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Historical Mystery: The Wing and Shutter System in the United States: Long-forgotten theatre machinery system lingered in theatres well past the early 20th century.

The wing and shutter system was ubiquitous in the United States and Canada in the 19th century, and its use lasted until the early years of the 20th century. Studies suggest that these systems fell out of use early in the history of the United States, but a survey of theatrical guides, product catalogs, and, most importantly, theatres around the country such as the Steyer Opera House in Decorah, Iowa, and the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana, contradict this conventional wisdom. These systems permitted quick scenic changes in smaller theatres that lacked the space or capital to invest in counterweight rigging systems. Such theatres can provide a wealth of historical information for contemporary practitioners.

While the wing and shutter system was well known in the United Kingdom and on the European Continent, its use in North America is not widely acknowledged. In his 1954 doctoral thesis The Development of Stage Rigging in the United States (1766-1893), John Green wrote that the "theatres of America, from 1766 to 1794, were dependent upon wings and shutters, which were supported and changed by the English 'groove' system and were manually operated upon a raked stage." The wing and shutter system, he wrote, was replaced in the Unites States by pole and chariot, and ultimately by "the modem iron counterweight systems of Stage Rigging."

We are led to infer that the wing and shutter system ceased to be used sometime shortly after 1794. Evidence, however, suggests that the wing and shutter system dominated on many stages until the beginning of the 20th century. While it appears that Green was mistaken, in fairness to him, he admits that his study was of "more prominent" theatres in the United States. For the more prominent theatres, he may have been right, but extant evidence suggests the presence and use of wing and shutter systems in smaller theatres around the country for more than another century.

Simple, Affordable Solution

A wing and shutter system comprised flats that were used at the sides of the stage and upstage. The flats were guided in grooves at the floor and at the top. The grooves were parallel to the plaster line. The side flats, called "wings," were the side scenic pieces that masked the sides of the stage, much as drapery legs do today. The acting area of the stage, often 24' to 30' wide, was between the inside edges of the pairs of wings. The upstage flats, called "shutters," were identical to the wings in all ways except one; they were wide enough that they could meet at center stage to form a background. The acting area was downstage of the shutters.

The other popular system in use during the period under consideration was the chariot and pole system, which was the mode of scene change in Europe and England from the mid-1600s until the early 20th century. This costly system was used in the court theatres and opera houses. These facilities were showplaces of power and influence, so the significant cost of the chariots and poles was endurable. However, in commercial and community theatres, the investment in a chariot and pole could not be justified, so the simpler "wing and shutter" system was most popular.

In addition to being less expensive in and of itself, the wing and shutter system allowed theatres without expensive fly towers to have relatively robust scenic designs. Many of the opera houses in the United States were on the second and third floors of buildings, so they could not accommodate a fly tower, as we know it today. Without fly towers, these theatres' "lofts" would accommodate limited vertical movement, perhaps as little as 3' to 8', which is not enough to fly out a drop. The wing and shutter system was a very suitable technology for these buildings.

The Half Mortise Flat Sheave

This discussion is partly about historical technology and partly about the unpredictability of research paths. Sometimes, materials that puzzle historians for years suddenly get clarified at completely unexpected times, as happened when a curious item in a catalog happened to be visible in a video.

While researching counterweight rigging in the J.R. Clancy catalogues, I noticed a peculiar device called a "half mortise flat sheave." I did not understand the use of this product, especially given the vertical orientation of the device as presented on the page of the catalogue. I contemplated its possible use in counterweight rigging, but determined that it was not relevant. For counterweight rigging, we use a grooved sheave. Despite being represented by a drawing rather than by a photograph, a reader could see that this sheave did not have a groove. It had a flat edge. This was not used for rope, not used for rigging, and was not of interest for the purpose of my counterweight rigging research. But, it stuck in the back of my mind.

Later, while at the 2016 USITT conference in St. Louis, Wendy Waszut-Barrett of Bella Scena in Minneapolis showed a video to a couple of us over breakfast one day. The 1989 video was taken in the Steyer Opera House in Decorah, Iowa. The video came to Waszut-Barrett via Paul Sannerud. Paul and Peggy Sannerud were participants in that video, which was written, directed, and produced by George D. Glenn.

At the time, Glenn was professor of theatre at the University of Northern Iowa. The Steyer Opera House in Decorah was built in 1870. The Steyer Opera House still stands today. The theatre has been completely renovated and updated and now serves as an event center as part of the Winneshiek Hotel and Restaurant.

