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Enduring history of counterweight rigging: the 1920s Era Masonic theatres of Cincinnati and Detroit incorporated modern approaches, yet only one method endures.

The year 1926 was in the middle of the Roaring '20s. Freemasonry was vibrant and the Masonic Lodges had lots of money--so much so that in the northern jurisdiction, the Masonic Lodges invested in buildings of lavish size and scope. Among those lodges were Detroit and Cincinnati, each of which housed a Scottish Rite theater intended for ritual degree work.

Each theater was delivered with a counterweight rigging system. The original 1926 systems, referred to here as "Cincinnati" and "Detroit," remain to this day. Cincinnati was installed by Volland Studios of St. Louis, Missouri, and shared a tradition of counterweight rigging stretching back over 30 years to the installation at the Chicago Auditorium in 1889. Detroit came from Peter Clark Inc. of New York City, which, not influenced by Chicago, had its first counterweight rigging system installed in 1905 in the Metropolitan Opera House, a full 16 years later.

As so often seems to happen, late adopters have the advantage of better technologies and more current thinking and the benefits of the learning curve of the early adopters. The early adopters, on the other hand, having pioneered a technology, hold onto the old methods, leaving it to the late adopters to forge new paths. This appears to have happened in 1926.

While both theaters have what can be called modern counterweight rigging systems, many of the technologies of Cincinnati have been relegated to history, while Detroit's technologies and methods have endured.


After counterweight rigging was first introduced to the United States in the Chicago Auditorium in 1889, it was adopted by the Chicago scenic studios and installed into masonic theaters as early as 1904. The growth of masonic theaters resulted in the adoption of the technology of counterweight rigging by scenic studios throughout the Midwest, including by Volland Studios.

Adoption of the technology in the Northeast occurred sometime later. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City had a counterweight rigging system installed in 1905. Karl Lautenschlager of the Munich Court Theatre was brought over as stage machinist to oversee the project.

It's important to note that before the 1920s, stage machinery was designed by a stage machinist, who also was responsible for overseeing the installation and was most often an employee of the theatre responsible for ongoing use of the machinery. He would have an idea of what he wanted the machinery to be and how he would use it. In the days of wooden machinery, he might actually build it all. With the introduction of metal parts, and ultimately full metal construction, he would job out the fabrication of parts to various vendors.

Volland Studios began its life as Noxon & Toomey in 1869 as a scenic studio, and in 1902 became Toomey & Volland. Although the studio was taken over by the Volland family in the mid 1920s, it wasn't renamed Volland Studios until the mid 1960s. The company operated until the end of the 20th century. At the moment, the historic record does not indicate whether Volland made its own counterweight rigging hardware or installed systems purchased elsewhere (see Cincinnati 1 image). However, it is most likely that Volland assembled its system from a combination of parts of its own manufacture, parts that were jobbed out, and parts sourced from other rigging manufacturers. The reasoning for this assumption is simple: At the time, the only dedicated manufacturers of stage counterweight rigging systems were J. R. Clancy Inc. of Syracuse, New York, and J.H. Channon Company of Chicago. The equipment delivered by Volland is not consistent with equipment offered by either company. The Clancy catalogues of the time show the dissimilarities between the Clancy and the Volland products. And, Channon had already migrated to head blocks and loft blocks with side plates of iron as early as 1911. The Volland block sets delivered to the Cincinnati Scottish Rite lacked iron side plates, so it's reasonable to expect that Volland assembled its rigging system.

Between 1907 and his death in 1934 at the age of 56, Peter Clark became an internationally known stage and screen designer. Florenz Ziefeld, Earl Carroll, and Sam Harris are among the producers for whom he and his staff created magnificent staging illusions. His obituary in the Great Neck News (August 1934), which is reproduced on the American Society for Mechanical Engineers website, highlights his history: "Perhaps his most widely known invention was the hydraulic lift for elevating theater orchestras or organ consoles to varying levels of a stage. Mr. Clark also perfected the elaborate system of counterweights used in all new theaters, which have scene-shifting problems. His counterweights banished the clumsy backstage sandbags. Mr. Clark was born in New York on March 10, 1878. He attended public school and later took a job in the iron works of his father, Joseph Clark. He went to Cooper Union for a course in mechanical engineering. Having learned the iron business thoroughly, Mr. Clark and Hugh Laverly formed the stage construction and equipment firm of Clark & Laverly in 1905. Four years later Mr. Clark bought his partner out and renamed the firm Peter Clark, Inc." (see Detroit 1 and 2 images).

By 1931, Clark's company had completed more than 85 installations. While the majority were Broadway theaters, Peter Clark Inc. worked from Los Angeles to Seattle and New Orleans to Chicago, and cities in between. Along with the commercial theaters, Clark installed the counterweight rigging systems in Masonic theaters, including Detroit. After Clark's death, the company was taken over by the Lamson Company. Trace of this company has not been found, so it's unknown what Lamson did with Clark's technology.

Clark, with a background in his father's iron works, seems to have departed from the historical business model, bringing design, fabrication, and integration all under one roof that was not that of the theater itself. Clark's business model was novel, very American, and is the most common for the procurement of stage machinery in North America to this day.


Although both theaters have fly towers with walking grids, Cincinnati and Detroit are different in profound ways. The differences show the heritage of each.

Cincinnati shows the heritage of the hemp rigging fly tower, initially adopted by Sosman and Landis Scenic Studios of Chicago for its early counterweight rigging systems. These were copied by Volland, but by 1926, Volland was installing its rigging onto iron grids rather than wooden grids. This was the case in Cincinnati.

Detroit shows a hybrid of the hemp rigging fly tower with the Central European machine grid. The hemp lineage showing the grid mounting of loft blocks and the elevated head steel coming from Lautenschlager's Central European tradition. This grid, too, was made of iron.

Cincinnati has the head steel--upon which the head blocks are placed--and the loft steel--upon which the loft blocks are placed--integrated into the grid all at the same level (see Cincinnati 2 image). This is consistent with the evolution of the American grid, which was first applied to hemp rigging technology. This grid is evident in 1880s theaters like the Crump in Columbus, Indiana, and the Texan in Greensville, Texas.

Cincinnati has head steel of two channels with flanges turned away from each other with spacing between the channels. The spacing is wide enough to accommodate the ascending loft and purchase lines, and the descending purchase line. True to its heritage, Cincinnati, does not have a loading gallery; the loading gallery is not a feature found in the fly tower of a hemp rigging system.

Cincinnati has grid wells to accommodate the grid mounted loft blocks. Grid wells are similar to the head steel described above, but using a lighter channel. They were a later development for a hemp grid. Grid wells are not found in theaters from the 1880s in North America, but are well established by 1910.

Detroit also had special head steel in the form of two channels, but, unlike Cincinnati, the channels had the flanges turned toward each other with appropriate spacing to accommodate the lines. But the channels were not at the same height. The onstage channel was approximately 16 inches higher than the offstage channel. And, very important, the head steel was separate from the walking grid; not integrated into it. Whereas, Cincinnati bears more resemblance to the early American grids of the hemp tradition, Detroit shows the influences of the European grid.


Cincinnati and Detroit both used rod arbors. Although all but absent in Europe, the rod arbor has been the most common arbor found in North America from the 20th century to today.

The rod arbor has two rods which form a frame that holds the bricks in a compact package that interfaces with the guide path. In addition, the rods also serve as part of the load path.

The rod arbor first appeared in the 1905 J.R. Clancy catalogue. Clancy had introduced the rod arbor for use with its quick release fire safety curtain system, which was developed in response to the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago in 1903. The original Clancy rod arbor was to be installed individually on to the upstage face of the proscenium wall to be guided by a lattice track. In subsequent catalogues, the rod arbor was offered for use with an act curtain or two, but all still located at the proscenium wall to be used in limited quantities.

