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It’s Curtains for the Tabernacle

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 07, 2010

For decades, the Tabernacle on Temple Square was the largest indoor seating space in Utah. Consequently, it was used for many kinds of civic and cultural gatherings – concerts, patriotic gatherings (like the “campfires” of the Grand Army of the Republic when the 1909 national gathering was held in Salt Lake City), speeches by visiting celebrities and dignitaries. Especially after the Salt Lake Theater was torn down in 1928, the Tabernacle was the site of pageants and dramatic presentations.

Speakers could stand at the same podium used by General Conference speakers, of course. Other performers, especially group performers, could be accommodated by covering the fixed seats on the stand with movable platforms, and even extending those platforms into the space between the stand and the congregational seats. It’s a system still in place in the Tabernacle today; similarly, the space in the Conference Center can be endlessly adapted by removing or rearranging seats and by installing platforms in any dimension.

Some presentations need more than a surface for standing, though. Some dramatic performances, especially, need the drama and mystery of curtains to conceal and reveal at suitable moments. But how do you hang curtains in a space as large as the Tabernacle, when there aren’t columns and posts to attach crossbars to? You don’t exactly want to pound a lot of nails into the antique plaster of the ceiling, either!

Designers solved the problem, sort of, by erecting huge, temporary frameworks from which heavy curtains could be hung. It wasn’t a perfect solution: curtains could only be pulled aside, not raised dramatically; the framework was heavy and cumbersome and could not be torn down and reinstalled easily – once it was up, it stayed up until an event was over, regardless of other uses of the Tabernacle; and it wasn’t particularly attractive to have the curtain assembly sitting in the front of an arched space – like a square peg in a round hole, there were gaps above and around the curtain; you could even see the tops of the tallest organ pipes, unless they were draped, which posed another aesthetic problem. But even though it wasn’t ideal, it was workable, as you can see in this cast photograph of a 1930 pageant celebrating the centennial of the Church’s organization.

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Artistic-minded event organizers longed for something better. Eventually, it was the Relief Society general board who decided to solve the problem as elegantly and permanently as possible. The Relief Society planned a major event – another pageant – to mark its own centennial in 1942, and for several years they planned and worked and budgeted.

They wanted a curtain that exactly fit the rounded space of the tabernacle ceiling. They wanted a curtain – actually, a series of curtains – that was as adaptable to the needs of a production as the platforms were: they wanted to mask and reveal different size spaces. They wanted to minimize the necessity for painted backdrops, by utilizing a translucent back curtain onto which images could be projected from the rear. And the Church required that the Relief Society be able to take down the curtain in a reasonable time so that the Tabernacle could be used for routine gatherings without the inappropriate backdrop of a stage curtain. Most importantly, the Relief Society had to erect its curtain without damaging the historic building in the slightest, especially not by putting holes in the ceiling or installing any permanent suspension system.

They actually found a way to do that. There are reinforced holes throughout the Tabernacle ceiling, accessible from the interior of the roof by someone small enough and lithe enough to worm his way between the curved beams with their wooden pegs and rawhide ties. Those holes were originally used to suspend ropes for scaffolding to clean and repair the Tabernacle ceiling, and probably to suspend the greenery and the huge flag that sometimes draped from the ceiling. Engineers decided ropes or cables could again be passed through those holes – to be pulled up again and out of sight when the curtain was dismantled.

UPDATE: Photo supplied by Clark showing how difficult it would be to access those holes for dropping and retrieving the cables. Not only are the spaces tight, but you can see the plaster and lath of the top of the ceiling, which couldn’t bear your weight without risk of damage:

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Workmen could attach pipes to those ropes, pipes shaped to precisely fit the curve of the ceiling (which is more complex than you might imagine, since the curve is not a semicircle, but instead rises sharply at the sides and flattens out across the top). With those pipes fastened securely to the ceiling, a curtain – or an entire family of curtains – could be suspended to serve any dramatic need.

The Relief Society ordered its fabric – many hundreds of square yards of satin, sateen, and other types of cloth – in 1941. Had they not placed their order when they did, wartime rationing would have prevented the filling of such an order. But the fabric was received on schedule, and sewing of the curtains progressed, despite the looming war.

The main, front curtain was constructed of beige satin, wired so that it could be drawn up, silently, in seven festoons. Behind the main curtain, rows of other curtains, in tans and golds and light browns, all harmonizing with the woodwork and other tones in the building, satisfied any stage director’s needs. The whole assembly filled the east west end of the building, fitting snugly against the ceiling and against the balcony on either side, completely masking the organ and choir seats and all other permanent fittings of the building.

These drawings show the elaborate arrangement of curtains and masks, and a few of the adaptations of stage space that were possible:

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And here are a few actual photographs showing how the curtains looked in place:

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Unfortunately for the Relief Society, the entrance of the United States into World War II canceled their 1942 centennial observance, as well as virtually all other public gatherings in the tabernacle for “the duration of the emergency.” Nevertheless, Church authorities gave permission for the curtains to be installed on a trial basis. It took almost six weeks, in July and August of 1942, for R.L. Grosh & Sons Scenic Studios of Hollywood (who had also sewn the curtains) to install the system – an installation that was made easier by the fact that no other events were occurring in the Tabernacle – suggesting that the goal of rapid installation and removal had not quite been met. All other goals were achieved, though. The above three pictures were taken during that trial installation.

The war eventually ended, and the curtains were in fact used. Here’s a picture of a 1947 pioneer centennial pageant with the same festooning of the front curtain and scenery projected from behind the rear curtain.

