Tag Archives: reprint

A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898

The following excerpt was originally published in the March 6, 1898, of The New York Times. It is not only interesting in its description of a theatrical prop store and shop in Midtown Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth century, but remarkable in the fact that the proprietor is a woman. Unfortunately, the article never mentions her name!

A Place to Buy Thunder

That, as Well as Lightning, Fog, Snow, and a Moon, for Sale by a Woman.

Assortment of Oddities

Ingenious Devices Under the Head of Theatrical Hardware—A Japanese and a Donkey Skin Made to Order.

She has thunder by the sheet, fog by the yard, lightning by the box, snow by the bushel, and the child who cries for the moon can get it there, if he will only wait until it is manufactured. It won’t be made out of green cheese, either, but more likely from pale blue silk, for moons have been made out of that before now, and they were eminently satisfactory and couldn’t have been told by any one but a connoisseur from the real article; and who is a connoisseur in moons?

And the mistress of all these natural elements is not a Mme. Jove, either, but a nice, ordinary, every day sort of woman, and this queer collection of hers is merely food for herself and her children. Not literally, for even a pretty, pale blue silk moon might be indigestible, but she provides them for “the profession,” and indirectly they become oatmeal and coffee, roast beef and plum pudding.

It might be thought that the establishment where all these strange things are to be found would resemble those regions supposed to take a low position in the universe, and to be the home of all things unpleasant and flamable, but it doesn’t. It is a modest little place, not so far from Thirtieth Street, on the line of the elevated road and the proper business of the proprietor, when it is called by its right name, is that of dealer in theatrical hardware. The visitor would not even guess, in taking a view of the stock, that the word theatrical was appropriate, for nothing but small articles of seemingly ordinary hardware are in sight.

That is not strange, as there is never a demand for the same kind of thunder, lightning, or other theatrical appliances which are supplied on demand of the property man or the stage carpenter, and very little of anything is kept on hand, though they can be had at a moment’s notice. The hardware proper is the most prosaic part of the business. That consists of the wheels, bolts, screws—everything that is needed to make the curtains and scenery of a theatre stay where they are wanted, and move when they are not wanted. Continue reading

The End of Making Props

At times, it feels that more and more plays these days call for real props and real furniture. Looking through the past days of theatre history, it seems that props used to be constructed more often than these days. With the tastes of designers evolving to want more realistic items and less “proppy” pieces, and with the amount of time between the initial designing and the need for real objects in the hands of the actors, it seems inevitable that one day prop people will be merely buying and distributing things rather than building art for the theatre.

I ran across this article recently. In it, a property master laments:

“I groan for the decease of the good old times when a property man was a property man and not merely a distributor of borrowed articles…

There was a time when the property man was an artist in his line, because he was required to build and fashion nearly all the properties used upon the stage. But now his occupation is an empty thing. All the props are borrowed, and all the property man has to do is set ‘em around on the stage and take care of them when they’re not in use. The days of the hifalutin modern society drama have altered things sadly. Now we must have real ebony furniture, real bronzes, real china and porcelain vases, real Turkish rugs, real chandeliers, gas fixtures, brackets, rustic settees, real helmets and shields, the finest French silk flowers, and blow me if I don’t believe they’ll get to manufacturing real snow yet! Why, do you know, there is one theatre in this City that buys all the fine furniture used on its stage, and at the end of the run of a piece sells it for perhaps $100 less than it cost. Now, all that sort of thing is destructive to the artistic being of the property man. After a while, the property man will exist only in history. He will be a pale-faced vision of the past. Men will tell with wonder of the fellows who in days gone by could make a fine bronze urn or an oaken mantelpiece as of men who were giants in their day.”

Do you know when this was written?  It first appeared in the New York Times in December 30, 1883. That’s right: almost 127 years to the day.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera House, 1888: Dangerous Effects

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on building a singing dragontechnical rehearsalsconstructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

Two light-properties in “Faust”—the fire-cup and the spark-emitting sword of Mephistopheles—are worth describing. The fire-cup is a goblet in the bottom of which are chlorate of potash, red fire, and sugar. Above these is suspended a thimble three-quarters filled with sulphuric acid and so delicately balanced that a slight movement causes the acid to drip on the powders and to ignite them, the fumes of the sugar leaving an agreeable taste upon the lips of the singer.

The method of causing the sparks to fly from the sword is as follows: Two wire-gauze plates connected with electric wires are placed upon the stage at the points where Mephistopheles and Valentine are to stand. A metal socket is sunk into the heel of the right buskin of each of the singers, and a wire of the same color as their costumes is attached to each socket, wound around the leg and passed through the belt. Standing upon the gauze plates they, as they draw their swords, slip the ends of the wires into the hilts and, when the swords touch electrical connection is made.

The flash of Wotan’s spear when Siegfried cuts it through with one stroke of his sword is produced by an explosion of gun-cotton in the spear and ignited by electricity, the electric wire passing through the weapon.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

The singing dragon from "Siegfried"

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: A Singing Dragon

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on technical rehearsalsconstructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

It is noteworthy in connection with this circumstance that the apparatus was devised by an Englishman and that Wagner employed an English property-master to design and make the dragon for the “Siegfried” performances at Baireuth. The English pantomime productions, which involve the manufacture of numerous mechanical and trick properties, have sharpened the ingenuity of English property-masters until they have come to be acknowledged at the head of their profession. “Siegfried” never having been given in England by any but a German company whose scenery and properties were brought from Germany, the combat with the dragon remained as ludicrous a feature of the performances of this work as it was conceded to have been at Baireuth, until the production of “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera-House. For this a dragon was designed and manufactured which the German artists declare to be the most practical and impressive monster they have seen.

The singing dragon from "Siegfried"
The singing dragon from "Siegfried"

The head of this dragon is of papier-mache. The body, thirty feet long, is of thin wire covered with curled leather scales, which are bronzed and painted. This monster, in spite of its size, is worked by a boy who is the dragon’s front legs. He is dressed in a suit of canvas painted the color of the dragon’s hide and having curled leather scales on the trousers below the knees, his shoes being the huge clawed feet. He gets into the dragon behind its head, which conceals him from the waist up, his legs being the dragon’s front legs. With his hands he opens and closes its huge mouth and shoves its eyelids over its eyes when it expires. The steam which it breathes out is supplied through an elastic pipe which, entering at the tail, runs through to the throat. The scene lasts about forty minutes and is very exhausting to the front legs. In Germany the artist who sings the dragon’s part is inside the hide and sings through a speaking trumpet. At the Metropolitan Opera-House the artist sits under the raised bridge upon which the dragon is placed and sings through a speaking trumpet. His music is on a stand, a stage-hand throws the light of a lamp upon it, and the solo répétiteur gives him his cues from the wings. The voice sounds as though it issued from the dragon’s throat. The advantage of this arrangement is that it places in the monster a person whose attention is concentrated upon working this mechanical property in the best possible manner. The dragon when not in commission is stabled in mid-air under the paint-bridge. The day of the performance it is lowered by ropes, thoroughly groomed, and then allowed to stretch itself out upon the floor against the rear wall and lie there until the end of the first act.

Grooming the Dragon
Grooming the Dragon

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Technical Rehearsals

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpts on constructing a giant “Talepulka” idol and introducting the series when you are finished here!

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

The first feature of an operatic production to have the benefit of a rehearsal is the scenery. As soon as the scenic artist and the scene-painters have finished their work the stage-manager orders a scenic rehearsal. This might be called a performance of an opera without music. The scenes are set up and changed, light effects tried, and mechanical properties like Talepulka, the “Lohengrin” swan, and the “Siegfried” dragon “worked” and tested until all goes as smoothly as it should at a performance. This is a rehearsal for the men who set and change the scenes—the master-machinist and his subordinates—and for those who manage the light effects—the gas-engineer and the “gas-boys”—and for the property-master and his men. Before the scene can be set it is necessary to “run the stage,” that is, to get everything in the line of properties, such as stands of arms, chairs, and tables, and scenery, ready to be put in place. If there is a “runway,” which is an elevation like the rocky ascent in the second act of “Die Walküre,” or the rise of ground toward the Wartburg in “Tannhäuser,” it is “built” by the stage-carpenters; and for this purpose the stage is divided into “bridges”—sections of the stage-floor that can be raised on slots. Meanwhile the “grips,” as the scene-shifters are called, have hold of the side scenes ready to shove them on, and the “fly-men” who work the drops and borders are at the ropes in the first fly-gallery.

The scene set, it is carefully inspected by the scenic artist and stage-manager, who determine whether any features require alteration. A tower may hide a good perspective bit in the drop: it may be found that a set-tree at the prompt-centre second entrance will fill up a perplexing gap—but changes are rarely needed after the scene has been painted, because a very good idea of it was formed from the model. The length of a scenic rehearsal depends upon the number of the light-effects and mechanical properties. For instance, in the first act of “Siegfried” the light-effects are so numerous and complicated that it is a current saving in opera-houses that the success of this act is “all a matter of gas.” When all effects and contrivances of this kind have heen thoroughly tested, the stage-manager gives the order: “Strike!” The “grips” shove off the side-scenes, the flymen raise the drops, the “clearers” run off the properties and set-pieces, and the stage-carpenters lower the bridges. The scene of the second act is immediately set, and the time required for the change of scene noted. If the change is not so quickly accomplished as it should be, it is repeated until the weak spot in the work is discovered.

When all know their parts, the stage is at last given up to features of the productions other than the scenery. The work is performed with scenery, light-effects, properties, chorus, ballet, and supers, but without the principals and orchestra, the solo répétiteur being at the piano. There are two or three such “arrangement” rehearsals for drilling the chorus and supers in the stage “business.” These rehearsals are followed by two in which the artists take part; the final test being the general rehearsal with orchestra. Then at last the work is ready for production.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.