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What Prop Masters are Thankful For

It is Thanksgiving tomorrow for those of us in the US. It is a time to reflect on the things we are thankful for, and I thought I would make a list of ten things that prop masters are thankful for (plus one bonus thing). What would you add to the list?

  • A props list that fits on one page.
  • Being able to return an item with an open package.
  • Finding the perfect prop on eBay… and it has a “Buy it Now” option.
  • Interns who understand the difference between craft and fabric scissors.
  • When the designer says “I have the perfect one at home, I’ll just bring it in.”
  • A publicity photographer who actually includes some of the props in the photos.
  • Finding out the Meet and Greet for the next show has real food provided rather than just light snacks.
  • When the designer chooses the fabric to reupholster the couch and it’s the cheapest option you presented.
  • A cast with no food allergies.
  • When that challenging prop you don’t even want to think about gets cut before you even thought about it.

And of course, the thing we can all be thankful for this holiday season:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

Recommended Tools for the Props Person (SFO Edition)

All props people have their own tools they bring to work. Some of the tools are basic necessities that one should never be without, while others are specialty items that you rarely find at any shop. But if you are just starting out, what tools do you need? The Santa Fe Opera provides their incoming apprentices with a list of tools which they are required to bring. Obviously, their shop is well-equipped; these are just the personal tools which every props person should have. Think of it as a base-line set that you bring to every job, regardless of where it is or what you are doing.

The Opera has two different lists, one for the carpenters (who build the furniture and other fabricated items out of wood and metal) and the crafts persons (who do soft goods, casting and molding, and all other crafts). I’ve paraphrased them below.

For the carpenters:

  • tape measure
  • architect’s scale rule
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • slotted screwdriver
  • drill and driver bits
  • hammer
  • end cutting pliers
  • slip joint pliers
  • diagonal cutting pliers
  • adjustable wrench
  • combination square or speed square
  • utility knife
  • 3/4″ wood chisel

For the crafts persons:

  • needle-nose pliers
  • fabric scissors
  • craft scissors
  • tape measure
  • utility knife

In addition, though the shop has some of the following tools, they are so commonly used that they recommend bringing your own if you have them:

  • precision cutting knife (X-Acto® knife)
  • snap-off blade knife (Olfa® knife)
  • bevel gauge
  • cordless drill
  • steel ruler
  • vise grips
  • ratchet and socket set (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
  • box wrenches (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
  • compass

Finally, while their shop has some safety gear, it is always a good idea to own a personal set of the following:

  • respirator with organic vapor cartridges
  • safety glasses
  • hearing protection
  • leather gloves

Again, these are the tools required by the Santa Fe Opera, and other work sites may require a slightly different set of tools. However, if you are just starting to build up your own personal tool kit, it is a good guide to refer to for the most commonly-used tools in a props shop.

Props at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776

This is the second excerpt in a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

In the ‘Tatler,’ No. 42, [Eric: published July 16, 1709] Addison supplies a humorous list of properties, alleged to be for sale in consequence of the closing of Drury Lane Theatre. Notice is given, in mimicry of an auctioneer’s advertisement, that a ‘magnificent palace with great variety of gardens, statues, and waterworks, may be bought cheap in Drury Lane, where there are likewise several castles to be disposed of, very delightfully situated; as also groves, woods, forests, fountains, and country seats with very pleasant prospects on all sides of them: being the moveables of Christopher Rich, Esquire, [the manager,] who is giving up housekeeping, and has many curious pieces of furniture to dispose of, which may be seen between the hours of six and ten in the evening.’ Among the items enumerated appear the following:

A new moon, something decayed.

A rainbow a little faded.

A setting sun.

A couch very finely gilt and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap.

Roxana’s nightgown.

Othello’s handkerchief.

A serpent to sting Cleopatra.

An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Cæsar, Bajazet, King Henry VIII., and Signor Valentini. The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once.

This was an allusion to Cibber’s feeble tragedy of ‘Xerxes,’ which was produced at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1699, and permitted one performance only.

The whiskers of a Turkish bassa.

The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox: consisting of a large piece of burnt cork and a coal-black peruke.

A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz. a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet holes upon the breast.

Six elbow chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flowerpots for their partners.

These articles of furniture, of a mechanical or trick sort, employed in pantomimes, are referred to in a letter published at a later date in the ‘Spectator’ from William Screene, who describes himself as having acted ‘several parts of household stuff with great applause for many years. I am,’ he continues, ‘one of the men in the hangings of the Emperor of the Moon; I have twice performed the third chair in an English opera; and have rehearsed the pump in the “Fortune Hunters.”‘ Another correspondent, Ralph Simple, states that he has ‘several times acted one of the finest flower-pots in the same opera wherein Mr. Screene is a chair,’ &c.

A plume of feathers never used but by Œdipus and the Earl of Essex.

Modern plots, commonly known by the name of trapdoors, ladders of ropes, vizard masques, and tables with broad carpets over them.

