The following article originally appeared in “The New York Times” in 1885.
How nature is imitated on the stage.
An old stage manager imparts some instruction—how to counterfeit the change from day to night.
“Nothing,” said an old stage manager, “is more easy to produce on the stage than a moonlight scene, and nothing is ore effective after it is produced. The work begins, of course, with the painting of the scene. The artist has to take into consideration the fact that moonlight must be represented with a different light from the brilliant yellow glare of gaslight which is used for day effects. The great mass of color in a moonlight scene is laid in by the artist in cold grays and greens. The grays must have no warmth in them, nothing of a purplish tinge, for moonlight is cold and hard. The greens are low-toned combinations, chiefly of burnt umber and Prussian blue. The half lights in the painting are put in with the lighter tones of this green, while the high lights are toned up with white tinted with emerald green. Sometimes when a metallic glitter is needed on some point a bit of green foil paper is stuck on. Now such a scene as this, as you can easily see, would look very sombre and unpleasant in strong gaslight.”
“What do they do with it?”
“They put artificial moonlight on it.”
“Well, suppose the scene to be a woody glade with a large opening in the trees showing a distant landscape. The drop scene at the rear of all is painted to represent the sky and landscape. In front of the drop, about three feet away, a low piece of what is known as profile work runs across the stage. This is painted to represent rocks, grass, &c., and is called a ground piece. Behind it and hidden from the audience runs across the stage a row of green ‘mediums.’ These are argand burners with green chimneys. Of course, they throw a soft greenish light upon the lower part of the scene. Another row runs across in front of the upper part of the drop, and is ‘masked in’ from the audience by a sky border. To this light is added that of a calcium thrown through a green glass upon the stage from the flies. And there you have your moonlight effects.”
“How do they get the moonlight on the water?”
“You mean the ripple. Well, the position of the moon being determined, immediately under it, in the water, a lot of little holes are cut in the drop. Then a sheet of muslin is pasted over these at the back and painted in on the front to match the water. Behind these holes stands a large endless towel, running around two cylinders, on the lower one of which there is a crank. Holes are cut in this towel and a strong light, thrown forward against the drop, is put between the two sides of the towel. The crank is then turned, and as the holes in the towel pass those in the drop the light twinkles through the thin muslin and there’s your ripple. The towel should have an upward motion, so as to make the ripples appear to leap toward the sky. Of course, it must be turned very steadily, or you will have the unreal spectacle of ripples going by fits and starts. A tin cylinder is occasionally used instead of a towel, but it is not so good, being cumbrous and noisy. It rattles and sometimes squeaks, and that is contrary to the nature of a well-conducted ripple.
“How are the stars made?”
“Oh, that’s easy enough. Any property man can bring forth Arcturus with his sons every evening and Saturday matinée. All he has to do is to bend a plot of pins into the shape of an S, stick them into the sky, and hang spangles on them. The slightest shaking of the drop, imperceptible to the audience, causes the spangles to tremble, and the glitter of the green mediums upon them will give you a great deal of twinkling for your money.”
“How about the change from night to day and vice versa.”
“These changes are exceedingly effective. I will describe that from day to night. The principle of the both is the same. The drop scene which forms ‘backing’ is made double the usual height. It is all painted to represent sky, the upper half sunset and the lower half moonlight. When ready for action it is let down so that only the upper half shows. The mountains, forests, &c., in the distance are painted on set pieces, 6 or 7 feet high, with the horizon outline carefully cut out in profile. In front of this hangs a cut gauze drop, which has trees, &c., painted on its canvas sides and top, while the large opening in the middle is filled with gauze. This imparts a charming atmospheric effect to the distance. When the scene begins, red mediums, similar to the green ones before described, shed their light on the rear-most parts of the scene, while a calcium thrown through red glass illuminates those parts near the audience. Now the flymen—men up in the flies—begin to take up the big double drop slowly. As the sunset part of it gradually disappears the red lights are turned slowly down and the sunset glare slowly passes away. A round hole is cut in the lower half of the drop and a sheet of muslin placed over it. This is the moon, and it comes up with the lower part of the drop, a light being placed behind it when it is near the horizon. The green lights are gradually turned on, and as the moon rises above the profiled distance the green calcium and green mediums are turned full on the scene and it is a beautiful moonlight night.”
“In the case of night scenes on the stage, when the moon comes up and rises high, how do they work the moon?”
“By means of a moon box. The path of the moon is marked out on the drop and then the canvas is cut out and a strip of muslin pasted in and painted to match the sky. A square box is constructed with a round hole in the front. Over this hole is pasted muslin and a big candle is put inside. The box is rigged on wires behind the muslin strip and slowly hoisted up. The light shines through and there’s your moon. The effect is much improved by painting the strip of muslin in the drop red near the horizon, and yellow further up, ths furnishing the changes in color which the full moon shows. A few floating clouds also help wonderfully. They are cut out of canvas pasted on gauze, and moved slowly across the moon’s pathway as the queen of night rises. Usually property men nowadays don’t care to bother with a moon box except in spectacular plays. They use the conse. This is a tin cone, with the point turned away from the audience. Over the round opening is pasted muslin and a candle is put inside. The cone is then hoisted slowly on wires in front of the drop.”
“There was an ocean of heaving waters in a recent play, and it looked quite realistic. How is that done?”
“I don’t know how that one was done, but I can tell you a good way. Each wave is cut out separately. Then the first row of waves is set up with three or four feet between the surges. The second row is set up so as to show between the openings of the first. Small boys crouch behind the mad, mountainous waves, and operate them by rocking them backward and forward—not from side to side. The effect is very deceptive. The noise of the water on the beach can be counterfeited by means of a light wooden box lined with tin and containing an ounce of bird shot. By rolling the shot around in the box you get the required noise.
“How do they manage a fire scene.”
“Fire scenes are about played out in theatres. People are dreadfully afraid of them and managers can’t afford to frighten their audiences. Nevertheless, there is no more danger in a properly handled fire scene than in many other effects used on the stage. The old fire scene in ‘The Streets of New-York’ was the best one that was ever done. The house, which occupied the entire rear of the stage, was built in three pieces. The top piece formed the roof. The next piece, cut irregularly across the bottom, represented the upper half of the wall, with its windows, and the third piece the lower half. The two upper pieces were suspended on wires. The shutters, which fell off as the fire went on, were fastened to the house with ‘quick match,’ which is made of powder, alcohol, and lamp wick. The window frames and sashes were of sheet iron, covered with oakum soaked in alcohol and naphtha. These sashes and frames were placed a few inches behind the window openings, though to the audience they appeared to be in them. As the fire went on the top piece representing the roof fell in with a crash. Then the ‘quick match’ was ignited and the shutters fell down, and finally the upper half of the walls went in. The effect was immense. The lurid glare of the fire was produced by chemical red fire in pans, accompanied by occasional bursts of flame from flash torces, instruments used for producing a sudden, momentary glare. They were used in some of the campaign parades last Fall. Smoke was produced by steam brought in rubber tubes from the engine room.
“Behind the whole scene was a big endless towel painted all over with flames, which was kept constantly rolling upward by means of a crank. Occasional crashes and puffs of smoke from loose powder burned in a pan produced the effect of falling beams. Add to this a fire engine on the stage and the hubbub of 30 or 40 active supernumeraries and you had the semblance of a tremendous fire, though there was in reality very little flame anywhere. The greatest danger in a fire scene is the powder. I remember an accident from this source in Pittsburg, Johnny Clarke was the property man, and he was bound to have a rousing fire scene. He was up on a platform about eight feet high behind the scene igniting powder for the puffs. In his excitement he dropped his candle into a quarter of a keg of powder. There was a rousing explosion, and Johnny, after describing a parabola, landed on his head on the stage with considerable less hair than he had previously possessed. Josh Ogden, who was playing Dan, the fireman, was knocked off his ladder, and landed on the heads of the astonished supes below, and the curtain went down on one of the liveliest finales I ever saw. They picked Johhny Clarke up and carried him into the greenroom, and when he recovered his senses he looked around anxiously and said in a faint whisper:
“How did it look from the front?”
First published in “The New York Times”, March 23, 1885.