Category Archives: Reprints

Beg, Borrow, Buy, or… (1948)

The following first appeared in a 1948 issue of Players Magazine:

By Joe Zimmerman. Temple University. Philadelphia, Penna.

For most educational theatres, borrowing properties is the most expedient method of securing properties, and the one by which the greatest number and variety of items are made available. Most non-commercial theatres rely primarily on borrowing for their properties. But a good many designers find that borrowing is a good deal of work, and at least in their experience, seems to require a lack of dignity and “professional manner” that is no great argument in its favor.

Borrowing, however, may also be handled as a self-respecting manner of securing properties, with dignity and some pride, if it is done properly. The “art of borrowing” is both a concept and a fairly specific technique. Continue reading Beg, Borrow, Buy, or… (1948)

Ancient Stage Properties, 1912

The following comes from a 1912 issue of The New York Times:

British Museum Contains Rich and Interesting Collection of Curious Relics.

Not the least interesting of the thousands of exhibits at the British Museum are those connected directly or indirectly with the stage. There is nothing in the Babylonian section pertaining to the subject, but the Egyptians supply us with what is probably the oldest wig in the world; a wig, it is true, that was in no way connected with the drama, but one that will compare favorably with the finest creations of the theatrical perruquier. Strangely enough, the tresses are made of plated crêpe hair, exactly similar to that used by modern actors for mustaches.

In the Graeco-Roman department may be seen the cosmetic box of a Roman lady. The white and flesh-colored chalks and rouges are similar to those used for “making up” in the days previous to the invention and manufacture of grease paint. There are also two objects of the theatrical life of the past that have their replicas in the theatres of the present day. One is a thin, oblong slab of stone bearing the Latin words “Circus plenus,” which was occasionally to be found outside a Roman circus, and corresponded to the familiar modern notice “House Full.” The other is a plain ivory disk displayed in the Egyptian room, but which would hardly attract attention. This common-looking object is a theatre check or pass, but whether of a temporary or permanent character cannot be ascertained.

Much the richest department in stage objects, however, is the Graeco-Roman, where one case of stage exhibits may be seen. Here are to be found specimens of the masks worn by actors, which were modeled according to strict rules. They were made of terra-cotta, and must have been very uncomfortable to wear (Editor’s note: We now know the actual masks were made of linen. The terra-cotta masks were models which were never actually worn). There are also numerous statuettes in bronze and terra-cotta of actors wearing their masks in the various characters they impersonated, in addition to models of masks of every description and kind. A good idea of the manner in which plays were staged in those days may be gathered from the scenes from plays as depicted on vases and a terra-cotta lamp. In the wall cases may also be seen various objects illustrating the gladiatorial combats in the arena, also the swords, helmets, and badges of those doughty champions. In addition, there are also several specimens of the discus, the throwing of which was one of the features of the late Olympic meeting, and of the weights held by the athletes in the jumping contests.

To come to more recent times, there is in the British mediaeval room a beautifully carved casket made from wood of the mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden, which was presented to David Garrick when he received the freedom of Stratford-on-Avon. A little further along, in the Ethnological Gallery, may be seen a very fine collection of marionettes and puppets used in the Javanese theatres. The figures are articulated, and worked by means of thin sticks attached to the limps. The Javanese are passionately fond of these shows, which are even more popular in Java than the old-fashioned “Punch and Judy” used to be in this country, or “Guignol” in France. In fact, they very much recall the fantoccini or puppet shows which delighted our forefathers.

In this same gallery are many quaint costumes and masks worn in primitive dances by the savage races of the globe, the most remarkable of which are perhaps some tortoiseshell masks fashioned to resemble crocodiles (Editor’s note: This is a horrible way to describe other cultures. I leave it in to remind us that much of our knowledge of non-Western cultures originally came from racist sources, and this type of thinking may still color our current views, even when the language has been made more politically-correct). Although these dances were generally of a religious character, they were nevertheless essentially pantomimic, and bear some analogy to the mystery play of mediaeval times.

“Ancient Stage Properties.” New York Times, 29 Sept. 1912, p. S4. The New York Times Archives,

A Man of Letters, 1943

The following is an article about Joe Lynn, a twentieth-century American props master I have written about frequently on this blog. It comes from a 1943 issue of The New Yorker:

by Eugene Kinkead and Russell Maloney

A local stage property man named Joe Lynn is, we would guess, the most zealous prop man in the business. A prop man, you know, takes care of everything in a theatrical production that isn’t part of the set or a member of Actors’ Equity—dishes, weapons, rubies stolen from an idol’s eye, or whatever. The job also includes taking care of letters, if letters are called for in the script. In “The Eve of St. Mark” a letter figures prominently in Act I, Scene 3. As the scene opens, a girl is just finishing a letter to her sweetheart in the Army. She seals it and gives it to her father to mail. Well, Joe Lynn is the prop man for “The Eve of St. Mark.” Every day, and twice a day on matinée days, he has written a real letter for the use of Mary Rolfe, who plays the girl, and she has added a few words of her own before sealing it. There’s no need for any of this super-realism, you understand; a sheet of paper with a few random scribbles on it would be good enough to fool even the people in the front row.