The arbors of Cincinnati and Detroit, although different in many other details, are rod arbors likely inspired by the Clancy arbors. However, they are located against a side wall, not on the proscenium wall, as were the original Clancy arbors. The top of the Cincinnati arbor is part of the load path (see Cincinnati 3). The top is bolted to the rods and has separate eyes, which are directed upward to accommodate the loft lines and operating line. Simply put, the loft lines are attached to the arbor top, which is attached to the rods.

The Detroit arbor is remarkable in a number of ways, including the way it is structured. The arbor top, the back bone, and the arbor bottom are all of one formed length of flat iron roughly in the shape of a "G" (see Detroit 1 and 4 images). The top and the bottom of the arbor have holes to accommodate the rods. The back bone is not part of the load path, but it is part of the guide path. Even the top of the Detroit arbor is not part of the load path; it simply connects the two rods to each other and serves as an attachment point for the operating line. The rods have large eyes wrought into their tops. (Note: Four main methods to fashion as metal part were: cast, forged, wrought, and formed. Wrought means "worked," generally by hand. Wrought and forged are similar and in many instances identical.) Simply put, the loft lines are attached directly to the rods.


Cincinnati and Detroit use different guide systems: Cincinnati uses a wire guide system and Detroit uses a rear-guide "T" bar wall.

The wire guide had been developed in the Midwest and dominated arbor guiding from the first appearance of the American counterweight rigging system until WWI (see Cincinnati 3 image). The Chicago Auditorium, which was the source of counterweight technology for the Midwest scenic studios, used a side guide system. However, the side guide system did not suit the needs of the scenic studios, where scenic drops were the core product of the studios. A technology that allowed the sale of scenic drops was required, and the counterweight rigging system allowed for that, but the studios needed a more compact guide system than a side guide. This requirement motivated the development of the wire guide method, making the wire guide arbor an American invention.

The Detroit guide wall is similar, if not identical, to the guide wall of the Germans of the late 19th century (see Detroit 4 and 5 images). The MET system was rear guided. Drawings in Modern Opera Houses and Theatres by Edwin O. Sachs, 1897, clearly show rear-guided arbors of Austrian, German, and British design. Clark was not motivated by the high density sought by the scenic studios of the Midwest; nevertheless, he, too, delivered high-density systems with line sets on four-inch centers-in his case, likely motivated by Broadway.


Today, we might operate a counterweight rigging system from the deck or from an elevated gallery. Cincinnati operates from an elevated gallery and Detroit operates from the deck, but both are single purchase systems.

Cincinnati does not allow for the batten to be lowered to the stage. However, lowering the batten to the stage was not necessary for a Scottish Rite theater. The drops would be installed when the system was installed and would remain there indefinitely. Moving the drop from working trim to the grid would be all that was required--thus, the viability of an elevated fly floor with a single purchase system. (Read more in Nobody Looks Up: The History of the Counterweight Rigging System: 1500 to 1925.)

Clark's company, on the other hand, had a theatrical foundation based on the requirements of Broadway; all battens had to come to the deck. After all, shows came and went and drops were changed out.

Although Volland drew inspiration largely from Sosman and Landis of Chicago, it made one major departure from its forebears by the time it delivered Cincinnati. Sosman and Landis, an early adopter of counterweight technology, had developed a system in which the arbors were between the flyman and the stage. They persisted in this configuration from 1904 until at least 1926 when they delivered the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas. Volland, in that same year (or earlier), moved the arbors to the offstage side of the gallery in Cincinnati. One might wonder why Volland moved the arbor wall to the offstage wall yet did not move the tension blocks to the deck to allow full travel. It may remain one of those mysteries of system evolution.


Generally, locking rail, rope lock, and tension block would be reviewed independently. However, the design of the Cincinnati system suggests reviewing these together. The Cincinnati system integrates the various pieces found at the bottom of the line set into one assembly (see Cincinnati 4 image). Cincinnati integrated the rope lock, the lower arbor stop, the tension block, the wire guide termination points, and the index system into one unit. The Detroit system, on the other hand, separates the pieces and juxtaposes them to function (see Detroit 1 and 6 images).

