Photograph of the curtain in Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside Theater.

Curtains at the Hillside Theater

Standing in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater looking east at the curtain. I took this photo in 2007.

I’m excited1 to write about the curtains at the Hillside Theater today for a couple of reasons.

1: I can show a few photos of Hillside’s original theater curtain. And,

2: I get to give you one of my theories on the curtain.

Theory?!

Oh, man, you gorram egghead.

Yea, I know, but this is my website, so….

Original curtain? What original. There was more than one?

Why, gosh, so glad you asked. There have been two made for the Hillside Theater. The first one was destroyed.

The first theater –

I did a nice write up on the first theater in my “1952 Fire at Hillside” post. It’s got cool photos and a drawing!

Like I wrote a while ago, Wright designed Hillside in 1901 for his aunts, Jennie and Nell Lloyd Jones,2 and their Hillside Home School. The building was built 1902-03. What became the theater was originally the school’s gymnasium.  

The Hillside Home School closes in 1915.

Then, two years later, Wright paid the school’s outstanding debts and acquired the school’s land and buildings.

Yes, I know: he paid some debts. The man was full of surprises.

As I used to say on tour:

After that, he was too busy to do anything with the building because he was working. Then, in the late ’20s, he had lots of time (no work). But you know that also means: no money.

Regardless, 17 years after the Aunts closed the school, Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, Olgivanna started

The Taliesin Fellowship

(just over 90 years ago!)

The Fellowship was due to open on October 1, 1932.2 The month before that, Wright persuaded ladies from a local church to sew a curtain for his planned Hillside Theater. Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News, wrote about this on September 22 of that year:

SEWING BEE AT Taliesin

Members of the Congregational Ladies’ Aid are taking an active part in the preparations for the opening of the Taliesin Fellowship.

The ladies assign themselves to groups of twelve and sew on the theatre curtain afternoons at Taliesin. The work consists of appliquéing material on the stage curtain according to an attractive design made by Frank Lloyd Wright….

Here’s the curtain they were working on:

The design for the first curtain at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside theater (then called the Playhouse).

The link goes to the black-and-white image on-line at ARTSTOR

Wright hoped for over 70 apprentices that first year. I hate to break it to you, but Wright was a little too optimistic.

So, yeah: no.

Although they did get 23 apprentices that first October.

I always remember that number. It’s because 23… 1932.

And the curtain done by the Congregational Ladies Aid didn’t get put to work a YEAR later. That’s because the theater (named the Playhouse) opened on November 1, 1933.

Getting a view of the curtain is tough, because most photos show the curtain open. It drives Frankophiles (including myself) crazy.

Or at least it used to.

Drive me crazy, I mean.

Then I started going to Wright’s archives. At that time, they were at his winter home, Taliesin West. Every time before I went, I wrote to the Assistant Director of the archives about which specific photo collections I wanted to see on my trip.

I kept a running list of collections that I would request.3 Actually, I still do, if anyone wants to invite me to Wright’s archives at the Avery.

I scanned as much as I could, and got a few scans of photos showing the old curtain in full.

Here’s one:

Photo of the Hillside Playhouse and its curtain. circa 1936.

Looking south/southeast. Taken 1936-40.

And then that fire happened at Hillside in 1952

NO WONDER the guy said, “All my life I have been plagued by fire.”

After the fire, he designed the curtain in the room now.

When we started tours, all of us had to learn the interpretation of the curtain.

Interpreting the curtain

I used to tell people:

as far as I know, it’s the only major design that Wright ever did that shows something that actually exists.

not counting presentation drawings.

In other words, it’s not something abstracted: it’s a picture. It’s Taliesin on the hill.

Come, follow me.

Here’s a shortcut of what the guides had to learn:

Frank Lloyd Wright's drawing of the curtain at the Hillside Theater in Wisconsin

But here’s the thing

None of this works if you abstract the Wisconsin River, the hill, or Taliesin. All those things are there, but it doesn’t go left-to-right like that.

So I wondered about this for awhile. Then, one day decades ago while I was cleaning in Hillside [yes, I used to do that, too] I realized that

The curtain’s image works if you turn it backwards.

When I thought about this while at work, I remembered something I’d read years before in Art History classes… something about tapestries. This matches what I read on them. It’s from the Met Museum:

 

Making a Tapestry—How Did They Do That?

by Sarah Mallory
….
Historically, weavers worked while facing what would be the back of the tapestry. They copied with their colored weft threads the tapestry’s design. The design, referred to as the “cartoon,” took the form of a painting—made on cloth or paper, the same size as the planned tapestry. This cartoon was either temporarily attached to the loom, flush against the backs of the warp threads, and visible in the gaps between the warps; or it was hung on the wall behind the weavers, who followed it by looking at its reflection in a mirror behind the warps. Because weavers copied the cartoon facing on the back of the tapestry, when the piece was finished, removed from the loom, and turned around to reveal the front, the woven image on the front of the tapestry was the mirror image of the cartoon shown. Weavers could avoid this reversal of the design by using the mirror method to copy the cartoon’s design.

And here’s the Hillside curtain design, backwards:

The present Hillside Theater curtain, shown backwards.

The design has the hill crown. You can see it best in a Taliesin II photo:

Taliesin from the south. circa 1920
Published in “Wright Studies: Volume 1, Taliesin 1911-1914”, p. 3.

Looking north at Taliesin, 1920-24. On the far left is a workman’s apartment. On the far right are Wright’s living quarters. You can’t see Wright’s studio and other apartments for the workmen because the building wraps around the hill the other side of the hill.

I don’t know if Wright was thinking of a tapestry when he drew the design for the curtain, but it does make sense. In the curtain, you can see the top of the hill. You can’t see that if you’re looking at Taliesin from the other side from what you see in the photo above.

So was he thinking about the design backwards?

Possibly. Since working on this post I’ve had to remind myself which way the curtain hangs because I keep getting turned around. Makes me very glad that I learned “left” and “right” in kindergarten.

Although I did ask the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation about my “tapestry” theory. She seemed to “get” what I was talking about, of the curtain being the mirror image of reality, but she said that Wright did not design the curtain as a tapestry. According to Indira, Wright asked “his friend Dorothy Liebes if she could weave it,” but it was too big. So it was done the way it stands at the Hillside Theater. 

First published October 17, 2022.
I took the photograph on the top of this page.

 


Notes

1 Wait – aren’t I always excited about this?… why, yes, yes I am.

2 Some “early birds” – William Wesley “Wes” Peters, John “Jack” Howe, Yen Liang and Edgar Tafel arrived earlier that summer. Tafel wrote about the early time in Apprentice to Genius, the book I recommended a year ago.

3 I made trips 6 times in as many years. TPI paid for some, but at least half were on my own dime. I did it for work, but also for myself. I wanted to see these things and learn them. PLUS! I got to hang at T-West often in the winter – who needs a fricking vacation when they’ve got to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, and his letters and drawings, and photos of Taliesin by others?

Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building during April 26, 1952 fire

1952 fire at Hillside

Looking northeast at the southern facade of the Hillside building while the smoke still looms in its April 26, 1952 fire.
I don’t know who took this photograph. It came from a newspaper article that was given to the Preservation office probably in the 1990s.

As someone who worked at Taliesin, you got used to dealing with questions about fire on the Taliesin estate. Of course, there were the two Taliesin fires,

but that’s not all!

In 1952, a big fire took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside building on the south part of the Taliesin estate. That fire happened in April of that year. So, today I’ll talk about the fire and one of Hillside’s rooms affected by it.

I started this after a request:

Someone asked me about the Hillside theater, and its history, a few days ago. As sometimes happens, I know something really well, but don’t know what others don’t know at all. This had great timing, because

the Hillside fire happened nearly 70 years ago

on April 26, 1952.

And I’m trying to push away the knowledge that this means that drummer Stewart Copeland turns 70 this July. Copeland was in the band, The Police (which I adored as a teenager; hence the automatic knowledge on Copeland’s age; he was born on July 16, 1952 btw).

So, follow me while I talk about the original space at Hillside.

The old theater

The Hillside Theater is in the gymnasium Wright designed in 1901 for his Aunts’ Hillside Home School.1 Here’s a photo of the Hillside building when the Aunts ran the school. The gymnasium is on the photo’s far left-hand side:

Page 7 from "In the Valley of the Clan" booklet by William Hudson Harper.
Booklet located in the Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection: Lloyd Jones (Jane Lloyd Jones Correspondence, 1899-1940; Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1).

The photo is in the booklet, “In the Valley of the Clan: The Story of a School”.

The booklet is on-line

at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photo above is on page 7.

The inside of the gym is in the next photo:

Photograph looking east at the stage in the Hillside Home School gym.

Circa 1903 photo looking east in the Hillside Home School gym and its stage. The gym’s running track was behind the horizontal boards above the stage. Unknown photographer.
Taken from a Hillside booklet owned by Peggy Travers, whose mother went to the Hillside school.

In 1932, when Wright started the Taliesin Fellowship, he redesigned the gym into a theater that he named “the Playhouse”. So, in the first years his apprentices were changing things at his house so they could live there.

(like Edgar Tafel talked about in the book I recommended, Apprentice to Genius).

But they also immediately started renovating the gym into the Playhouse. Like, they took the gym’s running track and rehung it so it was on several different levels.

I don’t know what good that did, but it looked really cool.

Here’s a good drawing of it:

Drawing of Hillside Playhouse Theater from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives.
Property: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #3303.014.

The modified running track is on the upper right. A modified version of this drawing was painted onto plywood. Every Sunday that plywood placard was put alongside the 2-lane highway (Hwy 23) as advertisement for movies at the Playhouse.
You’ll be able to see the placard once the Hillside Theater opens back up after the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation completes its restoration.
Here’s a video discussion of their current restoration work.

1933 photo of the Playhouse when it was ready to open:

Taken by Angus Vicar. He took the photo the weekend before the Playhouse opened on November 1st, 1933:

Photograph by Angus Vicar. October 27 1933. Property of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection name: Photo Copy Service: Photo Copy Service photographs and negatives, 1925-1983.
Collection No.: 4245-B.

All this, despite a lack of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy saying,

come on! Let’s put on a show!

The simple benches you see were constructed by a furniture maker in the Fellowship, Manuel Sandoval. He made them out of newly-cut oak. The “girls” in the Fellowship sewed the seat cushions.

So, movies at the Playhouse were the first public interface by the Taliesin Fellowship. They ran weekly, with apprentices in charge of manning the projector, introducing the movie, preparing coffee or tea for refreshments, and taking money from patrons.

Movies cost 50¢. For a dollar, you could watch the movie as well as get a tour with an apprentice.

This is how hardy we used to be:

That first winter, the Playhouse didn’t have radiator heat. Read this in an “At Taliesin” newspaper article on February 1, 1934:

“The new heating system is in operation, and made the theatre quite comfortable when weather conditions were unfavorable last Sunday.”
No named author. Transcribed from the published article by Randolph C. Henning, but not published in the 1992 “At Taliesin” book edited by Henning.

Eventually, the Wrights and the Fellowship began going to Arizona in the winter (as I noted in this post). Then, as the NEH story states, Wright found the land in Scottsdale in late 1937. The Fellowship then began building Taliesin West as its winter quarters.

In 1952, the Wrights and the Fellowship were returning from their winter when the Hillside fire happened. It destroyed the Playhouse, plus everything to the east up to the Assembly Hall. A stone foyer to the west of the Playhouse (added a few years before) was also untouched.

Below is a transcription of part of a newspaper story about the fire. It comes from the May 1, 1952 edition of Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News:

Taliesin School Re-Born on Paper

As Flames Destroy Old Structure

…. Taliesin’s third major fire (the previous two destroyed the house) started late Saturday afternoon [April 26] when a rubbish fire, left unattended, swept toward the building as the wind shifted. A floor containing living quarters above the student dining room was destroyed first; then the flames spread into the theater and reduced it to ashes.           

“I lit that rubbish fire myself,” Wright readily admitted.

“It was about 30 ft. from the building and the wind was blowing toward the east. I shouldn’t have gone off and left it, but the wind shifted and carried the fire up under the overhang of the roof. When I came back smoke was coming from the roof and upper floor.”         

…. Although a small office adjoining the living room [the Assembly Hall] was badly damaged…, the big room itself suffered only smoke damage. Wright found good in that, too. “That smoke-tone is wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.”

Fellowship member “Frances” Nemtin, who joined the Fellowship in early ’46, wrote about it in her booklet, 3 by FLLW. She, then-husband Kenn Lockhart, and their children had been living at the Midway Barns over the winter. On that day in 1952:

… [T]here were a few of us on the grounds…. I was at startled to hear sirens and see fire-trucks and police cars screaming through our valley and turning into Hillside… when I ran onto the nearby roof I saw black smoke rising there. With the children I drove to Hillside fast and found a horrifying scene. The theater was full of flames and the local fire engines were desperately fighting an enormous blaze.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 44-45.

As members of the Taliesin Fellowship returned, they cleaned the area, prepping for work. That’s because Wright had already redesigned the space.

The new space, now called the Hillside Theatre/Theater (both spellings are in drawings) pushed out further on the north and south. The apprentices poured concrete and created stadium seating. He designed metal chairs, most of which where put into the concrete.

In 1955, they had a formal evening for Wright’s birthday (June 8) to mark the completion of the work.

Maynard Parker also took photographs at Taliesin that year.

These photographs were published in House Beautiful in November, 1955. One of the photos he took is below:

Photographer, Maynard Parker. Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building in 1955..
Huntington Library–Maynard Parker collection. Call Number. photoCL MLP 1266.

Summer photograph by Maynard Parker looking at the south facade of Hillside. The rebuilt Theater is on the left. An enlarged kitchen at Hillside is on the lower right, under a new roof with a balcony parapet above the stone and wooden doors.

The next year, 1956, the apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship gave Wright a curtain from his design. Again, here’s Frances Nemtin:

…. It was to be an abstraction of the Wisconsin landscape and executed in felt appliqued on Belgian linen…. Immediately on reaching Wisconsin that April we set out to work in the second floor of Aldebaran, Wes Peters‘ farm, so we could work secretly. We knew if Mr. Wright saw it in progress he’d make constant changes.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 49.

Frances and others could not agree on the date of the curtain’s execution. Folks at Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation didn’t know if it was made in 1954, ’56, or ’57.

Then I got an email:

A woman wrote me at work (as the Taliesin historian). She told me that her parents were in the Taliesin Fellowship and her mother worked on that curtain. And her mother went into labor with her a few days before they finished. And she was born in June of 1956.

So we had our date.

Not cut in stone, but… good enough I’d say.

First published April 15, 2022.
I do not know who took the photograph at the top of this page, but it appeared in a newspaper story on the Hillside fire.


Notes:

1. The building I wrote about in the post, “Another find at Hillside” was the original gymnasium for the Aunts’ Hillside school. That building became the dormitory for older boys once Wright’s building was constructed.