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I do not know when the curtains were retired – records of events very seldom state anything like “and this is the last time the curtains will ever be used.” Rather, needs and fashions change, and materials that were suitable for one era slip quietly into oblivion.



17 Comments »

  1. Wow. I’m getting tired just reading about all the effort involved in that project. And to have all those excess human resources! I live in a ward where we are doubling up on callings — my husband and I each have two demanding callings and a lot of driving for church services and youth activities and early morning seminary and home and visiting teaching and the very occasional Relief Society meeting and stake events an hour or more away and let’s not even mention the all-day trip to the temple! — so everything in this post just screams luxury.

    [Yawn.]

    Comment by Researcher — December 7, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  2. Wow, leave it to the Relief Society to figure that out. In fact, isn’t that the mantra of Elders Quorums around the church? If you want it done well, assign it to the Relief Society.

    Yes, Researcher. They obviously had a great deal of time on their hands.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — December 7, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  3. I had not ever heard about such a thing, before. What a tremendous amount of work, though!

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 7, 2010 @ 10:38 am

  4. …accessible from the interior of the roof by someone small enough and lithe enough to worm his way between the curved beams with their wooden pegs and rawhide ties.

    Since I don’t know how to post a picture, I just emailed Ardis a picture to illustrate how difficult this would actually be.

    [Picture added to OP -- thanks, Clark!]

    Comment by Clark — December 7, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  5. The photo with all the curtains set up, curtain after curtain after curtain, is rather striking. It looks like a nice piece of work.

    Some of the remarks about the need to preserve the historic structure made me stop to wonder how many decades it took to become historic. Was the Mormon Tabernacle already historic in 1930? Did the Salt Lake Temple take as long as the Tabernacle to achieve historic status? The role of such buildings as large, special, set apart spaces likely plays into it as much as age. Also, the tie to founding pioneer times. I had an office in this fine old building for a few years which, though much appreciated for all its beauty and charm, wasn’t treated as too precious to modify. My apartment at the time and the building it was in could have been sets in a James Cagney movie; a few years later the interior was gutted of the plaster and iron radiators and heavy wood window frames. In Baltimore, all the buildings felt historic to this Las Vegan.

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 7, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  6. LOL at the title. That curtain is so awesome.

    [Ben, your comments keep getting trapped, sorry. I'm glad somebody laughed at the title! -- AEP]

    Comment by Ben Pratt — December 7, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

  7. I hope you never tire of posting such interesting stuff, Ardis. Thanks – I always learn something new.

    Comment by reed russell — December 7, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

  8. I’m not sure how much extra work it was to do the Relief Society totally awesome version as opposed to the less aesthetic and minimally adequate version you show in the 1930 version. There is something to be said about doing it right the first time, so you don’t have to do it over again. Great find, thank you for sharing this.

    Comment by kevinf — December 7, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

  9. As a theater junkie, this was absolutely fascinating. What a clever solution! (And ditto to 7 — Keepa’ never fails to surprise.)

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — December 7, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  10. Thanks for all your great comments. Something like this is trivial in the great sweep of church history, but it still seemed worth memorializing — it’s a detail that belongs in the history of the Tabernacle, and Mormon drama, and engineering, and architecture, and World War II, and the Relief Society. And yeah, it must have been a lot of work — which may be an indication of how important those pageants were to the people who staged and watched them.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

  11. This is mind-boggling! I can’t believe all the work just to have the production cancelled. The pictures of the curtains definitely needed to be shown with the story.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — December 7, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  12. Ardis, I was wondering something a couple days ago, and you’re a likely person to have an answer. How often is the Mormon Tabernacle currently used for stake conferences? Are there stakes that always hold conference there? How about the other tabernacles that still function?

    Comment by John Mansfield — December 8, 2010 @ 5:35 am

  13. My own stake holds conference in the Tabernacle once a year (the other conference is held in a too-small building where a TV image of the podium is broadcast to monitors in the cultural hall and in another stake building, or else in the Conference Center for one of those biennial mega-stake conferences). We’re not the only stake that uses the Tabernacle for stake conferences, but I don’t know how many do meet there.

    When I lived in Provo 20 years ago, the Provo Tabernacle was our stake center, used for stake conferences. I think that’s true of all the surviving tabernacles that are still owned by the Church.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 8, 2010 @ 8:03 am

  14. Very cool. Thanks for this, and for the very cool photos. (I’d hate to be one of those guys crawling around the ceiling — my fear of heights combined with my claustrophobia would do me in!)

    Comment by Paul — December 8, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  15. One trivial typo–you typed “east” for “west” in the penultimate paragraph just before the first drawing.

    Unless, of course, the organ and choir and podium were on the east end of the Tabernacle back then. I suppose that those Relief Society ladies, unencumbered with pageants and early morning seminary and things, could have encircled the tabernacle, lifted where they stood, and rotated the whole building 180 degrees. : )

    Comment by Mark B. — December 8, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  16. Argh. Thanks. Will fix.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 8, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  17. The Tabernacle is a fascinating building that is much more complex than just what is visible in the main hall. Even before the recent renovation that made it earthquake proof, and which expanded the rehearsal space for the Tabernacle choir, it had a labyrinthine quality backstage that maybe had a lot to do with the era when church leaders would slip in and out in order to avoid arrest by the US Marshals.

    I went backstage a few times after Utah Symphony concerts when I was invited by Maurice Abravanel. We had met when I was a junior high school speech contest winner and he received a patriotic award at the same dinner. He invited me to give my speech at the intermission of the symphony’s 4th of July concert, which that year was held in the stadium of the University of Utah.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — December 8, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

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