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Historic vaudeville drop found in Washington Community Center

Staff seeking community help to solve mystery of how it ended up there

GTNS photos by Gretchen Teske

Toomey and Volland were a pair well-known for their scenic backgrounds and worked together from 1900-1920. The pair had their primary office in St. Louis but another office in Cedar Rapids, which is where Nelson guesses the piece was originated. The drop was found in the Washington Community Center in early November. How it got there is still a mystery Nelson would like the community’s help in solving.
GTNS photos by Gretchen Teske Toomey and Volland were a pair well-known for their scenic backgrounds and worked together from 1900-1920. The pair had their primary office in St. Louis but another office in Cedar Rapids, which is where Nelson guesses the piece was originated. The drop was found in the Washington Community Center in early November. How it got there is still a mystery Nelson would like the community’s help in solving.
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Christmas came early for Cat Nelson, but it was nearly missed completely. What she thought to be an extra canvas, and nearly threw into the trash, turned out to be a historic scenic drop painted at the turn of the century by Toomey and Volland studio of St. Louis.

Nelson, facility manager at the Washington Community Theater, said the rolled-up canvas was heavy and unable to be taken down by one person. From the small part that had come unraveled, she could see that it was unfinished and assumed it was an extra drop cloth.

“The only thing that we could unroll was just a few inches on the bottom,” she said. The bottom portion of the drop is unfinished because it would have dragged on the floor when hung. “This little tan here at the bottom was all we saw, so we thought it was scrap canvas.”

She decided to roll it out and see if it was usable when she discovered it was a complete, hand-painted drop and noticed the name Toomey and Volland, a pair well known in the vaudeville community. Having a passion for theater history, Nelson immediately knew how rare and valuable the piece was.

Nelson said the drop would be known as a “show curtain” and would be used in place of the velvet curtains the theater now has. The drop would be ordered through a traveling salesman who would have a book full of examples.

The examples would be sketched in pencil and the purchaser could choose the scene they wanted with the colors and middle scenic piece for the drop custom-made to their taste. She said the entire thing would take about two weeks to complete.

She said her best, educated guess is that the drop was created between 1900 and 1920 because that is when the pair were working together. As far as how the curtain ended up in the Washington Community Theater, that’s a mystery she would like to solve.

“Part of the value of this is the studio that painted it, but we’re trying to figure out if we can find a local Iowa connection of the theater or town it came from,” she said.

The canvas itself is 15-feet-by-23 1/2-feet and features green curtains, gold leaves and a scene of three cows in a pond with a person carrying bags toward homes in the background. Toomey and Volland had an office in Cedar Rapids, which causes Nelson to think the canvas was for a small-town theater in the area.

She said that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, small theaters were being torn down to make way for bigger movie theaters. Washington’s Fox theater met this same fate.

Her best guess is that the drop was in one of those theaters and moved to Washington for safekeeping. She said the dimensions are not correct for it to be from the Washington theater or the Ainsworth Opera House.

Nelson is hoping to solve the mystery of where the drop came from because preserving state history, local history and theater history is important to her.

“So much has been lost from this era, especially in theater, that I want to stop losing more,” she said. “I’m just really hoping that the readers ... will either know where it came from or maybe have some lead.”

Anyone with information regarding the drop is encouraged to call Cat Nelson at the Washington Community Center at 319-653-5175.