Category Archives: Reprints

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.

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.

Nothing a Property Man Can Not Make, 1871

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

Bona-fide stage furniture is easily distinguished from the kind that people use in real life. In its ornamentation it is especially rich and rare. The idea in manufacturing this species of goods is to avoid a conflict with any given age or time, and in this it is successful, for it is unlike anything that is or ever has been. Wonder has often been expressed concerning the makers of this furniture. It is the joint handiwork of the Property Man and the stage carpenter; and when it is remembered that oftener than not these worthies know as much about cabinet-making as they do about the economy of the steam engine, the wonder really should be that the furniture is as good as it is. But there is this peculiarity about a Property Man, that there is nothing he can not make—after some fashion. In the Adrienne case above mentioned the man had not time, or he would have manufactured a set of “Louis Quatorze” furniture calculated to make that monarch turn in his grave. There would have been plenty of paint and Dutch metal upon it, and a great many people would have thought it a great deal finer than the real thing.

It is hard to say what class of work gives the Property Man the most trouble. When a burlesque or show piece is produced there is a quantity of special preparation to be made, which at first sight would be the most troublesome of his labors. Take such a piece as the Naaid Queen. All the masks, the marine productions of every sort, are furnished by the Property Man. Of course they have to be made, for no shop in Christendom deals in such wares. Such things are often quite elegant in design, and show the Property Man to be something of an artist, just as he is at other times carpenter, machinist, and chemist. To no man can the legend, “Jack of all trades, and master of none,” be applied with as much propriety as to him.

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

Drink on the Stage, 1903

The following is taken from a 1903 article in the Evening Star newspaper:

Drink on the stage often brings suffering to the actors, as in most cases a substitute for the genuine article is used. Who does not recall the scenes on the village green where the bustling innkeeper comes on with his little pitcher, ready to fill the mugs of the joyful villagers? From his wee pitcher he pours an endless stream of liquor without having to replenish the stock at the cask. And in the meantime the lads and lassies join in the inevitable drinking song, waving their cups about with no attempt to prevent the audience from seeing that all their inspiration comes from nothing more substantial than thin air. This sort of thing prevails in comic opera, but in more pretentious drama the illusion must be maintained.

In most theaters whisky is barred, but the red-nosed villain is allowed to partake of a disagreeable concoction composed of water and brown sugar. And where the play has a long run, the actor gets to looking forward to the drinking scene as one of the penalties of his profession.

When beer is the article demanded, the property man is sometimes allowed to bring in a bottle or “can” of the real article. But where a great number of persons are to drink, a makeshift is generally resorted to. The tops of the mugs are stuffed with loose cotton batting to simulate foam.

Champagne is represented by another unpleasant concoction, and tea and coffee are frequently merely imagined, for the actor can place the spout of the pot down into the cup, so that the audience is unable to tell whether a beverage is being poured out of not.

Stage fruits are usually made of cotton molded into the desired shapes, and then glazed and painted. In “Jim Bludso” a barrel apparently full of apples is introduced. The barrel is empty except for a single layer of cotton apples on the top, and the whole affair weighs only three of four pounds. Of course, where fruit is actually eaten on the stage the real article is cheap enough to be used.

Taken from The Evening Star (Washington, DC), February 28, 1903, page 25.