Burning the Props, 1939

The following comes from a 1939 issue of The New Yorker. I don’t know if traveling plays still need to be destroyed after the show closes, but I do know you still see a lot of scenery and props end up in the trash at the end of a run.

Flashing Finish

by John McNulty, Eugene Kinkead, and Russell Maloney

It was all rather sad about “The Flashing Stream,” the play written by Charles Morgan, the London critic, which flopped here after being such a success in London. The cast went away in a huff, one of them declaring that presenting the play over here was like putting vintage claret before whiskey drinkers. We poured ourself a stiff slug of redeye at ten last Monday morning and went around to the Biltmore Theatre to watch a curious rite connected with the demise of an English play. When a British production is brought over here, God forbid, the scenery and props are admitted duty-free only on the understanding that at the conclusion of the run they must be either shipped out of the country or destroyed. Nine times out of ten the management elects to destroy them.

When we arrived at the Biltmore we found a jolly crew of vultures from the Williams Transfer Corporation on the stage of the Biltmore, dismantling the single set, an ancient fortress. They were under the supervision of Frank Williams, a partner in the company, a gray-haired veteran of the scenery-transport business. He told us that the general practice had been to chop up the scenery and props right onstage, but that in this instance the customs men had ordered a burning. This, he told us, would necessitate a trip up to the Colgate dumps, near the Bronx River. When they got their trucks loaded, a customs official appeared, checked the inventory, down to the last vase of artificial flowers, and assigned a guard who was with him to make the trip to the dump and see it all burned. We followed the trucks in a taxicab, brooding on the impermanence of everything.

The dump is a large, bare expanse with a pit that smolders eternally, yawning for English drama. The truckmen, half a dozen of them, made a pile of the scenery. “We’ll need gasoline,” somebody said. “This is all fireproofed.” One of the truckmen winked. “The hell we will,” he said, touching a match to the pile. It went up in flames at once. The truckmen, like destructive brownies, skipped about the flames and yelled. “Gone with the wind!” cried one, throwing into the flames a billboard picture of Margaret Rawlings, the star. Another man disemboweled a sofa and set fire to the insides. Then they all began hurling small objects into the flames—cushions, glassware, vases, occasional chairs, all the paraphernalia of English acting. Our last sight of the holocaust, as we drove off in our cab, was a man who, under the approving gaze of the customs guard, was prancing about with an armful of artificial tiger lilies, pitching them one by one into the flames.

Original appearance: McNulty, John, Eugene Kinkead, and Russell Maloney. “Flashing Finish.” New Yorker 29 Apr. 1939: 18-19. Print.

Props Reading for the Weekend

The Stage reminds us that an army of craftspeople exist to make theatre: “While there is no such thing as a job for life in the theatre, and many of these craft jobs are now freelance, except with the very big theatre and opera companies, if you are good at what you do you’ll find an abundance of work that even the best actor or director would struggle to manage.” They talk about how to get started, and even give a list of training programs in the UK.

San Diego Comic Con is happening right now, and with it come tons of displays and sneak peeks at the props and costumes of upcoming films. Io9 has a quick video of the absolute coolest things on the convention floor, such as Batman’s new weapons, or vehicles from the upcoming Star Wars. The Original Prop Blog is also there posting updates, such as this collection of photos capturing all the details of the proton packs from the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot.

Make Magazine has a helpful primer (or a reminder for those of us that should know better) on what to wear to work safely in a shop. They cover gloves, clothes and shoes, as well as pointing out what not to wear.

Most of us have heard the story making the rounds of the audience member who jumped up on the stage of a Broadway show to charge his phone on a (non-functioning) outlet on the set. Vanity Fair has a nice profile on Beowulf Boritt, the set designer responsible for coming up with the realistic church basement for that show, Hand to God.

