The women who were running the Canaan Historical Society in 2009 knew just whom to call when they rescued a 1935 painted theater curtain from a dilapidated dance hall in nearby Beecher Falls. Chris Hadsel, they knew from press reports, had been locating and restoring the hand-painted drapes in town halls, theaters and grange halls around New England since 1996. She founded the Vermont Painted Theater Curtain Project, now called Curtains Without Borders.
Hadsel has catalogued 185 specimens in Vermont alone; the Beecher Falls curtain was number 184. So one might think she’s seen every possible image on a vintage curtain: Byronic castles, Ben- Hur scenes, lake views either imagined or identifiable (such as Lake Willoughby), street scenes crammed with advertisements for local businesses. Painted during the half-century before 1940 — that is, before movies replaced traveling vaudeville acts as small-town entertainment — these muslin backdrops are now preserved as national treasures, thanks to the efforts of Hadsel and her conservation team.
But she’d never seen a curtain like the one from Beecher Falls. “It’s a ‘party’ curtain,” Hadsel says. “We call it that because there’s no other like it in Vermont.” The drape depicts a tuxedoed jazz band in black silhouette against a colorful background crowded with festive balloons, each bearing the name of a contributing local business. The musicians raise their instruments above a large, colorful rainbow. Hadsel guesses that’s a reference to the Rainbow Room in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center — the snazzy nightclub had just opened in 1934.
Hadsel and her team have put the Beecher Falls party curtain at the center of Curtains Without Borders’ first traveling exhibition, on view at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery in Burlington through July, with an opening reception this Friday. “Curtains Without Borders: An Exhibition of Photographs” features professional photos of many of Vermont’s more remarkable small-town drapes, taken by Burlington photographer Carolyn Bates and laminated by Silver Maple Editions. Hadsel won an unusually large National Endowment for the Arts grant — $20,000 — to fund the exhibit and an eventual book.
The Beecher Falls drape is the only actual curtain on display — as it was at the exhibit’s first stop, the Statehouse in Montpelier. But this will be its last showing away from home. Future exhibition stops will feature the restored drapes of hosting towns, which include Morrisville, Brattleboro, Jefferson, Rutland, Randolph, Derby Line and St. Johnsbury. The party curtain will be returned to the Canaan Historical Society, where it will be stored and unveiled, as are most restored curtains around the state, for some half-dozen special occasions per year.
The jazzy composition is remarkable for another reason. Like most advertising curtains, it’s unsigned; only so-called “grand drapes,” or scenes framed by painted-in curtains, were autographed. But Hadsel knows the artist was one Lucretia Rogers, who founded Granite State Scenic Studios in the basement of a Plymouth, N.H., theater in the mid-1930s. About eight years ago, Hadsel received an email from Rogers’ daughter, Barbara Dorey, now 83, of Cape Cod, asking if the director had ever heard of her mother’s company. Hadsel had not, but she kept the message, and the two eventually connected by phone. When Dorey mentioned a certain curtain her mother had made depicting jazz musicians, Hadsel realized which one she was talking about.
“That’s the one that stuck out in my mind,” Dorey recalls during a phone call. Her mother, she explains, was trying to complete the curtain while keeping her young daughter entertained, so Rogers made Dorey a sketch of it and told her to fill in the colors. “I remember the artwork, and her sketching it out to amuse me so I’d have something to do,” she says.
Hadsel arranged for Dorey to appear at the exhibit opening in Montpelier. “When I saw it, I just couldn’t believe it existed after all these years,” Dorey says of the curtain. “I don’t think my mother would have believed it, either.”
Hadsel describes the process of identifying the artist as “a kind of treasure hunt” — an equally apt description for her now 15-year-old project of rescuing the curtains themselves. “No two curtains are the same,” she notes, and even the smallest villages invested in one for their theater; Beecher Falls still has just a few hundred residents. “It does show the kind of pride and aspiration people had when they first built the places,” Hadsel reflects.
“Curtains Without Borders: An Exhibition of Photographs,” Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, Flynn Center, Burlington. Through July 28. Opening reception on Friday, May 11, 5:30-8 p.m. curtainswithoutborders.org