The Glenn video was interesting. The people in the video were professors and students from the University of Northern Iowa. They had rediscovered this old opera house and received permission to restore aspects of it. The end result of their restorations was a working wing and shutter system with a number of sets of flats. At the end of the video, they were seen changing the sets as would have been done in the 19th century. The video is available on YouTube:

There were 3 seconds in the video that particularly caught my eye. There, fixed to the bottom of a couple of the flats, were some "half mortise flat sheaves" right out of the Clancy catalogue. Although the device did have sheaves with flat edges, the name didn't refer to the type of edging on the sheaves, as I had thought. Instead, the name meant that they were sheaves for flats. The flat sheaves were fixed to the bottom of the flats and facilitated rolling of the flats on and off stage.

The peculiar item in the catalog suddenly made sense. And, we wondered after viewing the video and knowing now that Clancy sold a device intended for use in wing and shutter systems: What was the possibility that the Steyer Opera House had the only wing and shutter system in the United States? Not likely. Further research revealed that the Sosman & Landis catalogue of 1889 offered the same component, calling it a "half mortise sheave for flats." Now, with certainty, we could see that the "half mortise flat sheave" is a device used to roll flats on and off stage.

This detail lead to a new research question: How long were these devices offered to the theatre industry? Thanks to J.R. Clancy and USITT, we have access to online digital copies of the Clancy catalogues from 1886 to the late 20th century. The flat sheaves are found in the first catalogue of 1886 and appear in every catalogue until 1961--a span of 75 years. This longevity suggests the item must have been an important product to Clancy, and, one might deduce, for the theatre world.

The search for evidence to see what theatres might have had wing and shutter systems next led to Harry Miner's American Dramatic Directory. The Miner directory was the source book for planning theatrical tours in 19th century North America. A digital copy of the 1884-85 edition is available online. In it are listed thousands of theatres and opera houses in every state of the U.S. and in Canada, including the Steyer Opera House.

The listing for the Steyer is rather cursory, including the name of the opera house, rental rate, size of the stage, and "full set scenery," etc. But, a glance down the same page shows listings for the Dubuque and Foster's Opera Houses. These listings had more comprehensive information including "height from stage to grooves." A skim through the directory reveals that "height from stage to grooves" was often provided. Theatre after theatre had grooves for a wing and shutter system. But the Steyer listing did not mention grooves, and yet there were grooves. Might the grooves have been installed after? Maybe. But the "full set scenery" detail is included in 1884, so it stands to reason that the grooves would have been installed. Without a fly loft in the Steyer, as evidenced by the video, any scenery necessarily would have been flats with the addition of minor upper scenery. This conundrum raises the question: How many more theatres in fact had grooves despite this detail being left out of the Miner listings? There is no knowing. At this point, the information at hand reveals the following details about wing and shutter systems:

1. The wing and shutter system made its way to Decorah, Iowa, and many, many other places.

2. J.R. Clancy and Sosman & Landis sold at least one product that was used for the system.

3. J.R. Clancy included wing and shutter systems in its catalogue for 76 years.

4. Harry Miner thought it important enough to note "height of grooves" in his directory.

Is this enough information to surmise that the wing and shutter system was ubiquitous in North America, that it had its day, and that it fell out of fashion, became unused, and was then discarded? Certainly, it seems, history had forgotten about it.

Further Evidence

Shortly after I wrote the above portion of this article in April 2016, out of the blue, in May, Aubrey Jones of Columbus, Indiana, sent me 65 images of the stage house of the Crump Theatre via email. He stumbled upon these images that he had taken and thought that I might find them of interest.

Built in 1889, the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana, still stands, but it has been closed for a number of years, and social memory is only of the Crump as a cinema. In his book about the Crump Theatre, David Sechrest quotes a newspaper review of the opening night in which the reviewer comments on how the machinery worked so quietly. For those of us who have operated hemp rigging, which is what was installed in the Crump, this point was confusing. Of course, it operated quietly; hemp systems do. Charles S. King, stage machinist of Sosman & Landis, installed the Crump system, and thus a new research question arose: Is it possible that King didn't just install a hemp rigging system, but also installed a wing and shutter system?

In the batch of Jones' images were a handful that showed the frame of a flat in storage on the fly gallery. There was no muslin; it was just the frame. It didn't look like much, but I was able to see the stiles and the bottom, top, and mid rails. The shoes, which attach the mid-rail to the stiles, are most evident but are uppermost on the frame. This means that the flat was on its side. This was a fortunate orientation, as it made the bottom rail clearly visible. And thanks to the excellent resolution of the image, one is able to zoom in on the bottom rail where one can clearly see a "flat sheave."

Another crucial data point can be found in Julius Cahn's directory of theatres, which is similar to that of Harry Miner. The 1903-04 Cahn directory lists the Crump Theatre and indicates grooves. The wing and shutter system uses the flat sheave at the bottom, but the top must be guided within grooves, too. The grooves prevent the flats from falling over and were generally attached to the onstage face of the fly galleries at a height to match the height of the tops of the flats. Sometimes the heights of the grooves were adjustable.

With this newfound knowledge, the opening night review of King's successful and quiet machinery makes sense. King is using Sosman & Landis "half mortise sheave for flats." What technology did other theatres in Columbus use that caused the scene changes to be so noisy? It is a research question that is yet to be answered. But, not only was a wing and shutter system at the Seyer, it apparently was also used at the Crump. And if one looks closely, the frame is almost as wide as it is tall. Since the grooves were to the underside of the fly gallery, they would have been at around 15 feet. And, it is 13 feet wide. This would make the flat in the image a shutter, rather than a wing.

Historical Journey

The wing and shutter system was installed in the Steyer Opera House and in the Crump Theatre. The theatrical guides by Julius Cahn and by Harry Miner both indicated grooves in many--even most--of the theatres listed. J.R. Clancy and Sosman & Landis Scenic Studios both supplied a key device for wing and shutter systems. And Clancy did it for decades. It is not hard to conclude that the wing and shutter system, by this evidence and more, was ubiquitous throughout the United States and Canada in the 19th century. Just as important as providing evidence to counter the accepted wisdom about these systems in the United States, I hope that this piece might convey some of the excitement that I feel when discovering knowledge that seems to have been lost. It is my hope that the excitement that I feel might ignite the interest of readers out there to embark on a historical journey. There is so much yet to uncover.

Rick Boychuk is a theatre technician and designer. He is also an inventor and owns the patentfor thefront-loading arbor and has a patent pending for an arbor trap, which is designed to prevent runaway line sets. He has discovered that new innovations for counterweight rigging find their foundation in the history of the technology. Boychuk continues to explore the spread of the counterweight rigging system in the United States in anticipation of releasing a second volume of Nobody Looks Up: The History of the Counterweight Rigging System: 1500 to 1925, the only book ever written to document the history of the counterweight rigging system. See: www. and

Works Cited

Cahn, Julius. 1903. Julius Cohn's Official Theatrical Guide 1903-1904. New York: Empire Publishing Company. juliuscahnsoffic00cahn

Clancy, J.R. J.R. Clancy catalogue archive.

Glenn, George D. 1989. Steyer's Opera House Decorah, Iowa.

Green, John H. 1954. The Development of Stage Rigging in the United States (1766-1893). Thesis University of Denver.

Miner, Harry. 1884. Harry Miner's American Dramatic Directory 1884-85. New York: Wolf and Palmer Dramatic Publishing Company. Harry_Miners_American_Dramatic_Directory_for_ the_Season_of_1884-85_1000809072

Sechrest, David. 2013. Columbus, Indiana's Historic Crump Theatre. Charleston: The History Press.

Steyer Opera House. See: venues/hotel-winneshiek-and-steyer-opera-house

Caption: (Opp PAGE TOP) This page from the 1960 J.R. Clancy catalog shows that half-mortise flat sheaves required for wing and shutter systems were still being sold well into the 20th century. Available from the USITT website at

Caption: A screen shot of the 'half mortise flat sheave' with vertical orientation in the J.R. Clancy catalogue of 1885-6. Available from the USITT website at

Caption: Whereas the Clancy catalogue offered "flat sheaves," the Sosman & Landis catalogue of 1889 offered "sheaves for flats." Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Caption: The listing for the Crump Theatre from Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide 1903-1904.

Caption: Above, listing of the Dubuque Opera House, Dubuque, Iowa. Below, listing of Foster's Opera House, Dubuque, Iowa. Notice the prominent mention of "grooves" in both. Image courtesy of Jack Miner's American Dramatic Directory 1884-85.

Caption: In the Crump Theatre looking toward stage left fly gallery, one can see the flat frame. By counting bricks--assuming standard sized bricks--the flat measures 15 feet horizontally in the image and approximately 13 feet vertically. The flat is on its side, as indicated by the mid rails with attachment shoes. Image courtesy of Aubrey Jones, Columbus, IN.

Caption: A close-up view of the flat frame looking at the bottom rail. One can plainly see the "sheave for flats." There is a second sheave at the other end of the rail. Image courtesy of Aubrey Jones, Columbus, IN.

Caption: The Crump Theatre: One can plainly see the mortise shoes of the mid rails indicating that the flat is, in fact, on its side. Image courtesy of Aubrey Jones, Columbus, IN.
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Author:Boychuk, R.W. "Rick"
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:1U4IA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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