Last fall, I did the props on Crazy for You. For those unfamiliar with the show, there is a scene were a cowboy shoots his gun off in the saloon. The bullets hit various objects in the room for comedic effect, including a cuckoo clock that explodes.
I have not shared any photographs or information on the clock yet because I was actually writing an article on it. The full details and pictures are now up in the latest issue of Stage Directions magazine in an article called “Don’t Go Cuckoo.”
I also shot a short video showing the action of how the clock cuckoos, explodes, and how long it takes to reset it for the next performance.
I have already shown off some of the props in the recent production of Crazy for You which I prop mastered, but I thought I would show a bit more of what I did on that show.
The saloon was one of the larger set pieces in this production. I dressed it out with photographs, plaques, signs and other items. Several of the objects were rigged for “tricks”, including the cuckoo clock on the second floor above the man in the apron, the antlers above the piano, and the jar on top of the piano (I highlighted the piano in a previous post). I also built the two tables you see above.
I turned the legs on a lathe to match a table the set designer and I both liked. Even though the scope and scale of this show was already pretty huge, taking the time to turn these legs really helped transform the scene.
The saloon also had a “hotel” sign hanging throughout the show. In the second act, the hotel’s proprietor finally grabs the sign and smashes it over his head. I made a new sign for every performance. It was a piece of lauan with grooves scored in the back with a Dremel to make it easy to break. The front was painted with a quick wash and then the letters were spray-painted on with a stencil I made.
I needed to find a set of antlers for one of the tricks, but had no such luck. I ended up buying some fake antlers; these are meant to simulate the sound of real antlers hitting each other and are used by hunters to draw out deer. I cut out a plaque with a routed edge, mounted the antlers, and painted everything.
Several other scenes used a number of benches which saw some heavy-duty use. These benches were carried around (sometimes with people on them), danced on, tapped on and walked on. We had three benches in stock that they liked (from a previous production of The Crucible), so I constructed three more to match.
I did some graphic design on this show as well. The set designer found a great research image for the signs, which were meant to invoke a community vaudeville show performed out West in the 1930s. I mimicked the colors and layout of the research, changing the words on the poster to match what was in the script. The poster above was printed out three feet tall. I also adapted the size and scale of the poster so a similar image could be used on the flyers and programs that were also props in this show.
The penultimate scene in the play takes place in the Main Street of the town. Though this set piece appears throughout the play, it has been transformed for this last scene into a more fancy French-inspired café. The waiters bring out trays with fancy napkins on them during a brief musical number. The set designer and I decided it would be a nice touch if the napkins would be folded rather than just draped over their arms, so we found instructions for folding a napkin into a fleur-de-lis shape. A prop master is always finding little touches like that to shape the details in the props.
Another project I worked on for Crazy for You at Elon University was a player piano. The piano sits against the wall of the saloon for a number of scenes. It has a couple of gags; when we first see it, a cowboy is playing a song on it, then gets up and walks away as the piano continues to play. Later, another cowboy fires a gun which hits the piano and causes it to start playing on its own again until it is kicked.
We began by looking for a real piano which we could take apart and modify. After a few weeks of unsuccessful searching, I decided I would just build one. After all, it needed to be a custom size to fit into the set, so transporting and modifying a real piano might be just as labor-intensive. The exterior of a piano is not really that complicated; it’s mostly a giant box with various levels of molding and details. The tricky part was getting it to play on its own.
One of the perks of working at a university is that you have a lot of crew members backstage who can operate tricks by hand. I knew the player piano could be worked manually from behind, so I just needed to figure out how to make that work. I cut out a set of piano keys from 3/4″ MDF and drilled a hole through each one. I ran a piece of metal rod through all the holes; I added a washer between each piece of MDF as a spacer. You can just make out the washers in the photograph above, catching a glint of light. This method allowed the MDF “keys” to pivot around the rod. I set the “keyboard” in the piano and added blocks underneath to limit their movement to that which a piano has. You will notice the holes were drilled offset from the center. The extra length in the back gave the back extra weight; when you let go of a key in the front, gravity would pull the back down, returning the key to its natural position. This simple mechanism would allow someone in front to play the keyboard normally, and someone in the back could make the piano appear to play on its own by pushing the keys up.
In the view from the back, you can hopefully get a better sense of what is going on. The keys can be accessed from behind; pushing them up causes the keys in front to move down, as if the piano is playing itself. When you let go of the keys in behind, they return to their normal position. The piano was pushed up against the wall, and a hole was cut in the flat, allowing a crew member to reach in and “play” the piano without being seen by the audience. The music itself was played live by the orchestra.
The photograph above shows the piano immediately before it is painted. I managed to build the entire thing with scrap material, amazingly enough. The scene shop at Elon has a CNC machine, and it produces some wacky off-cuts. The scene shop usually doesn’t have time to trim the edges to make them square and usable again, but I do, so it gives me some nice large pieces of quality plywood and lauan.
The piano was painted to match a lot of the other woodwork used in the saloon scene. I cut some black keys out of black foam core and hot glued them on top of the white keys; they basically moved along with the white keys as they were played, but were not playable on their own. With the keys painted white and the piano painted with dark wood tones, it gave enough contrast that even the balcony seats could witness that the piano was playing on its own. All in all, it was a pretty fun prop for having been built in little over a day.
Yesterday was strike for Crazy For You, the first musical I prop mastered down here in North Carolina. I’ll be posting some of the projects I did for this production at Elon University over the next few days. One of my favorite builds on this show was a set of twelve matching pink candlestick phones. I’ve dealt with getting multiple period phones in the past, so I knew with this budget these would have to be a custom build. I have already posted about how I made a vacuum former to create the bases.
On the right in the photograph above is the model for the base of the phone. In the upper left are some vacuum-formed shells. Dead center is a shell on the base with a section of PVC pipe forming the “candlestick” portion. Behind the half-completed phone are three sections of PVC pipe with a flange in them. I made a video showing how to form these.
The neck piece which connects the mouthpiece to the candlestick is a solid piece of poplar I turned on the lathe. The receiver (mouthpiece) was also turned on the lathe. The only difference between the prototype above and the final phone is the hook which holds the receiver. I sliced a section of PVC pipe, made a slit down one side, than used a heat gun to open it up into a “U” shape. I bent the ends out so the receivers could be pushed in and the hook would snap back to hold them snugly.
The plastic parts were primed first with a plastic spray paint primer. I then hit the rest of the parts with a sandable primer. The sandable primer helped make all the surfaces appear to be unified and made of a single material, and I could smooth out minor imperfections.
All the phones were painted pink. Bright pink. The kind of pink that hurts your eyes. It was a gloss pink too, and because the phones were sufficiently primed, the gloss made them look like solid chunks of plastic. I intended to add more paint for highlights and to differentiate the parts (and maybe throw some glitter on for good measure), but this show really came down to the wire (I was working up until the house opened on Opening Night) and I ended up not having time.
Regardless, they looked great in the context of the scene. It’s a big dance meant to be a fantasy sequence, with lots of flash and movement. You can see in the photograph above how well the color worked in that number. The shapes of the phones were distinct enough to convey their essence. They were a pretty big hit, and some of the audience thought they were rented.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies