Mystery surrounds 80-year-old masks found in Wauwatosa
Papier mache creations to be displayed by Historical Society
Karen Barry and Barbara Benton are trying to solve a mystery.
Looking for lights to illuminate restored murals at Wauwatosa East High School a few years ago, Benton stumbled upon dozens of masks — bright, colorful, full-head depictions of people, ghouls, animals, and a number of indescribable creatures. There were 43 of them in a storage room on Tosa East's third floor.
She photographed them and gave the photos to Barry, who works at the Wauwatosa Historical Society.
This year, planning a fundraiser, Barry dug out the pictures and asked Principal Nick Hughes for permission to exhibit the masks at the Historical Society.
Hughes said former theater director Tom Thaney had told him that there were even more masks in a closed storage area under the theater's balcony seats. There, they found 23 more, covered in grime.
The women have been busy cleaning and repairing them for weeks. Several more full-body creations were in an art classroom storage area.
Searching for history
The masks are made of papier-mache, and the papers exposed on the inside of the hollow heads — most of it torn newsprint from The Milwaukee Journal — have dates from 1931 through 1940, Barry said.
Benton pointed out a newspaper advertisement of a movie starring Ida Lupino, whose acting career peaked with "The Sea Wolf" and "High Sierra" in 1941.
"We can't figure out why they were used or why they were made or anything yet," Barry said. "There's all kinds of rumors about centennial parades and things like that, but I checked newspapers, I checked yearbooks, student newspapers, and I haven't found anything yet with either a picture or a good description of these."
Benton got an email from a man in 2006 who said he remembered seeing the masks underneath the theater seats back in the 1960s, when he was a student.
Former history teacher and costume curator Alberta Johnson Price started a ledger in 1941 that mentions many costumes, but it was started just too late to mention the masks, Barry noted. Price died in 1956.
The masks aren't signed, so they probably weren't student projects made for a grade, Barry said.
Benton said she even combed Tosa East's Cardinal newspaper and the Wauwatosa paper.
"I wrote to everybody I could think of, and came up with zero," she said.
Full of character
The character heads show artistic skill and some have a vaudevillian air.
There is a sailor, a cop, a rabbit, birds, a green face with three eyes, zombie-like faces, a world-weary man with a fedora, a woman with a blue-and-orange hat, a face that suggests W.C. Fields, a pirate, a frog, a gorilla — and many more.
Many of the human figures have expressions like they were captured speaking, mid-word. The colors are bright, and the skin tones and the wrinkles bring the faces to life.
More than 50 of the masks will be displayed at the Kneeland-Walker House, 7406 Hillcrest Drive, on Oct. 18, from 5:30 to 9 p.m., and Oct. 19, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at tosaeasttheatre.org, and are $10 in advance or $15 at the door on the days of the event, with proceeds benefiting Tosa East theater.
Anybody with information about the masks can contact the Wauwatosa Historical Society at (414) 774-8672.
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