Answers help clear up Wauwatosa mask mystery
Former theater director says masks were a WPA project
The case of the mysterious masks found in storage at Wauwatosa East High School took on a little more clarity this week when Dale K. Hidde, who was theater director at the school for 32 years, weighed in.
The masks — roughly 70 full-head, papier-mache creations depicting people, animals, and creatures of every description — were found a few years ago in storage on the school's third floor, and in a storage compartment under seats in the theater's balcony.
Karen Barry of the Wauwatosa Historical Society and Barbara Benton, a Historical Society volunteer, are making them ready for an exhibition at the society's Kneeland-Walker House next month.
They also are seeking answers to the provenance of the works.
Hidde said that as a Wauwatosa high school student in 1955, he and two other students were sent by Richard Dawe, the technical director at that time, to look in the storage spaces under the balcony seats for carpets he wanted to use in a stage setting.
"We didn't find the carpets, but were surprised to find a great number of large heads made from papier-mache," Hidde said in an email.
They brought a couple of the heads down to Dawe, and asked about them.
Dawe told Hidde that Alberta Johnson Price, a teacher who was a costume curator at the school, had told him that they had been created as part of the Works Progress Administration program — that's the government work program created to ease unemployment in the midst of the Great Depression.
The masks were made by adults in an evening class.
In 1966, Hidde became theater director at the school himself. He used a couple of the heads as props in the student production of "Pippin" in 1980. Several of the heads were offered to the art department for display.
In 1975 and 1976, the theater was renovated, and new audience seating was added, and many of the heads were moved from under the balcony seats to the third floor.
Barry said the WPA connection fits the time-frame of the masks' creation, which is identifiable from the date on the newspapers used to make the masks. She said she has sought help in gathering more information about them from museums and national archives, but has not heard back.
Another connection she is aware of is that of Elsa Ulbricht, an artist and teacher who was director of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, a WPA program. Barry said she has a newspaper article on Ulbricht that shows her making a papier-mache mask similar to the Tosa East masks. Ulbricht lived from 1885 to 1980.
"The research will continue after the exhibit," Barry said in an email.
The exhibit will feature more than 50 of the masks on display at the Kneeland-Walker House, 7406 Hillcrest Drive, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Oct. 18 and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 19. Tickets are $10 in advance and available at tosaeasttheatre.org.
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