Notable in both systems are the floating tension blocks-different approaches, to be sure, but both allowing for automatic tensioning requirements due to varying rope lengths caused by fluctuations in temperature and humidity. However, Clark's floating tension block will lock into position, while the Volland will not.

The two systems also differ in the method of fabrication of iron components. Volland employed cast components for its assemblies and Clark depended on formed metal components for most units, employing cast only when necessary. Cast components were prevalent in the Midwest and in the early catalogues of J. R. Clancy. Formed metal components were prevalent everywhere and in the later Clancy catalogues. Logic suggests that a lower cost yet suitable technology will prevail in the marketplace.


The basic configuration of the blocks sets in the two theaters is similar. Although (as mentioned earlier) Clark's grid was influenced by the European grid, both used American grids, and had head blocks and loft blocks. (Note: Today we refer to the block located above the operator as the head block. At the turn of the 20th century, a head block was specifically a tandem block for use in a hemp rigging system. A lead block was used in the head position for a main curtain. The term head block, as we use it today, does not appear in a Clancy catalogue until 1938. In this article, all are referred to as head blocks.)

From the beginning, the Austrians and Germans used a head block with a single sheave that had multiple grooves: a larger radius groove for the operating line and a number of grooves with smaller radii for the loft lines. Documents do not indicate what kind of head block Lautenschlager installed in the MET in 1905, but it is most likely that he installed the German configuration. The German configuration was definitely installed in the Chicago Auditorium. Some of the original head sheaves remain in place today.

The head blocks in both Cincinnati (See Cincinnati 2) and in Detroit (See Detroit 3) are of the German configuration. If Lautenschlager had used that configuration for the MET, it is easy to see how Clark came to use it. But the scenic studios in the Midwest, adapting the technology for their purposes, used the tandem head block. How did Volland come to use the German configuration in Cincinnati? Volland would have had to reach back to the Auditorium in Chicago, or to the MET in New York City. Another tidbit lost to history for the moment.

The head blocks share one other interesting feature: Some of the blocks house multiple sheaves for multiple line sets. Cincinnati has block assemblies with up to six sheaves for six line sets. Detroit is less ambitious with only two sheaves in most of its assemblies. This was not common in the United States. Clancy in the Northeast and Sosman & Landis in the Midwest only delivered systems with individual blocks. From where did both Clark and Volland get the notion of delivering multiple sheaves in a battery? This feature was not uncommon in German installations.

But this did not apply to the Detroit loft blocks. Although loft blocks in Cincinnati had shared housings (see Cincinnati 5), the loft blocks in Detroit were individual (see Detroit 7); none had shared housings.

The big difference between Cincinnati and Detroit is found in the housings--the frames of the blocks. Cincinnati head blocks and loft blocks have wooden frames. The side plates are wood. The spacers are wood. And the fixing to the grid well is wood. This is a definite throwback to the hemp tradition. On the other hand, the Detroit block sets were made of iron--frames, clips, sheaves. This is technology influenced by both the times and by the Central European tradition.


Counterweight rigging was first installed in the United States in the Midwest in 1889, and didn't appear in the Northeast until a full 16 years later. Ironically, as so often happens, the late adopters are able to incorporate new ideas into the older methods. This was the case with Clark. Peter Clark Inc. had a technology that has lived on. Today's counterweight rigging systems more resemble Clark's installation in Detroit than Volland's installation in Cincinnati. V

R. W. (Rick) Boychuk is the author of Nobody Looks Up: The History of the Counterweight Rigging System: 1500 to 1925. The work for this article represents the beginning of the next book, which will cover the history after 1925. All images are by the author (March 2015). The author wishes to thank Steve and Chris Genther of the Detroit Masonic Hall and Kyle Evans of the Cincinnati Masonic Center for allowing him to crawl up into the lofts and to learn.
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Author:Boychuk, R.W. "Rick"
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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