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Scene Shifting Devices

( Originally Published 1916 )

CHANGING scenes in the dark, with the curtain up, has long been a familiar practice; and the necessity for keeping the spectators' attention during the shift, was early recognized.

One device of concentrating the attention on the flaring headlight of an oncoming locomotive, while stagehands worked all about it, unseen on the dark platform—each, as the saying goes, with half a castle in his grasp-is found mellowed by the fine Italian hand of David Belasco in his New York production of " The Phantom Rival " during the season of I9I4-15. Here a marvelously quick change was made from an elaborate interior to a fanciful scene having a Cinderella staircase of monumental proportions and an absolutely clear foreground. All the while a soft light was kept on the face of the sleeping lady who was dreaming this transformation, while a veritable host of men, each hooded, gloved, and generally garbed in black, and with noiseless shoes, removed the mass of furniture and so forth that filled the scene. As the first setting was placed well forward, the staircase, of course, was ready erected behind, but the sweeping away of the portable pieces was amazing. Every move was planned out, to avoid collisions in the dark.

It follows that to bind together those lapses in dramatic action where crises are not provided by the author to sustain interest, facility of the changing scene must be extraordinary. And here begins an examination of those devices which have been evolved to meet that situation, and als0 the case of the act interval that must not be overlong.

Edwin O. Sachs, the British authority on theater construction, and one of the best, it is said, in the world, divides stages into three classes : the wooden stage, operated by manual labor ; wood-and-iron, also by manual labor, and iron, employing manual labor, hydraulics, or electricity, or a combination of any two or all three. In the Budapest Opera House, the stage is divided into many small sections supported on rams, and everything suspended above is also worked by hydraulics. The Court Theater, Vienna, has large sections suspended on cables and manipulated on small rams at the sides, while the upper pieces are moved by manual labor with the partial assistance of counterweights. " Asphaleia " is the term applied to the direct hydraulic system, from the Asphaleia Syndicate which promoted it. The Budapest Opera House had the first "asphaleia " stage ever installed. It was completed in 1884. In 1888 a modification of the system was shown in operation at the Court Theater, Vienna, where the rams were placed at sides of the stage, to engage with an arrangement of cables and pulleys, so as to leave the space directly under the stage free for working of traps and so forth. This system, to distinguish it from the " hydraulic lifts " of the asphaleia plan, called its units " hydraulic cranes." The difference, while not marked in description, is radical.

At the Auditorium, Chicago, is to be found a stage operated on rams. It was the first asphaleia stage in America. It is 59 feet wide and 46 feet deep. There are six lateral bridges, four moved bodily and two in sections. Any one, or part of one, may be raised from twelve to fifteen feet above stage level. The reservoir, supplying water for the plungers, is in a tower, 200 feet high. Rams were used below the stage to raise and lower scenery in the old Booth Theater, New York, in 1870.

Wiesbaden, in its Court Theater, provides an example of the so-called " Brandt " type, where the number of stage sections is further reduced, with these operated by a combination of a central ram and a system of counterweights. It was patented by Fritz Brandt, engineer-in-chief of the court houses of Berlin, in 1888. The great merit of the Brandt under-machinery is that the work is all done from the sides, and does not interfere with openings in the stage. Counterpoises, moved by manual labor, suffice for the top work.

Sachs, by his own device, seen at the Covent Garden Opera House, moves lateral portions of the stage, or " bridges," above and below the regular level, by electricity alone, counterweights, of course, lightening the burden. These bridges may be moved singly or in unison, and are used to bring heavy properties from below, or to bring whole scenes bodily into view. Brandt methods balance the top work, with intermediate electric motors to under-take unusually heavy loads.

Summing up, after careful examination of statistics, Sachs concludes that the asphaleia plan is impractical; that the Brandt type is suitable for medium-sized theaters, and is not expensive to maintain, while his own arrangement requires but moderate initial cost, is deemed dependable, and uses a minimum annual sum for upkeep.

