Happy Labor Day, everyone! For those who work in the theatre, happy Monday. In honor of the holiday, I have a news article below of interest to the history of theatrical unions. IATSE, the union of backstage employees, was founded in 1893 as the National Association of Theatrical Stage Employes [sic]. Actors were not represented until 1913, when Actors’ Equity was founded. However, there was a time when the possibility was considered to allow actors and actresses into IATSE. The article below is from the Kansas City Journal and appeared in 1898. Enjoy!
Union Heroines Next
A Plan Under Way to Unionize the Men and Women of the Stage.
George Carman and Charles Balling have been selected as the Kansas City delegates to attend the national convention of the Theatrical Alliance of Stage Employes, which will be held in Omaha next week. The most important matter to come before the convention is the question of admitting actors to membership. For some time the actors have been anxious to have a well organized union and representatives of the stage will attend the convention to present their suit.
The National Alliance of Stage Employes is a strong organization and extends all over the country. Were actors to be admitted it would make a vast difference to the traveling managers. The players would belong to a union which would be protected by the Stage Employes and could dictate terms in a great many things in which the manager is now absolute. The admission of the player would unionize all of the people working behind the footlights of a theater, as scenic artists and electricians are members of the Stage Employes’ union. 1
Kansas City Journal, 15 July 1898, pg 10. Accessed from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86063615/1898-07-15/ed-1/seq-10/, 3 September 2012. ↩
As some of you may have noticed, this site was difficult to get to for the last week, and hasn’t been updated for awhile either. My hosting service had a server crash, and it has taken them some time to get everything back up and running. The site has been extremely slow to load since last Wednesday, and virtually impossible to update. It looks like everything is back to normal now, as evidenced by the fact that you are reading this.
When last we left, I was talking about how to build a dragon—the creature named “Fafner” from the opera Siegfried, to be exact. The Metropolitan Opera House has had several over the years. The first was built by William De Verna in 1887. A new one was constructed in 1913, refurnished in 1937 and finally replaced with another dragon in 1947 (the dates in my previous article were a little off). This last one was built by the mechanical magicians at Messmore and Damon. Since writing that last blog, I have found some additional dragons which existed in between those three.
The dragon in the illustration was created for the 1896 production by a Mr. Siedle, described as the property master of the Metropolitan Opera House. To construct this monster,
the head of the dragon was modeled in clay, and each line and horny scale and boss was the result of careful calculation. After the head was modeled, a plaster of paris mold was taken from it, and from this another plaster cast was made, upon which the actual head was built up out of papier maché. After the papier maché work was finished, it was painted dark green; different shades were, of course used.
The body of the dragon is of cloth; the legs and feet are not attached to it, but are put on by the two men who operate the dragon. The feet and claws of the dragon are pulled on by combination overalls and boots…
The tail consists of a number of sections of wood articularted by means of hinges. It is covered with painted cloth.
The dragon holds two men inside who operate it. The man in front wears a heavy belt that supports the wires for the eyes and the rubber hose for the steam to his nose. The eyes are lamps covered in painted silk. The man in the back is the one who actually controls the head, using a lever which swings on the front man’s shoulders. The man in the front also controls the jaw, antennae and tongue.
The wires and hoses run off stage through the wings. Two stage hands are back there, one to operate the steam, the other the lights.They also help the men get into and out of the dragon suit. A number of stage hands are also needed to guide the men backstage while wearing the suit.
In a New York Times article from 1910, Edward Siedle, here described as the technical director of the Met (though his job duties include the props), talks about the dragon.
Mr. Conried imported a German dragon when he first put on ‘Siegfried.’ Later, I had another dragon made in my own shop, as the dragon was not altogether a success. This one in turn perished in the San Francisco disaster [ed: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, during which the Met Opera company was on tour. The scenery and props for all the operas on that tour, as well as many musical instruments, were destroyed], so that the present dragon has been made since then, and is the most successful of the three. It was made after the manner of the first one which I made, but it has modifications. This little stage toy cost in the neighborhood of $350.
This dragon was made for the 1903 production at the Met. I’m guessing that this is the same Siedle who made the 1896 one; they sound remarkably similar. He continues:
Fundamentally it is a thing of canvas, but it is painted and molded with various materials. When it is not in use it will fold up and can be put into a small box.
This dragon shakes its bristles, its eyelashes and its eyelids move, vapor comes through its nostrils, and its head has three separate movements. Two men are concealed inside of it. Their legs form the legs of the dragon and their shoulders support the upper framework. From the inside they regulate the movements of the bristles, the winking of the eyes.
This dragon also has electric lights for eyes. The head can also be controlled from offstage with a series of thin wires. A total of seven stage hands are in control of the dragon while it is on stage. The singer providing the voice, meanwhile,was hidden in bushes midstage singing through a megaphone.
From here, we only have to look at the 1972, 1987 and the currently running 2011 productions of Siegfried to complete our look at all the Fafner dragons used by the Met since its inception. But that is a tale for another time.
Hopkins, Albert A., and Henry Ridgely Evans. Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, including Trick Photography. New York: Munn &, 1898. pp 332-4.
“The Mysteries of Staging a Grand Opera.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1910.
The following excerpt was originally published in the March 6, 1898, of The New York Times. It is not only interesting in its description of a theatrical prop store and shop in Midtown Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth century, but remarkable in the fact that the proprietor is a woman. Unfortunately, the article never mentions her name!
A Place to Buy Thunder
That, as Well as Lightning, Fog, Snow, and a Moon, for Sale by a Woman.
Assortment of Oddities
Ingenious Devices Under the Head of Theatrical Hardware—A Japanese and a Donkey Skin Made to Order.
She has thunder by the sheet, fog by the yard, lightning by the box, snow by the bushel, and the child who cries for the moon can get it there, if he will only wait until it is manufactured. It won’t be made out of green cheese, either, but more likely from pale blue silk, for moons have been made out of that before now, and they were eminently satisfactory and couldn’t have been told by any one but a connoisseur from the real article; and who is a connoisseur in moons?
And the mistress of all these natural elements is not a Mme. Jove, either, but a nice, ordinary, every day sort of woman, and this queer collection of hers is merely food for herself and her children. Not literally, for even a pretty, pale blue silk moon might be indigestible, but she provides them for “the profession,” and indirectly they become oatmeal and coffee, roast beef and plum pudding.
It might be thought that the establishment where all these strange things are to be found would resemble those regions supposed to take a low position in the universe, and to be the home of all things unpleasant and flamable, but it doesn’t. It is a modest little place, not so far from Thirtieth Street, on the line of the elevated road and the proper business of the proprietor, when it is called by its right name, is that of dealer in theatrical hardware. The visitor would not even guess, in taking a view of the stock, that the word theatrical was appropriate, for nothing but small articles of seemingly ordinary hardware are in sight.
That is not strange, as there is never a demand for the same kind of thunder, lightning, or other theatrical appliances which are supplied on demand of the property man or the stage carpenter, and very little of anything is kept on hand, though they can be had at a moment’s notice. The hardware proper is the most prosaic part of the business. That consists of the wheels, bolts, screws—everything that is needed to make the curtains and scenery of a theatre stay where they are wanted, and move when they are not wanted. Continue reading →
Originally printed in the article “Behind the Scenes” from Chambers’s Journal, 1898
Another department of this world of illusion is the property-room, so called because there the various “properties” or “props” are constructed and stored for use. Props comprise all the portable articles required in a play. Guns and pistols — which too often fail to go off at the critical moment — are props; loaves of bread, fowls, fruit, all made of a rough papier-mâché, are also props. We may also include those wondrous gilt goblets, only seen on the stage, which make such a nonmetallic thud when they fall and bounce upon the boards, as among the achievements of the property-man. But it is at pantomime-time that that individual is at his busiest. Big masks and make-believe sausages and vegetables, without which no pantomime would be complete, are mingled with fairy wands, garlands of artificial flowers, basket-work frames for the accommodation of giants, and other articles too numerous to mention. How the right things are forthcoming at the right moment is one of those mysteries only known to property-men. Had one of these useful members of the theatrical world the ability and inclination to write a book, what an entertaining volume could he turn out!
A London or first-class provincial theatre would not perhaps furnish examples of those stage contretemps which are often more amusing to the onlookers than the play itself; but in minor country theatres the most absurd and incongruous make-shifts are often introduced on the score of a very necessary economy. For example, at one country theatre, we remember a “prop” which figured in Act I as a sofa. It was a flat piece of scenery about six feet in length, with scroll edges which represented feet. In Act II this same prop was turned round, and hung upside down by a cord round the hero’s neck. It was painted on the side now presented to the audience like a boat; and as the actor grasped the heroine with one arm, he worked the boat up and down with the other while he proceeded across the stage behind a line of canvas representing a stormy sea. On this touching picture the curtain came down amid uproarious applause. Another occasion we call to mind, upon which a flat piece of scenery was used to represent a very solid object, when the resulting applause was of a more derisive nature. In this piece, a very full-flavoured melodrama, the heroine was in peril of her life by being placed by the villain across a railway track. On came an impossible locomotive, piloted at the back by a scene-shifter invisible to the audience, until by some mishap the engine fell flat on its face like a pancake, amid a roar of laughter from a delighted public. Such accidents as these never occur in a well-equipped theatre. Indeed, the complaint is sometimes made that the scenic illusion is so complete and beautiful that the attention of the audience is unduly distracted from the action of the play.