Curtain Call

Many of the rural opera houses that once covered Nebraska are gone, but their painted curtains are often still around. Our Ford Conservation Center recently restored the curtain that decorated the Kearney Opera house for nearly 20 years.

Sometimes the paintings lab receives unusual projects.  Several inquiries have come to the Ford Center to have treatments done to painted decorative curtains from opera houses.  Although many opera houses in rural Nebraskan towns are no longer extant, their painted stage curtains, formerly displayed before the shows, were retained, rolled and stored.  Lamentably, these are often the only material evidence of the once-thriving opera house.  Filled with vivid and bold signage and contact information from local businesses surrounding a small fanciful landscape, they served as advertisements while the audience waited for the show to begin.

The Kearny Opera House curtain before treatment.

The 1935 Kearney Opera House Curtain before treatment at the Ford Center.

The 82-year old Kearney Opera House curtain was displayed across the stage of the Kearney Opera House from 1935 until the build was demolished in 1954.  It is currently in the collection of the Trails and Rails Museum, which preserves the history of Buffalo County, NE.

The 23 x 28-foot curtain is painted on cotton canvas with water-based medium paint.  It had suffered from tearing, water drip damages resulting in vertical linear losses of pigment and distracting tidelines, and overall darkening from dirt and dust accumulation.  The goal of this treatment was to stabilize the torn areas, clean the curtain’s painted surface overall, and locally retouch the areas of affected pigment from the water damage. The sensitivity of the paint to solvents, including any water-based cleaning solutions, required that all cleaning had to be done with soft brushing and vacuuming.

In addition to the problems readily seen from the front side, the painting also suffered from the bleed-through image of two large spoked wheels from a crude painting of a wagon that was added at a later date on the reverse side. Oils from the medium of this painting had stained through the canvas.

Paintings Conservator Kenneth Be cleans the front of the curtain where the spoked wheel painted on the back has bled through.

Ford Center Conservator Kenneth Bé cleans the front of the curtain where paint from the backside has bled through.

The project coincided with a history department class at the University of Nebraska Kearney, Community History and Preservation, taught by assistant history professor Jinny Thurman. Students participated in the project, after being supervised and trained. They assisted principally with the cleaning of the curtain requiring delicate brushing of the surface with soft brushes to loosen the dust and dirt which, while briefly airborne, was vacuumed with the Nilfisk HEPA-vacuum cleaner nozzles held above the curtain surface.  All the work was done with the curtain lying face-up on the floor.  Archival cardboard sheets with overlaid quilts were placed beside the work areas to kneel on and were safe to lay over the painted curtain’s surface.

Tears were mended with polyester cloth adhered with heat-set Beva adhesive film.

The retouching was done with pulverized pastel colors blended dry with a soft retouching brush and applied until color-matched over the areas of paint loss.

A University of Nebraska at Kearny student sits in the middle of the curtain and vacuums the surface.

A University of Nebraska Kearney, Community History and Preservation student carefully vacuums the opera curtain.

The project was especially rewarding because it made available for exhibition an important local artifact of the town’s history while giving the university history students an opportunity to participate in a hands-on preservation project.  Even as the treatment was in progress, another part of the class was involved in tracking down archival information of the businesses to learn more about Kearney’s past history.

Kearny Opera House Curtain after treatment

The Kearney Opera House Curtain after treatment.​

Note:  A few months later, a similar but smaller opera house curtain, this one from Wilber, NE was delivered for treatment at the Ford Conservation Center.  We hope to feature its treatment in a future blog post.

– Kenneth Bé, paintings conservator

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