With the seemingly endless discussion of THC and CBD, oils and edibles and derivatives thereof, we fail to give proper credit to the role played by industrial hemp in helping facilitate America’s growth into a global superpower, or whatever passes for that in 2017. Hemp was a cash crop in Florida until around 1957, and legislation has been proposed to bring it back in each of the last two years, with no success so far. Products made from imported hemp have proved quite lucrative, long before medical marijuana was legalized in Florida last year.
As Americans work to bring hemp back into the marketplace, it’s worth noting that in some businesses, it never went away. Here’s an interesting fact, courtesy the latest jam-packed issue of American Theatre Magazine: Did you know that hemp ropes were long considered the standard for stage rigging during the glory days of the theater? The ropes were attached to sandbags on a pulley system used to open and close the curtains, as well as manipulate the often-elaborate backdrops for shows in many of the most iconic venues in that industry.
Theaters moved gradually toward synthetic ropes and steel cables after growing hemp was outlawed by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. (Expect to see at least a middling effort to reverse this aspect of the law between now and 2020, with representatives from pot-friendly states leading the way.)
According to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE, a real union that has significant clout in that business nationwide), only nine of New York City’s 41 existing Broadway theaters are still “hemp houses,” as they’re called. From an outsider’s perspective, the fact that any at all remain is fascinating. Automated rigs are the industry standard now, and the very specific training one needs to run a hemp house is becoming increasingly hard to find; the old masters are dying off faster than mafia underbosses in the 1970s.
Author Lisa Lacroce Patterson, herself a veteran of the Tri-State region’s theater scene, relates her experience working at the Victory Theatre in New York, which quit on hemp 25 years ago, when hemp-and-sandbag systems were still extant on Broadway, as well as community theaters in places like Philadelphia, Norfolk and Washington, D.C. “This is a worldwide habitat loss,” writes Lacroce, in summation. “This is a piece of theatrical history that may soon go the way of most other industries in America and elsewhere: toward automation. Hemp ropes are literal links stretching back into theater’s past.”