(Special thanks to Cindy Dutton for allowing us to share her piece with others.) “Serendipity” has played a role several times in the restoration events of the Palmer Opera House in Cuba. Remember the story of how the Opera House came to acquire the piano? (Cuba Patriot, July 15, 2014) Here is another wonderful story of the role of “serendipity” in that ongoing saga: A large painting of Cuba Lake done on muslin and used as a stage curtain at the Keller (Palmer) Opera House in the early 1900s was located about twenty years ago when Pennsylvania antiques dealers Steve and Brenda Trainor were rummaging about in the back storage area of an Olean antiques store. They came across part of an old stage curtain rolled up and laying on the floor. When they unrolled it, they found a 10’7” by 7’ painting of Cuba Lake in the middle of the stage curtain. Unfortunately someone had drawn pictures of boats and bathers in crayon on the picture but the Trainers were undaunted. They bought the curtain and spent nearly $2,000 having it partially restored by a specialist in Pittsford, New York. The painting was done by Cuba resident J.D. Shoots in 1915.
To make sense of the find, you have to know how stage curtains were made in the early 1900s. Old time Cuba resident and amateur actor Bob Renwick explained that “Curtains were made from muslin strips that were sewn together to the required size for the curtain, which was then tacked to buttons on top and bottom and hung from the ceiling in a studio against one wall. Sides were then tacked to the buttons and secured. The curtain was then “sized” with a mixture of glue, whiting and water to seal the muslin and provide a base for water colors. Powdered colors were then mixed with glue, water and whiting as required for the desired shade or painting the picture and lettering.”
An article in the Cuba Patriot and Free Press on June 4, 1915, reports that “Artist J.D. Shoots is doing a fine piece of work in the curtain he is painting for the Keller opera house. The central scene, occupying a very large proportion of the curtain, is a view of Cuba Lake, while grouped about it are a limited number of advertisements. “ The article goes on to describe how advertising on a stage curtain works: “In order that the purchasers of advertising space may get the greatest possible benefit, arrangements have been made to have the curtain drawn practically all the time except when a performance is on. During the regular run on the house it will be lowered at the conclusion of the program each evening and will remain down until the first show the next evening when the house is open.”
Bob Renwick further described the Opera House stage: “There were three curtains that were hung in the old opera house. The first was a scene from the Battle of Manilla Bay, the second, in the middle, a view of Cuba Lake and the third, a cottage with road, roses, fence.” Artist J.D. Shoots painted all three. Present Opera House restorers say that a stone fence and some street lights still remain on the wall behind where the stage was.
The restoration of the Cuba Lake picture was costing a great deal so the Trainors set it aside for many, many years. But in August of this year, the Trainors were traveling through Cuba when they “serendipitously” stopped at Vintage Vibe, Vincent van Zwanenberg’s Main Street store. And former Village Mayor and amateur historian Tom Taylor also “serendipitously” happened to be in the store at the same time. The Trainors told the men about the curtain painting of Cuba Lake. Yes, they said, they would sell it but named a price beyond that the Opera House or either man could afford. So, the two men began to privately “fundraise” immediately and within a week, they had enough in donations to buy the picture. The picture is now at the Cuba Palmer Opera House awaiting enough money to finish its restoration and be hung.
Plans are to complete restoration of the 10’7” x 7’ picture of Cuba Lake on muslin and frame it once funds are available to do so. If you can help with this effort, visit the website www.palmeroperahouse.com. Select the “Membership and Donation” tab and make your secure contribution via credit card or Paypal. Or you can mail a check to the Palmer Opera House Picture Restoration at 12 W. Main Street, Cuba, N.Y. 14727.
Michael Doyle, one of the moving forces behind the restoration of the 1872 building, says it was actually fortunate that this painting was not in the Opera House for the last 60 years when the building was falling to decay and was unprotected from the elements. The curtain would have been ruined.
Another bit of Opera House stage history came from a long time resident, the late Margaret Childs who found what she believed to be a stage curtain, or a backdrop, in her garage. When William Dibble owned the Opera House, naming it “Arts West,” intending to make an art gallery in it, Childs gave the curtain she found to Dibble. Since the Friends of Architecture bought the building in 2005 and have proceeded with restoration, they are hopeful of getting that curtain back.
There is little known about artist James Shoots, except he moved to Cuba in 1909, possibly lived on Chapel Street and was a prominent local Scenic Artist who had his studio upstairs in the Keller Opera House. From 1920 to 1940, Shoots manufactured stage curtains and painted scenes for Grange buildings and schools. Prior to moving to Cuba, he was a designer and pressman for Howell Printing Company in Elmira. It is believed that he also worked for the Boulton Press located in the second floor of Empire City Farm’s Block Barn.
In another bit of “serendipity,” Shoots descendent, his grandson Jay Shoots, was a classmate of Connie Doyle in kindergarten and first grade. He now resides in Rochester.
Theater Event Coordinator