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Originally published May 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 20, 2008 at 10:49 AM

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Nippon Kan's long-lost curtain back on stage

For a mere six years, it had graced Seattle's historic Nippon Kan Theatre on South Washington Street, before time and circumstance relegated...

Seattle Times staff reporter

For a mere six years, it had graced Seattle's historic Nippon Kan Theatre on South Washington Street, before time and circumstance relegated it to obscurity. Then came good news: The massive advertising scrim, a sort of vivid, larger-than-life local Yellow Pages, had been found.

Bad news would follow — rumors that the curtain had been cut into pieces, that it had been sold on eBay, that it was destined for auction in New York.

"People thought it was gone," says Beth Takekawa, executive director of Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum. "This curtain has had such a journey."

Now, as the Wing Luke prepares to unveil its spacious new digs in Seattle's Chinatown International District, the nearly century-old scrim will be among its most striking treasures, reprising its former role in the museum's 59-seat Tateuchi Story Theatre.

"This curtain will be a surprise to a lot of people," Takekawa says.

The Nippon Kan had been the neighborhood center since opening in 1909, hosting performances, family association meetings and social gatherings. "It was really the hub of the community," says Robert Fisher, Wing Luke's collections manager.

The 15-by-30-foot tapestry of painted ads, primarily reflecting Japanese-American businesses, was the theater's initial fire curtain, meant to hamper accidental fires onstage from spreading into the audience. Each square or rectangle was apparently provided for a fee, with whited-out spaces indicating proprietors in arrears. "If you didn't pay your bill, you got painted out," Takekawa says.

The painted logos and symbols include gramophones, a frog and a boat. One, a cat, represents the Japanese restaurant Maneki, an International District mainstay that as far as the museum knows is the only business that still survives.

For unknown reasons, the curtain was taken down in 1915, then rolled up and shunted into storage, forgotten for many years. So far as most people knew, it lived on only in photos preserved by the Nippon Kan Heritage Association.

World War II brought the Japanese-American internment, and in 1942, like other community enterprises, the Nippon Kan was forced to board up its doors. It wouldn't open again until 1981.

As with so many neighborhood institutions shuttered into history by the war and its aftereffects, "I thought [the scrim] had disappeared," says Seattle's Ed Suguro, a Japanese-American historian.

New building owners in the 1970s found the curtain, which passed on to philanthropists Samuel and Althea Stroum when they purchased the building in the late 1990s. In late 2006, after moving the scrim to an art storage facility, the Stroum family offered it to the expanding Wing Luke.

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Fisher took one look at the fading artifact and realized he needed to act quickly. The museum turned to painting conservator Peter Malarkey.

But tests revealed a problem: Like many fire curtains of the time, this one turned out to be made of asbestos — 83 percent so, woven with cotton.

"I thought, 'That's it. He can't do anything with this,' " Fisher says.

Malarkey knew the whole curtain would have to be encapsulated in some protective substance in order to safely hang in a museum environment. Eventually, he found a resin-based, see-through product that would hold the pigments in place.

He went to work inside a big, negative-air-pressure tent wearing a protective suit and face respirator. Beyond the asbestos issue, the project posed multiple challenges for a conservator — a surface of powdery paint barely clinging to a cumbersome, 156-pound textile whose sheer weight begged engineering expertise. It was among the largest jobs he'd tackled in nearly 20 years of work.

After lightly vacuuming and safety-coating the scrim, he applied Velcro along the back so that it could be effectively mounted, then rolled it around a big cardboard cylinder — "like a huge paper-towel dispenser," he says — in order to transfer it onto the wall.

The project took three and a half months. "It was worth it," he says.

For the community, the curtain is a precious souvenir from a time and place long gone, and its keepers are proud — not only that it has been preserved for posterity but that it has remained in the community from which it evolved.

"It's a remembrance of what used to be," Suguro says, "of what we used to have."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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