Mr. Bradwell, Prop Master of the Met

Last week we were looking at the very first dragon used at the Metropolitan Opera for Wagner’s Siegfried. It was taken care of by the property master there, known only as Bradwell. Who was Bradwell? I found another article from 1891 which gave a bit more information about this man:

“Then Mr. Hay, the executive lieutenant of Director Stanton, turns us over to Mr. Bradwell, the veteran property-master. Mr. Bradwell is from the Drury Lane Opera House, London, and his family have been identified with the property profession for nearly two hundred years. It is a very responsible post, for the whole ‘setting’ and ‘business’ of every performance depends upon the resources of the property department. The ‘properties’ of nearly half a hundred operas, stowed away in rooms, vaults, and racks all over the house, form a more bewildering chaos than the most disordered mind could conceive.”

The article also gives us some information about the Met at this time. This is before the opera moved to its current location in Lincoln Center. “At the right, or Thirty-ninth Street side, on the various floors, are the director’s office, the principal artists’ dressing-rooms, those of the male chorus, the offices of the various heads of departments, music library, property carpenter-shop, papier-maché-rooms, armor-rooms, etc. On the left, or Fortieth Street side, are the greenroom, the main scene-room, the property-master’s offices and store-rooms, dressing-rooms of the female chorus and ballet, and various work-rooms devoted to the manufacture of costumes and stage properties of every description, from a twenty-foot dragon, down to the flower which Marguerite pulls to pieces in the garden scene of ‘Faust.'”

The article also features a very well-done collage illustrating several backstage scenes:

Illustrations of the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1891
Illustrations of the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1891

Tyrrell, Henry. “Grand Opera at the Metropolitan.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 17 Jan. 1891, pp. 459–460. Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=f8IrAQAAMAAJ&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&pg=PA459#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Getting Wagner’s Dragon Ready, 1887

(the following first appeared in an 1887 issue of the New York Tribune. The dragon in this article is the same as described in this article by Gustav Kobbé. I believe this dragon was built by a man named William De Verna, and that the property master in this article acts more like a house property position rather than the fabricator. I could be wrong, but what follows is still a great description of the dragon’s construction)

The Prodigious Monster Which Will Lash His Tail and Roar at Siegfried

The preparation of the beast which will take the part of the Dragon in “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera House is an interesting study. Up among the flies Property-master Bradwell has the creature in charge and the evolution of the animal is exercising his best ingenuity. The Dragon in its early stage of development gives the unheroic idea of an immense battle. The body and tail are of steel wire wound in spiral shape and tapering off from a diameter of three feet at the shoulders to a minimum at the tip of the tail thirty feet away. Over this framework a covering of green silesia has been placed to afford a chance for fastening on the scales. These will be some 5,000 in number and are made of leather in strips five inches or so in length and about three inches in width. These overlap each other and are tinged with iridescent colors which will give the beast a glittering and imposing aspect when he is completed and in working order beneath the electric light.

The steel wires project about the shoulders and front part of the beast’s body, so that when covered with scales the dragon has the appearance of a horny monster. The head and feet are of papier mache. The head is some three feet in length and of about the same depth, with a lower jaw which is ominous in size. The feet are three-toed and cover a space two feet square. Yet head, feet and body are together so light that they will not weigh over fifty pounds all told. The feet are front feet, of course only two in number. The rear part of the body runs on two casters.

A man will work the monster from the inside, his head extending up into a huge hummock just behind the dragon’s head, his feet being encased in Wellington boots fitted into the feet of the animal. The manipulator will be enabled by a system of wires to turn the casters, swing them around and at the same time control the head movements and the lower jaw of his charge. Incandescent electric lights form the dragon’s eyes and the eyelids of these are also moved by the inhabitant within. Steampipes will be introduced at the tail of the dragon and at the proper moment steam will be forced out of his nostrils. When the steam and the eyelids and the jaw and the head are working at their liveliest, men in the flies, with wires attached to the dragon’s tail will make that part of the beast thresh the air in fury, while in the wings a mighty trumpet will sound forth the musical notes in which the Dragon will express musical sentiments appropriate to the occasion, at least until Siegfried shall put an end to the tumult. Mr. Bradwell is proud of his progeny and thinks his initial appearance will be a great success.

New-York tribune. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 23 Jan. 1887. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1887-01-23/ed-1/seq-9/>

Midcentury Bar Cart

For Triad Stage’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a few months ago, I needed to find a very specific bar cart. The scenic designer, Anya Klepikov, provided me with a research image of a stunning midcentury piece that was uncomfortably out of our price range. It had some challenging aspects to it, but I knew I could build it myself for a fraction of the cost.

Clamping the pieces
Clamping the pieces

I built the table out of a mix of oak boards and oak plywood. For the thicker pieces of oak, I laminated several pieces together.

Assembling the top
Assembling the top

In the research image, the table of the cart splits in the middle, and a black melamine leaf is added to make it longer. Ours didn’t need to do that, so I just built the top as a single piece. It was a single sheet of plywood covered in two thin pieces of nice plywood, with a piece of melamine in the middle. The edges were strips of hardwood to cover the plywood edges. I couldn’t find black melamine, so I used white that I spray painted black.

Attaching the lip
Attaching the lip

Each end had a curved breadboard with a raised lip. It took a bit of finessing to cut the end of the plywood and the breadboard so they fit together perfectly.

Attaching the lip
Attaching the lip

I cut and shaped the raised lip as a separate piece before attaching it. I routed all the edges, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to fit the router on if the lip was attached. Once it was glued on, I did some hefty belt sanding on the end to smooth everything and make it appear to be one solid piece of wood.

Rounding the edge with a router
Rounding the edge with a router

I clamped a rail on the bottom so I could round over that edge as well, with the rounded edge fading out gradually.

Milling the joints
Milling the joints

Because the legs were both round and tapered, they needed a flat surface to attach the apron and shelf to. I built a jig for the router to mill a flat area perpendicular to the ground. The apron pieces could then be doweled securely to the legs.

Glue assembly
Glue assembly

Before gluing, I fit everything together dry to make sure my measurements were all correct. When you have round tapered legs, it is very easy to make a mistake between the length of the top apron pieces and the shelf apron pieces; everything needs to be exact to keep the whole piece square and sturdy. Once everything was fit properly, I disassembled it, added glue to all the joints, and clamped it all back together.

Preparing to stain
Preparing to stain

After one final sanding over the whole table, it was ready for staining. I used a tint from Minwax called “Gunstock.” I sealed it with a coat of amber shellac. When it dried, I rubbed it down with #000 steel wool, then added a second coat of amber shellac, which was also sanded with steel wool. The whole table was then wiped down with Pledge Furniture Polish. This not only removes the finest dust particles, but it imparts a thin layer of wax that helps give the surface a bit more shine.

With stain and shellac
With stain and shellac

The photo above shows off the sweet curves which the piece has.

Completed bar cart
Completed bar cart

When I shared images of the completed bar cart with Anya the designer, she realized she wanted brass leg caps added to the bottom. I wasn’t able to find an exact cap to fit the legs, so I coated them with a thin layer of epoxy and painted it with brass spray paint. It gave the same effect as brass caps, but with far less work.

Bar cart on stage
Bar cart on stage

The bar cart was the only piece of furniture on the whole stage, so the extra work to make it perfect was justified. It was a nice piece to build for my last show as the full-time props master at Triad Stage.

The Art of Papier Mache, 1899

Originally appeared in an 1899 issue of New York Times:

“Yes,” said the little man up town who makes theatrical “Props” and incidentally any number of “props” for other things, “there is nothing like papier maché. It is being used more and more all the time now and there are more and more things for which it can be used. It is the strongest material known for its weight. You see, for anything to use in the theatre you have to have something that is strong and that will stand traveling and being thrown around, and if it is big—columns in the scenery, for instance—it must not only be strong but light, so that it can be moved easily. It must be light anyway. Imagine a band of Amazons traveling around the country with suits of metal armor, or wearing it, either, for that matter. The Amazons would strike, the railroad companies would strike, and the theatrical company would go out of business. There is nothing you can’t make of papier maché, from an elephant to a vase. The greatest trouble is to get the models. Sometimes you send out and get small ones of plaster or marble, and at other times you will have to work from sketches and photographs and use your own ingenuity, working on a geometrical scale for enlargement. Continue reading The Art of Papier Mache, 1899

2019 SPAM Grant Winners

The Society of Properties Artisan Managers is proud to announce the winners of their fifth annual Jen Trieloff and Edie Whitsett Internship Grants. Congratulations to Emily Davis and Kenly Cox. These grants are awarded to individuals wanting financial assistance with transportation, housing or other necessities during an internship in theatrical properties. You can find out more about these grants and other resources at the S*P*A*M website. You can also “like” their Facebook page to stay up to date with news and announcements.

2019 Jen Trieloff Grant recipient: Emily Davis

Emily Davis
Emily Davis

Emily Davis graduated from Florida State University in May of 2019 with her BA degree in Theatre. Her time spent volunteering in the scenic and props shops were the most formative of her time at FSU and inspired her to pursue a career path in Props. She is currently working as a Properties Artisan Apprentice at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA. Emily is incredibly honored to be chosen to receive this grant and would like to thank the S*P*A*M community for this wonderful opportunity.

You can see examples of Emily’s work at: www.emcdavis.com or @em.c.davis on Instagram.

2019 Edie Whitsett Grant recipient: Kenly Cox

Kenly Cox
Kenly Cox

Kenly Cox is a 2019 graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, obtaining her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Art, specializing in metal and ceramic sculpture. Shegraduated with a minor in Drama Arts in Theatrical Production, discovering her passion for Stage Properties as a work study student at PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC. There she gained valuable skills and everlasting friendships. Kenly discovered that her talents as a fine artist could be applied to the theatrical world and serve as a plausible career path. She is now working for the summer as a Stage Properties Apprentice at Wolf Trap Opera in Vienna, Virginia, expanding her knowledge and skills as a Prop Artisan. After her work is done with Wolf Trap, Kenly will be returning to PlayMakers Repertory Company as a part time Properties Artisan for the 2019-2020 season.

You can see Kenly’s work on her website: https://kenlymcox.wixsite.com/kenlycoxart/theatre

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies