Historical society preserves 210-year-old theater curtain


In this Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019 photo, Rhode Island Historical Society administrators Richard Ring, left, and Morgan Grefe view a restored 210-year-old theater curtain depicting a sweeping view of the city in Providence, R.I. The recently restored drop scene was used in the theater in the early 1800s to entertain audiences between shows. (AP Photo/Jennifer McDermott)

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Rhode Island Historical Society has preserved a rare, 210-year-old theater curtain depicting a sweeping view of Providence.

The organization was celebrating the completion of the conservation work on Wednesday for their 198th annual meeting. The society said it knows of no other older surviving piece of American theater scenery.

Executive Director Morgan Grefe said it’s amazing that a fabric curtain survived more than two centuries to tell the story of Providence.

“Here we are in 2019, still talking about it and being surprised by what it has to tell us,” she said.

Painted in 1809 by John Worrall, the curtain measures 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide and 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall. The drop scene was used in the city’s only theater in the early 1800s to entertain audiences between shows in the early days of stage performances in New England.

The historical society took possession in 1833 when the theater closed.

“It was seen as a spectacle and something that needed to be saved. We were the folks in town that saved things,” Grefe said.

The panorama of the city is displayed in the organization’s ballroom in Providence, serving as a backdrop for many public programs. Conservators recently removed decades of dust, painted worn sections along the seams and repaired small tears. The historical society and a private donor paid for the work.

The organization’s files and research on the curtain date to the time it was painted and experts haven’t been able to find an older piece of surviving American theater scenery, said Richard Ring, the deputy executive director for collections and interpretation.

“Most folks who would’ve gotten theater curtains would’ve said that they can’t handle it and gotten rid of them,” he said. “That’s why it’s a rare survival. It takes so much effort to keep it the way it is for so long.”

The historical society invites the public to view the curtain at its office on Benevolent Street from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday.

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