MOUNT VERNON — Even if there had been a warranty, it probably would have expired by now.
The Knox County Commissioners met Thursday with a representative of Tiffin Scenic Studios about redoing some of the old stage rigging in the Memorial Theater, much of which is still the original equipment TSS installed in 1926. At the time, the company was highly successful due to its strategic location midway between Chicago and New York City, and it has remained one of the nation’s leading theatrical rigging companies ever since, working on 30 to 40 theaters nationwide every year, according to sales representative Stephen P. Miller.
Safety concerns led to an inspection and analysis of the theater’s equipment this year. Those who have never poked their noses back stage at a theater typically have no idea just how much massive equipment is involved in a live theatrical presentation in a comparatively large venue such as the Memorial Theater. Hanging above the stage, from a grid about 50 feet up, are a fire safety curtain, the main drape, side tabs which mask the backstage area from the audience, scenic backdrops, special additional curtains, banks of lights and more.
All these heavy items are suspended from hemp ropes running over pulleys, with heavy weights counterbalancing them on the other end so that one person can raise or lower each component from the “fly rail,” a platform about 12 feet up on the side wall, back stage.
Miller was joined in the meeting by county buildings and grounds superintendent John Alberts, and Memorial Theater technical director John Nixon. The first item discussed was the ancient fire safety curtain, originally installed by Tiffin in 1926. As is typical of fire curtains of that period, it derived its fireproof status from the use of asbestos. Nixon said that in order not to disturb it and cause any further deterioration, it hasn’t been actively used in a number of years. Miller said that it would cost about $6,600 to seal and renovate the existing curtain. It would cost almost $20,000 to remove the existing curtain and replace it with a brand new one. Removal and disposal of the old one without replacement would run over $7,000.
Commissioner Allen Stockberger said that he’d be inclined to keep the curtain, as it is part of the original equipment of the theater. Commissioner Robert Wise concurred. Nixon said that as long as it remains currently stable, he would recommend bypassing the fire curtain for the moment and concentrate on more pressing safety concerns.
Nixon said that his top priority would be replacing the head blocks, loft blocks, wall brackets and other pieces of equipment which currently support the main curtain. Though the hemp fiber ropes, themselves getting worn, were replaced in the 1970s, the hardware they move through and around is of 1926 vintage. Miller said that though they still work, they are a safety concern, because they are both very worn and also lighter than what is recommended in safety regulations today. Replacement of these items would come in around $4,800.
Second priority, according to Nixon, would be the rigging for the electronics battens, which are rows of lights which can be raised or lowered over the stage. Nixon said he’d love to see the heavy battens fitted with an electronic winch, though he said he realized the almost $60,000 cost may prohibit it for now. Redoing the rigging in its current manual configuration was estimated at $10,600.
Replacement of 18 various damaged loft and line blocks (other than those included in the main drapery rigging project) would add another $7,400. Additional items which will need attending at some point were quoted as well, but Miller said handling these top three priorities would address the current safety needs at a combined cost of $22,788.
“It’s a lot of money, but if one person gets hurts, that’s a $1 million lawsuit,” said Alberts. He asked Miller if there would be a discount for doing the three projects at once. Miller said he could lower the price to $21,151. Alberts also asked if it would be nearly another century before the new rigging would have to be replaced. Miller said that since Tiffin custom makes all their equipment to the exact specifications of the customer’s theater, he was prepared to stand behind it and predict that it will last decades.
The commissioners asked Miller to submit a revised quote reflecting the discount and they would sign it, giving TSS the go-ahead to do necessary maintenance work in late August. Additional renovations, such as sealing the fire curtain and replacing the hemp fiber ropes with synthetic ones will be looked at in the near future.