Saxtons River Theater Group Stages Show About Charles Henry And His Painted Curtains
Vermont’s historic painted curtains hang in town halls and granges all over the state, harkening back to a time when vaudeville and local theater were the main sources of entertainment in rural towns.
Now a Broadway playwright has developed a play that looks at one of Vermont’s most prolific painted curtain artists.
Charles Henry was an artist, playwright and actor. He traveled around Vermont in the early 1900s painting theater curtains and putting on shows in small towns across the state.
Saxtons River has eight Charles Henry curtains. Way back when, Henry performed in what used to be the Saxtons Rivers Odd Fellows lodge — today it is Main Street Arts.
When veteran Broadway actress and playwright Cass Morgan started learning about Henry, and about his connections to Saxtons River, she thought there might be the seeds of a theatrical production in his story.
“I became so intrigued with this idea. I didn’t know that Main Street Arts had all of these curtains and that there was a historical character connected to them,” Morgan said. “So I started looking into that and thought that it made the perfect subject for a show. And here we are.”
Morgan made her Broadway debut in the musical Hair in 1970 and she went on to co-write the show Pump Boys and Dinettes, which opened in 1982. About 15 years ago, Morgan moved up to Vermont to be near her daughter and grandkids.
It was after moving to the state that Morgan heard about Henry traveling through Vermont.
Henry would have not only his paints and theater sets, but his family also came along. They’d set up in a town and put on vaudeville shows, while Henry painted his theater curtains. Henry would auction the painting off at the end of the vaudeville performance.
Morgan said as she learned more about Henry, and what he was doing, she became convinced that there was a story here to tell.
“He invented himself. He was completely self-taught,” she said. “Nobody had ever done what he was doing. So I just looked at him as such an incredibly strong, adventurous, creative, imaginative, brave man. And that he involved his family in this. To me I found it very, very moving.”
Now Morgan’s play tells Henry's story, using music from the time to immerse the audience in a vaudeville performance.
"I found something at the kernel of it, very, very contemporary — this concept of having to let go. ... Letting go and understanding your relationship with your family, and what your legacy is and what you need to find its own place in the world. It's a universal story." — Cass Morgan, playwright
The playwright calls her work historical fiction: All of Henry’s family is in the play, and it’s set in 1915, the year Henry gave up the road and settled in central Vermont. America is about to enter World War I, and in Vermont Henry’s brand of vaudeville entertainment is fading, as radio and the movies get more popular.
So the play’s title,Charles Henry’s Final Curtain, is a nod toward legacy and art and making tough decisions that are sometimes put upon us by outside forces.
“Charles Henry does represent a point in our, not only theatrical history, but just political history, and everything in our country,” Morgan said. “And I found something at the kernel of it, very, very contemporary — this concept of having to let go. ... Letting go and understanding your relationship with your family, and what your legacy is and what you need to let find its own place in the world. It’s a universal story.”
Charles Henry retired to Vergennes in 1915 where he died three years later. And now in 2018, Charles Henry’s Final Curtain opens Nov. 9 at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River.