Tag Archives: new york times

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.

Always Check Your Props Preset, 1896

The following article comes from an 1896 article in The New York Times:

Edmund M. Holland Destroyed $5

In the first act of “A Social Highwayman,” at the Garrick Theatre, a game of poker is played. One of the players, William Norris, puts a fifty-dollar bill, stage money, on the table and makes an uncomplimentary remark about thieves just as Edmund M. Holland, who plays the part of a valet, is entering the room. Mr. Holland approaches the table when nobody is looking and steals the fifty-dollar bill.

The property man forgot to give the bill to Mr. Norris last Wednesday night and Mr. Norris did not discover that he had forgotton to ask for it until he was on the stage. Then there was great finessing to get a bill without letting the audience know anything was wrong.

Finally Mr. Norris slipped toward the wings and asked several employes of the theatre to let him have a bill. The stage carpenter was the only financier in the party, and he promptly handed to the actor a five-dollar bill, good money.

Mr. Holland has a habit of destroying the stage money after he makes his exit. The act is unconcious and due to nervousness.

After the performance Mr. Norris went to Mr. Holland’s dressing room and asked that the stage carpenter’s bill be returned to him.

“Oh, I tore that up,” remarked Mr. Holland, pointing to a lot of pieces on the floor.

Mr. Norris said a few terse words, looked ruefully at the small pieces of greenback, and went sadly away.

He gave the stage carpenter $5 and tried to keep the story quiet.

First published in The New York Times, February 9, 1896.

A Television Hero: The Property Man, 1949

The following article first appeared in The New York Times on April 3, 1949.

A Television Hero: The Property Man

by Arthur Altschul

The property department, always an essential element of the theatre, is becoming equally important in television production. During the years of radio, the responsibility for creating an illusion of reality rested with the sound effects department. Now the principal headaches of manufacturing veracity for video belong to the property man.

An indication of the expanding importance of the property department is seen in a few statistics. Last week, for example, NBC had to produce more than 3,000 props for forty-eight television shows. A year ago the same network found its demand for props approximately 5 per cent of what it is today.

Variety shows, dramatic shows, and children’s programs-in that order- take up most of the time of the station’s property man, who every day is in touch with an assortment of museums, antique stores, prop shops, furniture and department stores, factories and zoos, tracking down the more elusive objects required for a show.

Hours of exhausting search culminate in the effect which an audience takes as a matter of course. The type of work and problems that beset a station’s property department are evidenced in the following excerpts from the property sheet for one of Milton Berle’s recent “Texaco Star Theatre” shows: Continue reading