Tag Archives: San Francisco

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.

Returning Broken Glass, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908. Check out the first part of this article here, the second part here, and the third part here.

Note: The “shake” which Harry Rosemond refers to is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the US, the result of which left 80% of San Francisco destroyed.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

It is the soft word and the pass for two that turneth away wrath. No one knows better than Harry Rosemond, for more than once in his career has has met the irate one at the door and with a smile on his face begged him to “come in and enjoy it.”

“But we can’t always square things with a pass, or a season ticket, either. There’s a friend of mine lives out here near the theater who has some of the finest Bohemian glass in town. It is his hobby. Spends money galore all on Bohemian glass. Time of the shake the glassware was in a closet and was hardly touched. I borrowed two vases and a centerpiece for a set for an actress. She had finished the week before the shake, but I was so busy around the house I couldn’t find time to take the glass back. April 18—br-r-r-r-r! Got to the theater about 9 o’clock. Glass all right. Got busy helping people out of hotels and things. Orpheum stage filled with trunks. Fire can’t get across Market street. No. Fire got across about 10 o’clock Wednesday night. Worked like the devil getting trunks out. Morrisey had moved his stuff from the Palace hotel to the theater. Had to move it all out again. Thought of the glasses. Packed them carefully in a bag. Went out in the street. Squad of soldiers coming around the corner. ‘Everybody skip!’ ‘Can’t,’ I said. ‘Waiting for wagon for trunks.’ ‘Waitin’ for hell!’ says one, and he gave me a whack with the stock of his gun. The blamed fool smashed clean through the bag of glass. After we’d opened at the Chutes the man called for his glass. Nothing doing. Didn’t lose a piece at home. House saved. Man started to eat the Orpheum. I offered a pass. Nix. Season ticket. Nix. I said it was one of the accidents of the shake. He said I should have returned them when I had finished with them and not kept them laying in the property room. He was right, and he taught me the big, big lesson of returning things as soon as the act closed. Vanderslice used to loan me jewelry, and I was foolish enough once to borrow a diamond necklace. But no more of that for me. If any one wants diamonds they must furnish them, for if I find them on the property plot I’ll be ready with one large pot of paste and some pieces of glass. That’s all.”

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.

This candle stick ain't silver

Finding the Wrong Props, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908. Check out the first part of this article here, and the second part here.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

Despite the sad tones and the rush and jump of it all, the men in the “prop” room get a lot of fun out of it all. No man takes more pride in his work than he does when he sees his “efforts” placed before an admiring public. Harry Rosemond is a bit of an actor too, and is seen off and on by the Orpheumites playing small roles when a change of bill is made and no one in town is available for the part. His knowledge of the stage and absolute familiarity with the ‘what’s what’ behind the footlights helps him greatly in handling his property room to the best advantage.

“Big Foster of Foster & Foster kicked right on the stage during his act because the piano stool did not match the piano. He growled and grumbled the whole week, but we only gave him the ha-ha and he had to go on with the stool that did not match the piano. ‘Twas the only one I could find in town. But that is not a marker to the fellow who went on in the old O’Farrell street house. He was so all-fired particular about his setting that he hung around the prop room for three days before he went on to see what I was digging up to dress his scene with. He looked all over the stuff that I had borrowed and had made up for him and seemed perfectly satisfied.

Kicked because the tool didn't match the piano
Kicked because the tool didn’t match the piano

“Well, Sunday came and the show went on for the matinee and everything was going lovely. The drop came down after his act for a stunt in ‘one.’ He had left the stage and we were clearing it for the next set when back he comes with a little bottle in his hand. He goes up to the mantelpiece we had pushed to the back wall, takes down a candlestick he had ordered, poured a little over it out of the bottle he had, and then turned on me. ‘You’re a lot of cheap stiffs here,’ he shouted. ‘I noticed while I was on that there was no sparkle to that candlestick. I asked you for a silver one. This is pewter.’ And the next day he made me go all over town and at last we found one in a second hand shop on Folsom street kept by an old Jew who used it for his Sabbath lights.

This candle stick ain't silver
This candle stick ain’t silver

“But I had a hard one the other night,” said Rosemond, as he clasped the arm of Big Mack the special. “Ralph Johnston, the bicycle man, wanted an 18 foot ladder to get up to his stand with. He forgot to put it on his ‘prop’ list and I had to get it. Of course, like all the rest of those fellows, they forget all about everything until Saturday night, and they open on Sunday mat. Eighteen-foot ladder, mind you, but I got it. Walked around town from 11 till nearly 1 in the morning. Way up on O’Farrell street we saw a painter’s scaffold. Saturday night. No work Sunday. Must have it for show Sunday. Found painter’s name on ladder and went into flat. Told lady I’d come for ladder. Swung the scaffold around and dragged the big one into the flat window. Walked with it to the theater. In luck; no cops on the way. Called up painter and told him what I had done. Painter was madder than blue blazes. Swore he’d take the ladder away before the show started. Told him to come down and try it. Met him at the door, gave him passes for two for the matinee. Painter so tickled to see his old ladder on the stage, let us keep it for the two weeks.”

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.

Bergere saw a safe in the ruins

Simple Requests, Impossible Demands, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908. Check out the first part of this article here.

