At least two sets of scenery for McAlester Temples were created by late-19th century leading scene artist Thomas Gibbs Moses — who, during his 60-year career created backgrounds for major actors and producers including Joseph Jefferson, Madam Modjeska, and the Ringling Brothers.
In addition, Moses created scenery for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and painted and designed scenery for more than 55 Scottish Rite temples and seven Shrine Temples, 14 Knight Templar Commanderies, and nine Grottos.
Thomas Gibbs Moses was born in Liverpool, England, on July 21, 1856, the son of an American sea captain. In 1859, the Moses family moved west to Southern California after his father sold his interests in the shipping company. By the 1870s, Moses had moved to attend the Art Institute of Chicago and painted scenery in theaters and Masonic Temples. After traveling the country, he returned to Chicago and became president of a theatrical scenery business.
An 1880 excerpt from the diary of Thomas Gibbs Moses when he was hired at Sosman & Landis Studio:
“My career as a scenic artist starts from here. I was full of ambition and hustle. If I had been endowed with a like amount of ability, I would have set the world on fire. It was all hard work. My little knowledge of scene painting was a wonderful help. I studied and watched the scenery at the theatres, and was catching on very fast…Sosman and I had to travel a good deal as Mr. Landis was on the road all the time securing orders for advertising curtains, and I didn’t see him until I had been there nearly six months. As the business increased, we put on a paint boy. Then the artists began to drop around. They all wanted $35.00 or $45.00 per week and told me I could get that much in the theatres. I began to think I was worth more as I had proven that I was a hustler. My work might not have been as artistic as some I saw in the theatres, but it pleased the people who paid for it.”
The following excerpt is from the typed manuscript of Thomas Gibbs Moses and describes some of his projects for the World’s Fair:
“1-8-9-3 The big Fair progressing nicely and a world of work for us in sight. Ella and I got house fever again. We went to Oak Park. We found a number of good houses – one in particular that had only been built a year. Very fine wood-work, a large stable, driveway and a 60 x 178 foot. We bought it for $8,575.00 … We got settled May 1st. We were simply swamped with work and the prices were big. We had a great many exhibits to do at the Fair and many outside shows, as the Trocodevs, Empire Theatre and Isabella Theatre. Shows like ‘The Outsider,’ ‘Columbus’ for Mr. Leavitt. ‘Fabio Romana,’ ‘The Black Crook,’ ‘A Day in the Swiss Alps,’ ‘South Sea Islanders,’ ‘Kansas State Exhibit,’ ‘The Laplanders,’ ‘Streets of Cairo,’ Javanese Theatre, Chinese Theatre, a dozen big floats, “Lady of Venice” for Buffalo Bill, W.F. Cody and many others.”
McAlester Scottish Rite Masons date their history to 1901, their first meeting hall (located at Second Street and Washington Avenue) in 1904 and then the beginnings of what we now know as the McAlester Scottish Rite Masonic Center (located at Second and Adams Avenue). In 1906 the cornerstone was laid and in 1907 the new “Million-Dollar Temple” became a reality.
The 1907 Temple continued to be a work in progress and during a 1929 expansion the Valley of McAlester built the largest fraternal stage in the Nation, measuring 80 feet by 100 feet with 125-line sets. Ornamented in an Egyptian theme, this 1,000-seat auditorium includes a 60 foot by 60-foot proscenium arch. And the masterpiece collection of 112 drops (42 leg drops, 42 cut drops, and 28 backdrops which were the last fraternal stage design and scenic art produced by then 73-year-old Thomas Gibbs Moses. He died in 1932.
In 2009 an extensive two-year restoration projected was embarked upon to refurbish and preserve the then 80-year-old McAlester masterpieces. This work was led by Dr. Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett, of Minnesota, who not only is the country’s preeminent scenery restoration consultant and hands-on practitioner, but also a consummate historian and resource on everything related to Masonic Scenery in America.
Moses’ 1929 drops currently hanging in the McAlester Scottish Rite Masonic Center are actually the third set. Prior McAlester scenery from 1901 and 1907 can be found still in use in both Santa Fe, New Mexico and Salina, Kansas.