Tag Archives: 1891

The Elephant Kicks, 1891

This article first appeared in an 1891 newspaper. The elephant discussed here was built by famed Met Opera technical director Edward Siedle.

Update: I found another article which claims this elephant was built by Woolson Morse. I now think Siedle built the elephant for the 1904 remount of this show.

Actor DeWolf Hopper’s big elephant that drinks a quart of beer every night and on Saturday afternoons at the Broadway Theater, threatens to become troublesome to the management, says the New York Sun. The elephant has been kicking vigorously for a week past. The kick comes from the elephant’s hindquarters. In order to understand the full significance of the insubordinate behavior it is necessary to explain that in private life the “Wang” elephant is Mr. James Flynn and Mr. Mike Stevens Holahan. Mr. Flynn is the accomplished front legs and beer-drinking trunk of the elephant, and Mr. Holahan is the hind legs, and it is he who initiated the kicking. Mr. Flynn shows a disposition to join in the protest, and favors an elephantine strike.

When he is not the hind legs Mr. Holahan is the property-man of the opera company. He has to look after the costumes and wax candles, spears, bits of cut paper, Wang’s treasure-chest, and a lot of other miscellaneous stuffs used in the stage production. He was requested the other night to work on Sundays, too, and look after the distribution of display posters along Broadway on that day, and to paste the posters on the bill-boards. He intimated that this was crowding him a trifle too much, and that he did not propose to dabble in paste-pots at all. The matter was compromised by hiring a professional bill-poster to do the work.

Mr. James Flynn’s complaint is based on the plain ground of overwork. Mr. Flynn is a strong man, but he asserts that it is getting to be pretty tough work on hot nights carrying Mr. de Wolf Hopper on his head, and working the trunk of the elephant at the same time. Mr. Hopper is about seven feet high and weights in proportion to his towering stature. Mr. Flynn says this weight, combined with a Turkish bath atmosphere inside the papier-mache head of the elephant, and the necessity of keeping track of the innumerable pulleys that operate the rubber trunk of the elephant, gives him a headache every night. Moreover, he says that after he escapes from his half-hour imprisonment in this oven, he has to appear as a dancing master, and lead a dance of Emperor Wang’s twelve Siamese daughters-in-law, and later he has to climb on stilts and become a high priest—considerably higher, in point of fact, than Mr. Hopper himself. Mr. Flynn says that he quits the performance completely played out after his triple achievement. Manager Ben Stevens said last night that he thought he could square matters temporarily by allowing Mr. Flynn to partake of a bumper of beer as generous as that consumed every night by the elephant.

A funny thing in connection with the discontented elephant is that any number of children and adults, too, have written to Manager Stevens to find out whether the elephant is really alive. A Broadway merchant made a bet a fortnight ago, after he had seen the elephant drink its beer, that it was really a live baby elephant. He bet a new white tile on the point.

“The Elephant Kicks.” The Morning Call [San Francisco] 8 June 1891: 7. Print.

Through a prop room

One hundred and nineteen years ago, Jerome K. Jerome took a trip through a prop room. Jerome is an English writer who began his career as an actor. In the following excerpt, he gives a very comprehensive view of a props stock at this time period.

Between the yard and the stage was a very big room, containing so heterogeneous a collection of articles that at first I fancied it must be a cooperative store in connection with the theater. It was, however, only the property room, the things therein being properties, or, more commonly, “props,” so called, I believe, because they help to support the drama. I will give you some of the contents of the room haphazard as I recollect them. There was a goodly number of tin cups, painted black up to within half an inch of the rim, so as to give them the appearance of being always full. It is from these vessels that the happy peasantry carouses, and the comic army get helplessly fuddled. There is a universality about them. They are the one touch of (stage) nature which makes the whole world kin. They are used alike by the Esquimaux and the Hottenot. The Roman soldiery appear never to have drunk out of anything else: while, without them, the French Revolution would lose its chief characteristic. Besides these common cups, there were gold and silver ones, used only for banquets, and high-class suicides. There were bottles, and glasses, and jugs, and decanters. From these aids to debauchery, it was pleasant to turn to a cozy-looking tea service on a tray with a white table cloth: there was a soothing suggestion of muffins and domestic bliss about it. There was plenty of furniture, a couple of tables, a bedstead, a dresser, a sofa, chairs half dozen of them, high-backed ones, for “hall in the old Grange,” etc.; they were made by fixing pasteboard backs on to ordinary cane chairs. The result was that they were top heavy, and went over at the slightest touch; so that picking them up, and trying to make them stand, formed the chief business of the scenes in which they were used.

I remember the first time our light comedy attempted to sit down on one of these chairs. It was on the opening night. He had just said something funny, and, having said it, sat down, crossed his legs, and threw himself back, with all that easy, negligent grace so peculiarly his own. Legs were the only things that could be seen for the next few minutes.

Other “props” were, a throne, gorgeous in gilt paper and glazed calico; a fire-grate, stuffed with red tinfoil; a mirror, made with silver paper; a bunch of jailer’s keys; handcuffs; leg irons; flat irons; rifles; brooms; bayonets; picks and crow, bars for the virtuously infuriated populace; clay pipes; daggers made of wood; stage broadswords – there is no need to describe these, everybody knows them, they are like nothing else on earth; battle axes; candlesticks; a pound or two of short dips; a crown, set with diamonds and rubies each as big as a duck’s egg; a cradle empty, an affecting sight; carpets, kettles, and pots; a stretcher; a chariot; a bunch of carrots; a coster-monger’s barrow; banners; a leg of mutton, and a baby. Everything, in short, that could possibly be wanted, either in a palace or a garret, a farm-yard or a battle-field.

From On the Stage – and Off, by Jerome K. Jerome, 1891 (pp. 33-35)