A Strange Passage in my Life, 1835

The following occurred in 1835 and comes from a collection of stories about life on the stage. I find it notable in describing what a props run crew person was charged with, as well as revealing what the pay was for overhire on large shows:

A Strange Passage in my Life

by E. L. Blanchard

It had long been his earnest desire to obtain a practical knowledge of the mode of working stage machinery, and when an old friend of his family, Mr. William Bradwell, the ingenious theatrical mechanician, for many years associated with Covent Garden, proposed that he should be placed on the “property” staff of that establishment as a recipient of the nightly eighteenpence paid to extra hands during the run of spectacular pieces, the offer was eagerly accepted. Throwing in such trifling literary services as a couplet or a comic song for a pantomime, and occasionally assisting in the authorship of a playbill, the duties I had to discharge in this department were neither irksome nor unpleasant.

The distribution of banners, shields, and spears was committed to my charge, and when “Macbeth” was played, I had to count out the exact number of branches required for Birnam Wood to come to Dunsinane, and to see that the forest sent on by human instalments was duly returned and stacked, when the scene was over, in its accustomed corner.

When it was necessary for the evil demon to go below, it was my hand that gave the signal for the trap to descend, and the match to be applied to the pan of red fire; and, when the good fairy had to be despatched on some benevolent mission above, mine were the arms ready to receive her in the flies, and respectfully enfold the waist that had to be unhooked from the strong hold of the “traveller.”

When the revolving pillars of the ascending temple, used in the melodramatic romance of “Aladdin,” produced such a pretty effect, that a round of applause was sure to follow, I felt, as the invisible promoter of this peaceful revolution, bound to acknowledge the complement with an unseen bow. When the radiating star opened in the first scene of “The Bronze Horse,” to inspire by an encouraging dream the slumbering Zamna, Prince of China—represented by Mr. John Collins, uneasily reclining on a most uncomfortable mossy bank in the foreground, and usually grumbling during his supposed sleep about calico flowers being nailed to his couch with sharp tin tacks, placed the wrong way—mine was the hand giving movement to the complicated mechanism.

When Claude Frollo was flung by Quasimodo from the Tower of Notre Dame, it was my mission to hurl through the window the substituted dummy, and my misery to learn that a left-handed deputy, appointed one evening, had sent the stuffed figure through the wrong window, and pitched it into the middle of the pit, among a crowd of amazed spectators, who, after nursing the tattered effigy for awhile in a seemingly affectionate manner, returned it with such force across the footlights, that it fairly knocked down Mr. Henry Wallack, who entered at that moment as Quasimodo, and sent the Esmeralda, Miss Vincent, into such a fit of irrepressible laughter, that it became necessary to ring the curtain down as speedily as possible.

Scott, Clement. Stories of the Stage. London: G. Routledge, 1881. 22-23. Google Books. 25 Oct. 2007. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=TRgOAAAAQAAJ>.

Friday Fun Prop Links

Adam Savage Behind the Scenes of Alien: Covenant – Our favorite Mythbuster tours the set of the latest Alien movie as is being built, painted, and weathered. Sure, it’s a set, but it’s a very proppy set.

Work/Life Balance in Professional Theatre – American Theatre Magazine is running a survey to learn more about the work/life balance in theatre. If you work professionally, take a few moments to fill it out and help add to their data.

The Pen and the Trigger Finger: Examining Gun Violence Onstage – While this article does not deal with props per se, it does have a lot of interesting ideas about the use of guns on stage and even just the implication of gun violence. As a props master, you need to be aware that simply placing a gun on stage or in an actor’s hands carries a lot of weight and meaning to your audience.

Finishing Lies – Finally, Christopher Schwartz brings us this list of claims made on the packaging of wood finishes which typically do not end up being true.

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime, Part 3, 1901

The following comes from a 1901 magazine article. Part 1 and part 2 were published previously:

In making human heads the artist plays a very important part, being able with his brush to present them old or young, ugly or becoming, with the same foundation. The old “big-head” of pantomime is practically now obsolete, being replaced by a much lighter mask made in three pieces. Masks that at one time weighed ten pounds now scale only two and a-half. There are also half-masks for animal impersonators, such as Mr. Charles Lauri. The mask fixes upon the lower part of the head and works with elastic springs, moving with the movement of the wearer’s mouth. The upper part of the face is “made-up” to represent the animal being impersonated.

Painting the Model. Photograph by The Press Studio.
Painting the Model. Photograph by The Press Studio.

But perhaps one of the most skilful “properties” ever turned out is the “Blondin donkey.” This was first roughly designed on paper, giving details of the interior arrangements. The performer for whom the dress is intended has to be measured in almost the same way as a tailor measures for a suit of clothes. Much depends upon the accuracy of the figures—the length of the back, arms, legs, and girth. The head is made of papier-mâché, and the body of baize, the latter being padded in such a manner that when the wearer dons the dress it is a close fit and there is no room to fall about inside it. The padding also protects the wearer in case of rough-and-tumble usage. The back-legs of the donkey are worked with the legs of the man, but the front-legs of the animal are fitted with crutches reaching from the feet to the knees. On these crutches the man rests his hands and moves the legs about at will. The mouth, eyes, ears, and tail are worked by means of strings communicating with the man’s hands. Other animals are made on similar lines, the elephant requiring two people to work it.

There are many tricks dear to the “knockabout” which make a call upon the ingenuity of the property-man, and in which padded wigs and padded clothing play an important part. One man hits another over the head with a chopper, leaving the latter apparently sticking in his skull. The wig is padded with cork, in which there is a groove, that receives the chopper.

But one might go on enumerating like instances of the skill of the property-man for an indefinite period. To put it briefly and comprehensively, he is always equal to any call  upon his services.

“Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime.” Illustrated London News and Sketch 25 Dec. 1901: 372. Google Books. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=I5hRAAAAYAAJ>.

Prop-alicious Prop Links

For this Broadway prop master, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the golden ticket – Buist Bickley is back, with his biggest Broadway show ever. Crain’s New York takes a look at how Buist brought the Wonka factory to life from his Greenpoint studio.

Bringing the animals of the jungle to life in the stage show Running Wild – The puppeteers from War Horse are back, and this time they created a whole jungle’s worth of puppet animals to frolic on stage. Check out the sketches of some of their designs, and watch a video to see the final puppets in action.

Let’s Talk About Sets, Baby – Helen Keller is back, and her play was just on stage at UW-Stevens Point. Check out this conversation with the set designer and the props master about how historical accuracy with the set dressing and properties brought her world to life.

Ironhead Studio’s Superhero and Specialty Costumes – Ironhead makes some of the most iconic superhero suits for films today, such as the Batman suit from Batman V Superman. Tested talks with founder Jose Fernandez at this year’s Monsterpalooza.

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime, Part 2, 1901

The following comes from a 1901 magazine article. Part 1 was published previously:

When a large model in papier-mâché is made, similar to those shown in the photograph, the plaster cast is necessarily a very heavy affair and takes several men to move it.

If an article is required the like of which is not to be found on the face of the earth—a grotesque and imaginative figure—then a rough design is first sketched on paper, and the model made from this. Pantomime articles are frequently treated in this way. Most plaster casts are kept in stock for future use.

Fitting Together. Photograph by The Press Studio.
Fitting Together. Photograph by The Press Studio.

In addition to the clay and papier-mâché modelling, there is a considerable amount of carpentering and, in the women’s department, needlework to be done. They also have to manipulate metal, and, upon the occasion of my visit to Drury Lane, I was shown an exact model of a Maxim. Everything was complete and full-size, the water-jacket being of brass. It was made workable, and the noise which the real weapon makes when in action was cleverly imitated by turning a small crank at the back.

The Women's Department. Photograph by The Press Studio.
The Women’s Department. Photograph by The Press Studio.

Many cunning devices are resorted to by the property-man. For instance, in making a basket of eggs, an ordinary wicker arrangement is fitted with a papier-mâché cover representing a pile of eggs. In this cover, however, spaces are left for the introduction of model eggs which can be taken from the bulk at the will of the carrier. This materially assists the illusion.

Trick musical instruments, too, are very effective. A man picks up a carrot on the stage, puts the end to his mouth, blows, and it is a whistle. The model of the carrot is built round the whistle, holes being allowed for notes and mouthpiece. The painting, however, masks these from the eyes of the audience.

“Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime.” Illustrated London News and Sketch 25 Dec. 1901: 372. Google Books. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=I5hRAAAAYAAJ>.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies