Tag Archives: property man

Has There Ever Been an Honest Property Man?

The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:

The Property Man has always been in some sort the black sheep of the theatrical flock. The question, has there ever been an honest property man? has even been mooted. We find this appreciation of his labors to result chiefly from the irregular manner that the master of properties has of keeping his accounts. As a general thing, indeed, he does not keep any at all, or if he does it is by a system of book-keeping so very double that no one but himself can untie the knot. He is allowed to purchase his small stores from a fund furnished him by the theatre, and to obtain larger articles on credit, bills of all to be rendered weekly, after being vised by the stage manager, to the treasurer. But the articles required are so numerous and are in many cases of so trifling a character that no one but himself can keep the run of them.

One of the most prized accomplishments of a stage manager is the ability to keep down these bills, but the very sharpest of those gentlemen is to a degree at the mercy of the Property Man who understands his business. A list a yard long is demurely handed to the stage manager, with a request for his signature. How is he to know if the articles have all been used, or that they cost the price affixed? A finer point still, how is he to know that they had not already been stored away in the theatre? So, if the manager should even check the items off, one after the other, demanding a full explanation of each, he might be still very wide of the mark.

Experienced men know this, and do not attempt to audit their property bills in that manner. Some managers as a regular thing coolly deduct a certain per cent of the total. This they say is for errors, and the property men are mostly too polite to dissent. Managers generally, however, learn by experience about what it costs to run the different orders of plays. Spectacle and sensation drama cost most; tragedy next, and comedy least. Knowing the bill of fare they have at the time been giving to the public, they know what their Property Man’s bill should be, and if, judged by these rules, it be exorbitant, they remonstrate with the logic of precedent. This will not cover, however, the important point before mentioned—the accumulation of old stores that may often be recharged as new.

There is a story in one of Dumas’ novels of a man travelling on horseback with a girl seated before him on the beast, and another behind him. He is met by a person who asks if those young women are virtuous. The man on horseback says that he thinks the one in front, being continually under his eye, is, but for the one at his back he can say nothing. In like manner the Property Man’s accounts, as far as relates to what is really bought for the occasion, may be correct, but for what is not bought, and yet for which the theatre has all the same to pay, the manager has, in nature, nothing to say.

Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.

Nothing a Property Man Can Not Make, 1871

The following is taken from an article which first appeared in The Daily Evening Telegraph in 1871:

Bona-fide stage furniture is easily distinguished from the kind that people use in real life. In its ornamentation it is especially rich and rare. The idea in manufacturing this species of goods is to avoid a conflict with any given age or time, and in this it is successful, for it is unlike anything that is or ever has been. Wonder has often been expressed concerning the makers of this furniture. It is the joint handiwork of the Property Man and the stage carpenter; and when it is remembered that oftener than not these worthies know as much about cabinet-making as they do about the economy of the steam engine, the wonder really should be that the furniture is as good as it is. But there is this peculiarity about a Property Man, that there is nothing he can not make—after some fashion. In the Adrienne case above mentioned the man had not time, or he would have manufactured a set of “Louis Quatorze” furniture calculated to make that monarch turn in his grave. There would have been plenty of paint and Dutch metal upon it, and a great many people would have thought it a great deal finer than the real thing.

It is hard to say what class of work gives the Property Man the most trouble. When a burlesque or show piece is produced there is a quantity of special preparation to be made, which at first sight would be the most troublesome of his labors. Take such a piece as the Naaid Queen. All the masks, the marine productions of every sort, are furnished by the Property Man. Of course they have to be made, for no shop in Christendom deals in such wares. Such things are often quite elegant in design, and show the Property Man to be something of an artist, just as he is at other times carpenter, machinist, and chemist. To no man can the legend, “Jack of all trades, and master of none,” be applied with as much propriety as to him.

Originally published in The Daily Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, May 12, 1871, pg 5.

1903 Lectures on the Property Man’s Job

I recently came upon the 1903-1904 academic catalog for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, it was a two-year program for young men aged sixteen to seventeen. The school still exists, granting two-year associates degrees to aspiring actors.

All students at the time were given introductory lectures in the various technical departments on stage. The lecture on props has a bullet-point list of all the topic covered, which I have reprinted below. It is fascinating to see the list of what a props person was responsible for and what skills they were required to have from over 110 years ago, and compare it to today.

The lectures were given by a Mr. Wilfred Buckland, with assistance by Mr. Edgar J. M. Hart (no relation) and Miss Louise Musson. The topics of the lectures are as follows:

The Property Man’s Work in Preparing a Production:

  • The property plot
  • cabinet work
  • paper work
  • upholstery, furniture, bric-à-brac, carpets, rugs, hangings
  • stage props
  • side props
  • hand props
  • written letters
  • inserts in newspapers

The Property Man’s Work at Performance:

  • Helpers and clearers
  • system
  • the property room
  • laying the floor cloth
  • setting the stage
  • marking
  • dressing a scene
  • hanging curtains
  • hanging side props
  • effects
  • apparatuses
  • flash pans
  • rain box
  • thunder box
  • thunder crash
  • glass crash
  • carriage roll
  • knocks
  • snow box
  • salt
  • fuller’s earth
  • blowers
  • leaves, stumps, and grass mats
  • animals
  • the rosin box
  • eatables

Striking Properties:

  • Clearing
  • handling furniture
  • care of props

You can read the whole 1903 Annual Catalog of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts here.

 

 

Property Department viewed from the south

The San Francisco Grand Opera, 1899

The following article about the Grand Opera in San Francisco originally appeared in The Sunday Call in 1899:

To most people there is an indefinable sense of mystery in the simple phrase “behind the scenes.” Some imagine it to be a vague sort of place peopled with beings who live dual lives, the one either very wicked or much-abused, and the other the artistic and pretty-to-look-upon one of the footlights. To such the theatrical managers appear as abusive hobgoblins whose delight it is to torture and mistreat. That is about as far as such imaginations go; beautiful scenic effects, and the smooth and unbroken succession of harmonious arrangements are taken for granted and expected, with no thought of the vast amount of labor, care, capital, trouble and ingenuity required in the production of an evening’s entertainment for the throngs who come nightly to be amused from the other side of the footlights…

Property Department viewed from the south
Property Department viewed from the south

Yards and yards of canvas, bolts of calico, rolls and rolls of paper, kegs and pots of paint, and a succession of other paraphernalia poured in from all sides, and were pounced upon by the different departments and carried away, to be utilized and transformed into settings and scenery…

James S. Cannon, Property Master, designing for the Christmas spectacle, "Sinbad"
James S. Cannon, Property Master, designing for the Christmas spectacle, “Sinbad”

Mr. James Cannon, the inventive genius of the stage, and the master property man, went about inspecting his great thunder drum, the big wheel and its silk flap which is the source of the wintry wind which whistles out from behind the scenes and causes one to turn up one’s coat collar—the apparatus which so closely imitates the breaking of the waves against the crags, and the numberless other apparatus for adding to the realistic nature of the performance. From his modeling room on a level with the gallery, to his little electrical room below ground, Mr. Cannon was busy with his rounds. His was the task of casting plaster models of the stage properties to be used in the various scenes, and to keep everything going harmoniously.

Originally published as “In the Workshops Behind the Scenes”, The Sunday Call, San Francisco, December 24, 1899, pg 2. Photos by Alishy.

Setting the Stage and Striking the Show, 1905

The following is the final excerpt of an article which first appeared in 1905 in the St. Louis Republic. Check out the firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth parts for the full story.

When the curtain has descended after the last encore, “Strike” commands the stage manager, and in a jiffy, the village street is transformed into a camp on the plains. As soon as the main pieces are set, the property man is out in front distributing about the little things he carries in his clothes. The army blanket is spread out and tin plates, battered and smokey, are thrown around in artistic confusion. Out of one pocket McCarrick pulls a deck of cards and lays out a trio of poker hands. Money and chips are piled up at the proper spot. From another pocket comes a newspaper, and from still another he draws a pencil, without which the climax of the act would be a failure. All of these things he has prepared with as much diligence and care as though he were arranging the crown for the coronation of an emperor. If he did not he would probably lose his job.

He is the first man on the stage after the curtain has been rung down and gathers up his precious possessions with the same system and care with which he laid them out. Back into the trunk they go, in perfect order, and after careful inventory has been made. The next performance finds them just as they were left and already for the show to begin.

McCarrick has been in the business for twenty-three years as a property man. He started by accident as a helper to the property man in a New York theater. Two weeks later his boss made a fatal slip, which ruined the climax of the whole play, and McCarrick got his job at once and he has been in the game ever since. He has been with many of the most prominent theatrical organizations which have toured America, and has crossed the continent repeatedly. So constant has been his work that it has become second nature with him to learn the book of the play with which he is connected, and every line and every cue is as firmly fixed in his memory as it is in the gray matter of the stage manager and of the performers themselves.

Many have been the close shaves he has had caused by missed railroad connection or delays in securing needed articles, and his store of thrilling and amusing anecdotes of his quarter century behind the scenes is wonderfully interesting.

He has the figures for being about as important personage as any one connected with the theatrical world, and in quiet modesty bears the pressing duties which are his.

Originally published in The St. Louis Republic, January 1, 1905.