An electrically operated stage in America is that at the New Amsterdam Theater, New York, and also that at the Metropolitan Opera House. Of course, expense of operating any of these devices depends largely upon the theater. Some theaters really do not require elaborate machinery. Wherefore it seems utterly ridiculous that the Prince of Monaco's diminutive Casino Theater should have a stage in every detail like that of the great Paris Opera House.

Indeed, electric power has been found of almost incalculably great service in modern theaters. An electrician is always on hand, while a hydraulic engineer, not required for other duties, may be absent. Most of the motors used in stage work are of American manufacture.

J. Harry Benrimo, author and director, had an amusing experience at the Moscow Art Theater which serves as illustration. A guide was showing him all the absolutely original features of the equipment, and Benrimo, duly impressed, asked who made the machinery. The guide said he didn't know, but that the name was cast on one of the pieces above. Benrimo ascended to the place, and found in unmistakable characters the name of the Otis Elevator Company, New York. The incident was doubly funny because enthusiastic persons connected with this undeniably great Russian institution, have been at pains to impress all who came that way with the idea that the playhouse has taken precedence over all Europe. In matters of the theater, America has been quite ignored as a country in embryo. Two New York stages, at least, the Lyric and the Harris, have powerful motors mounted on their fly floors to engage, by levers and belts, with any given sets of lines.


But in practically all plans of stage equipment, the old counterweight system plays a great part; and it was with much wisdom, it seems, that designers of the former New Theater, New York, found it expedient to develop that instead of wholly employing newer supplements.

The stage of that vast edifice is a marvel of counterpoise. One ordinarily great difficulty of attaching the counterweight was obviated by the use of small shot, so fine that its shifting was as noiseless as the pouring of sand. In truth, sand has long been employed for counterweights, the nicety with which it attains balance through addition of ounces, if need be, making it popular. But even sacks of sand require great effort to lift before balance, and no little removal and addition of quantities for close adjustment.

The New Theater went further. It not only used shot for balancing, but also for power in raising and lowering the drops. In the very top of the theater, on the left edge of the gridiron, 120 feet above the stage, was placed a long trough, running from front to back. This contained a vast quantity of shot. It was fitted at close intervals beneath, with valves through which the shot could be let out into rectangular metal buckets, each bucket being attached by lines to the particular weight to be balanced, and sliding up and down the side wall in a chute. At a signal from below, when the free ends of the lines had been fastened to the drop or other weight, an attendant at the trough opened the given, numbered valve, filled the bucket until the balance was perfect, and then gradually added more until the weight ascended smoothly into the flies.

When it became desirable to lower it again, the attendant pulled one way on a fine cable attached to a sleeve which fitted over the bucket, and so uncovered an opening in the bucket through which the shot ran out, down the chute, to a vast chamber in the cellar, and thus lightened it until the drop outbalanced it and descended. Then the sleeve was pulled back into place and the flow of shot stopped.

An endless chain of small scoops, operated by a motor, much smaller than would be necessary to move the lines directly, carried the shot from the chamber below back to the trough above, whenever the supply ran low. Through careless handling the device sometimes became disordered; but, on the whole, it was declared an innovation of worth.

Of course, like ordinary block counterweights, the buckets were enclosed to prevent their breaking loose and doing damage.


The simplest and perhaps commonest arrangement for changing scenes on the modern stage, is probably the front scene, a painted curtain dropped far front on the stage with the action continuing before it, that the setting be-hind may be changed for a third scene which presently will be revealed when the curtain is raised. It probably is a heritage of the Elizabethan " alternate " stage, the revival of which will be discussed later in more fitting place than among " innovations."

As due allowance for this device has not always been made by authors, diverting episodes, noisy in character to drown out the rumbling and hammering behind, have frequently been contrived and interpolated to carry the action on until the next scene is ready. For years, and for an obvious reason, this has been called the carpenter's scene. And such an episode, in earlier theaters, where variety performances required more or less continuous action of rough-and-tumble kind, was given a name, like all things that became familiar, and was called an olio.

The scene " in one " is sometimes called an olio scene, while, by analogy, the drop itself is occasionally termed an olio. The olio scene is not to be dismissed lightly, for there are occasions when its use is commendable. In a crude way, it demonstrates the idea which persists in most plans for facile manipulation of settings, to do the work lesiurely elsewhere than on the scene of action.


In accordance with this principle exists the Japanese revolving stage, said to have been first introduced into Europe in 1896 by Carl Lautenschlager, at the Residence Theater, Munich—although it was known prior to 1880 in a French playhouse—and into the United States by Harry Bishop, of the Liberty Theater, Oakland, California.

Upon this stage, seen in elaboration at the Century Theater, New York, where it is 56 feet in diameter, usually half of it may be set with one or more scenes in back, while another scene is in progress on the front half. At the proper time, the back half is merely turned front. When not required for use, the turntable, with all its machinery below, leaves a clear stage. In some of the theaters abroad, where it is mounted in the center on a steel shaft, sunk in an oil-filled pit, and revolved on ball-bearings, all sections of the stage are not readily removable.

On the other hand, the Century scheme turns it on ball-bearing units on a circular track beneath the outer edge, by means of a continuous steel cable, the tension of which is maintained by an enormous weight below. This cable is passed around it for maximum leverage, and wound on a drum below, where an electric motor furnishes the power. A second motor is in readiness for emergency. In this Century arrangement, there is no shaft to interfere with workings below stage, and the entire middle of the stage floor may be taken out, leaving an absolutely open space, for use of a tank, for instance. Manual labor turns the stage in the Little Theater, New York, which is on the Century plan, ball-bearings and all, but without the cable. Four levers are obliquely inserted in pockets in the outer edge, and the turntable is revolved by as many stage hands.

One minor objection to practically all revolving stages—save the last-named, where the weight placed upon it is never excessive, and excessive weight has been known to make a cable slip—is their noise in moving. Wendell Phillips Dodge, general press representative to David Belasco, has privately made a suggestion of rubber cater-pillar wheels to deaden the sound, but practice has not tested it out.

In opposition to this, there is a pleasant story of Reinhardt, at one of his German theaters, trying to increase the noise of his turntable stage, to impress his audience beyond the curtain—like Buffalo Bill in James Hopper's amiable little tale, clipping the pinions of the man with wings to make his flight seem more of an effort to patr0ns of the show. In all events, that a revolving stage may be made noiseless in operation seems certain, for nothing is more quiet than the turntable of a well-regulated railroad yard, where many tons are moved at one revolution.

Having a noiseless stage reminds me that Winthrop Ames once contemplated a rubber stage for the Booth Theater, New York. I learned of it when I proposed a rubber sidewalk to deaden street noises. The estimated cost proved prohibitive. Relinquishment of the idea was probably wise, for a rubber stage might have seriously impaired acoustic properties of the house.

The revolving stage has a great supplementary advantage in carrying the loose weights all about it; a convenience that was appreciated sincerely by the stage hands of the Century Theater when it was called the New. They used it to carry their heavy pieces across from one side to the other by placing them on one side of the " revolver " and taking them off when they reached the desired point. Moving these loose weights is the great problem of scene shifting. Flats may be joined and drops let down at lightning speed; but fountains, tables, benches, pianos, and the like, are clumsy and take valuable time to carry about.

It is evident that there must be no projecting edges to catch at the sides or in the drops above, when the stage is turned. Failure to realize this, and nothing else, has led to much grumbling about many newly installed turntables. Projecting flaps must be hinged and turned in, and drops above must be raised out of the way.

Claude Hagen, when technical director of the New Theater, invented a special contrivance to place and remove ceiling pieces that had to be turned with the stage. This recalls the arrangement of Walter Dando, at D'Oyley Carte's London Opera House, to set a ceiling piece at any angle. The lines supporting the ceiling piece are fastened to nuts threaded on long screws. As the screws are turned the nuts travel on them, and so pull the piece upward or let it down. This does away with fine adjustment of the lines.


It was in trying to surmount these difficulties that Harry Bishop, of Oakland, lately conceived his idea of a revolving gridiron and revolving fly galleries, the motion, of course, to take place above the proscenium arch and coincident with the turning of the stage below. At its bare mention, many objections will oppose this scheme. The necessarily great height of the fly galleries—the counterweights may be sup-planted by motors—and the difficulty attendant upon revolving those drops that are considerably wider than the stage is deep, will be serious ones.

There is a use to which the revolving stage has been put—and it may be decried as basely theatrical—of turning the stage while characters walk without leaving the acting zone : " Faust; in the garden with Marguerite, did so at a playhouse abroad; and more ingenious was the intended device in the production of " The Merry Wives of Windsor " at the New Theater, carrying those concerned from Page's House to the Garter Inn and back. Only the scenery shook so in transit that it became palpably unreal. In 1904, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, a similar change was made in " Parsifal," from the woodland scene to the Hall of the Grail, while Gurnemanz and Parsifal appeared to be walking the entire distance. Only, in this instance, the trick was done with a panorama.


Novel uses may come further when the double, concentric stages are brought from the Japanese theaters, although their novelty will doubtless exceed their practical worth. A triple concentric stage was installed in the London Coliseum about 1911. It weighs 160 tons, and is 75 feet in diameter. The parts may be turned separately, each at a different rate of speed, or all locked together, if desired, by flat tablets of iron dropped flush into the upper surface. The outer edge of each part carries mast-holes for panorama scenery, but these were found impracticable. The intermediate ring has water tanks of I,000 gallons' capacity, for use in aquatic spectacles. The central table has a trap which connects, by way of a circular staircase, with a stationary platform below, from which a chorus may be " fed on " the stage even when in motion. At top speed, the outer edge may be turned at twenty-five miles per hour; and it may be stopped by electric and hydraulic brakes in two and one-half revolutions.

At the World's Fair at St. Louis, and later for " Creation " at Coney Island, there was used a form called the " annular " revolving stage. It was in the shape of a flat ring, revolving about the entire auditorium. Spectators entered from above. As many as a dozen complete scenes could be set on this at once, each to be swung into place at the proper time.


In its ideal use, the revolving stage has the full complement of large and small scenes set up once and for all upon it, for service throughout the entire engagement. But the consequent necessity of fitting them all accurately within' the circle, seems to cramp them unduly at times. Besides, in some American cities, the fire law will not permit a manager to leave any scene standing between performances. It must be struck at conclusion and erected again when needed. But, even where such regulation does not obtain, it generally seems more satisfactory to build some of the scenes, at least during actual use of the turntable. There is ample time in which to do this, and to do it well, without feverish rumble, clatter, and banging to disturb the scene in front.

Experience with the revolving stage in America has drawn two conclusions, both based largely on the circumstance that the " road " means so much to native theatricals. The first, lightly dismissed in some quarters, is that much of the scenery has specially to be constructed for it, and is thus cumbrous, fragile, and disproportionate elsewhere; and the other, less readily denied, is that the revolving stage is not worth while as a venture save in those houses where productions are made and designed to remain indefinitely. In " one-week " houses they can find little or no place.


Steele Mackaye's invention of the " drop " stage, arranged in tiers, one above another for successive showing of the settings contrived on each, installed at the old Madison Square, New York, was speedily discarded as a fad, although it was used in considerably modified form by David Belasco—who had earlier been associated with Mackaye--at his Republic Theater, New York. Its impracticability was found more in the necessity for making special scenery to fit it, awkward for use elsewhere, than in any clumsiness of setting it in motion.

A deep excavation under the stage of the Century Theater, New York, shows the place intended for a sort of drop stage, the plan being given up only because the direct-ors of the organization which built the house, preferred to wait until justified by the success of the venture, which never came. Had that stage been completed, New York would have had in one theater practically every successful mechanical arrangement known to the theatrical world. It would have been a revolving, transverse, and vertically moving stage.


As yet Europe appears to be the sole possessor of the true sliding stage, said by some to have been invented by Brahm, head mechanical inspector at the Royal Theater in Berlin, and by others to have originated with Brandt, of the Berlin Court Theater, who dubbed it the " reform stage." This variety, a platform, extending all the way from front to back of the stage proper, and the distance of the proscenium width plus the equal width of one of the wings, is contrived to slide from side to side. Thus, one scene the full depth of the stage may be shown on half of it, while the next setting is being erected on the other, this to be slid into view when necessary. At the Court Theater, Vienna, a " rolling way," a great movable platform, carries the whole scene forward or backward when the bridges beneath it are to be raised or sunk. This, of course, is not the true sliding stage.

Unfortunately—and here may be found the principal reason that the sliding stage has not made its appearance here where property valuations are high—this requires a large free space, as large as the stage proper, to admit of the lateral motion; and this space may be used for virtu-ally nothing else.


At the New Court Theater in Dresden, Germany, an effort has been made to overcome this drawback, while retaining advantages of the device, by making it a platform but half the size, and equal to the depth and width of the stage proper, sinking it some 33 feet below stage level, and then sliding it off to one side under the adjoining property. which here happened to be a street, circling behind, while another stage, already set, is moved in from the other side and lifted to position. The stage platform in this case, is divided laterally into three sections, each supported by two steel hydraulic shafts, and movable separately or together. Electricity operates the sliding portions which cover merely the two front sections. The third section is used only in scenes of great depth. There is a " lifting " stage somewhat on this order, at Covent Garden, in London.


Probably the latest variant of the sliding stage is that contrived by Joseph Wickes, a scenic artist, and Arthur Hopkins, a producer, both Americans, for the New York production of " On Trial," first presented in Stamford, Connecticut, late in 1914. The course of the play, which acts out the testimony of a number of witnesses at a murder trial, demanded lightning changes from the court room to other localities; and these shifts were accomplished by the use of two platforms, each mounted on casters, and swung alternately from the stage out of sight into the wings, on a king-bolt through one corner at the side of the proscenium arch. In brief, each of the wings had its own platform. The rumbling would have gladdened the Reinhardt of the anecdote, but it achieved its end nobly and electrified a blase theatergoing public.


Notable even among the other praiseworthy innovations in the wake of the Austrian stage reform is the wagon stage, a means whereby the sliding platform may disintegrate as readily as the proverbial " one-hoss shay," and so eliminate " waste " space. The wagon stage is a low platform, usually about six feet by twelve, mounted on rubber-tired wheels. The scenery upon it hangs down over the sides to the stage floor. This wagon may be clamped to others very quickly, in order to make a line of, roughly, any given length.

Granville Barker introduced a modification of the wagon stage—the unit slightly smaller—to America during his New York engagement at Wallack's, 1914-15, although his use was of restricted kind, merely to slide his heavier pieces upon the scene, and not, as frequently abroad, to move the entire setting. In his production of " Androcles and the Lion," the outside and inside of the arena were set back to back on the same platform. The platform was pivoted in the middle so that by swinging it, the scene was changed.

The real problem of scene shifting is to move the heavy parts, rostrums, set pieces, pianos, bookcases, and the like. Therefore, only part of the stage need be moved to convey these things from one point to another; but that part should include the immediate boundaries of the scene. This seems to be accomplished by use of the wagon stage; but that means serious disintegration of the scene, with much undoing of stage-braces, lines, and so forth. The sliding stage requires too much free space at the sides; the revolving stage in operation prohibits active use of half the stage from front to back.

How are these difficulties to be overcome?


I append this suggestion as a line of technical development: Divide each of two full-stage settings in halves.


An arrangement for quick changes of scene that, unlike the revolving stage, permits use of the full stage from front to back at all times, and, unlike the sliding stage, does not demand too much free space at the sides. The real problem in scene shifting is not to move the entire setting but just heavy pieces, leaving the acting zone clear.

Set one scene up intact on the stage proper; then set one-half of the remaining scene in one wing, the other half in the other. By mechanical shift, make the stage scene divide itself and the two parts take the place of those in the wings, which, by the same operation, combine on the stage proper as the second setting. Refer to the diagram herewith. We have a stage here that may be used as a revolving stage without disturbing the halves in the wings; a stage that may be set all the way to the back wall; a stage that moves the heavy pieces and most of the setting without dismantling; a stage that does not require much free space.

Few theaters anywhere have their stages at " dead center "—that is, with an equal amount of space in both wings. Usually one wing, on the side nearest the lobby, is much smaller than the other. The larger side is, of course, almost invariably used as the working side.

In Europe, the wagon platform, in varying sizes, is frequently employed in conjunction with the sliding and revolving stages. It is inexpensive and economical, for there are times, as indicated, when both sides of the platform may be used for different scenes, the wagon merely being turned about for the change.


Elaborate use of traps for " transformations " and so forth, seems a convention of a century gone. A sort of drama less dependent upon mechanical effect has come into vogue. Still, the modern stage remains in readiness to be pulled up in sections at any point for the fitting in of tanks or frames for traps. Now and then a little touch, such as the perforated pipe around the front of a trap for a cloud of smoke in which " Snow White " may disappear, is added to the traditional forms; but, on the whole, this phase re-mains with little change. The simple moving of the stage floor into alternate bits of solid ground, and lateral spaces between for the dropping of painted strips of houses that their " ruins " may be disclosed already in place behind, in an earthquake or war picture, is but application of an older idea—serviceable still, as many old ideas are. Indeed, some old ideas are now being hailed as the " New Movement."

The old stage almost always had a " grave " trap well down center. The floor parted at that point in two sliding panels, and a small platform below it was made to rise and fall smoothly in a frame, with the aid of counter-weights. Thus, old-time theatergoers knew exactly where the ghost of Hamlet's father was going to disappear. But now that arbitrary arrangement is done away with; the stage is removable in sections at any point, and the frame of the trap may be fitted in beneath. Back of the grave trap were three narrow transverse slits, or openings, technically known as " cuts," closed, when necessary, by " sliders." In Germany the cuts are closed by hinged flaps, or " kasettenklappen." These are followed by a wider transverse opening filled by an adjustable section called a " bridge "—in France a " rue; " in Germany, " versenkung." Then come three more slider cuts, then a bridge, and so on back, depending on the depth of the stage.

Slider cuts are used variously. Sometimes the cut has a transverse bar rising and falling in grooves beneath it, for raising and lowering scenery through the opening. At the Municipal Theater of Amsterdam they frequently use " double-deck " drops—that is, a drop with two scenes painted on it, one above the other—moving upward or downward through slider cuts, on light iron rails at the sides, that extend from the cellar floor to the gridiron. Again, the slider cut uses the chariot and pole. The chariot is a small truck, frequently moving on a track from one side across to the other, on a mezzanine level beneath the stage floor.

This mezzanine level is frequently fitted with windlasses to raise and lower pieces through the stage floor. It performs practically the same function beneath the stage as the fly gallery does above.

A standard may be screwed into the chariot through the slider cut, and, projecting above the stage floor, serves as a stage brace to hold strip-lights or support wing pieces, or yet to be moved transversely to any point in the cut, to hold an isolated bit of scenery. They are convenient in showing ships, for instance, moving across the stage. At the Coliseum, in London, they tow pieces like ships or trains, by invisible wires attached to a traveling crane on a track running across above the stage between the fly floors. It can tow a hanging platform weighted up to eleven tons, at twenty miles per hour.

In order to fill up the open space of the cut, grooved sliders are attached piece to piece on one side, and detached on the other as the chariot and pole move across. If the chariot and pole are used for a stationary object, the cut is filled with laths. Walter Dando, at D'Oyley Carte's London Opera House, has devised an arrangement whereby the space is automatically filled up as the chariot and pole move along.

The chariot and pole are to be seen in use at the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York, where they have a strictly European stage. It was built by the celebrated Carl Lautenschlager, who came to America in 1904 for the express purpose of designing and installing it in time for the scheduled production of " Parsifal ." The stage was built in co-operation with Theodore G. Stein, the architect. The first four bridges are made to sink or to rise, the floor of the stage being removed in sections to permit the motion. Electric motors now operate the first two bridges; but originally they were moved by two men at a winch. Each bridge is forty-six feet long, four feet wide, and twenty-one feet deep.

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