The letters thus composed are kept stacked on a shelf backstage at the Cort—quite a pile of them now, the show having played over two hundred and fifty performances. Joe Lynn, a stocky fellow in his mid-forties, allowed us to skim through and transcribe a few selections, though it was plain that he thought our interest was misplaced. “I don’t go in much for this literary business,” he told us, busily stacking away a plateful of dummy hamburgers. “I just catch-as-catch-can with it. It never takes me more than three or four minutes.” Having read a few of the letters, we decided that Joe was being too modest. The letters, most of them on current events, were uniformly pithy, studded with cracks like this one, apropos the rumor that the Little Flower was going to join the Army: “Well, it happened. We now have a one-star general direct from City Hall. I’d like to see him in his uniform. I’ll bet he will look like a wet football standing on end.” One day last week the letter read, “Now they’ve knocked Rommel’s ears back. On our own shores Congress has been kicking around the Ruml Plan. I guess some of them figured any thing or name that sounded like Rommel was no good, and they wanted to share in the glory.”

On the twelfth of February there was a brief tribute to Lincoln, beginning, “One hundred and thirty-four years ago today Nancy Hanks lying on a rough-hewn bed with an old rough bearskin as a mattress gave birth to a baby boy who was later to become the Great Emancipator.” Other topics touched on in the letters are liquor rationing, the Supreme Court, Valentine’s Day, the old Tiller Girls, General MacArthur, and the Shubert brothers. Miss Rolfe’s additions to these notes, having been made onstage, are naturally somewhat perfunctory. Usually they have no relation to Joe’s topic of the day; for instance, her post-script to Joe’s letter on liquor rationing read, bleakly, “Well, here I go with another cold. Love, Janet.” All the letters begin with the salutation “Dear Quizz” in Joe’s handwriting and end “Love, Janet” in Miss Rolfe’s. Quizz and Janet are, of course, the play’s lovers.

Joe had a forthright answer when we asked him why he goes to all this extra trouble. “I got to do something to earn my money,” he said. He figures that since 1915, when he started his career as a prop man, he has had about a hundred shows, probably half of which involved letters; during the runs of these shows he wrote letters for every performance. He has apparently established a tradition for “The Eve of St. Mark.” The prop man for the road company was furnished with a batch of Joe’s letters to use as models and ordered to do likewise, willy-nilly. Understand the theatre any better now?

Kinkead, Eugene, and Russell Maloney. “Correspondence.” The New Yorker, 22 May 1943, p. 14.

Property Man: New Style, 1934

The following article from 1934 details the evolution of a props director in film which was occurring throughout the twentieth century:

By Frank S. Nugent

It’s a far cry—in fact, it’s a good resounding whoop—from  the humble, janitor-like property man of yesteryear to the high-geared, big executive who has the same title in the modern motion-picture studio. By way of illustration, one could point to Albert C. (“Whitey”) Wilson, head of the Warner studio’s property department, who was in town last week taking a turn through the local shops and shoppes, picking up some new ideas on decoration and making a few judicious purchases to “sweeten up the stock” on the Brothers’ ample shelves back in Hollywood.

Mr. Wilson is the purchaser and custodian of a property stock valued at $500,000. It fills one warehouse in the Burbank studios, five lesser storerooms elsewhere in Hollywood and another at the Sunset plant. Mr. Wilson has no idea just how many articles are on hand; somewhere in the “hundreds of thousands” was his best estimate. They range in size from a jeweled snuff box to a coach for Madame DuBarry or an English poster bed, Tudor style.

On twenty-four hours’ notice—and that generally is the best they can expect—his department can turn four studio walls into a penthouse gambling den or a fisherman’s chapel, the inside of a submarine or the outside of an airliner, a prison mess hall or a ballroom at a débutante’s coming-out party. Things like that are just routine and have no terrors.

But it’s a different story when Busby Berkeley comes along with his “Gold-Diggers of 1935” and asks, as he just did, for fifty ivory-hued grand pianos that do not, of necessity, have to play, but must be able to dance. Or when, as in “Wonder Bar,” the director insists upon a scene with twelve mirrors, each of which must be twenty feet high and sixteen feet long. Or when, as in “It’s Tough to Be Famous,” the Navy Department refuses, at the last minute, to lend the studio twenty-five submarine escape “lungs” and the property man is told to have prop imitations ready by 9 the next morning—and has to drive all over town at midnight looking for baking powder cans of a certain size because they happen to look like one important part of the “lungs.”

Things like that are what wear a man down, Mr. Wilson says. Oh, yes! He got the pianos for Mr. Berkeley; had them made up by one of the country’s largest piano companies. They’ll be seen waltzing around and going through formations in the next “Gold Diggers.” And he got the mirrors for “Wonder Bar.” They’re still in the studio warehouse, and once in a while he has a chance to use one of them—but not all, not ever again, he’s afraid.

Nugent, Frank S. “Property Man: New Style.” New York Times, 25 Nov. 1934.

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.