A wild boar killed by Mrs. Tofts and Dioclesian.

Mrs. Tofts, as the Amazonian heroine of the opera of ‘Camilla,’ by Marc Antonio Buononcini, was required to slay a wild boar upon the stage. A letter published in the ‘Spectator’ professed to be written by the performer of the wild boar: ‘Mr. Spectator,— Your having been so humble as to take notice of the epistles of other animals emboldens me, who am the wild boar that was killed by Mrs. Tofts, to represent to you that I think I was hardly used in not having the part of the lion in Hydaspes given to me. …As for the little resistance which I made, I hope it may be excused when it is considered that the dust was thrown at me by so fair a hand.’

The list concludes:

There are also swords, halberds, sheephooks, cardinals’ hats, turbans, drums, gallipots, a gibbet, a cradle, a rack, a cartwheel, an altar, a helmet, a back-piece, a breast-plate, a bell, a tub, and a jointed baby.

But this supposititious catalogue is scarcely more comical than the genuine inventory of properties, &c., belonging to the Theatre Royal in Crow Street, Dublin, 1776. A few of the items may be quoted:

Bow, quiver, and bonnet for Douglas.

Jobson’s bed. (For the farce of’ The Devil to Pay.’)

Juliet’s bier.

Juliet’s balcony.

A small map for Lear.

Tomb for the Grecian Daughter.

One shepherd’s hat.

Four small paper tarts.

Three pasteboard covers for dishes.

An old toy fiddle.

One goblet.

Twenty-eight candlesticks for dressing, and six washing basons, one broke, and four black pitchers.

Eleven metal thunder-bolts, sixty-seven wood ditto, fivo stone ditto.

Three baskets for thunder balls.

Rack in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Elephant in ‘ The Enchanted Lady,’ very bad.

Alexander’s car.

One pair of sea-horses.

Six gentlemen’s helmets.

Altar piece in ‘ Theodosius.’

The statue of Osiris.

Water-fall.

Frost scene in ‘ King Arthur.’

One sedan chair for the pantomime.

The scaffold in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Several old pantomime tricks and useless pieces of scenes.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 284-286.)

A Union Propmaker’s Tool Kit

IATSE Local 44 has a great list of the various department which fall under “props”. Their descriptions of the different crafts also include the expected set of tools one should show up to work with. Their website used to list the tools required for a propmaker, which I have listed below:

  • 16 oz. Claw Hammer
  • 25′ or 30′ Measuring Tape
  • 100′ Measuring Tape
  • 12″ Combination Square
  • Framing Square
  • Bevel Square
  • 8 pt. Hand Saw
  • 12 pt. Hand Saw
  • Back Saw
  • Key Hole Saw
  • 1/4″ – 1/2″ – 3/4″ – 1″ Wood Chisels
  • Cold Chisel
  • Box Plane
  • Hand Axe
  • Two Chalk Boxes
  • Dry Line
  • Line Level
  • 24″ or 30″ Level
  • Compass
  • Angle Dividers
  • 24″ or 30″ Wrecking Bar
  • 10″ Vise Grip Pliers
  • Pliers
  • Diagonal Cutters
  • Straight-head and Phillips-head Screwdrivers
  • 10″ Crescent Wrench
  • Nail Sets – Various Sizes
  • Wood Files – Various Types and Sizes
  • Sharpening Stone
  • Tool Belt
  • Assorted Pencils and Marking Crayons
  • Plumb Bob
  • Utility Knife and Blades
  • Gloves
  • Cordless Drill
  • Large Ratcheting Screwdriver (Yankee)
  • Tool Box

IATSE Local 44 is also known as the Affiliated Property Craftspersons Local 44; it covers workers in film, TV and independent shops in Los Angeles (though members work throughout the world). As such, the above list is specific to those employees. Still, it is a good starting point for propmakers in other situations, locations and fields. My own traveling prop kit includes some tools I can’t live without, and does not include some of the tools listed above. What does yours look like?

As a postscript, you will notice the list contains no tools for soft goods, sewing or upholstering. This is not an oversight; rather, these crafts are separate departments in the local, and thus have their own list of expected tools detailed on the website, which I may write about in the future.

Reese's blue alien

25 Memorable Film Props

What are the most memorable props in movies?

I looked at a number of factors in choosing these props. Did the film change the way the object is viewed? For example, one cannot drive a DeLorean without hearing at least one reference to Back to the Future. Did the use of the prop have a strong visual impact? John Cusack holding a boombox over his head is an iconic image, whether one remembers the actual plot of Say Anything or not. Perhaps the object has gained a life of its own apart from the film, such as the lightsabers in Star Wars. Or, the prop may have encapsulated the themes of the film, or expressed a symbolic idea which no other object could. In any event, I’m sure all of you will have disagreements with this list, or additions. I went through hundreds of films to come up with an initial list of over 75 props before narrowing it down to these 25. I decided to limit the list to American films just to keep myself sane.
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