Tag Archives: fake

Edible Props, 1987

The following first appeared in a 1987 issue of the Wall Street Journal:

“Edible Props”, by Laurel Graeber

Jan Marasek spent weeks last fall searching for the perfect date. Not to fill lonely hours on Saturday night, but to fill a box for the actors starring in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”

“I had such a hard time,” says Mr. Marasek, production property master for Emanuel Azenberg, the Broadway show’s producer. “They didn’t want pits, they didn’t want them coated; the ones from Balducci’s and Zabar’s were too big to mouth. I finally ended up in a health-food restaurant. I’m always looking for dates,” he says with a sigh.

Like many theatrical property people, Mr. Marasek finds that his role often resembles a cross between a maitre d’s and a magician’s. Years ago, he says, scripts frequently called for actors to be smoking; now they always seem to be eating. And edible props are seldom to property masters’ liking. They first have to please the actors, who may have food allergies or dietary restrictions.

“When Carol Channing was starring in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ her doctors came backstage to ask what she was eating,” remembers Mr. Marasek. “In one scene, she gobbled down dumplings, which were made of spun sugar so she could eat them easily. It turned out we were giving her about a cup of sugar per performance.” When her physicians demanded an immediate change, Mr. Marasek worked with property man Leo Herbert to produce dumplings made of thin paper sprayed with tea and shaped over small light bulbs to dry. At each performance, Miss Channing would “eat” the dumplings and dispose of them discreetly when she wiped her mouth.

Since almost no one would appreciate the same foods eight times a week, property men have devised creative substitutes. Mr. Marasek has made eggs from apricot halves surrounded by white bread lightly sprinkled with boiling water. For the liver in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” he used pumpernickel, which, creatively shaped with a pizza cutter, also stars as the pot roast in “Broadway Bound.”

“‘Biloxi Blues’ has the big mess-hall scene, where the kid hates the food,” he says of the Neil Simon play, which is now on a national tour. “When Matthew Broderick starred, he wanted to almost retch when he saw it.” The concoction was an unappetizing combination of apple butter and green food coloring.

Property masters also worry about safety. Mr. Marasek has been known to sew a loaf of bread together to prevent the cast from tripping over a fallen slice. Eating itself poses a risk to actors, who may swallow more than their lines. “A dry cookie can be a disaster,” he says. During tryouts of “Broadway Bound,” for example, actor John Randolph caught a seed in his throat from a piece of rye bread. From then on, only seedless loaves were purchased.

Another danger is backstage cooking, which increases the risk of a fire, not to mention the horrifying possibility of a cast felled by food poisoning, or a theater overrun with living things that haven’t bought tickets. That’s why prop men like to keep edibles to a minimum, and preserve purely decorative foods with shellac.

“It’s good for something with a low moisture content,” says Edward Gianfrancesco, resident designer at Off Broadway’s WPA Theatre. “But we had a prop person use it once on cheeses and fruits. It was great for a while, except that the varnish became a perfect envelope for everything to turn totally rotten inside.”

Real food is also expensive. Since the 1985 Broadway opening of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport,” Mr. Herbert’s staff has bought approximately 84 heads of lettuce, 84 loaves of bread, 63 pounds of tunafish salad, 42 sticks of butter and 28 jars of mayonnaise just to make one sandwich for each performance. “Those in the front row have to see that it’s tuna,” says Mr. Herbert. But neither of the actors who has had to taste it has liked tuna, which is why the hidden half of the sandwich is purposely made only with butter. Such grocery costs mount, and although sponsors sometimes ease them by providing coupons or free goods in exchange for a program credit, the arrangement doesn’t always suffice.

“Planter’s is giving us cashews for ‘Broadway Bound,'” says Mr. Marasek. “The cast goes through a pound a show, even though there’s only a line about one nut in the script. We don’t have the nerve to ask Planter’s for all the nuts we use, and they’re $5.99 a jar in the supermarket. No one admits to eating them, but,” he says with determination, “I’m investigating now.”

To fill a production’s gastronomical needs, property masters have gone everywhere from Oriental food shops to caterers. Mr. Marasek once even consulted the Catholic Church to find out what the Host was made of, to see if it would be a viable substitute for the “Hello, Dolly!” dumplings. It wasn’t.

With so much time, energy and money at stake, property masters prefer artificial food. Mr. Marasek once made a turkey out of plastic-treated felt and cucumber slices out of silicon caulking compound. Liquor is almost never real, as some thieves discovered when they broke into Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where Andrew Bergman’s “Social Security” is playing. What they thought was high-quality Scotch proved to be caramel-colored water.

But although artifice plays a major role in property design, theater professionals strive to make their fake edibles look real. Mr. Marasek usually injects the plastic oranges in “Broadway Bound” with water to give them the appropriate weight. Sound is important, too: If an actress throws what is supposedly a tray of frozen fish sticks in a processing plant, they can’t sound like styrofoam blocks. This was the problem confronting Mr. Gianfrancesco, who designed the set, complete with styrofoam fish covered with sawdust batter, for the WPA Theatre’s recent production of Israel Horovitz’s “North Shore Fish.” Wood, he reasoned, was too heavy a substitute and a potential danger to the actors.

“For that particular scene, we made a batch out of Homosote, which is like a very dense cardboard,” he explains. “That tray had to come out in just the proper sequence for her to hurl it and get the sound.”

There is, however, one area in which no one seeks authenticity.

“You don’t want the audience to start smelling food cooking,” warns Mr. Marasek, “or they’ll all want to walk out to the nearest restaurant and eat.”

“Theater: Edible Props”, by Laurel Graeber. Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1987.

Fake tree branch

Fake Tree Branches

We have a production of Brother Wolf currently running out in Winston-Salem. One of the props they needed were some tree branches which they were doing some choreography with. So they needed to be light-weight and safe around the actors. We decided to go with pool noodles over an aluminum pole, coated in cheesecloth and glue. I sent a photo of the following sample over to Howard Jones, the scenic designer, and got approval.

Tree branch sample
Tree branch sample

The two full-size branches were made by the assistant props master, Lisa Bledsoe (I merely took the pictures). She started by bending the poles to match what was drawn, and adding a few extra branches. They were bolted on since we do not have an aluminum welder at the shop.

Foam and structure
Foam and structure

She adhered the separate pieces of pool noodle together with spray foam, which also filled the gaps. Once it had cured, she set to shaping the foam using a mix of knives and an angle grinder with an abrasive flap wheel.

Carving the shape
Carving the shape

Once the branches were properly shaped, she painted on the cheesecloth with a 50/50 mix of Elmer’s Glue and water. I should mention that the branches got a quick coat of grey primer, since the cheesecloth is fairly translucent, and we did not want pink trees.

Coated
Coated

Once everything was dry, our scenic painter, Jessica Holcombe, gave the final paint treatment. It was a weathered grey wood, with a thin white wash over top. It matched all the wood elements in the scenery, so it was easier to just have her do the branches as well, rather than having us try to match it.

Fake tree branch
Fake tree branch

Overall, they worked pretty well. They are far lighter than a real tree branch, and they won’t hurt an actor if they accidentally make contact. There are a few spots at the tips where the pool noodle extends past the aluminum pole, and we found they were cracking at those points; a few times during the run, we had to glue on a “bandage” of cheesecloth to repair those cracks. Other than that, I thought they were a great solution.

Mid-Week Links

Things have been hectic here in the Hart Household, and you may have noticed I’ve missed a few posts. So I am switching things up and posting a bunch of links on a Wednesday rather than a Friday. Here we go:

Chris Ubick has been the props master on dozens of films, such as The HelpPractical MagicMilk, and The Internship. Dianne Reber Hart has written a great article on her life and career which you should check out.

This article is a few years old, but worth mentioning: The Last Electronics Project I Completed. It’s a little deep and heavy at times (the author was building a fake bomb prop in lower Manhattan in early September of 2001) but it brings up some questions about the questionable legality of what we sometimes find ourselves building.

On a lighter note, here is how to force a patina on carbon steel. Short answer? Shove it in a lemon.

And finally, here is an interesting Instructable on assembling a vacuum-formed model. If you have tried vacuum-forming before, you will know that making the parts on the machine is just the beginning. You still have to trim, assemble and reinforce the parts to get a usable prop. This Instructable steps through some of those processes to make a fake ammo drum.

Strawberry pie

Two Fake Pies

We opened Pump Boys and Dinettes here at Triad Stage a few weeks ago. Set in a diner famed for its home cookin’, we needed some pies. They sing about them, after all. Of course, we didn’t want to be buying brand new pies for every performance, so I asked my assistant, Lisa Bledsoe, to make a few.

Pie crust and base
Pie crust and base

She started off making the pie crusts out of Crayola Model Magic. She shaped a layer into a glass pie tray and let it harden over night. She cut some white bead foam discs to fill most of the inside.

Strawberry filling
Strawberry filling

She was making two pies; a fruit pie and a coconut cream pie. For the fruit pie, she had some fake strawberries from the floral section at Hobby Lobby, and cut all of them in half to make a layer on top of the foam disc. She painted the disc red to continue the illusion that it was strawberries all the way down.

Toasted coconut
Toasted coconut

To top the coconut pie, she used actual dried coconut flakes. They were painted with acrylics to make them look toasted.

Coconut cream pie
Coconut cream pie

The Model Magic did not stick to the pie tray, so she was able to pop the whole pie out and paint the crust with acrylics before popping it back in. The cream on top was made from acrylic caulk. She had visited the hardware store and picked up a few different brands and types of caulk and spackle to test out which would dry the most like a cream pie.

Strawberry pie
Strawberry pie

The strawberry pie got a lattice crust made of more Model Magic painted with acrylics. So there you have it; the Double Cupp Sisters’ famous pies!

Making Fake Beer

Making Fake Beer

Our first show of the calendar year at Triad was Anna Christie. One challenge that arose was the need for a realistic lager beer. The first scene takes place in a bar, and the bartender pours several beers from a keg onstage. We couldn’t use real beer, because the amount the actress had to actually consume would have laid her on the floor before the scene was through. So I needed a self-contained and consistent means to produce several glasses of a fake frothy beverage on a bar which entered at the beginning of the scene and was struck a vista at the end. I shot a little video showing how I did it: