A Special Tuesday Props Links

You may have noticed these posts have gotten a bit sporadic lately.  I’m not busier than before, but my mornings have become much less predictable, which is when I do most of my writing. I should be getting back on track soon as I adapt to my new life.

From Goodwill to Home Depot: Where the Guthrie Theater gets its props – Fantastic little article about Rebecca Jo Malmstrom, the Guthrie’s props shopper and fabricator. It’s always nice to see the different roles and in a props shop get some attention.

R is for Robot – Cinefex blog takes a look at the history of robots on film, from early costumes and stop motion, to today’s marriage of motion-capture and CGI.

30 Days Until Halloween: The Home and Family Yard Design – Though we’re already halfway through October, it’s not too late to catch up with Dave Lowe’s Halloween project. Every year, he creates a massive outdoor Halloween display for the Hallmark Channel’s Home and Family show, filled with dozens of handmade props.

They Don’t Make Theatre Sets Like they Used To – MessyNessy talks about when shows used to have hundreds of props, and has pictures to prove it. I think we can still find contemporary examples of set designs with intricate detail and an antique’s store worth of dressing, although none of it comes close to the Hippodrome in the early twentieth century.

Fit Irregular (Impossible!) Shapes with ‘Ticking Sticks’ – This is a ridiculously useful trick that I wish I had known sooner. It’s kind of hard to explain, but if you check out the pictures, you can see exactly what a “ticking stick” does.

Life in Properties, 1895

The following is a delightful first-person account (author unknown) of life in the property department. It dates way back to 1895, but many of the challenges of the job remain the same:

Not exactly an artist—not by any means a mechanic—it is hard for me to say exactly what head I come under. I remember there was trouble the last time they took the census, for my wife would not hear of my being described as a “property man,” through being afraid those stupid Government officers might think me a man of property and go charging me house duty and income tax, and all sorts of things. A hollow kind of life, do you call it? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Not if it’s done conscientiously, I say. That poet I have heard of must have had me in his eye when he wrote “Things are not what they seem.” It is my mission to make the unreal appear to be real, and whatever you may think about the usefulness of that pursuit as a help to happiness in a respectably-conducted state, the property man is generally more successful in his aim than the actor who looks down upon him. I dare say they never give it a moment’s thought, but the British drama would be a poverty-stricken article without the help of the property man.

King Richard having to go on without a scepter would never be able to render Shakespeare true to nature, and what becomes of your classics, like The Courier of Lyons, if the mail guard isn’t shot at the proper moment? Yes, I have known more than one swagger tragedian have his comb cut through offending the property man. Particularly do I mind an Othello on a sofa with one of the legs sawn through by a gentleman in my line of business as revenge for the swagger tragedian’s bad temper for a whole fortnight. When he and the sofa and the curtain came down all together I thought the roof would have been lifted with laughter. The property man had gone home before the last act, or I am sure there would have been a real tragedy that night—and without any of the Shakespearean dialogue either.

A noble occupation surely, and a strain upon the mind certainly. You are always in terror of forgetting something, and forgetfulness has led to many new readings of popular plays. I recollect omitting to furnish a Hamlet with his tablets. He dived into his cloak for them, and they were not there. So he had to make his notes on imaginary ones, and the next day the newspapers raved about the magnificence of the new reading. Yet the credit belonged to the property-man, who never had any thanks for making the man’s reputation. A week of the legitimate is a regular load on the brain, and those historic plays are enough to drive you mad, what with the banners of this army and that, and the spears and the swords, and the rapiers and the banqueting scenes. Did I ever fit up The Old Toil House?

You’ll be asking me if I ever saw Joe Cave next. Ah! there’s a play for you—full of interest and movement, and those last dying orations for Jack Bunnage—as pretty a bit of poetry as you wish to clap eyes on. None of your drawing-room pieces for me—with their letters and lockets and fans and imitation vases and folderols. Good, honest properties are what I like—something that can be seen from the front with the naked eye and setting the audience wondering how much they cost. Jealous of real horses and cabs and saddle-bag furniture for the interiors? Not a bit of it. Live and let live, I say. Many a property feast have I put on in my time. The public expects property feeds in the legitimate. Sit Macbeth down to a table and ask his guests to drink out of anything but empty goblets, or pretend to do anything in the eating department except fool about with red-cheeked apples before Banquo comes in, and the public would hiss the play off the stage. No, sir, they will not stand any desecration of Shakespeare, and I pity the first Lady Macbeth who dares from the royal table to eat soup with a spoon. It would never do. The playgoer does not expect real food in a Shakespearean piece. He would object to it as a desecration and a degradation. He will permit no interference with the functions of the property man. On the other hand, provide Mrs. Puffy with anything save an honest hot steaming meat pie for The Streets of London and the house would be wrecked.

“Harlequin’s Leap.” Los Angeles Herald, 23 Feb. 1895, p. 11.

Last Props in September

Top 10 Resource Websites For Prop Makers and Art Directors – The Frankly Materials store has started a blog, and their first entry lists ten websites worth checking out. You’ve probably seen some of these, but others may be new.

Get Up Close With the Props of Dear Evan Hansen – Buist Bickley brings us backstage with this hit musical to share a wealth of photographs of the props.

How to Age and Distress Wood – Make Magazine shares a couple of videos that demonstrate techniques for making your wood look old and worn.

How To Make a Silicone Brush-Up Mold – In this video, Frank Ippolito demonstrates how to make a mold by painting silicone rubber over a surface.

Present To Past – Stage Directions magazine talks with Natalie Kearns, the head of props at the Grand Theatre in Canada. They look at her career and some of the props she has built at various other theaters.

 

Prop Service, 1957

The following comes from a 1957 article about a prop rental company founded to fulfill non-theatrical needs for props:

by Anthony Bailey and Brendan Gill

One of the most agreeable aspects of the boom we’ve been having for the past ten years or so is the freedom it offers young people in choosing their careers. If a young man doesn’t like the first job that presents itself, he abandons it in favor of a second, and if it, too, proves unsatisfactory, he’s apt to go out and invent a job of his own and make good in that. Take the case of a new acquaintance of ours, a pleasant and enterprising fellow named Stanley Levine, who is the deviser and proprietor of something called Prop Service. The name tells precisely what Mr. Levine has set out to do, which is to procure all sorts of props for the remarkably large number of non-Broadway people in this prop-happy city who require such objects—professional photographers, advertising agencies, TV producers, and the like. Levine, an athletic-looking thirty-two-year-old, is full of drive and bounce, as a seeker of props must be; his only assistants are his wife, known to the trade as Rhoda Roth (her maiden name) a man Friday named William Sheraton, and a telephone-answering service; and his headquarters is a room on Sutton Place, shared by Mary Suzuki, a nisei lady who does illustrations for fashion magazines.

When we visited Mr. Levine in Sutton Place the other day, we expected to find the room crammed to the ceiling with odd and perhaps unrecognizable objects. We found, on the contrary, that its contents consisted of a desk, a couple of chairs, two telephones, a small wooden box labelled “Source,” and a drawing board. “We had to make up our minds at the start whether to buy props,” Levine told us. “We decided against it, partly because many photographers don’t like to use a prop that they know other photographers have used, and partly because we’d have needed a warehouse to store stuff in. We’ve often been tempted to break our rule, but so far we’ve always either rented a prop or borrowed it or made it.” What was Levine’s preparation for his singular career? Brooklyn College, the Marines, the Sorbonne, then jobs with the United Nations, the Journal-American, Warner-Pathé, and a public-relations firm. “After a while, it occurred to me I didn’t like working for other people,” he said. “Rhoda and I are incorrigible window-shoppers, and we know a good deal about antiques. We figured we’d put our interest to work for us by charging a fee to locate the objects that we assumed photographers and the like were constantly in need of. We hung out our shingle in December, 1955, and discovered at once, to our astonishment, that what photographers wanted weren’t just antiques but also kitchen sinks.”

We supposed that Mr. Levine had mentioned kitchen sinks as a symbol, but he assured us he hadn’t. “You wouldn’t believe how many pictures of kitchen sinks get taken in this city every year, and how hard it is to find exactly the right sizes, shapes, and colors,” he said. “This is a frantic business. Rhoda and I work as much as twenty hours a day, six and a half days a week. We had no predecessors, we have no real competitors, and I doubt if we’ll have any successors.” He smiled the rueful smile of the pioneer who fears he may have made too good for his own good. “In the beginning, photographers came to us for props. Nowadays, advertising agencies often come to us for props before they’ve chosen a photographer. Sometimes, in fact, we choose the photographer for them. Agencies also like to consult us on what a given picture may cost. Why try and build an ad around a picture of a diesel yacht if it would take their whole budget just to hire the yacht? They don’t know what a yacht costs; we do. One agency wanted a life-size stuffed elephant for a prop. A stuffed elephant sounds cheaper than a live one, doesn’t it? Well, we found what they wanted up in Yonkers, but the price was so high that we persuaded them to go to the Zoo instead.”

Municipal departments and big corporations are extremely obliging about lending props, Mr. Levine said. He has often borrowed blinking lights, manhole guardrails and covers, pneumatic drills, and other equipment from Con Ed, and has borrowed subway seats, street signs, and similar items of local color from the city. “Except for an occasional gratuity, no cash changes hands in such cases, but there’s a prodigious amount of red tape to be got through,” Levine said. “That’s what we get paid for—our headaches. Our fees range from fifteen to a thousand dollars. Some agencies and photographers simply mail us a list of objects they need, and count on us to deliver them at the proper time and place.” Levine took a letter from the desk and read aloud, “‘One gilt pedestal. Feathered angel’s wings. One hookah. One ornate fibre screen. One old conga drum. One sea diver’s outfit. One beehive. One live tiger. One mermaid’s tail.’ We then scoot around town in a fire-engine-red Isetta 300 and look for things.” The props that the Levines are proudest of procuring are a ship’s gang-plank, a baseball grandstand, three racing greyhounds, and an eggshell cracked just so. “To date, our only failure has been a particular kind of Aladdin’s lamp that somebody wanted—a million-to-one shot,” Levine said. “Except for that, we’ve never missed a deadline, and we’ve never turned down an assignment.” A telephone rang, and he picked it up. “Palm trees?” he asked. “Why not? Where?… What time?… How many?”

Bailey, Anthony, and Brendan Gill. “Props.” The New Yorker, 8 June 1957, p. 24.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies