Category Archives: Reprints

When Prop or Player Fails, Part 3, 1919

I’ve been posting some excerpts of prop mishaps from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails” (here and here). Since they were so entertaining, I thought I would post a final duet of tales from that article:

Franklyn Ardell’s talent for comedy turned a stage wait in “The Crowded Hour” the other night into the biggest laugh of the performance. The climax of the third act is reached when a bomb from an airplane strikes the house in which Jane Cowl, frantically operating a telephone switchboard, is trying to save a division threatened with destruction. At the time Miss Cowl is calling Soissons on the telephone, and the word is the cue for the bomb explosion and the collapse of the house. On this night, as she called “Soissons!” the bomb exploded, but the house failed to collapse. Miss Cowl waited an agonizing second, and then again called “Soissons!” Again a wait, and as she was about to call a third time the voice of Ardell could be clearly heard all over the house. “Never mind Soissons!” he whispered. “Call ‘em up back stage and find out what in blazes is the matter.”…

A slip which was the fault of no one in particular took place some years ago at a performance of “Madame Sans-Gêne” in Scranton. The scene of the first act was a kitchen, or perhaps a laundry, and Kathryn Kidder, in the leading role, was lifting red hot irons from a presumably red hot stove. So hot was the stove, in fact, that Miss Kidder was applying a tentative finger to each iron as she lifted it, and indicating as she withdrew it that the stove was hot indeed. In the midst of the scene, however, the theatre cat chose to stroll out upon the stage, and, as luck would have it, elected to climb up on the supposedly hot stove. And there it calmly sat, licking its paws in lazy comfort. The audience gave way to uncontrolled merriment, and the entire act went for naught.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

When Prop or Player Fails, 1919

The following excerpt comes from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” The article describes mishaps on stage due to missing or malfunctioning props, a problem which has plagued actors since theatre began.

One of the most familiar and most absurd stories of histrionic presence of mind is concerned with an old-time melodrama which called for an actor to file his way through prison bars, only to be shot dead later as he stood on the wall of the prison, about to escape. The file had been brought carefully into the plot, so that the audience was fully aware that the prisoner had it in his possession. On the night in question, as he stood on the prison wall after sawing his way through the bars, the gun of the prison guard failed to go off when the trigger was pulled. The actor, however, fell from the wall as he was accustomed to, but instead of lying where he dropped, he staggered down to the footlights.

“My God!” he gasped, to the audience. “I’ve swallowed the file!” And dropped dead.

The gun which fails to go off is one of the most frequent causes of embarrassment to an actor. There is the long familiar story of the actor who pulled the trigger as usual one night, in a scene in which he was supposed to murder another character, only to be met by a click instead of the customary report. The other man, however, fell down as usual when the trigger was pulled, so the first player did what he could to save the situation. Looking from the revolver in his hand to the man prostrate on the floor, he remarked, “These Maxim silencers are certainly wonderful things,” and the play went on…

Arthur Byron of “Tea for Three” tells of a melodrama in which he was supposed to shoot E. J. Henley, only to find that the gun would not go off. He made several attempts, and then Henley whispered “Stab me! Stab me!” Byron, unfortunately, had nothing with which to stab him, so he brought about his demise by clubbing him over the head with the revolver.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

Edible Props, 1987

The following first appeared in a 1987 issue of the Wall Street Journal:

“Edible Props”, by Laurel Graeber

Jan Marasek spent weeks last fall searching for the perfect date. Not to fill lonely hours on Saturday night, but to fill a box for the actors starring in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”

“I had such a hard time,” says Mr. Marasek, production property master for Emanuel Azenberg, the Broadway show’s producer. “They didn’t want pits, they didn’t want them coated; the ones from Balducci’s and Zabar’s were too big to mouth. I finally ended up in a health-food restaurant. I’m always looking for dates,” he says with a sigh.

Like many theatrical property people, Mr. Marasek finds that his role often resembles a cross between a maitre d’s and a magician’s. Years ago, he says, scripts frequently called for actors to be smoking; now they always seem to be eating. And edible props are seldom to property masters’ liking. They first have to please the actors, who may have food allergies or dietary restrictions.

“When Carol Channing was starring in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ her doctors came backstage to ask what she was eating,” remembers Mr. Marasek. “In one scene, she gobbled down dumplings, which were made of spun sugar so she could eat them easily. It turned out we were giving her about a cup of sugar per performance.” When her physicians demanded an immediate change, Mr. Marasek worked with property man Leo Herbert to produce dumplings made of thin paper sprayed with tea and shaped over small light bulbs to dry. At each performance, Miss Channing would “eat” the dumplings and dispose of them discreetly when she wiped her mouth.

Since almost no one would appreciate the same foods eight times a week, property men have devised creative substitutes. Mr. Marasek has made eggs from apricot halves surrounded by white bread lightly sprinkled with boiling water. For the liver in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” he used pumpernickel, which, creatively shaped with a pizza cutter, also stars as the pot roast in “Broadway Bound.”

“‘Biloxi Blues’ has the big mess-hall scene, where the kid hates the food,” he says of the Neil Simon play, which is now on a national tour. “When Matthew Broderick starred, he wanted to almost retch when he saw it.” The concoction was an unappetizing combination of apple butter and green food coloring.

Property masters also worry about safety. Mr. Marasek has been known to sew a loaf of bread together to prevent the cast from tripping over a fallen slice. Eating itself poses a risk to actors, who may swallow more than their lines. “A dry cookie can be a disaster,” he says. During tryouts of “Broadway Bound,” for example, actor John Randolph caught a seed in his throat from a piece of rye bread. From then on, only seedless loaves were purchased.

Another danger is backstage cooking, which increases the risk of a fire, not to mention the horrifying possibility of a cast felled by food poisoning, or a theater overrun with living things that haven’t bought tickets. That’s why prop men like to keep edibles to a minimum, and preserve purely decorative foods with shellac.

“It’s good for something with a low moisture content,” says Edward Gianfrancesco, resident designer at Off Broadway’s WPA Theatre. “But we had a prop person use it once on cheeses and fruits. It was great for a while, except that the varnish became a perfect envelope for everything to turn totally rotten inside.”

Real food is also expensive. Since the 1985 Broadway opening of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport,” Mr. Herbert’s staff has bought approximately 84 heads of lettuce, 84 loaves of bread, 63 pounds of tunafish salad, 42 sticks of butter and 28 jars of mayonnaise just to make one sandwich for each performance. “Those in the front row have to see that it’s tuna,” says Mr. Herbert. But neither of the actors who has had to taste it has liked tuna, which is why the hidden half of the sandwich is purposely made only with butter. Such grocery costs mount, and although sponsors sometimes ease them by providing coupons or free goods in exchange for a program credit, the arrangement doesn’t always suffice.

“Planter’s is giving us cashews for ‘Broadway Bound,'” says Mr. Marasek. “The cast goes through a pound a show, even though there’s only a line about one nut in the script. We don’t have the nerve to ask Planter’s for all the nuts we use, and they’re $5.99 a jar in the supermarket. No one admits to eating them, but,” he says with determination, “I’m investigating now.”

To fill a production’s gastronomical needs, property masters have gone everywhere from Oriental food shops to caterers. Mr. Marasek once even consulted the Catholic Church to find out what the Host was made of, to see if it would be a viable substitute for the “Hello, Dolly!” dumplings. It wasn’t.

With so much time, energy and money at stake, property masters prefer artificial food. Mr. Marasek once made a turkey out of plastic-treated felt and cucumber slices out of silicon caulking compound. Liquor is almost never real, as some thieves discovered when they broke into Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where Andrew Bergman’s “Social Security” is playing. What they thought was high-quality Scotch proved to be caramel-colored water.

But although artifice plays a major role in property design, theater professionals strive to make their fake edibles look real. Mr. Marasek usually injects the plastic oranges in “Broadway Bound” with water to give them the appropriate weight. Sound is important, too: If an actress throws what is supposedly a tray of frozen fish sticks in a processing plant, they can’t sound like styrofoam blocks. This was the problem confronting Mr. Gianfrancesco, who designed the set, complete with styrofoam fish covered with sawdust batter, for the WPA Theatre’s recent production of Israel Horovitz’s “North Shore Fish.” Wood, he reasoned, was too heavy a substitute and a potential danger to the actors.

“For that particular scene, we made a batch out of Homosote, which is like a very dense cardboard,” he explains. “That tray had to come out in just the proper sequence for her to hurl it and get the sound.”

There is, however, one area in which no one seeks authenticity.

“You don’t want the audience to start smelling food cooking,” warns Mr. Marasek, “or they’ll all want to walk out to the nearest restaurant and eat.”

“Theater: Edible Props”, by Laurel Graeber. Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1987.

Yale Theater “Props”, 1927

This article comes from a 1927 article in The Christian Science Monitor. It has some interesting examples of how props people shopped and sourced articles from nearly ninety years ago. I was also amazed that a university had classes in props back then.

Haunting the antique shops is a regular part of the duties of the “property man” in any well-organized theater, and “property hunting” forms part of the curriculum of Yale University Theater, established last year under the direction of Prof. George P. Baker, formerly of Harvard University.

One student in charge of properties is given a crew of from six to eight assistants, varying according to the size of the production. Early in the year it is the business of “props” to make friends with all the second-hand men and antique dealers in town and find out those who are willing to rent their goods for a small nightly sum.

As soon as the list of “props,” furniture and small article need in the play, has been made out, the crew assembles and two or three are chosen to visit the antique dealers. The explorers roam the town, up State Street and down Grand Avenue, and across to Chapel Street in excited quest of trophies that may range from hair trunks to sofas and strings of shell for a what-not, from ladder-back chairs to weaving looms or a case for an opera hat.

Some of the articles are bought outright and added to the theater’s permanent collection, appearing from year to year. These are staples, such as spinning wheels, carved chests, artificial flowers, dishes, firearms, sets of “book-backs” for sham library shelves, pottery, electric doorbells and telephones, beside innumerable small adjuncts such as writing materials, sewing and knitting paraphernalia, photographs and knives, all of which are classified and kept in marked boxes, ready for such directions as “Tooby enters from the garden carrying a bouquet of roses. Tiptoeing to the table, he places them carefully in a bowl and, seizing the paper knife, begins slitting the mail.”

Costume plays make heavy demands on the property pantry for family portraits, reticules, antimacassars, highboys, marble-topped tables, rag rugs, nail kegs and other household incidentals, a list of which sounds like a will in probate.

For such as these, the antique shop, the Salvation Army store, even the junk dealer has his uses, and in some cases near-by villages are scoured for specimens of the period. One scene laid in the middle of the last century was supposed to take place in a mid-western “parlor,” and called for a clock with a scene painted on the front. It was found in a shop in West Haven and brought in, lurching dejectedly, but embellished with a brave sweep of ocean. It was so decrepit that no one thought of stuffing the spring with cotton. In the middle of the play it suddenly came to life, ticking sonorously through the entire act, much to the actors’ discomfiture.

Old houses which are being torn down are a prolific source of “props” and are especially useful to the scene designer. Mantels, cornices, doors, window frames, and even entire fireplaces often are bought up for a song, later to be utilized as part of a “set.”

In one case the designer was in despair over a garden scene where he must produce a fountain. The usual expedients such as canvas stretched on wire netting and painted produced dolefully squat dolphins. Papier mache succeeded little better. Finally, happening to pass the weedy yard where a house was being torn down, the designer saw the very thing he wanted lying half matted in grass.

He strode in, bargained with the wrecking company, and carried his find back to the theater. For $2 he had bought what nearly a week’s work had failed to achieve.

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1927; “Yale Theater ‘Props'”, special correspondence, page 8.

The Ten Best Props (of 1921)

The following article, written by Lisle Bell, first appeared in Theatre Magazine in May of 1922. It’s interesting that theatre-goers from almost a hundred years ago recognized that props were forgotten during awards ceremonies. It’s also cool that one of the ten best props of 1921 was the bar in “Anna Christie”, a prop that I tackled earlier this year.

As the dramatic year draws to a close, the critical pastime of handing out the laurel begins. The producers are sitting in their box offices, counting out the money, and the actors are beginning to look forward to the relaxations of the Atlantic or of Great Neck, but meantime the critical judges, both professional and amateur, are busy thumbing over their accumulated programmes. Those who have blue ribbons to pin, prepare to pin them now.

These exercises usually take the form of “ten best” and “ten best that.” Combing over the productions of the season, the experts select the plays and players who have, in their estimation, contributed most to the advancement of their art. Their choices, alphabetically arranged or else tabulated in the order of merit, are duly published to a waiting world, and mere theatregoers spend many a pleasant evening quarreling with their decisions or improving upon them.

The Drama League makes an authentic choice of those who have rendered the greatest service to the cause, and those thus honored are invited to a banquet, where they occupy such positions of distinction, and are in fact so conspicuous, that one wonders whether they really have a chance to enjoy the food. Perhaps, however, the actors who attend those functions do not have to satisfy an appetite, and so merely go through the motions of eating with evident relish, much as they might do while taking part in a stage meal.

There is something truly fascinating about stage food, and the manner of its histrionic disappearance. Who will ever forget that patient loaf of bread that Margaret Wycherly kept eternally cutting in “Jane Clegg”? And does anyone recall a more intense scene of drama than that opening of the last act of “The Grand Duke”—with no one on the stage but Lionel Atwill and his breakfast? Here was drama reduced to highest nutriment—the conflict between an epicure and his spices which was as packed with thrills as a conflict between a dope fiend and his vices. Atwill gave as much thought and deliberation to the dressing of his salad as Ziegfeld gives to the undressing of his chorus.

The more we think about the importance of this property breakfast, the more we are struck with the fact that the whole domain of stage props has been neglected in the annual awards of the drama experts. Burns Mantle edits a volume of the best plays of the year; the magazine critics issue their ukases of ten best “unfeatured male players,” and “unfeatured female players;” even the reviewers at Podunk and one-night stands get out lists of the best things that have come to the “opry house,”—and all this time the props have languished, unwept and unsung.

Here goes, then, for the ten best props of the season of 1921-22: Continue reading