I’ve come across the following lists of duties and responsibilities for various members of the props department in a number of places. These are the IATSE job classifications for union members working in film. I have noticed some theatres will use these as starting points to develop their own job descriptions for people in the props department as well. Property Master The duties of the Property Master shall include preparation of a hand prop breakdown, with scene allocations as per the shooting script; to research the historical period of said administered hand props; to prepare, build and procure props to be seen on camera; the repair and return of props to original condition and source; arranging for all necessary permits to convey restricted weapons; co-ordinate with the Wardrobe Department the required accessories; while on set, the Prop Master will administer props to artists, strike and reset hot sets established by the Set Decorators, with the aid of Polaroid’s, photographs or sketches; consult with the Script Supervisor on the continuity of hand props; responsible for the disbursement of the assigned budget; and delegate the work required for the efficient operation of the Department. Assistant Property Master Duties are acts as the Prop Master’s representative on the set; during pre-production helps with script and prop breakdown; in the Prop Master’s absence this person can be left in charge of the props on shooting set; makes sure that the set and props are as the Props Master wishes them to be; oversees the supplying and loading of the truck; has the ability to oversee the set and props in a camera ready condition; has the ability to oversee the set and prop continuity; and can perform these duties in an unsupervised role. Additionally, this person must hold a valid Firearms Acquisition Certificate; carry the Motion Picture Firearms Safety Course card; be knowledgeable in the building and repair of props; be knowledgeable in the handling of firearms; the safe use of firearms and the blank firing of firearms; and carries the same responsibilities for the safety of artists and shooting crew when it comes to the firing of blanks as the Props Master. Props Buyer Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Armour Must have Fire Arms Acquisition Certificate and no criminal record. Responsible for maintaining safety on set in relation to weapons and ammunition, including but not limited to determining the distance for all loads; ¼, ½ and full loads and as such providing plexi-glass shields, etc. when required. Order all weapons, permits, ammunition etc. and inspect them as a safety precaution. Responsible for the distribution and collection of the weapons to talent and background performers. Warn to the cast and crew prior to firing weapons, secure area effected. Along with performing those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Builder Work with wood, leather, and metal must have carpentry skills, and perform duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Assistant Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Men/Women or Props Crew Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master
The following is an interview given to a Sun reporter by one identified only as a “veteran stage manager” of one of New York’s stock theatres. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 15, 1885, on page 6.
“Five different and entirely distinct departments must work harmoniously and without the slightest hitch or delay,” continued the stage manager. “These are the actors, the musicians, the carpenters, the property men, and the gas men. A trifling failure made by the least of any of these may turn a performance into ridicule. Each of the mechanical departments has its own boss, but all are subject to the stage manager’s orders, and he in turn is responsible to the manager.”
“To the property-man’s department belong all furniture, carpets, curtains, ornaments, and all the small articles used by actors, and known in theatrical parlance as hand or side props. Among these are letters, books, guns, pistols, knives, purses, pocketbooks, money, lamps, candles, cradles, and doll babies. Live props, such as dogs, cats, birds, donkeys, and horses, are also under his charge, and are much disliked, as causing a vast amount of trouble. The side props are taken from the property man every night by the call boy, whose duty is to deliver them to the actors and return them after they have been used to the property room. A good property man is hard to find, for he must be something of a carpenter, an artist, a modeler, and a mechanician [sic].
“Papier-maché has come of late years to be largely used in the manufacture of properties, and nearly all the magnificent vases, the handsome plaques, the graceful statues, and the superb gold and silver plate seen to-day on the stage are made of that material. Some of the imitations of china are so perfectly done and so admirably painted that it is not unusual to see an actor tap them to find out if they are real. In making statues a cast is taken from the clay, and the pulp is then firmly pressed into the moulds. Life-size statues which seem to be of bronze or marble do not weigh more than five or six pounds, look just as well as the genuine, and are easily and quickly handled. For traveling purposes the saving in freight alone is a great economy. Entire suits of armor and fruits of all kinds are made of this useful and inexpensive material. The late Mr. Wallace, the husband of Mme. Ponial, was in his day a celebrated property man. Perhaps the two best now living are the brothers William and George Henry of the Union Square and Madison Square Theatres. Both are really excellent artists, and their salaries are deservedly as large as those of good actors.
“In most New York theatres the property man has one regular assistant and two night aids, who are needed to handle heavy carpets, pianos, and furniture. In the old days carpenters and property men were often prone to dispute about the exact lines which divided their duties, but in well-regulated theatres the departments are now generally willing to help each other. Still, a carpenter or grip is not actually bound to put a finger to a carpet or piece of furniture, nor is a property man, even if not occupied, obliged to help with a scene. Some of the distinctions drawn by custom seem to be singular; thus, a whole tree, if set upon the stage and screwed to it for support, is considered a part of the scene, and, as such, belongs to the carpenters, while a stump upon which a person may sit is in the property man’s department. Again, a flight of stairs is set up by the carpenter, but if a carpet is put on it, that must be done by the property man.”
