Backdrops by Charles H Stewart has been your leading edge scenic design and backdrop rental company for over 120 years!
Come to us with your theatrical needs to enhance your production with well over 1,500 backdrops, drapes, lames and scrims to choose from. We are here to serve all your backdrop and scenic design needs with over 120 years of experience and expertise.
Please call or email us with any questions you may have regarding drop availability or styles not shown. You may also browse our extensive online catalogue to sample hundreds of our backdrops available for rental.
We offer you reliable service at competitive prices. Our professional backdrops are lightweight, easy to hang and can be shipped direct to your door!
For your “Show of Shows”, depend on us for high quality backdrops.
The Life of a Charles H. Stewart
Backdrops by Charles H. Stewart, based in North Andover, Massachusetts, was opened in 1893 and operated continuously as a family-run business, first under Charles Stewart and then his son, Stanley. In 1990, the Christo family bought the business after a five-year apprenticeship under Stanley’s tutelage and has run it ever since.
In a 1983 Boston Globe article, Stanley summed up the backdrop business when he said, “In our warehouse you see 900 boxes filled with backdrops; what I see is life in those boxes—live performance, artistic expression, and background support for some of the greatest shows you’ll ever see.” The Christo family shares Stanley’s belief about those boxes and the company continues to epitomize the ‘Life in Backdrops’ tagline that Charles H. Stewart (CHS) uses to describe its business.
So what is the life of a backdrop? To go from the shoplights to the spotlights, a CHS backdrop grows from creativity, matures through teamwork, and ventures into the world through a dedication to customer service.
When looking to design me, a new backdrop, the staff at CHS identifies popular shows as well as considers items that are frequently requested or veteran drops that need to be replaced. (Replaced? Well we do have a lifespan!) The designs are carefully conceived so I can be used for a wide variety of different shows. Whether ballrooms, winding roads, or any other great design, when done I will be joining CHS’s hundreds of other backdrops that are available. Don’t worry though, if you need something very specific, CHS is great at handling custom-design requested drops.
I am made of top quality material. CHS buys bolts of canvas material and sews me up so that I’m 18-feet high by 42-feet wide when I am all finished and of course, that is with all the necessary trimmings. Then before they paint my design on, they apply a stiffening and absorbing solution to the raw material. This helps give greater definition to the paint as well as helps with my durability. (This is part of why, as CHS backdrops, we have such long lives supporting shows all over!)
Painting and Drying
Now it’s time to get my paint on. The CHS team stretches my canvas on the floor to paint versus the old days of working on upright paint frames. They first lay cardboard down, put my canvas over it; and fasten all my edges down to make me taut. After painting, which takes between one and three days, I dry for at least 12 hours. During this time, I also get a flame-retardant treatment. I do look show ready, I must say, and that’s because the scenic artists at CHS are experts at their craft.
When I’m all dry, I get folded, put in a plastic bag and then into a shipping box. Folding is a very important part of my care. And yes, there is a right way to fold me—using the accordion style. To make sure I come home to CHS as carefully folded as I arrive to your theater, the CHS team includes easy to follow proper folding instructions with each of us drops. The accordion-style folding method accommodates me the best in their shipping boxes, which have been carefully thought through as well, so use my box when you send me home. You don’t throw out your luggage on trip, and that box is mine so I please fold, bag, and box me when I go home.
When it’s my turn to be shipped to a theater, I get pulled off the shelf and put onto a pallet with my fellow drops going to the production. The CHS team checks the integrity of my box and tape and generate shipping tags. Customers can also come to the company and pick me up.
When the show is over, (we got rave-reviews!) I get folded – accordion style, put back in my plastic bag, and then back into my box. I return home where the CHS team logs me back into the system and checks to see if I am a quick turnaround for another production. They open me to make sure that I am in the right box. Then I move to the inspection procedures.
All CHS drops get laid out on the floor to get inspected for damage when we return. If there is any, it is logged. I also get my picture taken to keep my online profile pic updated, plus if damaged it is documented to assess for financial reimbursement. If I do have any damage, the team repairs it right away. After a good brush down, I am put back into a plastic bag and my box.
I am now back on the shelf in the warehouse, categorized using a numerical format for easy retrieval. I wait here ready to go for the next production. None of us Charles H Stewart backdrops stay on the shelves too much, as we are busy setting the scenes on stages everywhere. If you would like to rent me or one of my over 1,500 fellow backdrops, drapes, lames and scrims for your next production, go to the Charles H. Stewart website (charleshstewart.com) and see all the amazing backdrops available. I know that one, or more of us, will be just right for your next show.
In 1893, Charles H Stewart was a young man in need of a challenging and lucrative vocation. His artistic skills and experience as a backdrop artist working in frame shops gave him the experience to manage O.L.Storey Scenes Company, which eventually he purchased. For those of you not familiar with frame shops, they were in large open areas with large wooden paint frames ( up to 25 feet high and 70 feet wide) which had cloth/muslin drops stapled tightly onto them. The artists stood on a raised platform which extended the length of the frame. By raising the frame up and down, the artist could reach and paint all areas of the drop for a completed painted backdrop. There were multiple frames ( five or more ) , and the shops could put out an impressive quantity of painted backdrops in a short period of time. Competition amongst artists for speed as well as greater production for greater pay was the way it was “in the day”. The drop would be stretched and starched for shape and color retention. The color was really toxic dyes that had to be mixed with tint and water to achieve the color desired.
In 1948, Earl Stanley Stewart returned from England with his British war bride. Although he had worked for his father in the 1920’s while in high school, he was an engineer by trade. However, the lure of the theatre was too strong. “Stanley” decided to work with his father despite his engineering background. Custom backdrops sold to clients was still the dominant focus of the business, but the rental market was beginning to explode — rent backdrops, lighting, special effects, risers, temp staging etc all became marketing opportunities. Also, installing curtains , curtain tracking, and stage hardware sales were other opportunities.
Up until the 1940’s, the heyday of the business was in the years before World War I when live professional theatre and vaudeville flourished. But, during WWI railroad freight rates were increased and many traveling troops folded. At the same time, movies came along.
During the 1920’s the company changed its name to Charles H Stewart Scenic Design and employed 32 painters. In the 1930’s the professional business faded and the company shifted its focus to school and college productions. After WWII. the company’s reputation for quality backdrops was enhanced with production of much new backdrop inventory by experienced and prolific artists in the Northeast. Stanley Stewart was the dean of the scenic artistic community until his death at 86 years of age. It is his knowledge of theatre and its related history that is the cornerstone of today’s company. In a high profile 1983 Boston Globe theatrical piece, Stanley’s final comments summarize the backdrop business very well — ” in our warehouse you see 900 boxes filled with backdrops– what I see is life in those boxes–live performance, artistic expression, and background support for some of the greatest shows you’ll ever see –South Pacific, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, Brigadoon, Camelot, Music Man, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, Fiddler on the Roof, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Snow White, etc.” We couldn”t say it any better!! ” It’s theatre in a box!”
In the January 2014 issue of Stage Directions, we addressed Backdrops by Charles H Stewart from the viewpoint of a timeline from its beginnings in 1893 to the present corporate structure operated by the Christo family. In that review, we touched upon the founder ( Charles H Stewart ) and his son ( Earl “Stanley” Stewart) as well as the present company owners ( the Christo family).
Since Stanley was the catalyst for change after succeeding his father, we would like to share his industry vision and knowledge which enabled his successors to continue to operate a viable business. In the 1920’s, while still in high school, Stanley worked for his father in the paint shop. His painting skills were honed over the next ten years while working beside (and competing with) some of the most talented artisans in the business. In the 1930’s, Stanley began involvement in the management and strategic planning of Charles H Stewart Backdrops. It was evident that the product line had to diversely expand in order to maintain revenues necessary to keep 30 painters/employees productive. Thus began expansion to stage curtain tracking installation, stage lighting, special effects, risers, sound, sales of all related stage hardware, gobo lights,etc — the beginnings of a complete stage oriented product line offering “something for everybody”. Then came World War II. Stanley went into the US Army as an engineer, and the Charles H Stewart Company began an extensive inventory expansion.
Stanley returned with a new British bride in 1946. Things were changing rapidly in the business. Large paint frame shops were sprouting up everywhere. Competition was really heavy after the war. Professional live theatre was flourishing. New products were always showing a new way to do things — special lighting, special sound equipment, traveling venues that brought their own equipment, customers that wanted to purchase as well as rent. Stanley found himself in the right place at the right time. He had envisioned this before going off to war!!
Stanley and Charles H Stewart were soon acknowledged as the leaders in their field when stage crafting, theatre history, play-specific products , and installation services were required. The business operated full bore for the next decade, until the 1960’s introduced requirements that had to be developed — flame retardency, non-toxic methods of painting, non-traditional backdrops such as strip curtains, metallic curtains, scrims, etc. Also, professional theatre demand was diminishing but non-professional venue opportunities were opening up such as community theatre, public school plays, conventions, dance schools, etc. Again, Stanley kept abreast of demand and supply of leading edge products, and combined that knowledge with the developing new customers’ needs. Paint frame shops were disappearing, but a deep and continually increasing inventory kept the company profiting for the next two decades!!