by CHRIS ROGERS
Before a collapsing rigging system forced them into temporary storage, the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre’s collection of theatrical backdrops depicted hand-painted scenes of Grecian temples, Egyptian tombs, and hell itself. Actors and dancers could waltz in and out of three-dimensional forests scenes or emerge from hidden caves.
After a debate over the future of the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, the Winona City Council decided last month to save 10 of the temple’s collection of 98 theatrical backdrops. Now, city officials are trying to decide which 10 to save. The fate of the other 88 is still to be determined.
“I feel like this is a sin,” a woman in the audience whispered, as Winona Arts and Culture Coordinator Lee Gundersheimer flipped through a slideshow of photographs of the drops — most of which will not be saved — at a meeting at the theater last week. Gundersheimer had to show citizens a slideshow of the drops instead of the showing them the real deal because in 2014, city consultants discovered the drops’ original 1918 rigging system was in danger of collapsing. The drops were removed and rolled up in PVC pipes to store them for up to five years while the city made repairs to the building. The city made the first major step toward making those repairs last summer, when it invested over $500,000 in a new roof for the temple. A few weeks ago, the City Council borrowed another $1.8 million to replace the rigging system and make other improvements to the building. The building needs another $3 million in upgrades and repairs.
How to replace the rigging system was contentious because supporters of saving the historic drops found themselves at odds with proponents of making the temple into a more heavily used, multi-purpose events center, with modern equipment for both theater and music. With limited space above the stage, the council tried to strike a compromise to make the theater a versatile performance space while still saving some of the drops.
Now the City Council has tasked the city’s Fine Arts Commission with making a recommendation for which 10 drops should be saved, and the commission is asking for citizen input ahead of its recommendation later this spring.
One of the big questions facing the commission is whether to save as many different backdrops as possible or whether to save three-dimensional scenes made up of multiple backdrops. Most of the 98 drops were meant to be used in conjunction with others to form three-dimensional scenes in which some drops hang near the front of the stage, some hang in the middle, and some hang at the back. There are dozens of different scenes, most of them made up of four to five backdrops. There are also a few drops meant to be used alone.
At last week’s meeting, a few citizens urged the Fine Arts Commission to make preserving the three-dimensional affect of scenes their priority. “I think it’s really important to save the right things to get dimensionality,” said Margaret Lambert.
On the other hand, Roxy Kohner pointed out that saving a scene of four drops would require nearly half of the 10 slots. “That’s the one thing that frustrated me,” she said.
Because of the way the historic drops would be grouped in the new rigging system, the city can, at best, only save one scene of four drops and a second scene of three drops. Saving all five drops in a scene of five drops would be impossible because of the rigging system’s layout.
Instead of saving three dimensional scenes, the city could alternatively save 10 different, one-dimensional backdrops.
There were a few drops that were used in many different scenes. The tree-like front “legs” in the forest scene, for example, also provide a foreground for numerous other scenes, and several citizens seemed to agree that saving those most versatile drops made the most sense.
Another question facing the Fine Arts Commission: which drops would be used the most going forward. Lots of plays have forest scenes and saving a river backdrop might make sense for plays set in the Winona area, Gundersheimer observed. Few plays are set in hell, so the hell scene might not be as useful for future theatrical productions, he said. On the other hand, Mid West Music Fest founder and Fine Arts Commission member Sam Brown said that several musicians who played shows at the temple loved playing with the hell scene in the background.
Several of the citizens in attendance also pushed for the city to save more than 10 drops. Gundersheimer said such a change of plans would require City Council approval.
“It’s a tough decision,” Kohner said. She added, “I really feel strongly about Winona history and the things that are going to be gone because no one is paying attention to them. I just want the Winona history to still be there for people.”
More information on the Masonic Temple drops, including images of all of the drops and information on the rigging system is available online at www.cityofwinona.com/2017/04/historic-masonic-drops-information/. Citizens may provide input or ask for more information by contacting Gundersheimer at firstname.lastname@example.org.