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June 24, 2012

The first live performance in 148 years of the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress took place June 23, 2012 at Saco City Hall Auditorium

It hadn’t happened in 148 years, as far as we know.  December 2, 1864 is the last recorded performance of the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, as reported in the Biddeford Union-Journal.  As the audience watched, the massive painting was rolled from one gigantic spool to another, making the familiar but perennially fascinating story of The Pilgrim’s Progress seem to progress before their eyes. After that performance, the panorama seems not to have found another booking, and so it remained, mostly unseen, here in southern Maine until it finally ended up in the collection of the Saco Museum.

By the time the panorama was rediscovered in the museum’s storage vault in 1996, no one alive had ever seen it (or any other moving panorama) in action before—meaning, in motion, the way it was intended to be seen.  It’s impressive enough just standing still—800 feet of canvas, designed by some of the most important artists in the history of American painting, illustrating a story so fundamental to western culture that the book has never been out of print in 350 years—but still, from the beginning, no one could help but think, “What if we made it move again?”

Well, it turns out you can’t really do that with 800 feet of 160-year old muslin, no matter how beautifully restored it is (and we thank our friends at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for their outstanding work in that regard). It’s just too delicate, and the constant rolling and re-rolling on spools is just too aggressive. So the only way to make this happen would be to create a replica.  The germ of the idea for a replica was there even in 1996, but the technology of photography and fabric hadn’t quite evolved enough to make it feasible. But by the time the Saco Museum received a major grant from Save America’s Treasures in 2009, we had a plan—thanks in large part to the plotting and planning of years before by Saco Museum trustee Peter Morelli and Andy Graham of Portland Color, now a division of Designtex. With excellent high-quality photography by Matthew Hamilton at Williamstown and Portland Color’s state-of-the-art printing capabilities (and with some additional support from the Maine Humanities Council), the panorama was wholly reproduced, at its full 8 x 800-foot scale, on two rolls of sturdy synthetic fabric.


Image of a moving panorama from Scientific American, 1848

So we were “ready to roll,” as it were, but then again, two gigantic rolls of fabric won’t roll themselves.  We had to create a machine to make this all happen—a machine that no one had seen, thought of, heard of, or imagined in 150 years.  Well, actually that’s not completely true.  Back in 2010, a panorama theater (who knew that such a thing still existed?) in Los Angeles had created a modern, five-foot-high moving panorama based upon an existing script from a historic Gold-Rush era panorama (that original panorama is now lost).  Sara Velas and the folks at the Velaslavasay Panorama were a huge help.  So was this incredibly detailed (not) drawing from 1848. But their panorama was shorter, less long, and much less heavy than ours, and that change in scale added a whole level of complication that you wouldn’t even believe.  We also had to build our machine on Saco City Hall Auditorium’s raked stage (meaning it slants toward the audience), making it even more challenging to create something that wouldn’t, you know, tip over and kill everyone watching it.  The “mechanism team” of Joshua Hurd of Encore Productions, Jeff Fleming of Ward Hill Architecture, and Mark Thompson, the lead builder, were “dealing with a lot of ****,” in the immortal words of Crash Davis.

Suffice it to say, it was a long, treacherous odyssey to get to yesterday’s TOTALLY SUCCESSFUL AND DAZZLING LIVE PERFORMANCE. And I hope and expect that before too long, the man who made this all happen, Peter Morelli, will write a long blog post for this site detailing all that went into making it possible (he is napping and taking painkillers today).  The physical, intellectual, and emotional energy that went into re-creating this historic performance was unfathomable, and others who will remain unnamed were ready to give up on it more than once.  But like Christian on his epic journey to the Celestial City, from which he would not be deterred by any foul fiend, naysayer, or well-meaning but faint-hearted fool, Peter kept his eyes on the prize, and thanks to him we completely delighted some 80 panoramaniacs at City Hall yesterday afternoon.

YES:  there will be more performances!  We were nervously waiting to see how yesterday’s gig would turn out before we put more performances on the calendar.  But now that we know we’ve cracked the code, we’ll be scheduling performances throughout the summer and fall, and we’ve already started talking with our narrator and delineator, Dean Smalley, and our phenomenal accompanist, Jeff Rapsis, about their availability in July.  Stay tuned to this blog and to the official panorama website to find out new performance dates!

THANKS SO MUCH to all of those whose efforts made yesterday’s performance possible!

Save America’s Treasures

The Maine Humanities Council

Peter Morelli

Andy Graham, Paul Glynn, Mark Marchesi, and Brian Cronin from the former Portland Color, now a division of Designtex

Matthew Hamilton of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center

Joshua Hurd of Encore Productions

Jeff Fleming of Ward Hill Architecture

Mark Thompson

Hallett Canvas and Sails

Hancock Lumber

Leslie Rounds

Dean Smalley

Jeff Rapsis

Camille Smalley and the Saco Sesquibicentennial Committee

Jeff Christenbury

Shane Christy

Marcel Desrosiers

Bob Flint

Bob Hamblen

Tyler Johnson

Dick Lambert

David Lawler

Rick Michaud

Janet Morelli

Spencer Murch

Gil Poirier

Ed Profenno

Nancy Tripp

David Twomey

The City of Saco (and the many City of Saco employees who got roped into helping in the course of their regular workday)


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