Tag Archives: Hippodrome

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.

Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees, 1910

(The following was originally published in The New York Times, September 4, 1910)

Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees

A Little Army of Them Required to Set the Scenes and Handle Mechanical Side of Every Production

There are fully 1,500 men appearing on the stage in New York every night that the audience never sees and very seldom hears one or two of them pounding cocoanut shells on board – or it may be the more modern horseshoe shaped mallets striking a smooth stone slab – and thereby suggesting the invisible presence of a galloping steed. Sometimes, too, when the music is playing softly, the audience sitting near the stage catches a rumbling sound of heavy things being moved, or hears a muffled voice or two.

But for the most part this little army of people in the profession is never seen or heard during a performance, and is almost as little appreciated as the man who pays off the actors or the artist who designs the posters.

They are the men who tie the scenery together, who bring in the furniture, who manage the lights, and pull the strings, literally, that make the houses and mountains and things stand around in their proper places. At the Hippodrome – and there, by the way, they often are seen by the audience – they are the chaps who drag the ton-weight carpets around and put up marvelous structures for the acrobats and others to stand on – the men who seem to know how to do anything. They call them “rough necks” in a circus.

Just because their union is making an effort toward an increase in pay and certain other priveleges, these men have been brought to the public’s attention in the last few weeks. Since heavy sets and elaborate mechanical effects arrived the force back of the curtain line has increased to the point of having strict discipline and, according to some of those in the business, to having a pride of work. Almost without exception stagehands are interested in the success of their part of the performance nowadays, and take almost as much pride in having things right, and having them right in the shortest possible time, as the actor does in receiving a “hand” at the end of a scene.

There are four divisions of stagehands, all under the immediate direction of the stage carpenter, who is boss back of the curtain line after the stage manager, and in some things before him. There are the “grips,” who handle the scenery and nothing else; the “clearers,” who handle the movable properties, from pins to locomotives, but who will not touch a piece of scenery; the “flymen,” who take care of the ropes above the stage and whose duty it is to haul up and let down the “hung” scenery, and the electricians and “operators,” who take care of everything relating to the lighting of the stage, and in their case alone they overflow to the front of the house and look after the lighting there.

Theoretically, these divisions never overlap. A “grip” simply will not handle a “prop,” and a “clearer” may not so much as look hard at an electrical “fixture,” even though the fixture is about to fall off from its insecure attachment. If a scene has a practical fireplace, with a grate and a nice red electric light to make the fire glow, the “grips” take away the painted chimney piece, the “clearers” remove the grate, and the electricians carry away the incandescent bulb and the wire attached thereto.

There is a story told of an occasion when a portable bathtub full of water was used in one scene. The bath was a “prop,” to be handled by the “clearers.” No “grip” had any right to touch it. One night – this was on the road – the “clearers” put the tub down in a passage way leading to that particular theatre’s “scene dock,” where the “flats” not in use were slid away until needed. They forgot the tub, which was a big tin affair painted green, having completed the clearing of the stage and gone to the side door for fresh air. The “grips” went after the painted “flats” to complete the setting of the stage. One after the other they came to the tub, climbed laboriously over or around it, hauled out the scenery, lifted it over the obstacle, and climbed back again. They simply had do right to move the tub, or in any way interfere with the work of the clearers.

When specialization began to set in and stage hands became organized, there was consdirable discussion as to where the duties of the various divisions ended and began. There was a dispute months long as to whether a grass mat used in an exterior scene was a “prop” or a part of the scenery, and also into which category a movable fence should come. Now everything that is used to “dress the stage” is considered a “prop”; the carpets, hangings, pictures on the wall, growing plants, real waterfalls – everything that does not belong directly to the scenery.

As soon as the curtain is down and the possibility of it going up again in response to plaudits of the multitude has disappeared, the stage hands leap to their work. The clearers began to take off the “props” of this act, through the doors first, and then through the open space left by the grips when they have begun to move the scenery. The stage is usually free of all “props” by the time all of the “flats” are down and stacked out of the way. Then the properties for the next act are brought on and put in the middle of the stage, while the setting of the walls – if it be an interior scene – is being brought out and put in place. While the walls are being built with that strange flapping sound that the audience sometimes hears from the front – that is made by the ropes used in tying the sections together – the clearers are putting the furniture in the locations suggested by the author of the play, or, more likely, by the same director.

It is all done on schedule. Every grip and every clearer knows exactly what he is to do and how he is to keep from interfering with what some one else is doing. When the order is given to “strike,” which means clear the stage for the next act, each man in the gang leaps for the particular “prop” or piece of scenery delegated to his care, and hustles it out of the way with a total disregard for the shins of whoever may be in the way. When the stage is being cleared or set it belongs to the stage hands only, and even the star of greatest magnitude has no right to be in the way. The stage manager of the company is the only person who may remain with impunity in the precints of the mechanics’ quarters. And he stands as close as possible to the curtain line, out of the way, but where he can see what is going on, and gives whatever directions are necessary about the lowering of the “borders,” and the arranging of the scenery and props. It is the stage manager who gives the signal for the curtain to be raised after he has looked over the work of the stage hands and found it good.

The stage force in the theatres in New York averages from twenty to fifty men to each house, depending on the nature of the attraction current there. This average holds, of course, in all first-class theatres in other cities, and in most of the one-night stand places. That there are fully 1,500 men employed back of the curtain line and out of sight of the audiences in New York is somewhat within the actual figures, but it is a close approximation. This week, for example, one big musical production that has been running all Summer will end its local engagement, and the number of men at work will be reduced just that much, so far as this one theatre is concerned. On the other hand, new plays coming into the city will demand the aid of some, if not all, of these men. Of course, they are all members of the union, of the “T.M.A.,” the Theatrical Mechanics’ Association. The number of union stage hands in every city is generally in excess of the number of workers required, because there must always be enough authorized workers to take care of the largest kind of theatrical productions.

When a “road” attraction is about to arrive in a town the local stage carpenter receives a “scene plot,” sent on ahead of the company, which tells him just how many grips, how many clearers, how many fly men and electricians will be needed. He has them ready when the production arrives in town. The company carries at least a carpenter and a property man of its own, and in unusual cases, when the settings are particularly heavy or intricate, it carries several trained stage hands besides. The company carpenter has charge of the setting of the scenery, though the local stage hands are under the direction of the local carpenter. When the attraction remains for any length of time in one theatre the company carpenter sometimes turns over the entire stage to the local man after the play has been given for several performances.

In the case of a “New York production,” when the play is coming in for a hoped-for long run, the stage force is rehearsed for the opening performance. Before the “first night” three or four scene and light rehearsals are given for the purpose of familiarizing the crew with the scenery and the running of the play, and then a further rehearsal at the time of the final full company dress rehearsal, immediately before the play opens. When the attraction opens out of town a short time, before coming into the city is usually the custom to take at least a part of the crew to the other city, so that they may have the scenic side of the play down pat by the time it comes to New York.

One large musical comedy now running on Broadway may be taken as an example of how the force is divided and how many people are needed. This play has two or three heavy sets, and also requires several quick changes of scenery. Its stage crew consists of a head carpenter and assistant, seventeen “grips,” head property man and his assistant and seventeen “clearers,” six flymen, two chief electricians, and fourteen “operators,” or assistant electricians, which does not include four men on electrical duty in the front of the house – sixty in all. The record for setting the heaviest scene complete is thirty seconds. At the Hippodrome the force runs well past 100, with the proportion of the “clearers” much greater.

The “clearers” it must be remembered, are responsible not only for the movable scenery on the stage, but for the things the actors and chorus people carry in their hands. In the musical play mentioned it was found necessary to give each “clearer” a number, plainly displayed on his cap, so that the members of the company could recognize the man from whom each was to receive his or her “prop.” At the Hippodrome, where sometimes as many as 1,000 “props” are required for one scene, such as the ballets, there is a real army of “clearers” on duty. One division gives out the “head props,” such as helmets and fancy head dresses that do not form an integral part of the costumes, and another division has charge of the “hand props,” which consist of spears, guns, wands, baskets of flowers – everything that is to be carried in the hand.

In vaudeville there are different laws and different customs, after the general rules of the union. There each of the seven or eight acts on the bill is a company in itself, with different scenic and property requirements. The principal member of the “act” is supposed to pay for the special work done for his part of the programme, outside of the necessary moving of scenery and handling of staple “props.” The payment is generally done in the form of gratuities at the end of the week’s engagement, and the average performer is usually very glad to do the paying. In vaudeville a property man or a “grip” while attending strictly to his business can often cause a performer considerable annoyance – “crab the act” according to the vernacular – and by a slight zeal beyond his actual duties he can add much to the success of the actor. Vaudeville stage hands, too, frequently have a chance to play parts.

Stage hands are recognized as good authorities on plays. The head carpenter’s prophesy at the end of a first performance is usually worth listening to, and it is not often that the property man makes a mistake. And after two weeks of an attraction there is not a stage hand in the theatre who does not feel that he could play any part in the piece. Not as the vaudeville stage hand plays parts, by being the butt of the comic juggler’s comedy or coming on as a bellboy or a waiter, but as the actor plays them, only in the stage hand’s own mind, a good deal better.

Sometimes they try it. One Christmas time the stage hands at the Belasco Theatre, which is now the Republic, put on a burlesque of “The Rose of the Rancho” for Mr. Belasco’s benefit, and surprised the “governor” and the other invited guests by their histrionic ability. And last Spring, at a performance given for the Hippodrome Sick Benefit Fund, the stage crew from the Bijou gave an act of “The Lottery Man” so well that the regular company began to be worried.

Many of the workers on the stage “hold down” other jobs. They are required only six nights and two afternoons during the week, except when scene rehearsals are called. Almost any daylight occupation can be attended to without interference with the work at night. A very incomplete census of the stage hands in town indicates that a good proportion of them are married. At one big house they have got into the habit of marrying members of the chorus, and one of the happiest of the big force over there this season is a “clearer” who was excused from rehearsals one day last week to go home and see the new baby. Last Winter its mother was one of those who went down into the water and astonished out-of-town visitor by not coming up again.

– first published in The New York Times – September 4, 1910