Tag Archives: 1911

Prop Jokes from 1911

Here are some jokes and funny anecdotes from various newspapers, all of which appeared in 1911.

In a fourth of July oration in Denver N. C. Goodwin once remarked on the small means wherewith Washington achieved such great ends.
“When I think,” said Mr. Goodwin, “of Washington’s terrible handicap, my mind goes back to the town of Nola Chucky.
“An actor manager was to appear for one night in Nola Chucky, and accordingly he wired the proprietor of the Nola Chucky opera house:
“‘Will hold rehearsal tomorrow afternoon. Have stage manager, stage carpenter, property man and assistant, chief electrician and all stage hands at theater prompt to hour.’
“He received this telegram in reply:
“‘He will be there.'”

The San Francisco Call, July 22, 1911, Page 7.

Property Man: “Did your company have a long run in Squeedunk?”
Comedian: “They chased us only two miles out.”

University Missourian, September 18, 1911, Number 7, Page 4.

An English actor tells a good story of the old days of the touring fitup companies. They were at Oldham playing a melodrama called “Current Cash.” One of the properties essential to the piece was a light rowing scull, with which the hero had to push himself off into the stream. When the company reached Oldham the oar was missing, but the property man promised to have one ready for the evening’s performance, says the Pall Mall Gazette. That afternoon, with evident pride, he produced from the sacred recesses of his room a real human skull, and when it was pointed out to him that it was hardly what was required he declared in haughty tones:
“If that skull’s good enough for ‘Hamlet’ it ought to be good enough for a piece like ‘Current Cash.'”

The Manning Times, August 30, 1911, Page 6.

The Prop Building Guidebook

This Week I got a Book

So the big news this week is that I received my advance copy of The Prop Building Guidebook: For Theatre, Film, and TV.

The Prop Building Guidebook
The Prop Building Guidebook

I cannot wait for people to start reading this. It’s the culmination of several years’ work. It clocks in at around 380 pages, and has photographs, charts, and illustrations on nearly every single page.

But enough about me, let’s talk about what else you can read on the web this week:

The House of von Macramé is a new pop musical running at the Bushwick Starr. It’s about a killer who targets models during Fashion Week. Waldo Warshaw did all the blood effects, delivery systems and splatter choreography, which Erik Piepenburg at the New York Times presents to us in this great article and slideshow called “A Scream. A Splash. Send in the Mops“.

This is actually from a month ago, but the Smithsonian Institute has received production-used costumes and props from the Broadway production of Wicked for display in their National Museum of American History. I think more props belong in a museum.

Everybody knows Google Street View, right? Well they have some special galleries hidden in different places. One very cool one is the inside of Scott’s Hut in Antartica. It’s an exploration hut from 1911 which the cold has preserved perfectly. It makes for some really cool primary research. If that link doesn’t work, or if you want to see what other galleries they have, you can view all their collections.

Grooming the Dragon

How to Build a Dragon

I previously shared an article from 1888 about a giant dragon named Fafner used in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Siegfried. It had a papier-mâché head, a canvas hide and curled leather scales. It could move its mouth, close its eyelids and issue forth steam from its lungs. So who created such an impressive piece of stage property?

Grooming the Dragon
The Metropolitan Opera's Dragon circa 1888

It would appear a man named William “Old Bill” E. De Verna constructed it. He was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY, in 1834, and died in the same neighborhood in 1897. He had achieved enough prominence in the theatrical world to have an obituary published in The New York Times, with his occupation listed as “maker of theatrical properties.” According to the obituary

He built a large factory called in Bay Ridge the “dragon” factory, where he manufactured scenic accessories. When the Metropolitan Opera House was built he was engaged to supply all the properties used in the German opera. The big dragon of “Siegfried” was considered one of the most perfect examples of the property maker’s art.

A second dragon was built for the Met around 1911. In 1937, the Metropolitan Opera made a few improvements to this second iteration of Fafner. A “New Yorker” article describes how they replaced his metal scales with a painted canvas hide to cut down on his weight.

Like the original, the 1937 dragon also had a papier-mâché brow. It could “prance around”, open and close its jaws and spread its fins. It was operated by two stagehands, Charley Walters and Paddy Downey, who had been playing Fafner since around 1922. They were not chosen for any specific reason; Phil Crispano, the head property man, “just told them to get in there one day.” The smoke from the dragon’s nostrils was at one time supplied by live steampipes, but has since been replaced with a vapor made from ammonia, muriatic acid and rose water (to improve the smell).

Interestingly, the 1888 article describes the scene with the dragon as lasting forty minutes, while the 1937 articles says it was over in just fifteen.

A new dragon was commissioned in 1948 to replace the “the ancient bundle of canvas and rubber hose the Met has seen fit to fob off for thirty-seven years as Fafner”. This one was built by Messmore and Damon, a company headquartered on West Twenty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. Messmore and Damon were known for the full-scale mechanical dinosaurs they debuted at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

According to another article in the “New Yorker”, this new dragon took advantage of the company’s prowess in mechanical engineering, as well as the new breakthroughs in materials available to prop makers. The jaw could move, the tongue could flick in all directions and the eyes could roll in their sockets. The whole cave was moved downstage so he could be seen better; traditionally, the dragon appeared far upstage, probably to conceal the limitations of dragon construction at the time. The paw of this Fafner actually dangled into the orchestra pit. He was also split into two pieces; his head came out of the wings downstage, while his tail appeared from the wings upstage to make it appear that a much larger dragon was present just offstage.

The 1948 Fafner’s teeth were constructed of solid maple, his tail was foam rubber and his claws had rubber tips. Real steam was used for his nostrils once again—the chemical smoke caused the singers to cough—though now it was provided by a portable steam generator.

And the cost for this modern marvel? A whopping two thousand dollars. Okay, so that’s actually just over $19,000 today, but still, being able to buy a custom working dragon for less than the price of a new car is pretty spectacular.

Merchant of Venice bond

Props at the Victoria and Albert Museum

While it is interesting to read about how props have been constructed and used throughout the long history of theatre, it is rare to find surviving examples of actual props from bygone days. After a production, props are either integrated into a theatre’s prop storage, taken home by the cast and crew, or simply disposed of. I would hazard a guess that most historical props are kept in private collections or buried deep in the back of stock rooms at old theatres, with no way of knowing just what is out there. Luckily, some of these items do make their way to museums who recognize their historical value. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a few such items in their collection related to props.

Merchant of Venice bond
Merchant of Venice bond, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The first is this bond from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. For those unfamiliar with the story, Shylock lends Antonio (the aforementioned merchant) 3000 ducats; if Antonio cannot repay, he must give Shylock a pound of his flesh. This bond secures the deal and is a critical prop during the courtroom scene where Antonio’s fate must be decided.

This bond was used by Henry Irving during the production of The Merchant of Venice which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879 (the museum states it opened in January, but all accounts list its opening as November). The production was designed by Hawes Craven. It is made of beige vellum mounted on cream cotton cloth with black petersham ribbon and burgundy-painted metal seal. The dust and age is a deliberate treatment done by the prop maker. Interestingly, this prop has some areas torn on purpose and stitched together with double cotton thread; it seems likely this was done so the same prop could be torn up each performance and reattached before the next one.

Irving’s production of Merchant was one of the most influential at that time, as well as one of the most popular and long-running. You can find scores of books and articles delving into every aspect of this production and his performance.

This prop came to the British Theatre Museum (a branch of the V&A which closed in 2007 and whose collection was absorbed into the main museum) in 1968 by Lady Wolfit. It had probably belonged to her husband, Sir Donald Wolfit, a well-known English theatre actor-manager, who had died just a few months prior to the Lady’s donation.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Next is this property sword, also used by Henry Irving for an 1895 adaptation of King Arthur. The sets, costumes and props for this show were designed by Arthurian artist Edward Burne-Jones. This prop is based off of a sword used during the Holy Roman Empire for coronation ceremonies, known as the “Sword of Saint Maurice”.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The prop itself has a pommel made of carved brazil nut wood with an embossed and painted metal scabbard. It was built between 1894 and 1895.

Bakst Designs
Bakst Designs, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The final image is a drawing showing the stage property designs done by Léon Bakst for a production of the ballet La Spectre de la rose at the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1911. The pencil, watercolor, gouache and gold paint drawings show a green wing cushioned chair, a sewing frame behind a curtain on a curtain rod, a harp, and a bed with blanket and pillows. You can find more of his set designs on his official site, as well as his costume designs. This is the only example of his prop designs that I have ever come across.

Rehearsing the “Props” – 1911

The following article first appeared in The New York Times, August 27, 1911.

Two Hundred Men Required to Handle the Inanimate Objects Used at the Hippodrome Show

Every year when the Hippodrome’s production—always bigger and better than every other Hippodrome production—is being got ready something new develops to excite the interest of the stage managers and the newcomers in the company. This year the rehearsing of the stage hands has attracted the attention of those in power back of the curtain, and in the intervals between the practice of the actors and singers and the animals the stage has been given over to the head property man, the stage carpenter, and the chief electrician, that they might put their forces in trim for next Saturday’s opening.

The show this year, according to Louis Bauer, the head property man, will require about 200 men to “work” it properly. Sixty of them are property men or “clearers,” about the same number are needed in the electrical department, and the rest are the “grips,” who set the scenery, and the engineers. As everybody who is acquainted with the back of the stage knows, property men, stage hands or “grips,” and electricians have separate duties, prescribed by the laws of their unions.

The property men are going to have more work than usual with the present show, they think. There is, for example, one “grass mat” that weights fully three tons, and requires sixty men to roll and move it off or on the stage. It is constructed of rag carpet and raffia, woven in alternate strips. The property men have to learn to put it in place in an astonishingly few number of seconds, and to take it up and move it from the sight of the audience in even fewer seconds.

Then there are seven more “ground cloths”—carpets that cover the whole big stage—that have to be put down and taken up several times during the performance. And every man in the property department must know when the public performances begin just which place along the edge of a “ground cloth” is his and just how to unroll the unwieldy carpets and roll them up again so as not to interfere with his neighbors.

The system by which the stage hands work has been in a process of development ever since the Hippodrome’s first season. It has been found expedient to divide the forces into two sections, one for each side of the stage, and to give each man a number. The “properties” and the pieces of scenery are numbered to correspond with the men who are to handle them, and each man is taught what he is to do at every minute during the show.

When a scene is being set or “struck” no orders can be given by the heads of the deparments because of the size of the stage and the distances the workers have to cover. All of the “cues” for the stage hands are given by lights worked from the electrician’s bridge, way up on one side of the stage, in an alcove built in the wall. Most of the changes of scenery are made in absolute darkness, a condition seldom required in an ordinary theatre, and the men have to know their way around in the pitch blackness of a crowded stage. During the rehearsals that have been going on this week the stage hands have gone through their work in the light first until their supervisors have been satisfied that they know their duties. Then they have been rehearsed over and over in the dark. The show this year will have seventeen scenes, and in order to keep the entertainment within reasonable time limits, it has been necessary to cut the time of changing scenes to the minimum. One-half a minute for movable parts of the stage. And the biggest scene is the hope of the managers.

The rehearsals of the stage force have included rehearsals of the engineers—about thirty-five of them—in tending the pumps that fill and empty the big tank, and the hydraulic lifts that control the movable parts of the stage. And the animal men, the trainers and caretakers of the 200 horses, elephants, camels, oxen, sheep, geese, and other assistant actors have had their rehearsals at intervals between the training of the singers and dancers and the hard-working stage hands.

These rehearsals will be kept up assiduously until the time for the opening Saturday. And, usually, they are continued at intervals for several weeks after the first performance, the stage director, believing that the actual work at the performances needs supplemental practice between times. The people back on the stage at the Hippodrome have very little play time from noon to midnight. That they like it is evidenced by the fact that most of this year’s staff, both acting and “working,” is made up of people who have been at the big playhouse for several seasons.

Originally published in The New York Times, August 27, 1911.