Tag Archives: 1904

Memories of Shows Past, 1904

The following is the conclusion of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built,  all the skills a prop maker must possess, making things from papier mache, and dealing with people who don’t know what they want.

The old property master is thoroughly happy in his dusty den. He stays there from early morning till dusk. He likes the room so much that he brings his lunch with him to avoid going out for it. It is evident, after a moment’s talk with him, that his is not living and working at his trade every day merely for the shekels that may come to him.

Every object in the dingy place brings back the memory of some man or playhouse formerly dear to him. He hates to throw away anything that has been put on the stage and has come back to him. It is not so much that he made as it is that So-and-So wore or handled it.

The visitor to his shop some rainy afternoon will find a unique sort of gathering. Of the ten or a dozen men sitting around on old couches, chairs, or boxes, not one but is a stage carpenter, property maker, or in some way connected with the behind-the-scenes phase of the theatrical business.

They all know Morse, and they have come to chat with him. Most of them are as old and experienced as he is, and consequently they have a sort of reverence for him. They talk of theatrical affairs from fifty years ago up to the present day. They argue over whether a stage that was torn down thirty years ago had one trap door or two, whether it was 35 or 40 feet broad. Their hands linger fondly over scroll saws and other implements, and they never leave at nightfall without heaving a sigh that the hours have passed so quickly.

It is their greatest joy—this discussion of their trade and of the good old days. And there is nowhere they would rather go for their gossip than to the half-hidden shop labeled “E. L. Morse, Theatrical Properties.”

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

Morse can make anything if you know what you want, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built,  all the skills a prop maker must possess, and making things from papier mache.

Even the manufacture of an automobile does not frighten the veteran property master. He has one tied to his ceiling. To be sure it is not a real auto with a real chauffeur and real gasoline motive power, but it looks enough like it. It is entirely of wood, wheels and all. It is constructed so that a man can sit inside, invisible, working a treadle, and making the wheels go round. The chauffeur is not alive—only a dummy. His hand stays on the lever and his head is occasionally turned by a wire worked by the man on the inside.

“I don’t want the thing,” says the old maker. “The man who ordered it owes $50 on it, and the sooner he brings the cash and takes his auto away the better I’ll like it.”

“Speaking of people ordering things,” he continues, “you don’t know what a crazy man is until you see some fool vaudeville manager come here and try to get me to make things for him.

“He hasn’t the slightest idea of how anything’s made, and he couldn’t draw a straight line or cut the peeling off an apple. But he’s seen a picture in some Sunday paper and takes a notion he would like to have something like it for a show. He comes in and tries to tell me what he wants. All he can do is to wave his hands about and say: ‘Well, you know what I want.’ Of course I don’t know, and I generally end by letting the man know I think he’s crazy—which he is. Then he leaves, thinking I’m a hopeless fool because I can’t make what he wants. And he doesn’t even know what it is!”

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

Models and Mache, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built and a run down of all the skills a prop maker must possess.

On the table of the shop is a country kitchen, not over a foot wide and a foot high. Yet in it is every piece of rude furniture which was to be put in the large kitchen on the stage. Not only in general appearance is the model perfect, but in all the smallest details. The kitchen table even has a top that folds back—it is hardly 2 inches long—just like tables which Mr. Morse says are found in obscure farmhouses in New England. The chairs, mantelpieces, window frames—all are exact. The whole thing was whittled out with a knife by the master of the shop himself.

“Why, that would make a wonderful toy for some child,” suggests the visitor.

“Yes, and I’m going to give it to one,” Mr. Morse replies. “I never thought about any one’s wanting such a thing until some one suggested it the other day. I guess I’ll not throw away any more.”

All around the room, on boxes and chairs, sit vases to be used in a musical comedy. They are modeled after some rare foreign pottery. The look of them is so frail that you forget they are not breakable, and tread gingerly in and out among the confusion of obstacles. This amuses the master of the shop.

“Oh, you can’t hurt these things,” he says.

To prove it he playfully cuffs one of the vases off the box and across the room. It falls and bounces up and down like a rubber ball. There is not even a dent, for it’s only papier maché, and you could play football with it half an hour without hurting it.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

A Fine Fish Story, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career and another portion of this article as well.

In the middle of the room a long, spiked monster catches the eye of the visitor. It is evidently meant for a fish, and looks like the kind of fish men see on dry land after a Saturday evening around town. Jutting out from its sides are sharp spear-points. Its scales are shiny, red and yellow, and its eyes are red electric light bulbs.

“What is that thing?”

Mr. Morse chuckles delightedly at your surprise.

“Funny thing about that,” he replies. “A man came in here several months ago and said he was going to tell a fish story and wanted a good illustration. I didn’t catch on at first, but finally he told me that he was going to get up at a dinner, tell a wonderful tale about having caught a fish, and then pull aside a curtain and say, ‘This is the fish.’ The bigger and fiercer the fish, he said, the most suitable to his story.

“He was one of these rich, society people, you know, and he didn’t care what he paid for it. He told me to go ahead and make him one, no matter what it cost. And this is what I made him. I heard afterward about his getting off the story at his dinner. When he came to the end of it and had everybody laughing he pulled the string.

“‘And here is the fish!’ he cried.

“The fish was in a glass tank full of water, and by wires it was made to wiggle around just like a real one. The electric eyes were connected with a battery and glowed like two fierce, red coals of fire. The stunt was a huge success, and the man was pleased to death. As he had no further use for the fish he sent it back to me, and told me to do whatever I liked with it. So there it hangs—to scare away thieves at night.”

The fish is not Mr. Morse’s only curiosity. Grotesque shapes have been the fad in musical comedy lately, and there are many of them in the place. They are made as light as practicable, so as to give as little trouble as possible to the men who bear them in the play.

There is a great wicker elephant, made so that two men can walk inside of it. Near by is a camel, with unsightly humps. The crooked claws of an angry-looking lion almost pull your hair if you stand straight up near the north wall of the room. Filling up the gaps between the larger things are tiny paper forms. It looks as if the owner of the place were afraid some of the walls might show and had carefully covered every inch of them.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.

Edwin Booth’s Prop Maker, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction and another portion of this article as well.

With all its reminders of bygone days and forgotten favorites, perhaps the quaintest and most interesting feature of the cob-webbed room is its master. Actors grow into fame and fade away into oblivion, while a property master holds his position and reputation secure. Mr. Morse is a survivor of the days that chroniclers are wont to call “the good old times.” He was property master of Edwin Booth’s Theatre, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-third Street, and was the right-hand man of that famous actor—in a mechanical way…

Though his hair is turned gray, this designer, engraver, and maker of properties is as active as he was before any of the present theatrical celebrities were known. He knows, perhaps, more about the physical characteristics of New York’s playhouses than any other man living. In many of them he has worked, and every stage carpenter or worker of any importance is among his acquaintances.

For five years, since he quit the theatres and set up an establishment for the manufacture of properties, he has made all the “props” for Richard Mansfield. A list of the plays he has furnished would included practically all the big successes in recent years.

He and several of his assistants are now hard at work making gondolas, vases, and all sorts of fanciful animals’ heads for a musical comedy that is to be put on before long. It is a mystery how they manage to do anything in such a crowded place. There is hardly room to walk about, so littered is the floor with all kinds of material—a stranger calls it “rubbish.” Overhead are suspended from the ceiling vases, cloth elephants, trumpets, monstrous reptiles, and all conceivable kinds of stage ornaments—nearly everything made of papier maché.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.