Has There Ever Been an Honest Property Man?

The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:

The Property Man has always been in some sort the black sheep of the theatrical flock. The question, has there ever been an honest property man? has even been mooted. We find this appreciation of his labors to result chiefly from the irregular manner that the master of properties has of keeping his accounts. As a general thing, indeed, he does not keep any at all, or if he does it is by a system of book-keeping so very double that no one but himself can untie the knot. He is allowed to purchase his small stores from a fund furnished him by the theatre, and to obtain larger articles on credit, bills of all to be rendered weekly, after being vised by the stage manager, to the treasurer. But the articles required are so numerous and are in many cases of so trifling a character that no one but himself can keep the run of them.

One of the most prized accomplishments of a stage manager is the ability to keep down these bills, but the very sharpest of those gentlemen is to a degree at the mercy of the Property Man who understands his business. A list a yard long is demurely handed to the stage manager, with a request for his signature. How is he to know if the articles have all been used, or that they cost the price affixed? A finer point still, how is he to know that they had not already been stored away in the theatre? So, if the manager should even check the items off, one after the other, demanding a full explanation of each, he might be still very wide of the mark.

Experienced men know this, and do not attempt to audit their property bills in that manner. Some managers as a regular thing coolly deduct a certain per cent of the total. This they say is for errors, and the property men are mostly too polite to dissent. Managers generally, however, learn by experience about what it costs to run the different orders of plays. Spectacle and sensation drama cost most; tragedy next, and comedy least. Knowing the bill of fare they have at the time been giving to the public, they know what their Property Man’s bill should be, and if, judged by these rules, it be exorbitant, they remonstrate with the logic of precedent. This will not cover, however, the important point before mentioned—the accumulation of old stores that may often be recharged as new.

There is a story in one of Dumas’ novels of a man travelling on horseback with a girl seated before him on the beast, and another behind him. He is met by a person who asks if those young women are virtuous. The man on horseback says that he thinks the one in front, being continually under his eye, is, but for the one at his back he can say nothing. In like manner the Property Man’s accounts, as far as relates to what is really bought for the occasion, may be correct, but for what is not bought, and yet for which the theatre has all the same to pay, the manager has, in nature, nothing to say.

Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.

Prop Time Links

Warner Brothers has a huge prop and costume warehouse hidden somewhere outside of London. CNN brings you some of the first pictures from inside, showing us props from films such as Harry Potter, the Batman series and Gravity. Don’t forget to check out the video as well.

Propnomicon does a great job showing us some of the best props from the Cthulhu mythos and similar realms.  But this one time, he found this faux-antique vampire-killing kit that was so horribly done that he just went to town criticizing every aspect of it. From the random screwdriver gouging and haphazard use of a blowtorch, to the over-reliance on upholstery tacks, this prop has it all. It is actually a good lesson on what not to do when ageing your props. It’s very distressing.

Olivia O’Connor used to be a prop maker in Sydney, working on films such as The Wolverine and Mad Max: Fury Road. But she’s given that all up and now carves rocking horses out of wood on her parents’ farm in south Gippsland. It’s amazing what you can do with the skills you pick up as a prop maker.

The Spaeth Design website has a whole slew of videos up giving a behind the scenes look at their shop. They have a couple of episodes of “Making Magic at Spaeth Design”, where they look at the various departments and people who work there. Spaeth Design is the New York company that builds animated window displays for companies that include or have included Macys, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Hand Props, 1871

The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:

We have left ourselves little room to speak of the “hand props.” They are literally almost infinite. Whatever is used in life is needed to show the “very body of the age” upon the mimic scene. The depository of these cheap wonders is always on the prompt side, and as near the first entrance as possible. It is called the property-room, and while in it the subject of our sketch owes no allegiance, or at least pays none, to the stage manager himself. There are other rooms for the storage of larger articles, and such things as are not continually in demand.

Unless the Property Man is a person of great method, the “props” are apt to become scattered all over the theatre. There are such numbers of them, and almost every fresh piece so adds to the numbers, that unless they are ruthlessly weeded out at short intervals, they fill every available corner of stage room. Some property men are like certain housekeepers—they hate to destroy anything, thinking that some time it may turn to be of use. In that case the man keeps on filling up the place until he can’t find anything or can’t turn around. He then leaves in disgust, and another official coming in has a grand house-cleaning.

As regards “hand props” our man has a nightly list of articles, on what scene they are to be used, and by whom. The call-boy furnishes these articles to the proper parties, and collects them afterwards and returns them to the property-room. The rule is that calls shall be made in the green-room, and that the boy shall hand the “props” required to the individual at the time of calling him. In fact, however, the actor prefers to personally look up his props, so as to have a little more margin of time than the call would give him. But green-room matters, although important, scarcely belong to the subject under consideration.

Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.

Super Fun Link Time

Creative England interviews props master Michael Betts. He worked on a number of television and film projects over in the UK, most notably the entire run of A Touch of Frost, which aired for nearly twenty years. He talks about his career and gives advice to young props people starting out. For those of us in the US, their studio system seems vastly different from what we are used to, and the comparison is quite fascinating.

“Super-Fan Builds” follows prop maker Tim Baker as he leads a team of builders who constructs one-of-a-kind items for the homes of superfans. His latest is a doghouse modeled after the house from Up, complete with floating balloons.

For a bit of fun, see how well you do in this quiz to match the sofa to the sitcom. It is interesting to see set photos of well-known sitcoms sans actors, so you can really focus on the design and selection of all the props and set dressing.

Finally, we have two stories on houses lost in time and preserved until the present. The first is this great series of photographs on the “Cloud House”, a Welsh farmhouse which has been abandoned for years and contains trinkets and artifacts from decades past. The second is this 1950s kitchen which has been pristinely preserved all these years without any updates or modifications.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies