage curtains, which still exist, she said.

In Norway, the stage curtain is believed to have been painted by Vivian Milner Akers, a painter, photographer and wood carver who was born in 1886 and died in 1966.

Local historian David Sanderson wrote in a 2004 brief biography of Akers that “One outstanding example of Akers’ work during this period — and his versatility — survives at the Norway Grange, where a handpainted stage curtain and a backdrop are both signed and dated 1910.

Whether the Norway Grange stage curtain is a “grand” curtain – one that was used at the front of the stage — or as a backdrop curtain is unclear, but Hadsel said she hopes to visit the Grange while the curtain is up.

The Curtains Without Borders project in Maine is being funded through the Maine Community Foundation and the National Trust Fund.

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