Note: The fire and ruins which Harry Rosemond refers to are the result of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the US, the result of which left 80% of San Francisco destroyed.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

Bergere saw a safe in the ruins
Bergere saw a safe in the ruins

“We do have some funny stunts thrown at us back in the ‘prop’ room,” continued Rosemond, a smile coming over his face and his eyes lighting up. “Yes, sir, we certainly have some funny stunts thrown at us back in the ‘prop’ room. We opened the Orpheum at the Chutes on the 21st of May after the fire and the first rattle out of the box along comes Bergere. Says she wants to play ‘The Red Thief,’ and nothing but a real safe will do for her to blow the door off. I tell her we can’t get a safe. She does not believe me, but takes me all over town. Not a safe to be hand. All the safes here and in Oakland being bought by wholesale houses starting offices in flats and residences in the Mission and Western Addition. We come to the corner of O’Farrell and Van Ness and stop to look at the bread line in front of the cathedral. She grows pathetic. Can’t stand it. Must cry. Turns her head away. Looks down the block of ruins. Dunbar’s old place, O’Farrell and Polk. Big safe sticking out of ruins. ‘Harry,’ says she, ‘Harry, look at that! that’s the safe we want.’ Marine guard on O’Farrell street, another on Polk. Orders to shoot any one looting premises. I’ll admit I gave up. Chalk it against me. Bergere did not play ‘The Red Thief’ until we got to the new house a year afterward. Plenty of safes then. Plenty of time to make a safe. I made one.

“You see, after the fire, when we started at the Chutes we had nothing in our ‘prop’ room except the regular tables and chairs. The first Sunday we got our first dose of ‘Harry, I forgot to put it down on the prop list, but, you know, I make a quick change and need a table. You know, Harry, any old table will do.’ Any old table! With three makeup tables taken and us at Twelfth avenue and Fulton street and 20 minutes to 2 and the opening show—any old table! I tried to get one from Wallenstein, who runs the cafe. Nothing doing. I begged the candy girl. No response. I tried to steal Manager Morrisey’s desk. Frost; he had his eye on it. I tried to get Miss Carlisle’s typewriter table. Nix. I walked over to the park, cut down two trees, stole two boards from the back fence and made a table. Time, 25 minutes. I guess that’s bad?”

Forgot to mention that he wanted a table for "quick change"
Forgot to mention that he wanted a table for “quick change”

Things do not always come as easy for the property man as the throwing together of a makeup table. Sometimes he’s called on for the impossible at the very last moment before the curtain rises.

“Take Burkhart, for instance,” said Harry, with a sad, far away look. “She’s an actress all right. She’s ‘there’ before any kind of a house. But for a woman who wants props and don’t know exactly what she wants she beats them all. She wants anything that will look nice and doesn’t tell us what ‘look nice’ means. And worst of all, she waits till the music rehearsal on Sunday morning to fix up her scene.”

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.

Mullen &Corelli prop plot

Vaudeville Property Plots, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

When the famous financier gave the famous advice to his son, “My boy, get money, honestly if you can, but get it,” every property man took off his hat to the name of the famous financier. Strike out the word “money,” insert “properties” and you read the mandate every vaudeville manager hands to his property man. To be a property man in vaudeville does not necessarily mean to be dishonest. He must have friends—friends who have nice furniture, friends who have swell ornaments, good pictures, nice glassware; friends who have things necessary to dress a scene.

To the property man all gold must glitter, no matter what it is made of. In the “legitimate,” that is, at the theaters playing shows “off the road,” or at the stock houses, the property man has time to spare in which to produce the properties needed. Usually these houses make up their season’s attractions long before the season starts, and as all plays have scene and property plot attached to the manuscripts, it is a comparatively easy task for the property man to prepare, months in advance, for a show that is to come.

In vaudeville things are different, especially at the Orpheum. The management may know who is coming, may have an idea of what the act will be, but aside from that knows nothing until the actors arrive in town, which is usually on Thursday of the week preceding their appearance in the bill. And if the management does not know, the men “behind” surely do not. There’s the rub. Harry Rosemond is property man at the Orpheum. He is one of the oldest in the business on the coast, and when he throws up his hands you know that “get properties, honestly if you can” has failed to work. It is then that Harry Rosemond goes on his still hunt and returns not until he has either the “props” needed or the material with which to make them.

Jolly Jollier prop plot
Jolly Jollier prop plot

“About Thursday we get our property plots,” said Rosemond. “Fifteen minutes after we read them we go crazy. Did you ever see a property plot? Here’s one; ‘A Jolly Jollier.’ They have 74 props in their plot and carry 15. The other 59 we dig up. My boy, get properties. That’s what the manager puts us here for. Just plan, ‘get them.’ Look down that list. They have 8 menu cards, 8 soup spoons, 1 silver soup dish, 1 silver fish dish with cover, 1 silver bread plate and 6 silver knives and forks. Nothing breakable, see? and they want such things as champagne glasses, sherry glasses and soup plates. We go to work looking up what we have in our property room and who of our friends have what we have not. If we can only dig up 58 pieces they throw up their hands, declare their act spoiled and add that they never yet met a property man who cared a cuss whether their act ‘went’ or not.

Shean & Warren prop plot
Shean & Warren prop plot
Mullen &Corelli prop plot
Mullen &Corelli prop plot
Foster & Foster prop plot
Foster & Foster prop plot

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.