Friday, December 28, 2012

Ben-Hur on Broadway


In our tours of the Study, we often mention the mechanism that allowed the chariots to race on stage with eight horses galloping at full speed. This was an amazing feat for a stage production in the first decade of the 20th century. This was not, however, the only reason the Broadway presentation of Ben-Hur electrified audiences. There were a number of other tricks and mechanical devices that wowed the crowd.

First, as Scientific American pointed out in their August 25, 1900 issue, the wait time between the falling and raising of the curtain between scenes in Ben-Hur generally varied from between five and thirty seconds—although the arrangement for the chariot race sometimes took as long as eight minutes. In other complicated productions of the day the change of each scene routinely took between five and fifteen minutes! An interruption of the story long enough for many in the audience to loose interest. In Ben-Hur, the fast pace of the show was virtually uninterrupted.

Even before the chariot race, the audience had already received a bit of Broadway magic with the sea battle and wreck of Arrius’ ship. The scene opened with Arrius on a dais at center stage and the galley slaves rowing below him. At the climax of the battle, the theater was suddenly plunged into total darkness and the audience heard panicked screams and the crashing and grinding of timbers courtesy of a “crash” machine. Within seconds, the lights were brought up and Ben-Hur and Arrius were “adrift” at sea. The actors were up in a raft several feet off the floor in front of a dramatic shipwreck scene, lighted with special electrical effects. The raft itself was hinged to allow a rocking motion in two directions.

In order to accomplish this change of scene on stage in front of the audience without dropping the curtain, the “crash” machine kept crashing to cover the noise of movement on stage as the actors and stage hands used split second timing in the pitch black dark of the theater. The second the lights went out, the galley slaves with their oars fell flat to the floor and their benches were immediately pulled into the wings, Ben-Hur leapt to the dais with Arrius and pins were removed to allow the dais to be converted into a rocking bit of flotsam. One set of stage hands raised the backdrop scene of the galley ship to reveal the shipwreck scene, while another group of hands brought a large canvas from the back of the stage forward to the footlights, pulling it over the galley slaves laying on the floor. The galley slaves, covered by this tarp used their oars, arms and legs to simulate the rolling waves of the ocean. All of this was accomplished in the dark, among the props and scenery without stepping on anyone in about seven seconds!

Lew Wallace meeting with Joseph Brooks and
William Youngrepresentatives of the Broadway
producers, Klaw and Erlanger in front of
General Wallace's Study.
One of the most evocative special effects was the presentation of Jesus. Lew Wallace would not permit an actor to portray Christ--a central figure to the storyline. After much discussion and debate, it was decided that whenever the script called for Jesus to move the story forward, a strange and ethereal light would appear on stage and a voice that permeated the theater would be used. This unique solution left much to the imagination of the audience which made each performance a personal experience heightening the spiritual impact of the play and it eliminated any controversy about putting Christ on stage. It should also be pointed out from the producers point of view that it eliminated the need to pay an actor to play Jesus on stage as well.


One of the scenes that left little to the imagination was the chariot race. Cue the chariots! Horses on treadmills had been used before Ben-Hur, but never with the sophistication that was used in this production. The effect of the treadmill that allowed the eight horses to race at full gallop was heightened by the addition of belts turned at 90 degrees to the floor near the horses’ hooves, so that as they ran—faster or slower—these belts looked like the ground was moving at pace with the horses. To further the effect of the racing horses, a combination of powders was forced up through the treadmill by blowers under the floor to resemble dust.

Beyond the racing of the chariots and the paced rotation of the back and side scenes of the “arena”, the dramatic wreck of Messala’s chariot at the climax of the race was accomplished with a trick chariot. While Ben-Hur’s chariot wheels were actually in contact with the treadmill, Messala’s chariot rested on a yoke with springs that kept the wheels slightly above the treadmill. A motor was used to spin his wheels. At the critical moment, another small electric motor blew the wheels off of Messala’s chariot, the basket and rider dropped onto the springing yoke and the treadmill and adjacent flooring carrying Messala jerked back 15 feet allowing Ben-Hur to win. According to William S. Hart, who played Messala, this complicated mechanism worked all but one of the 400 times his horses raced.

With “crash” machines, rapid scene changes, and powder spewing horses, it’s no wonder the stage play electrified an estimated 20,000,000 people for over 20 years on several continents—making Lew, Susan, Henry, Harper Brothers, and the Broadway producers several fortunes. It also forever changed the way Broadway would present it's blockbuster productions.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Song for Children

This poem by Susan was written Christmas Eve, 1868, and published in the Crawfordsville Journal.

Christmas Song for Children

Oh, could I have my wish this Christmas night,
Some fairy should fly through the cold starlight,
And bear you away on her gentle breast,
To gardens enchanted, where all that's best,
Sweetest, and best, from every clime,
Should blossom in endless summer-time.
Of myrtle and rose should our garden be,
For the children only, their friends and me.

Built round it a wall, with towers high,
Should shut out all but the clear blue sky,
And circle a palace where banners bright
Float far and free in the soft sunlight.
And violet eyes, lifted meekly up,
And the tulip, bearing her golden cup
Of perfume, should greet the morning sun,
As the beautiful days come one by one,
With never a cloud, and never a tear,
From summer to summer, year to year.

And every path in that garden sweet
Should bear the light print of baby feet,
And ring with shouts of children at play
By babbling brooks that merrily stray
Through beds of lilies, away, away,
Where murmuring water, and bee, and bird,
Make the sweetest music ear ever heard.
There would we live and never grow old;
There measure the years with sands of gold;
In the rose garden whose gates are free
To children only, their friends and me.

It cannot be so--the wishes I bring
Are but the longing of Winter for Spring.
One fairy only haunts this world of ours;
His path is crowded with fadeless flowers;
And the spell that lies in his rosy wings
Is strange as the wonderful song he sings
To charm away sorrow--'twill pass you by,
While the fairy Love is hovering nigh.

This Christmas eve, oh, guard them well,
True love, thou sleepless sentinel!
Beneath they wings, warm lands and fair
Lie sheltered in enchanted air;
And circling walls to thee belong,
And mystic bars, unseen, but strong,
Oh, guard them, Love, with magic key,
The children dear, their friends, and me.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New! Online Donations & Memberships at our Website

Have you been planning to join the Lew Wallace Study Preservation Society, but just can't seem to find a stamp to mail us your check? Have you thought about doing it, but decided it was too much work? Are you looking for last-minute donations to write off on your taxes?

Here at the Study, we're operating on a small budget, and we're always looking for ways to make it easier for you to give us money. After all, it's your support that allows us to provide great programming such as this year's Civil War Lectures, the Civil War Encampment, the Lew Wallace Academy, and more. We're also trying to raise money to match a grant that will allow us to restore the interior paint of the Study to how Lew had it.

So this week we are unveiling online donations and purchases of memberships via Paypal. Just visit the Join and Support page of our website and choose either to donate online or to purchase a membership for yourself or someone you love.

Keep in mind that, while we have done some testing with this, it is still in early stages. If you experience any difficulty, please email us or comment here. If you are purchasing a gift membership, we need to know the recipient's name and address. Hopefully you'll see an "Instructions to Seller" box where you can enter that information. If that isn't the case, please email us at study@ben-hur.com to give us that information, and to alert us that the instructions box isn't showing up.

We are always interested in finding new ways to keep you informed about what's going on here and to get you engaged in our mission. Hopefully this addition to our offerings will benefit you as well as us!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Winter Closing

December 15 will be the last tour date for the Lew Wallace Study & Museum in 2012. We will open again in February.

So what goes on during our closed period?

We take that time to focus specifically on changing the exhibits in the Carriage House Interpretive Center. During 2012 our exhibit has been centered on Lew Wallace's activities during 1862. In 2013 we will be presenting an exhibit surrounding Lew and Susan Wallace's descendants. A lot of work goes into setting up an exhibit. We have to research everything, decide which related artifacts will be on display, write interpretive text, and design the flow of the exhibit space.

Other things that will have our attention during our winter closing: a major fundraising effort to start in 2013--I'll be presenting a series of blog posts about that as we get closer to kickoff; finalizing our programming and event schedule for the coming year; selecting musical talent for the 7th Annual Taste of Montgomery County in August 2013.

So keep warm this winter, and we look forward to seeing you next year, when our new exhibit opens!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

2012 Holiday High Tea a Grand Success

The Holiday High Tea came off beautifully. Here are a few photos of the fun our guests had and the beautiful decorations and delicious delicacies!












Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christmas Shopping in the Carriage House

We all have that one person, don't we? That person who seems to have everything? That person who says, "I don't need anything this year?" So how do you shop for someone like that?

Consider giving them a gift that also supports local history and culture!

Proceeds from the gift shop here are used for the benefit of the museum. We have books about Lew Wallace, copies of Ben-Hur, Christmas tree ornaments, t-shirts, and even artwork. For the real collector in your family, you can purchase the two-volume autobiography Lew was writing at the time of his death; it was completed by his wife Susan. We also have Mama G beaded earrings created by a local artist and Indiana-shaped cheese boards made by a local artisan.

If you would prefer to give a gift that is less tangible but carries the benefits of being tax deductible and directly supporting our mission, buy a membership to the Lew Wallace Study Preservation Society in someone's name. Membership levels start as low as $25 for the Lieutenant Level and go all the way to Ben-Hur Level at $500.

If you're interested in preserving Lew Wallace's legacy, Christmas is a great way to do it!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Holiday High Tea This Friday

It's not too late! Wednesday is the deadline for anyone wishing to attend the Holiday High Tea to RSVP.

The Holiday High Tea is this Friday, December 7, from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Guests will tour the DAR Chapter House and the Elston Homestead, enjoy refreshments, live entertainment, a holiday wreath sale, and a fashion show.

Reservations are $25/person. Contact the museum at 765-362-5769 or email study@ben-hur.com.