The following comes from The Young Woman’s Journal, a self-described “organ of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations”. It was originally published in October, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah. I kept in the opening paragraphs so you get a sense of the context which the article was written, then I skipped ahead to the portion dealing specifically with props.
Technique of Play Production
by Maud May Babcock
The community theatre in the days of Brigham Young, was unique. The Latter-day Saints had an organization with such fine ideals and gave performances of such excellence that there has been no equal in theatrical history, and the theatre of Brigham Young stands today the admiration and wonder of the entire world. Have the mighty fallen? We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage to commercial theatrical enterprise. Instead of leading, showing how communities could entertain themselves and by so doing develop a taste for only the best in music and drama, we are amused by demoralizing vaudeville, and unreal, sentimental “canned” drama. Today our taste is as low as anywhere in the United States. Verily we are what we feed upon! The Mutuals are making splendid effort to help our communities come back to their own and make their own entertainment.
There is a tremendous waste of time and effort in our Ward societies because of the lack of organization, and systematic procedure in our entertainments.
Organization in heaven, in the church, in the world spells efficiency. A successful amusement center depends upon its organization. In our dramatic activities, our organization must consist of the following officers:
- Business Manager
- Stage Manager
- Stage Carpenter
- Property Manager
- Scene Painter
The Director and Business Manager should be very carefully selected by the local Mutual Officers, and these should be responsible to them alone. All the other officers are appointed by the Director and responsible to him or her.
The Property Man—”Props”—provides, cares for, and places in proper position on the stage all furniture, draperies, rugs, carpets, lamps, telephone, letters, documents, etc.—in fact, all articles needed in the play except the personal properties of the actor. Things only used by a single actor—such as a fan, a cane, an eyeglass, a parasol, a handkerchief, a letter, if it remains with the one person and not given to another or is not left on the stage—these are personal “props.” A small table should be provided on either side of the stage for offstage “props,” such articles as are needed to be carried on stage, or for properties brought off stage. The property man should see that actors do not carry such “props” to their dressing rooms, but that they are left on the table provided. Stage drinks—which are made of grape juice, ginger-ale, or root beer, according to the color needed, are cared for and bought by “props” on order of the director countersigned by the business manager.
The property man should take an artistic pride in his stage picture and spend a good deal of time to secure, by renting or borrowing or making, the exact style of furniture and things needed for the play. A period play with modern furniture which one sees in stock performances is ludicrous. Charlie Millard, the veteran property man of the Salt Lake Theatre made all his properties and furnished the actors in Brigham Young’s time with even personal “props.” The stage manager furnishes “props” with a property plot containing a list of properties needed for each scene in the play.
This article first appeared in “The Young Woman’s Journal”, October, 1921.
Who hasn’t dreamt of running away and joining the circus? Charles Mayer actually did it. In his book, Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles, published in 1922, Mayer talks about his early years when he was a property-boy with a touring big-top show.
I was nearly seventeen when Sells Brothers’ Circus came to Binghamton, New York, where I was living with my parents. That day I joined some other boys in playing hookey from school, and we earned our passes by carrying water for the animals. It wasn’t my first circus, but it was the first time that I had ever worked around the animals and I was fascinated. I didn’t miss the big show, but all the rest of the day I was in the menagerie, listening to the yarns of the keepers and doing as much of their work as they would allow. That night, when the circus left town, I stowed away in a wagon.
The next morning, in Elmira, I showed up at the menagerie bright and early. The men laughed when they saw me. I had expected them to be surprised and I was afraid that they might send me away, but I found out later that it was quite an ordinary thing for boys to run away from home and join the circus. And the men didn’t mind because the boys were always glad to do their work for them. I worked hard and, in return, the men saw that I had something to eat. That night I stowed away again in the wagon.
In Buffalo I was told to see the boss—the head property-man—and I went, trembling for fear he was going to send me back home. Instead, he told me that I might have the job of property-boy, which would give me $25 a month, my meals and a place to sleep—if I could find one. There were no sleeping accommodations for the canvas and property crews; we rolled up in the most comfortable places we could find, and we were always so dead tired that we didn’t care much where we slept.
$25 a month and no place to sleep. This is around 1880, still over a decade from the founding of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes. By 1896, the rates for traveling men were $20 a week for Assistant Propertymen.
Since those early days in the circus, I’ve been around the world many times, and I’ve seen all sorts of men, living and working in all sorts of conditions, but I’ve never found a harder life than that of property-boy, unless, perhaps, it’s that of a Malay prisoner. Sometimes I wonder how I stood it and why I liked it. But I did stand it and, what is more, I loved it so much that I persuaded the boss to keep me on when we went into winter quarters.
The moment we arrived at a town, the head canvas-man rode to the lot on which we were to show and laid it out; that is, he measured it and decided on the location of the tents. The men with him drove small stakes to indicate where the tentpegs were to be placed. In the meantime, the property gang unloaded the show. Then we drove the four-foot stakes for the dressing-tent into whatever kind of ground the lot happened to have. A man can work up a good appetite by swinging a fourteen-pound hammer for an hour or so before breakfast, but before we started we had also many other things to do. The dressing-tent had to be spread and hoisted; then the properties were sorted and placed in their position for the performers to get ready for the parade. Meanwhile the canvas-gang was getting the “big-top” up. Then, when the parade started, we went to the “big-top” and arranged the properties there, made the rings, adjusted the guys, ropes and wires for the aerial acts and laid out all the paraphernalia for the ground acts. While we were doing these things, the canvas-men were stringing the seats. Then we had breakfast.
When the parade returned, there were cages to be placed in the menagerie tent and the parade properties to be prepared for shipping. By the time that work was finished, the crowds had arrived for the show and we stood by to handle the tackle of the various acts. At night, after the show had started, we began taking down the smaller tents and stowing the properties just as fast as they came from the “big top.” Then, when the show was loaded, we took one last look over the lot to be sure that nothing had been left behind.
No, we didn’t care much where we slept—just any spot where we dropped was good enough.
It sounds like remarkably like many touring companies today. Some things never change.
The next season I went with the Adam Forepaugh show; then with the Frank Robbins show. I learned the circus business from the ground up and I was rapidly promoted. In 1883, I joined R. W. Fryer’s show as head property-man and transportation master. It was a responsible position, which required every bit of the knowledge I had gained in the few preceding years. I had charge of all the circus property and I was boss of a large crew of men. The job kept me on the jump day and night. The canvas and property crews were made up of the toughest characters I have ever struck in my life—a man had to be tough in those days. They were hard to handle, but they were good workers and I got along all right with them.
They were always just a little bit tougher than any local talent we came up against on the tour, even though a circus used to attract the worst men for miles around. At Albuquerque one night, four “bad men” came to see the show. When they came up, Fitzgerald, who was one of the partners, was taking tickets at the entrance. He tried to get tickets from them, but they pulled out guns. One of them said: “These are our tickets.” Fitzgerald let them in and passed the word along to the crew. The men took seats and, when the show started, they let loose with their guns, shooting through the tents and letting a few bullets fly into the ring. Sometimes a bullet would strike near a performer, raising a puff of dust and scaring him half to death. The “bad men” were sitting with their legs dangling down between the seats. Some of the crew took seats near them, just as if they were part of the audience, and a dozen property-men sneaked under the tent. When the signal was given, they grabbed the dangling legs and pulled. Then the circus-men in the seats jumped up and, without letting the audience know what was happening, they snatched the guns. Down went the “bad men” between the seats. It all happened so quickly and so quietly that the audience didn’t realize what had become of them. The canvas-men “toe-staked” them; that is, they hit them over the heads with the toe-stakes that are driven into the ground to keep the seat-stringers from sliding. A toe-stake is of just the proper size and weight to use in a fight, and it is the circus-man’s idea of a good weapon. The crew buried the four men while the show was on. I thought there would be trouble before we could get out of town, but the men weren’t even missed.
Now, I may not fully grasp the use of language from this time period, but I’m pretty sure Mayer just described how the circus-men murdered four men and buried them under their tent. Some things do change.
(Mayer’s writing originally published in “Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles” by Charles Mayer, published by Duffield, 1921.)
Today, let me regale you with several quotes I’ve collected from mid-twentieth century books on props.
“One of the key jobs on any film set is that of the property master, and his range of activity is perhaps the largest of all. If it ‘moves, it’s mine,’ the prop man can say, on most occasions.”
People who Make Movies, by Theodore Taylor, 1967 (pg 76).
“In the property-maker’s room lives the wizard of the studio. He is always experimenting with new compositions with which to get the multitudinous effects that he is called on to supply. Latex, rubber solution, glues, Rhodoid, cellophane, resinous plastics, Perspex, and ingenuity – these are his materials. He is an inventor, a chemist, a bit of an artist, and an engineer.”
Designing for Films, by Edward Carrick, 1950 (pg. 106).
“The three basic types of properties are stage props, such as furniture, news desks, and lecterns; set dressings, such as pictures, draperies, and lamps, and hand props, which are items such as dishes, telephones, and typewriters actually handled by the talent.”
Television Production Handbook, 5th ed., by Herbert Zettl, 1992 (pg. 440).
“The most important part of any storage area is its retrieval efficiency. If you must search for hours to find the props to decorate your office set, even the most extensive prop collection is worth very little. Clearly label all storage areas, and then put the props and scenery back every time in the designated areas.”
Television Production Handbook, 4th ed., by Herbert Zettl, 1984 (pg. 28).
“As soon as the actors are free of books, important hand props (those handled a good deal by the actors) should be brought to rehearsal – or rehearsal substitutes provided – so actors can practise the use of them and save time at dress rehearsals.”
Directing for the Theatre, by Wieder David Sievers, 1965 (pg. 246).