A Curtain Call for the Theatre Advertising of Old

Photo: Sean Hastings

From 1927 to 1967 the Burr Theatre operated in Ludlow, Massachusetts. Its former home now sits empty on the premises of CA Smith Lumber & Feed, but recently piqued the curiosity of Sean Hastings, an attendee at one of our [Better Letters] workshops in nearby Providence. After looking inside the ‘ghost’ theatre, Sean discovered the stage still in place and, hanging above it, a curtain. This was decorated with a scenic illustration, surrounded by a series of hand-painted advertisements.

These installations were once commonplace, a direct precursor to commercials reels in cinemas. They would be installed in the theatres and painted with scenic illustrations for the use of all types of performers and events. Relatively few survive as they weren’t designed for long-term use, and were replaced when they fell into disrepair. The advertisements surrounding the scenic paintings would be sold to local businesses by the theatres and the groups performing in them.

On this example the small advertising panels are nearly all composed with the same colour pallette of red, blue and black. In some cases a dash of yellow or orange has been used, and additional embellishments made to the flat letters, presumably at greater expense to the advertiser. In the case of Frank A. Towne’s department store there is substantially more copy squeezed into the allocated space than the majority of other signs, suggesting that he had the biggest budget of all! Many of the signs also include ‘privileges’ for larger manufacturing brands such as Firestone, Dodge and Goodyear.

The scenic painting in the middle of the curtain is signed by ‘Maurice Tuttle Studio, Springfield’, which is about ten miles from the theatre. The brief biography on the Curtains Without Borders site helps date this particular curtain to the late 1920s or early 1930s. However, it isn’t clear if Tuttle was also responsible for the advertisements, or if these were produced by a sign painter affiliated with the last group to perform at the theatre.

“It is likely that Maurice Tuttle assisted in his father’s (Howard Tuttle) studio in Milwaukee, WI, before working on his own account as a scenic artist. In the early 1900s he traveled widely and worked for a number of companies in various states. Tuttle assisted Jess D. Bonner in Los Angeles in 1907 and worked at Elitch’s Gardens in Denver, CO in 1910. He and his family settled in Springfield, MA in the late 1920s where he produced curtains for the Calvin Theatre and The Academy of Music in Northampton, MA. By the mid-1930s the family had moved to San Diego, CA, where Tuttle continued his career as a scenic artist.” – Curtains Without Borders

The fate of this particular curtain is uncertain, but its value has been recognised by the owner who is planning to gift it to the town. It is to be kept in one piece and could perhaps be a candiate for a future conservation project. Thank you to Sean for taking the photos below, and to Gary at CA Smith’s Lumber & Feed for allowing them to be published here.

[This post originally appeared on the Better Letters blog on 12 December 2018.]

Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings
Photo: Sean Hastings