Raising the curtain on the Garde's history

Jan. 14—The painted scene at the Garde Arts Center doesn't look like New London, just a generic cityscape. But on every building is the name of a local business from nearly a century ago.

An odd sight for modern eyes, this view, set on a large canvas stage curtain, was once a regular part of the Garde experience. Today it's an artifact, water-stained but vivid, that has survived decades at the old theater.

At first glance, the curtain, 46 feet wide by 23 feet high, looks like a backdrop from the vaudeville era. But it's a slightly later relic from the early days of the movies, according to Martin Vinik, a performing arts consultant who has worked with historic theaters, including the Garde.

Known as either an olio drop or an ad drop, the curtain was a way to sell advertising for an audience that had nothing else to look at before the movie started, he said.

It's been at the Garde all along but was recently dusted off and rehung after three decades in storage. Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director, said it was brought out for a special event in August: a celebration after the Garde won the 2022 Outstanding Historic Theatre Award from the League of Historic American Theatres.

The drop was appropriate for the occasion, and it embodies plenty of history on its own: the Garde's and New London's, and more broadly, that of American theaters.

— — *

Though it means "oil" in Italian, the theatrical origins of the word "olio" are obscure. But its 19th century use points to how stage curtains like the Garde's came to be.

Olios were small acts that performed toward the front of a stage between major scenes of a play, Vinik said. Their purpose was to give the stars a breather and allow time for scenery changes. The acts appeared in front of a curtain that concealed the rearranging going on behind.

When music hall and vaudeville performers adopted the practice, "olio" came to refer to the curtain as well as the acts, he said. Olios bore generic painted scenes, and many were so attractive that theaters left the main curtain open to display them for entering patrons.

Eventually, theater operators came up with the idea of shrinking the painting and surrounding it with advertising.

"More cold-hearted managers did away with the beautiful image altogether and just painted ads on the whole thing," Vinik wrote in an email.

By then, the curtains were no longer concealing scene changes, and thus did the olio drop become the ad drop, purely a revenue generator. That was more practical for movies, which were supplanting live entertainment. Movies had set starting times, while vaudeville shows ran continuously with no chance to show advertising, Vinik said.

The extra revenue was important because, like profits from food and beverage concessions, it didn't have to be shared with movie studios.

By imposing booking restrictions or securing operating rights to theaters, studios asserted a degree of control that ensured their movies were widely seen, Vinik said. That meant they ended up with the lion's share of money from ticket sales.

In many cases the studios even owned the theaters.

When the Garde opened in 1926, it offered both vaudeville, which was fading, and movies, the entertainment of the future.

Built as part of a small chain, the theater changed hands several times in its first few years. In 1929 it was sold to Warner Brothers, one of the major Hollywood studios, which were expanding into theater ownership. By then silent movies were quickly being replaced by the "talkies," which further hastened the end of vaudeville.

At some point in this period, the Garde installed its ad drop, which greeted moviegoers when they sat down to await the show.

What they saw was a streetscape of unfamiliar buildings in a large, imagined city. Ads for New London businesses adorned every wall as well as billboards on the roofs. Vinik said that as ad drops go, it's well-painted with a good sense of perspective.

"Somebody put some effort into making those ads look good," he said, noting that surviving ad drops are neither common nor rare today.

The work is unsigned, as was typical, but it may have come from Long Acre Studios, a New York City outfit that was one of many providing theaters with painted scenery, he said. The studio's name is printed on the back of the curtain.

Vinik believes it's likely the drop was in use before the Garde was sold to Warner Brothers. The local operators who preceded the sale would have been more inclined to want good relations with the community, he said.

Some of the ads indicate it was used well into the 1930s. By then, theaters were figuring out they could show audiences ads in a way that's still in use today: by projecting slides onto the movie screen.

Once that practice became widespread, the days of the ad drop were over.

A time capsule of New London's 1920s business scene, the curtain includes ads from a few longtime companies whose names are familiar to recent residents, including Yellow Cab, Creem Automotive and Shalett's Cleaning & Dyeing.

Others, like Edward L. Benson Ignition Supplies or P.G. Mono & Co. Plumbing, are less likely to ring a bell.

New London city directories, annually published listings of residents and businesses, show that most of the advertisers predated the Garde, which means the curtain could have been around from the theater's beginning.

A few opened in the '30s, including Mumford Dairies at 629 Montauk Ave., which later became Michael's, still a favored ice cream destination today.

Ad panels were replaced as different companies advertised, Vinik said. As the curtain has aged, some have fallen away, revealing older ones beneath. In one case that's created something curious.

At the lower left of the scene is an ad for the Schwartz Furniture Co. Below the name is an image of a dancing couple surrounded by slogans that don't sound like they come from a furniture store: "Quality food and service," "Breakfast, lunch, dinner" and "Dining, dancing evenings."

As it turns out, most of the ad is for the Den Restaurant, but the name of the place has fallen off, leaving the name of the furniture store, whose ad apparently occupied the spot first. The Den, at 731 Bank St., is the newest business on the curtain, first appearing in the 1935 directory.

Wesley Reilly, the Garde's technical director, said the panels were attached with milk glue, and a few were hanging by a thread when the curtain came out of storage.

Two ads are for companies whose owner had an odd role in the Garde's creation. Sidney M. Sulman owned both the Sidney Manufacturing Co. on Shapley Street, a mattress and furniture store, and the Commercial Garage on Church Street, a parking facility about where the Holiday Inn is now.

When the block where the Garde sits was developed, Sulman built another garage there. But as soon as it was finished, Walter S. Garde, who launched plans for the theater that bears his name, bought it and tore it down because he needed the land, which was about where the stage is now.

Sulman's ads later were shown on the spot where his short-lived garage had been.

Even before the ad drop was put away, it evoked the Garde's past when it was occasionally displayed.

In 1979 officials of the theater's then-new owners, Oxoboxo Enterprises of Montville, posed in front of it to celebrate a completed renovation project. In 1990, awed members of a theatrical historical society passed in front of it while on a tour.

Last July, shortly after Reilly came to the Garde, he attended a conference in Cleveland that included a similar tour of historic theaters. When he saw an old olio curtain and remarked to Sigel how beautiful he thought it was, Sigel told him the Garde had something similar.

"And that put me on the hunt," he said.

When he got back from Cleveland, Reilly rummaged around in several storefronts the theater uses for storage.

"And I found it buried under a bunch of junk all rolled up against the wall," he said.

Now hanging above the stage along with the movie screen and a fireproof curtain, the ad drop will again be shown for tours, and Reilly hopes funds can be raised to restore it.

Sigel said it may also serve as a backdrop for certain events, including solo acts.

"It's good for comedy because you can play off of it," he said.

Years ago, Sigel used the curtain for a performance by comedian Paula Poundstone.

"She thought it was a hoot," he said.