Tag Archives: plot

William Bradley, Property Man, 1927

This article first appeared in the February 20, 1927, issue of The New York Times.

With the trend of the drama toward realism it is obvious that the relative importance of the property man in the theatre must have increased considerably. In the barn-storming days of the early ’90s a revolver, a window-sash and a back-drop depicting Niagara Falls at its most gushing moment, comprised an almost complete set of props. Today, the man whose business it is to supply all the effects necessary to create an authentic background must produce as part of his day’s work everything from a flying carpet to a cat’s meow.

It is just such effects that William Bradley, who has been tracking the prop to its lair for lo, these many years, has on tap at his studios. Bradley’s first experience in playing valet to the stage began in 1885 when he worked at the old Standard Theatre. In 1892 he wandered out to Dayton, Ohio, with his trusty three-piece set of props. There he not only dressed the stage, but he also did a song and dance turn, tended door on the balcony, and also rehearsed the orchestra for the incidental music.

In 1908 Bradley returned to New York to begin work as property man with the late Henry B. Harris. It was while furnishing the Harris productions with properties that he conceived the idea of opening a studio upon which producers could call for data and incidentals. On Mr. Harris’s death Bradley started in the property supplying business. Today, no matter what article of stage adornment is necessary to a show he will usually find it.

Any number of interesting quests fall to his lot. Take, for instance, the little matter of shark teeth. It isn’t often that the voracious specimen of cartilaginous fish, or even any portion of his anatomy, is called upon to make a public appearance. Naturally, Bradley thought that the shark would be pleased—nay, even willing—to turn professional. But not a bit of it. The property man spent a lively few days trying to gather together enough shark teeth to make a necklace. He searched high and low and at last rounded up two stuffed shark heads with the idea of extracting the necessary ivories. But the heads refused to lose their teeth. So the hunt for the necklace continued.

It was a week later that Bradley journeyed to the Syrian quarter on Washington Street looking for some pipes for another production. He happened into a Turkish delicatessen store. It was bargain day for dried okra, and Mr. Bradley was the recipient of an idea. Buying the okra, which is usually used for soups, he took the bag of herbs to his studio, hung the pieces on a string, and thus was born a necklace of shark teeth that, so it is said, would have turned any South Sea Islander green with envy.

It was in Dayton that Bradley first met George C. Tyler, whose productions he now outfits. Mr. Tyler was, at that time, a press agent with an eye on the producing end of the business. But the two did not meet again until Mr. Tyler did Tarkington’s “Clarence.” Ever since then Bradley has found the props for all Tyler shows, whether they be modern comedy or historical drama.

It is necessary for the property man, if he is to make a real business of his work, to have at his disposal a fund of information concerning almost every historical period in almost every country. In “The Constant Nymph” for example, Bradley was called upon to supply the props for a Tyrolean home. This meant that he had to furnish the potato barrels, the clumsy stools and tables, the pottery from which the characters eat, and that they all had to be true to life. For the property man never knows when some experienced traveler or historian, or even a native of Tyrol, may be sitting out front waiting to catch him up. And natives of Tyrol, it seems, are given to doing this.

Periodicals from a specific locality are often difficult to procure. There is in “Tommy” a call for a telephone book from a small town in New Jersey. This was fairly easy, for it meant that the property man made overtures to the town and procured the required prop. The question of having newspapers of a definite date and place on the stage is another problem—not a difficult problem, to be sure, but one that demands the attention of the property man. Should the “prop plot” call for the current issue of a daily paper, it is that functionary’s job to see that each day a fresh paper is supplied. Only he knows how many people out front will catch a slip-up on his part—and how many have!

The greatest demands on the property man today are for modern appliances, such bathtubs and kitchen furnishings as are used, say, in “Saturday’s Children.” These are easy enough to furnish and a supply is always at hand.

Originally published in The New York Times, February 20, 1927.

Nineteenth Century Prop Lists

Fourth in a series of excerpts from 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

A new performance being in course of preparation, the property-maker is duly furnished with a ‘plot’ or list of the articles required of his department, there being also plots or lists for the heads of other departments: a scene-painter’s plot, a carpenter’s scene plot, and a tailor’s plot, setting forth the dresses necessary to the representation. In the pantomime season, or whenever any great pageant or spectacle is to be produced, these plots are of prodigious extent. They are fairly written on long slips of paper—like the bills of fare in coffee-rooms—and may be some yards in length. The property-maker affixes his list to the wall of his workshop, and subjects it to very careful study. Every item must be considered and remembered. Here is the authentic property plot of the first three scenes of the famous pantomime of’ Mother Goose':

  • Scene I.—Thunder, &c.; stick for Mother Goose; favours for villagers; huntsman’s whip; staff for beadle.
  • Scene II.—Golden egg; goose.
  • Scene III.—Three chairs; a knife and stick for pantaloon; a sword for harlequin; two pistols to fire behind the scenes.

And so on through a score of scenes.

‘Mother Goose’ was really a very simple affair, however. The property plot of modern pantomimes is more after this fashion:

  • Scene I.—Twelve demons’ heads; twelve three-pronged spears; twelve pairs demons’ wings; twelve tails; one dragon, to vomit fire, and with tail to move. One cauldron to burn blue; demon king’s head; one red-hot poker; four owls with movable eyes, to change to green imps; twelve squibs, to light on demons’ tails. Red fire.
  • Scene II. Fairy Scene.—Twenty-four silver helmets for ballet, eight superior; twenty-four javelins for ditto, eight superior; twenty-four silver shields, eight superior; twenty-four garlands of flowers, eight superior; silver car for fairy queen, with silver star at back to revolve; Cupid’s bow and arrows; one dove, to fly off; one plum-pudding, to walk; six mince pies, to walk; one turkey and sausages to sing and dance. White fire.

The eight superior articles, it may be noted, are for the ladies in the front rank of the ballet, who are brought more prominently before the spectators, and are usually the more skilled and comely of the troop. At the back of the stage, inferiority of aspect and accomplishment, and the evidences of time’s assaults and injuries, are supposed to escape observation.

The duties of the property-man are very multifarious. Is a snow-storm required? He provides the snow, and showers or drifts it from the flies. Are figures or objects to be seen crossing the distant landscape, the river or the bridge? He cuts them out of pasteboard and fits them with wires that may be jerked this way and that. Does the situation require a railway collision, a burning house, a sinking ship, or an earthquake? The property-man will take the order and promptly execute it. Steam shall be seen to issue from funnels, engines shall shriek, mines shall explode, waves shall mount, flames flicker, lightnings flash and thunder roar, rafters fall, and sparks and smoke and fearful saltpetrous fumes fill the theatre—all at the bidding of the property-man.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 289-290.)

Props and plots

I’ve written previously about the first use of the word “property” in the theatrical sense. But what about the shortened form of the word; when were they first called “props”?

The Oxford English Dictionary places its earliest written appearance in 1865, in a book called The slang dictionary; or, The vulgar words, street phrases, and “fast” expressions of high and low society. Many with their etymology, and a few with their history traced. It says simply,

Props, stage properties. Theatrical

Obviously, it would have been in common verbal usage before this. I wonder if the dictionary considers “props” a fast expression of high or low society. Looking at the frequency of its appearance in writing, it would appear the word was well-accepted by the mid-1880s.

We get a much more comprehensive definition in the Otago Witness (a New Zealand newspaper) in 1886. It also describes “plots” as they are used at the time.

“Props,” the abbreviation in use for “properties,” is a very important term. Everything stored at the theatre for use on the stage is a “prop”; these are the manager’s props. The actor’s props are the articles of clothing which he has to provide for himself. These vary according to the status of the company; managers of repute providing everything except tights and a few other articles, while needy managers like their company to have a “wardrobe” of their own. “Plot” is used with a somewhat peculiar significance. There are a number of “plots” to every play. Thus the “scene plot” is a list of the various scenes. The “flyman’s plot” is a list of the articles required by the flyman, or man in the “flies.” There is similarly a “gasman’s plot.” The “property plot” includes all properties used in the piece, and the prompter is responsible for their all being to hand at the proper time. The least important of the prompter’s duties, indeed, is to prompt.

Property plots themselves have been referenced much earlier (as early as 1847), and the idea of drawing up a bill of all props for a show has been seen as far back as Shakespeare.