Props for the Weekend

Turning a Realistic Harry Potter Wand on a Wood Lathe – Make Magazine has pictures and a video to show how easy it is to crank out a wand from Harry Potter in less than a day.

Faking It: How Outlander Got That Battle Scene To Look So Real – Outlander is a time travel story set in the 18th-century British Isles. Jim Elliot, props master and resident arms expert, talks about how they recreated the historic 1746 battle of Culloden for a recent episode.

Creating Evenly Spaced Intervals with Dividers or a Sector – Learn how to create a number of evenly spaced marks within a length of material using a sector. I haven’t heard of a sector before this, but Lost Art Press wrote about how to make one last year, and even included a downloadable template.

OMG…I Had a Productive Production Meeting – Finally, Jenner Butler talks about the importance of keeping a production meeting on topic and under three hours.

Weekly Props Roundup

For the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s props director, one blood is not like another – The Washington Post does a fantastic job interviewing Chris Young, Properties Director of the Shakespeare Theater Company. Chris shows off all the different kinds of blood he uses, and why he needs so many. The article has some great photographs, including a few of the blood delivery devices he incorporates into props and costumes.

I Ain’t Got No Body – A lot of dead bodies seem to appear in Jay Duckworth’s props shop, so it’s about time you get to hear his side of the story. For Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Cymbeline, Jay used the Saran wrap and packing tape method for making a body, and he gives a good step-by-step tutorial in this article.

Midlands Professional – Set Designer and Prop Maker David Hardware – David Hardware tells his story of how he became interested in working in film. He started out working in craft services, and eventually opened his own prop-making studio in Leicester, England.

Pressure Casting a Glow-in-the-Dark Slimer Model – The folks at Tested have a video showing how Frank Ippolito cast a glow-in-the-dark sculpture of the Onionhead Ghost from Ghostbusters.

Finally, in an update to last week’s story about the devastation to The Alley Theatre in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, the theater recently posted some videos and photographs from their prop storage area. It looks like it will take awhile to clean everything up, and a lot of it may end up being unsalvageable.

Dragons and Geese in Opera, 1915

Edward Siedle, Technical Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, gives the author an account of some of the animals and fantastic creatures used on stage in the opera. I posted another selection from this article last year:

by Mercy Gorham

“To make the dragon in ‘Siegfried’ possible, two men in turn act as the front and hind legs of the creature and control the working of the mouth, eyes and ears. Two more are required to handle the wires which lower and elevate the head, beside the electrician who watches the lights in the eyes, the one who controls the vapor and steam proceeding from the dragon’s nostrils, and lastly the conductor, who has to watch the score carefully, so as to give the cue for the various movements of the dragon. The technical director himself attends to the side movements of the head.

“The bear in ‘Siegfried’ is worked by the property man. In ‘Koenigskinder’ the geese are real, and must be cared for when not on duty in a room of their own. Every day their wants are attended to, their bath kept clean. Though used but six times during the opera season, these aristocratic birds live on the fat of the land. There is one property goose that takes the crown away and later brings it back again, and this is operated by the property man.

“‘Lohengrin’ has its swans, ‘Rheingold’ its small dragon, ‘The Magic Flute’ its enormous elephant with howdah and Oriental draperies. While these are but minor illustrations of the inventive genius necessary to produce grand opera, they give some small idea of the tremendous responsibility resting on the heads of departments beyond the curtain line, the infinite attention to detail necessary, and the enormous labor, both mental and physical, required to give grand opera patrons the series of perfect stage pictures for which they pay and which they have a right to demand.”

Gorham, Mercy. “Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line.” The Theatre Magazine Jan. 1915: 41. Google Books. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Alley Theatre Suffers Damage from Hurricane Harvey

This week saw a particularly devastating hurricane hit Houston. Many theaters were damaged, but perhaps none as severely as The Alley. The Alley is one of the three oldest resident theaters in the US. I visited their shops and performing spaces just last month, when they were fresh off a recent renovation that updated their entire theater.

American Theatre magazine posted some videos and photos as the storm hit. The Neuhaus theater and lobby were completely submerged. The hand prop storage in the basement was also completely underwater. The props team has not been able to get down there yet to survey the damage, but it could potentially be a total loss. The Alley has operated for over fifty years, and their stock had evolved into one of the best in the country; they frequently lend unique items to theaters all over the US.

The storm hit during rehearsals of a new play by Rajiv Joseph. They have already made plans to continue with the show at an alternate venue.

I have been following this story on the Facebook page of The Alley’s properties master, Karin Rabe Vance. She has posted a list of local charities if you wanted to donate to help Houston. If you wanted to directly help the theater, you can also donate to the Alley Theatre Employee Flood Assistance Fund, or to the rebuilding campaign for the Alley Theatre itself.

I am certainly glad the employees are all currently safe, and I am sure the theater will be able to rebuild over time. Nonetheless, this kind of loss is devastating to a props shop. A prop stock is part of our livelihood, and a stock like The Alley’s represented the careful accumulation of items over many decades. That kind of collection cannot simply be repurchased, and may never be replicated. It will be a great shift in how they prop shows for many years to come.

(Watch a video to see more images of Harvey’s impact on The Alley).

Whither Go Those Props? 1954

The following comes from a 1954 article and talks about where props retire to after their Broadway career:

By Arthur Gelb

When “Kind Sir” closed last spring, Joshua Logan like other producers before him, tackled a recurrent and vexing problem: What to do with a show’s props after they have been sat on, gazed upon or wielded for the last time.

Over the years, resourceful producers have evolved a carload of methods for converting superannuated trappings into cash, but Mr. Logan, in an entrepreneurial flash, thought up a new wrinkle. After finding that the authentic pieces he had picked up in Paris and London would fetch only a fraction of their worth at local antique shops, he decided to unload them on the highest bidders.

The Parke-Bernet Galleries were commissioned to auction off the props and, although it rained the day of the public sale, thereby reducing the attendance, Mr. Logan still netted more than a quarter of the original expenditure of $12,000. There were twenty-six lots in all, the highest being $825 for a Steinway grand and the lowest, $35, for three tea trays.

Mr. Logan’s off-stage success, in this era of costly play production, may well spur some of his hard-pressed confreres to follow suit. Actually, when a show has been a rousing financial hit, no one worries unduly about what will happen to the well-worn set decorations. But in the case of flops or modest runs, whatever money can be realized on the still shiny items of furniture, bric-a-brac and costumes is sought—eagerly.

Other Methods

In contrast with Mr. Logan’s innovation, most producers rely on less spectacular methods for prop disposal. They sell or rent items to TV studios, or sell them to out-of-town theatres or second-hand shops. Occasionally, props are stored for future use by the more active of the producing concerns. Sometimes they are burned (when there are no buyers and the price of storage is too high). Once in a while, choice items find their way into the homes of producers and other upper-echelon members of the company.

There are several known instances of showmen having furnished their homes and offices with chairs, couches, tables, lamps and other odds and ends selected for their productions by scenic designers. One producer foresightedly decorated a set with numerous volumes of second-hand books he had always wanted to read. (They now fill two wall-length cases in his home.) And a producing firm, now defunct, got off to an elegant start by furnishing its offices in midtown with Victorian pieces donated by the Shuberts’ warehouse. The furniture—orphaned by dead musical comedies—included two secretaries, a crystal chandelier and garlande mirrors and perfume tables.

Some producers appropriate items of trifling value from the sets of their plays as mementoes of the production. Producer Harald Bromley, for instance, saved a pair of angels on pedestals that were designed for “Glad Tidings,” and later planted them on either side of the stage as a special decoration for “Dead Pigeon.” Between plays, the angels rest at Mr. Bromley’s country home in Brewster, N. Y. Miss Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild, has no less than forty items, all from Guild productions, decorating her office. They include a tartan from “Mary of Scotland,” a prop star from “Carousel,” a garter from “Oklahoma!,” a dagger from “Othello,” a gold bracelet from “Time of Your Life,” a gold fan from “Taming of the Shrew,” a shoe from “Caesar and Cleopatra” and a cigarette from “Idiot’s Delight.”

Leading ladies like Helen Hayes frequently keep favorite costumes for sentiment’s sake after their plays close, but leading men tend to abandon theirs—and they often seem to turn up on press agents. A green slipover worn by Lee Cobb in “Death of a Salesman” found its way to publicity man Arthur Cantor; another press agent is still wearing a gray flannel suit that was part of the debris from a flop called “The Biggest Thief in Town” a few seasons ago.

Supporting actors and actresses, when they do not find themselves the recipients of free stage paraphernalia, are known to put in modest bids for useful items. Thus, a set of $450 draperies used in last season’s “The Prescott Proposals” was acquired for $25 by an enterprising family man. It is probable that an attractive apartment could be furnished very inexpensively by this sort of shopping around; anyone who plans to go about furnishing his quarters in this way merely needs unlimited patience, a taste that doesn’t conflict with that of the producer’s wife, and an eye for a flop (furnishings from hit shows are apt to be pretty threadbare by the end of a run).

Working Props

Some props, of course, are fairly impervious to wear and tear, but the producer knows this as well as you do and the chances are he will store the hardier items. Take “Angel in the Pawnshop.” More than 1,000 antiques and other pieces were displayed on the stage during its run a few seasons back. The producers stored most of them in their New Jersey warehouse and have since found a practical use for many of them. The musical instruments were used in “Hazel Flagg” and “Two on the Aisle.” “The Girl in the Pink Tights” had a French restaurant scene in which many of the “Pawnshop” props appeared; the umbrella with which Jeanmaire made her entrance in the same show was also from “Pawnshop.” Between shows, the props are rented out to TV studios.

Producers sometimes practically are forced to give away their painstakingly executed sets and costumes. Mike Todd had to sell his $200,000 “Night in Venice” scenery (for the operetta produced in 1952-53 at Jones Beach) to New York State for $750 because it would have been too expensive to dismantle it and ship it back to Manhattan for storage. The state intends to use the lumber for its parks.

Also disposed of at bargain prices not too long ago were the props and costumes from “Carnival in Flanders.” Some of the gowns went to Minsky’s burlesque in Newark. Minsky’s abbreviated the bodices.

Gelb, Arthur. “Whither Go Those Props?” The New York Times, 21 Nov. 1954, p. X3.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies