A scenic history...
The original business located within Old Arizona's walls was called Twin City Scenic Company. Operating from 1895-1979, this scenic studio created products for a variety of theatre productions, opera houses, fraternal organizations, educational auditoriums, civic events, and other commercial venues.
The Company began in the Bijou Opera House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Three principle employees of the then-popular Bijou Opera House opened the Studio around 1896. Theodore Hays, manager of the Bijou and president of Twin City Scenic, generated much of the Company's early business. His wide commercial, professional, and theatrical connections helped the new enterprise compete with the already successful eastern studios. The other two principle partners, William P. Davis and William Knox Brown, supervised respectively the scenic art and stage mechanics departments.
As the company expanded, they also utilized the backstage space at The Grand Opera House in St. Paul. By 1905, the Twin City Scenic Studio was incorporated and renamed the Twin City Scenic Company and the business moved from their two backstage spaces into their own facility at 2819-21 Nicollet in Minneapolis. By this time, the Company was producing large quantities of scenery for the opera houses of developing western communities for the many touring shows.
The public's appetite for vaudeville stimulated the expansion of the product line to include picture sheets (early movie screens), rigging and draperies. The Company produced scenery for many of the nation's top vaudeville circuits. From 1910 to 1930, demand for scenery exceeded the Studio's capacity, so it opened branch offices in several cities. The company acquired five full-time salesmen to work various geographical territories. The company continued to expand and opened regional offices in Detroit, Michigan (1918-1937); Syracuse, New York (1931-1937); Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1929-1932); Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Fort Worth, Texas (1933-1934).
The company grew and it was no longer feasible to send original sketches out with the salesman. Hand-tinted photographs bound in leather booklets with information about the company often accompanied any sales representative. As in the beginning with the hand-painted originals, the salesman would telegraph or phone in a theatre's order so that the sets could be constructed, painted and shipped out on the next train leaving town. The shift in product parallels the shift in popular entertainment as painted drop curtains are gradually replaced with auditorium draperies and cinema picture sheets.
After the stock market crash in 1929, vaudeville's popularity faded as that of the movies rose, and the demands for scenery changed. While Twin City Scenic continued to produce some painted scenery, its major business was supplying stage curtains for the many newly built movie theatres and high school auditoriums. By the late 1930's the emergence of new regional studios eroded the Company's national theatrical scenery business further, forcing the closure of many of the branch offices. The last full-time "specialty" artist left the Company in 1941 to paint backdrops in Hollywood, and by the end of the decade, the demand for painted scenery was almost non-existent.The painting techniques and wing-and-drop forms of traditional scenery were easily adapted to the visual needs of a variety of non-theatrical events - historic pageants, exhibits, and industrial shows. Twin City Scenic created many such scenes, and the Company's ability to supplement income this way helped it survive the devastating effects of the Depression.
In June of 1925, the national celebration of the 100th anniversary of Norwegian immigration to the United States was held in the Twin Cities. Related events included church services, historical pageants, and meetings of regional immigrant societies (Bydelags). Twin City Scenic produced paintings of Viking Ships and other appropriate symbols to add color and interest to the scenes and celebrations.
Another noted effort of the Company was the decoration and design of the acclaimed Minnesota building for the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. This extensive project, led by scenic artist, Jack Westrom, required over a year of preparation and research. The work was made up of two panoramas. According to a report in the Minnesota Historical Society Archives, one of the panoramas gave the onlooker a view of the "whole state of Minnesota compressed onto a canvas 20 feet high and 120 feet long. It was designed to give the visitor something that he might see if he were actually flying in an airplane from south to North the length of the entire state." The other panorama presented a visual history of the state, beginning with Father Hennepin's arrival in the territory in 1680 and ending with a depiction of the "modern" cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
In addition to these special events, the Company provided scenery and backgrounds for the Ringling Brother's Circus, the 1925 Shrine National Convention, and various local pageants. A look at the scenery the Company produced for these and other non-theatrical events provides a fascinating view of early twentieth-century American popular culture.
Throughout the duration of the Company's 85-year history, a vast amount of scenery equipped many Masonic Temples. Twin City Scenic's founder, W.K. Brown was a 32º Mason, and that connection undoubtedly accounts for the tremendous amount of scenery created by the Company for fraternal orders around the country. Masonic installations required complete theatrical settings; a central backdrop, framed by a series of painted side wings and cut drops. This theatrical configuration emulated the nineteenth-century-accepted presentation of a realistic illusion.
In 1979, former president W.R. Brown and another artist painted the Studio's last piece of scenery - a drop curtain for the restored Brown Grand Opera House (Concordia, Kansas). A destructive fire closed the Company in 1980, ending a theatrical institution that had survived for 85 years. Select pieces from this collection were presented from April 5 through June 14, 1987, in an exhibit titled "The Twin City Scenic Collection, Popular Entertainment, 1895-1929," at the University of Minnesota Art Museum. An exhibition catalogue accompanied this exhibit ("The Twin City Scenic Collection, Popular Entertainment, 1895-1929." Minneapolis: U Press, 1987).