KEARNEY – For 19 years it hung in one of Kearney’s most iconic entertainment venues.
Tuesday it was spread out on the floor of the Trails and Rails Museum.
The Kearney Opera House curtain, one of the city’s cherished artifacts, is getting a makeover of sorts.
Known for the old-time advertising painted across its 28- by 23-foot canvas, the historic theater curtain will soon hang again thanks to a group of University of Nebraska at Kearney students, Buffalo County Historical Society and others.
Students in UNK’s Community History and Preservation Class this week are restoring the 82-year-old curtain, which graced the stage of the Kearney Opera House from 1935 until the building was demolished in 1954.
“This is one of the few remaining artifacts we have from that building, and we were all a little overwhelmed with the thought of cleaning this,” said Jinny Turman, UNK assistant professor of history. “It’s very fragile and sensitive, and we were all wide eyed at the prospect of this restoration.”
UNK students are working alongside restoration expert Kenneth Be of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Gerald Ford Conservation Center. Be taught them how to remove water spots and dust, as well as other restoration techniques and cleaning.
Before the hands-on cleaning started, students did a condition report, “working section by section in teams to document water damage, holes and other stress to the canvas,” said Turman.
In July 2017, the Trails and Rails Museum opened the first phase of its new Family History Center. One wall of the exhibition space is devoted to the permanent display of the opera house curtain, which will be hung once the current $660,000 capital campaign is finished and the second phase is complete, said Jennifer Murrish, executive director of the Buffalo County Historical Society and Trails & Rails Museum.
A $5,000 grant from the Theodore G. Baldwin Foundation is helping finance the restoration.
“One of our goals when designing the new building was to make sure we had enough space to display the curtain in full,” Murrish said, noting the museum has had the curtain since the mid-1980s. “It has been partially displayed at times, but has been in storage the past five years because of lack of space.”
Murrish said the museum had trouble finding people who specialized in opera house restorations. “I kept getting pointed to a lady in New England, and she seemed to be the only one to do this type of work. So to find people at UNK to help, right here in our own back yard, is pretty special.
“We are very fortunate to partner with UNK and have so many students and faculty able to help us with projects like this. Our UNK connections are so valuable.”
The theater curtain represents a time in history when they were covered in local advertising and often surrounded a central painting.
The center of the Kearney Opera House curtain includes a fanciful night scene of the moon rising beyond snow-capped mountains. Surrounding the landscape are ads for Kearney businesses of the era such as: Central National Bank, Kearney Laundry and Dry Cleaning Works, Kearney Dairy Company, Willard Service Station and Claughton’s Café, among many others.
“It’s been pretty cool to see how all of the advertising looked so many years ago,” said Brandon Wamberg, a UNK junior from Fullerton. “We’re trying to put some love into this and give it the life it deserves.”
Wamberg said the class was a bit overwhelmed when students first saw the curtain’s condition and size.
“It seemed like a little much to take on. I wasn’t sure if we could handle everything that goes into doing something like this, but it has turned into a great project and pretty rewarding.”
Turman called the class project, and experiential learning that comes with it, a unique opportunity for her UNK students.
“My hope is they get an appreciation for caring for historic collections. This is something I can introduce in class, but rarely does an opportunity like this surface to actually work with an exceptional, irreplaceable piece of Kearney history.”