WASHINGTON, Iowa — Christmas came early for Cat Nelson, but she almost missed it. What she thought was an extra canvas that she nearly threw in the trash turned out to be a piece of theater history painted at the turn of the century by a renowned St. Louis-based vaudeville studio.
Nelson, facility manager at the Washington Community Center, which is home to the Washington Community Theater, said the rolled-up canvas was too heavy to be taken down by one person. From the small part that had come unraveled, she could see that it was unfinished and assumed it was an extra drop cloth.
“The only thing that we could unroll was just a few inches on the bottom,” she said.
It turns out, the bottom portion was unfinished because it would have dragged on the floor when hung.
“This little tan here at the bottom was all we saw, so we thought it was scrap canvas,” Nelson said.
She decided late last month to roll it out and see whether it was usable. That’s when she discovered it was a complete, hand-painted drop, or show curtain. She also noticed the names Toomey and Volland. Having a passion for theater history, Nelson immediately knew how rare and valuable the piece was.
Nelson said the drop would have been used in place of the velvet curtains the theater now has. It would have been ordered via a traveling salesman who would have had a book full of examples.
The examples were sketched in pencil, and the buyers could choose the scenes they wanted with the colors and middle scenic piece for the drop custom-made to their taste. Nelson said the entire thing would have taken about two weeks to complete.
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She said the drop probably was created between 1900 and 1920 because that is when Toomey and Volland were working together.
As for how the curtain ended up in the Washington Community Center, that’s a mystery she would like to solve.
“Part of the value of this is the studio that painted it, but we’re trying to figure out if we can find a local Iowa connection of the theater or town it came from,” she said.
The canvas is 15-by-23.5 feet and features green curtains, gold leaves and a scene of three cows in a pond with a person carrying bags toward homes in the background.
Though based in St. Louis, Toomey and Volland had an office in Cedar Rapids, so Nelson thinks the canvas probably was made for a small-town theater in the area.
In the ’70s and ’80s, small theaters were being torn down to make way for bigger movie theaters, Golden said, including Washington’s Fox Theater.
Her best guess is that the drop was in one of those smaller theaters and moved to Washington for safekeeping. She said the dimensions are not correct for it to have been from the Washington theater or the nearby Ainsworth Opera House.
“So much has been lost from this era, especially in theater, that I want to stop losing more,” she said. “I’m just really hoping that the readers ... will either know where it came from or maybe have some lead.”