DEADWOOD | Wendy Waszut-Barrett didn’t know what to expect when she expanded her trip to the Spearfish Matthews Opera House to include the Deadwood Masonic Center’s Scottish Rite theater.
What she found is a true national treasure. She said the two theaters combine to offer a snapshot on the development of frontier communities into activity and entertainment centers that often equal what's offered in larger cities.
“Call me Wendy,” Waszut-Barrett said during a recent interview, ignoring the formality of her doctorate degree covering theater history.
The theater at Deadwood, she said, has one of the top five of hundreds of Scottish Rite theater backdrop collections in the U.S. Scottish Rite organizations were critical in counterweight backdrop rigging, as well as lighting and backdrop design.
With her estimated replacement value on the backdrops at $1 million or more, she said the hand-painted, mural-sized backdrops are important examples of the era when top professional artists hand-painted backdrops for Broadway and major theaters nationwide.
Although the term “national treasure” reflects the 2004 Nicolas Cage movie about America’s founding Freemasons holding priceless national treasures in a huge secret stash, Waszut-Barret said, “This isn’t just Masonic importance, but work by top national artists.”
And, she said, the importance goes far beyond what she jokingly called “Masonic secret stuff.”
The Deadwood theater is more complex and advanced than the Matthews, according to Waszut-Barret. Together, she said, “They are time capsules.”
“The two theaters compliment each other,” she said.
The Spearfish theater purchased its backdrops from a Minneapolis-based firm that was a second generation of late 1800s theater backdrop art. She has records of what fewer designs had been ordered for the Matthews that had side-rolling rigging rather than the drop-down rigging in Deadwood.
The Deadwood backdrops, purchased in three or possibly four sections, were crafted through a top-line Chicago company that had produced art for more than 1,000 theaters by the early 1890s.
Add the two theaters, she said, “You could be a destination location” for art history tourism.
“It’s a shared cultural heritage,” she said, adding that, generally, “Theater history doesn’t recall this.”
The Matthews is led by a board of directors to manage the 1906 facility into a leading live performance and art center for the Northern Hills after roughly a century of changing uses, ownership and management.
As for the theater in Deadwood?
It’s a development of 300 years of theater in Freemasonry.
Wendy said the Masonic theater tradition dates back to 1717 or before in producing what she called “morality plays” for members entering the fraternity.
The Scottish Rite, in Deadwood and elsewhere, uses theater to illustrate ethical and moral lessons for members from across West River South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.
Mike Rodman, who heads the regional organization, said he was shocked that local members had no idea their theater was of that high quality. Members use the facility twice a year to stage their plays.
After the first investigation by Waszut-Barrett, he said he contacted Deadwood History officials to consider a grant to cover costs of fully documenting the theater.
The high quality of the backdrops emphasizes the importance of fraternal groups in America a century ago as frontier communities worked to rival opportunities available in older urban areas.
Lowell Holmgren, of Rapid City, has been a member at Deadwood for more than 30 years, and is a stage crew member. Despite his years, he said Waszut-Barrett knows more about the Scottish Rite than he does.
Waszut-Barrett said she learned from stage crew members and documenting the theatrical side of the programs.
“I went through the back door with art, not sociology,” she said.
Even so, she said, she was impressed “at how tolerant they are of other people and other religions.”
That’s true of what she’s seen of Freemasonry in general as she has traveled the country to document the Scottish Rite theater furnishings.
“People don’t know what they have here,” she said.