Tag Archives: 1903

Drink on the Stage, 1903

The following is taken from a 1903 article in the Evening Star newspaper:

Drink on the stage often brings suffering to the actors, as in most cases a substitute for the genuine article is used. Who does not recall the scenes on the village green where the bustling innkeeper comes on with his little pitcher, ready to fill the mugs of the joyful villagers? From his wee pitcher he pours an endless stream of liquor without having to replenish the stock at the cask. And in the meantime the lads and lassies join in the inevitable drinking song, waving their cups about with no attempt to prevent the audience from seeing that all their inspiration comes from nothing more substantial than thin air. This sort of thing prevails in comic opera, but in more pretentious drama the illusion must be maintained.

In most theaters whisky is barred, but the red-nosed villain is allowed to partake of a disagreeable concoction composed of water and brown sugar. And where the play has a long run, the actor gets to looking forward to the drinking scene as one of the penalties of his profession.

When beer is the article demanded, the property man is sometimes allowed to bring in a bottle or “can” of the real article. But where a great number of persons are to drink, a makeshift is generally resorted to. The tops of the mugs are stuffed with loose cotton batting to simulate foam.

Champagne is represented by another unpleasant concoction, and tea and coffee are frequently merely imagined, for the actor can place the spout of the pot down into the cup, so that the audience is unable to tell whether a beverage is being poured out of not.

Stage fruits are usually made of cotton molded into the desired shapes, and then glazed and painted. In “Jim Bludso” a barrel apparently full of apples is introduced. The barrel is empty except for a single layer of cotton apples on the top, and the whole affair weighs only three of four pounds. Of course, where fruit is actually eaten on the stage the real article is cheap enough to be used.

Taken from The Evening Star (Washington, DC), February 28, 1903, page 25.

1903 Lectures on the Property Man’s Job

I recently came upon the 1903-1904 academic catalog for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, it was a two-year program for young men aged sixteen to seventeen. The school still exists, granting two-year associates degrees to aspiring actors.

All students at the time were given introductory lectures in the various technical departments on stage. The lecture on props has a bullet-point list of all the topic covered, which I have reprinted below. It is fascinating to see the list of what a props person was responsible for and what skills they were required to have from over 110 years ago, and compare it to today.

The lectures were given by a Mr. Wilfred Buckland, with assistance by Mr. Edgar J. M. Hart (no relation) and Miss Louise Musson. The topics of the lectures are as follows:

The Property Man’s Work in Preparing a Production:

  • The property plot
  • cabinet work
  • paper work
  • upholstery, furniture, bric-à-brac, carpets, rugs, hangings
  • stage props
  • side props
  • hand props
  • written letters
  • inserts in newspapers

The Property Man’s Work at Performance:

  • Helpers and clearers
  • system
  • the property room
  • laying the floor cloth
  • setting the stage
  • marking
  • dressing a scene
  • hanging curtains
  • hanging side props
  • effects
  • apparatuses
  • flash pans
  • rain box
  • thunder box
  • thunder crash
  • glass crash
  • carriage roll
  • knocks
  • snow box
  • salt
  • fuller’s earth
  • blowers
  • leaves, stumps, and grass mats
  • animals
  • the rosin box
  • eatables

Striking Properties:

  • Clearing
  • handling furniture
  • care of props

You can read the whole 1903 Annual Catalog of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts here.

 

 

Bad Tarts, 1903

The following comes from a column called “Some Theatrical Observations”, written by Adolph Klauber, and first appearing in the April 26, 1903, issue of The New York Times. Besides being a humorous story (and a reminder to maintain consistency with the props), it also details an interesting props solution for eating a lot of tarts. I’ve heard this same method was used to make dumplings eaten by Carol Channing in the 1964 production of Hello Dolly, but this article predates that by over sixty years.

On one occasion when James. T. Powers was a member of a traveling company he had a scene in which he was obliged to simulate the eating of a dozen or so of jelly tarts in the shortest possible time. When the tarts were properly prepared, the comedian could make way with them easily, and the act never failed to create much amusement. Indeed, Powers was so sure of his laughs at this particular part of the play that he always looked forward to it as a bright particular spot in the performance.

It was the duty of the property man to make the tarts for each performance by pasting together thin strips of tissue paper, adding a daub of jelly to the tops. The paper used was so thin that the tarts would collapse with the slightest moisture, and Mr. Powers could easily store away a dozen or more of them in his cheek.

One night Powers discovered that some of his friends were seated in front, and he was more than usually anxious to make a hit. He longed for the tart-swallowing moment and eventually it came. He seized the dish containing the tarts and hurriedly crammed a number of them in his mouth before he discovered that the property man had used stiff wrapping paper for preparing the dainties and they failed to collapse as usual.

The result was a highly realistic choking scene that was not a part of the business of the piece, and, when the comedian finally managed to dislodge the thick wad of paper from his mouth, there were some laughs both before and behind the footlights that were not usual to the piece.

Written by Adolph Klauber, first published in The New York Times, April 26, 1903.

What Becomes of Stage Scenery, 1903

The following is a portion of an article which first appeared in The New York Times on June 7, 1903.

In the Spring of the year the scenery of plays that have failed in New York in the course of the Winter and the season which draws to a close may be found accumulated in a large storage warehouse far over on the west side of the city, in the locality of Twenty-eighth Street. This has served during many years as the chief mausoleum of the remains of these failures. The expenses of the interment include cartage at $5 a load, handling by the warehouse employes at $2 a load, and storage at $4 a load monthly. The acceptance states that settlement must be made quarterly, and that all goods held in arrears in payment twelve months will be seized and sold at auction. There is also the little bill for insurance which many an owner contracts with the fond hope that something may happen in the fire line before the year’s end.

In addition to this large place of storage there are a couple of rambling old stables on Thirteenth Street, east of First Avenue where much scenery that in the last half dozen years cost a snug fortune reposes in solid stacks awaiting the last judgement. In a small room of a neighboring scene painter are the models on view of the handsome interiors and exteriors piled away. Now and then somebody, harboring the notion of producing a play for trial at a nominal expense, drops in to examine this second-hand stock. Nothing results, however, satisfactory to any one concerned. The scenery representing picturesque mountain retreats and grottoes, on view once in a great spectacle, is a misfit for a domestic drama or a comedy. The nine scenes of a melodrama that sunk $6,500 are also of no use in the play, which requires new features up to date.

Mention should be made of the fact, though, that since the stock companies became more or less prosperous in and around New York, some small opportunity has come in sight to unload the scenery in storage. But such interest as there can be for the general reader in this statement must be stimulated by calling attention to the absurd difference between the cost of the scenery and its selling price. The manager, for instance, of two stock theatres in Brooklyn purchased not very long ago from a well-known player, who has given up being his own manager, five loads of scenery, nearly all new, and representing a cash outlay of almost $4,000, for $75. The cost of transportation across the bridge was $25 additional. There were seven wall-drops included in these loads, any one of which cost more originally than the whole purchase at second hand.

Originally published in The New York Times, June 7, 1903.