Tag Archives: mishap

When Prop or Player Fails, Part 3, 1919

I’ve been posting some excerpts of prop mishaps from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails” (here and here). Since they were so entertaining, I thought I would post a final duet of tales from that article:

Franklyn Ardell’s talent for comedy turned a stage wait in “The Crowded Hour” the other night into the biggest laugh of the performance. The climax of the third act is reached when a bomb from an airplane strikes the house in which Jane Cowl, frantically operating a telephone switchboard, is trying to save a division threatened with destruction. At the time Miss Cowl is calling Soissons on the telephone, and the word is the cue for the bomb explosion and the collapse of the house. On this night, as she called “Soissons!” the bomb exploded, but the house failed to collapse. Miss Cowl waited an agonizing second, and then again called “Soissons!” Again a wait, and as she was about to call a third time the voice of Ardell could be clearly heard all over the house. “Never mind Soissons!” he whispered. “Call ‘em up back stage and find out what in blazes is the matter.”…

A slip which was the fault of no one in particular took place some years ago at a performance of “Madame Sans-Gêne” in Scranton. The scene of the first act was a kitchen, or perhaps a laundry, and Kathryn Kidder, in the leading role, was lifting red hot irons from a presumably red hot stove. So hot was the stove, in fact, that Miss Kidder was applying a tentative finger to each iron as she lifted it, and indicating as she withdrew it that the stove was hot indeed. In the midst of the scene, however, the theatre cat chose to stroll out upon the stage, and, as luck would have it, elected to climb up on the supposedly hot stove. And there it calmly sat, licking its paws in lazy comfort. The audience gave way to uncontrolled merriment, and the entire act went for naught.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

When Prop or Player Fails part 2, 1919

Last week, I posted some excerpts of prop mishaps from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” They were so much fun, I thought I would share a few more from the same article:

One of the best of the missing prop stories is concerned with a performance of “Virginius” given many years ago by James O’Neill. In this play another character was required to bring to O’Neill an urn supposed to contain the ashes of his dead sweetheart, and on one occasion, as he was about to make his entrance, the actor could not find the urn. Hearing his cue spoken on the stage, he hurriedly snatched up a small water cooler, which stood on a table back stage. Although it had a spigot on one side, it was about the size and general shape of the urn, and could readily pass for it on the stage, which was dimly lighted. In the ensuing scene Mr. O’Neill put out his hand to touch the urn, as was his wont, and was unlucky enough to touch the spigot and turn it. He was kneeling in prayer at the moment, and the ice cold water began to run down his bare knee. He gave no sign that he was in discomfort, however, and the scene was played without interruption…

Richard Mansfield, in “Ivan the Terrible,” used a green hassock in the throne room scene, and during the run of the play at the New Amsterdam Theatre here the hassock became so worn that the star demanded that it be reupholstered. Mansfield’s Saturday program was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and by sending the hassock to the upholsterer early Saturday morning the stage manager thought to get it back in plenty of time for the Monday night performance of “Ivan.” It failed to arrive, however, and in the emergency a small red hassock, of the sort provided by the theatre management for its juvenile patrons, was put in front of the throne instead. The entire stage setting was green, and this bit of bright red greeted the star as he made his entrance preparatory to mounting the throne. His reply to the stage manager was to lift the hassock neatly with his foot and send it spinning out into the audience…

At the Red Cross performances of “Out There” at the Century in the Spring there occurred on the opening night a stage wait which most of the audience sensed. Following the departure of ‘Erb to enlist, at the end of the first act, the mother and sister of Annie have one or two speeches before the curtain falls. The sister then bids her mother take a drink, and the curtain drops as she lifts the flask to her lips. This night, however, the curtain did not fall. Helen Ware, who was playing Princess Lizzie, looked uneasily off stage and then said: “Have another drink.” Beryl Mercer, playing mother, drank again. But still the curtain did not fall. “Have another drink,” said Miss Ware, equal to the emergency. Fortunately the curtain finally fell at this point, and Miss Mercer was saved from drinking herself to death in the interests of art. It developed later that Laurette Taylor, who had just left the stage, had stopped to chat with the youth who operated the curtain, and had so distracted his attention that he missed his cue.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

When Prop or Player Fails, 1919

The following excerpt comes from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” The article describes mishaps on stage due to missing or malfunctioning props, a problem which has plagued actors since theatre began.

One of the most familiar and most absurd stories of histrionic presence of mind is concerned with an old-time melodrama which called for an actor to file his way through prison bars, only to be shot dead later as he stood on the wall of the prison, about to escape. The file had been brought carefully into the plot, so that the audience was fully aware that the prisoner had it in his possession. On the night in question, as he stood on the prison wall after sawing his way through the bars, the gun of the prison guard failed to go off when the trigger was pulled. The actor, however, fell from the wall as he was accustomed to, but instead of lying where he dropped, he staggered down to the footlights.

“My God!” he gasped, to the audience. “I’ve swallowed the file!” And dropped dead.

The gun which fails to go off is one of the most frequent causes of embarrassment to an actor. There is the long familiar story of the actor who pulled the trigger as usual one night, in a scene in which he was supposed to murder another character, only to be met by a click instead of the customary report. The other man, however, fell down as usual when the trigger was pulled, so the first player did what he could to save the situation. Looking from the revolver in his hand to the man prostrate on the floor, he remarked, “These Maxim silencers are certainly wonderful things,” and the play went on…

Arthur Byron of “Tea for Three” tells of a melodrama in which he was supposed to shoot E. J. Henley, only to find that the gun would not go off. He made several attempts, and then Henley whispered “Stab me! Stab me!” Byron, unfortunately, had nothing with which to stab him, so he brought about his demise by clubbing him over the head with the revolver.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

A Cavalcade of Links

For those of you in the regular world, happy four-day weekend! For those of you in theatre, get back to work! I have a couple of really great links for everyone this week:

The LA Times had a fantastic front page article about Film Biz Recycling, a New York City-based non-profit that rescues props and set items from finished productions, and sells them for thrift store prices. It’s the kind of store I wish existed in more places around the country; whenever I work a strike where an entire dumpster is filled with salvageable material, I can’t help but think of all the small theatres and schools where just a few scraps of plywood would make all the difference.

Lyn Gardner talks about prop flops, and how she loves when things go wrong on stage. She gives a few memorable mentions of mishaps from throughout history, and the comments section has a few more submitted by readers.

Volpin Props has an epic post up about a recent build for a Militech Crusher, a fictional gun from a video game series. It has a wide range of tips for working in plastics and inventing shapes and textures from scratch, as well as some really cool paint techniques.

If you are into podcasts, here is an episode of End Credits with an interview of Rob Kyker. Kyker is the props master on shows such as Lost and Castle, as well as films such as Super 8.

A Property Man’s Confession, 1903

The following article comes from The New York Times, February 15, 1903:

A property man who has seen many years of service in New York theatres, and who has just lost his position on account of an oversight that almost ruined a first-night production, talked to a New York Times reporter about the difficulties that beset property men in general.

“If an actor takes any pride in his part,” he said, “he usually looks after his personal properties himself. He never takes any chances on making a bull on his part through the forgetfulness of a property man. If it is necessary for him to find a coin, a roll of bills, or a letter in his pocket, he goes to the property room for it before he goes on the stage. But if, on the other hand, he is expected to find a dagger on a table or a note hidden in a desk, he never worries about it. He takes it as a matter of course that the property man has put it there before the curtain goes up. If the property man has a reputation for forgetfulness, (and he soon loses his job if he has,) the actor or actress manages to take a look over the scene before the curtain rises to see that all is right.

“The general impression with an audience when an actor reads a letter on the stage is that he is merely glancing at blank paper and that the lines of the letter have been committed to memory with the rest of the part. As a matter of fact, this is seldom the case, especially with women. Many of them copy the letter themselves. I have even known them to copy the letter in Lady Macbeth.

“Some very amusing stage bulls have happened over the blank letter business for which stage managers have exacted a good many dollars in fines. I remember on one occasion a playwright who is known in the profession for having the lines emphasized exactly as he wants them, and who has some very peculiar ideas as to ‘business,’ decided to change an important letter within three hours of the first performance. He went to his club to write it. When the curtain went up he had not returned. The stage manager had mislaid the original letter, so the villain in the play went on with a blank letter and did the best he could from the text of the original, which he had not taken the trouble to memorize. After the first act we received word that the playwright, in his hurry to get across Broadway, had been run over by a newspaper wagon and was in a bad way at the Roosevelt Hospital. The play failed, and was taken off before he got a chance to see it. But he always blamed the failure on the letter that never came.

“My finish was over a letter to be read in a play we were producing for the first time in Brooklyn. There was a very long communication in that referring to complications over an estate, and expressed in very technical terms. The leading lady had expressly told me that she could not commit such a thing to memory, and asked me to copy it. I promised to do so, and forgot all about it. The letter was delivered by messenger to the actress on the stage, while she was talking to the man who wanted to get control of her property. She tore open the envelope, saw the blank sheet, and paused for a moment. I wondered what she was going to do. She had nerve, I tell you.

“‘Oh, these business letters,’ she exclaimed, petulantly, ‘what a nuisance they are. Here, you read it,’ handing it over to the man.

“He grasped the situation, and the blood rushed to his face. ‘Bless me,’ he exclaimed, ‘there must be something wrong about this. I must find the messenger who delivered it.’ Then he made a rapid exit.

“It took five minutes for him to get around to the prompter, and secure the manuscript of the play. Meanwhile the actress moved about the stage arranging some flowers, and toying with some things on the mantelpiece. When the actor returned he had a bunch of manuscript four inches thick, from which he read one page of typewritten letter that told what was coming in the next three acts. Some one in the audience took the story to the newspapers, and the next morning the incident got everything that was coming, and I received a note from the management with two weeks salary in lieu of notice.”

Originally published in The New York Times, February 15, 1903.