Macready Invents the Spike Mark, 1916

The following first appeared in a 1916 book titled “Recollections of a Scene Painter”,  written by an E.T. Harvey. In this section, Harvey talks about the famous English actor William Macready, who dominated the stage from 1818 to 1851. We hear what the carpenters in Philadelphia did after the Astor Place Riots, and we witness what may be the birth of the spike mark.

Macready was before my time, but he had made extensive tours in the United States, and many stories were still in vogue about him. Edwin Forrest, when in England, met with some severe criticism, which he and his friends attributed to Macready’s jealousy. This is generally believed to be without foundation, but it caused a bitter feeling here and when Macready played in New York, the Astor House riots occurred [in 1849], and seventeen people were killed. The same thing was threatened in Philadelphia, when he played in the Arch Street Theatre. The second night the mob was expected to reach the stage, and the old stage carpenter, Charley Long, told me many years afterward, that it was arranged to turn out the lights and open up the sectional stage, which would have thrown the mob in the cellar. The men stood all ready to do this. The crisis, however, was averted by the coolness and courage of Macready himself. But it was said the big chandelier in front of the theatre was filled with missiles thrown at him.

Many stories were in vogue to show his exactness of method. A message delivered to him on the stage had to be given on a certain spot, and when the actor playing the messenger had failed several times at rehearsal, Macready had a mark put upon the stage where he should drop on his knees to deliver it. At night, it was said, the actor went groping all over the stage to find the mark.

An interesting thing that I believe to be true was pointed out to me at the St. Charles Theatre, New Orleans. (The St. Charles was the historic theatre of New Orleans). Near the prompter’s stand were a lot of jagged holes in the brick wall; these were said to have been made by Macready, with a dagger in each hand, to get himself in the nervous tremor as “Macbeth,” after he has killed “King Duncan.”

Original Publication: Harvey, E. T. Recollections of a Scene Painter. Cincinnati: W.A. Sorin, 1916. 29. Google Books, 15 Feb. 2008. Web. 5 Sept. 2012.

Friday Links

This video is the coolest thing I’ve seen all week: Legacy Effects builds the Apatosaurus from Jurassic World. The film required a highly detailed animatronic head and neck of this dinosaur for a key scene. The video goes into great detail of how it was done. Check out the massive mixers they have running all at once for their foam rubber, not to mention the giant injectors they use to fill their molds. It’s an amazing inside look at the work they do.

Marty Marfin had an interesting challenge: how to mold and cast a spherical shape with a hollow interior. Find out how he did it in this comprehensive tutorial.

Over at Instructables, WardWorks has a fun guide to building a ghost trap from Ghostbusters. I’ve kind of always wanted one of these since I was a kid.

Finally, check out this plethora of images from the construction of a model of the Galileo Shuttlecraft from the original Star Trek television show. They take you from the blueprints all the way through the final painted piece.

Not all Acrylics are the Same

I was recently weathering a prop I’m working on. To get some grime and age on it, I decided to thin some black acrylic paint down with denatured alcohol to make a wash. I had two types of black acrylic paint laying around: Sargent and Liquitex.

They are both pretty cheap, share the same pigments, have similar consistencies, and dry to the same color. So they should be exactly the same, right?

Comparing acrylics
Comparing acrylics

As you can see in the photo above, the Liquitex immediately clumped up when I began to mix it with alcohol; it turned to little globs and flakes that refused to blend in with the rest of the liquid. The Sargent on the other hand blended easily into the alcohol, making a silky smooth wash that was ready to distress my prop.

Now don’t get me wrong, I use the Liquitex paints all the time; it’s great to have a range of colors ready to go to touch up a prop or add a spot of color. But it’s obviously not made to be thinned. Some paints are better at being thinned, some mix better with other colors, some have purer pigments. Paints have a whole bunch of ingredients in them that make them act differently than each other, even within the broad categories of “acrylic” or “oil” or “lacquer”.

This is why your scenic artist favors scenic paints for certain tasks over hardware store paint. Sure, you can get some similar colors, but when it comes to mixing colors, making glazes, or just thinning them down, the cheaper hardware store paint often turns to crud.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies