Tag Archives: stage manager

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.

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.

Rehearsals and Touring, 1905

The following is the fifth excerpt of an article which first appeared in 1905 in the St. Louis Republic. Check out the firstsecond, third, and fourth parts for the full story.

This is the proposition which faces every property man of the modern theatrical company of any proportions whatever. He gets the lines, the scenery, plot and the details of the situation as quickly as do the stars. Every rehearsal he attends with the same regularity as do the participants. Under the eye of the stage manager he sees and hears repeatedly the play as it reaches its perfection, and by the time that the first performance is reached he has as perfect a knowledge of each little speech as even the minor characters, and knows the entrances and exits for each as well as does the stage manager, who is the director general.

After he has secured a general idea of the construction of the play he gets the directions from the playwright as to what the costuming will be and what will be needed by the players in giving absolute realism to the performance. After the greater portion of these “props,” as the profession technically calls the articles collectively, have once been purchased, there is little need for further worry, as they will last through the ordinary season without replenishment. But the incidentals must be secured every night or two, and it is the constant alertness which is thus necessary which makes the life of the property man a burden at times.

After the first two or three weeks the property man has a comparatively easy time of it. The rollers have been well greased and things are moving smoothly. If business has opened up well it means that for a run of many weeks and possibly months the company will remain at the metropolitan theater, which saw its “first night.”

Then the trip to the South or to the West begins, and coincidentally opens the siege of trouble for the property man. Out of a month’s time at least half of the performances are given at “one-night stands,” with long jumps between the towns, and it is at this stage of the game that he earns his salary.

The advance man has furnished the local theater staff with a list of the “props” which his company will demand on the night of the performance, and several weeks ahead the property man of the house knows what will be necessary for him to secure, and under usual circumstances the stuff comes out of the supply of furniture, bric-a-brac and staple articles of stage furniture which the up-to-date theater carries in stock now.

After an all-night and all-day ride, possibly, the property man of the company reaches town with the balance of the company. While they are off to a hotel for rest and refreshment it is his first duty to superintend the unloading of his portion of the baggage and then reach the theater at the earliest possible moment. Under no circumstance is there an excuse permitted for his failure to have everything ready for the curtain to rise at the appointed moment, and so he gets to the house on a run and checks over the list of house “props.” He takes to himself a dressing-room hard by the principal stage entrance and opens up his own stock of dry goods, clothing, groceries, hardware, boots and shows and notions, to say nothing of the supply of liquors.

If he is fortunate in arriving early in the city and finds that all has been done as required by the contracts, and has no need of skirmishing the town over to replenish some of his own supplies, he gets then a chance to eat if he can get through in time to return to the theater by 7 o’clock.

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

Is first to get an idea of the new play

Property Man is “It”, 1905

The following is the second excerpt of an article which first appeared in 1905 in the St. Louis Republic. You can read the first part here:

When the leading woman swooned at the sight of the tragic and thrilling vision she would have had a bitter bump on the hard floor had not the property man thoughtfully supplied an upholstered divan at the exact spot, and thereby broke the fall and saved the dramatic situation.

After all is said and done the property man is “it.”

The ordinary theatrical programme carries on the first page of the bill of the play the cast of characters in which the principals see their names in the largest letters, which do not interfere with the typographical make-up of the folder. After the synopsis and the lesser details, in these days so necessary to the proper enjoyment of the drama, musical comedy and other what nots of the theatrical world, one comes across a list of officials which is seldom perused were it not interspersed with stereotyped humor. This list embraces the persons who have made possible the evening’s pleasure to the spectator.

The stage manager and the assistant stage manager come first, since it is their executive management which directs the efforts of everyone else. Frequently are found the stage carpenter, who is responsible for the scenery and stage settings, and the electrician, who handles the light effects and transforms noontide to twilight and black to dawn without batting an eye.

The mistress of wardrobes, who checks up the gauzy gowns of a half hundred coryphées, or who bosses the packing of the Gainsborough hats of a handsome bunch of show girls, at times sees her name among those of the executive staff. The head usher is never missing, and there have been instances where the head bill poster has been enumerated. The piano that was used and the maker of the gowns worn by the principal women of the cast is sure to be found.

But when one cares to know who has made the show what it is, the name is usually missing from the rolls, and back through the stage entrance he must go and around corners of scenery and through crowds of supes until he reaches the den of the property man. Then, indeed, has he come to the beating heart of the production.

Is first to get an idea of the new play
Is first to get an idea of the new play

When the modern comic opera, drama or extravaganza is being prepared for its initial performance, the first man to get a copy of the lines and an idea of the theme of the play is the property man. After the playwright has finished the book and the librettist has turned out the tuneful melodies, all of which comes after the financial backer has set his official seal of approval upon everything that has been done, the property man is taken into the consideration, and while the manager is jaggling over contracts with his stars and secondary representatives are looking up available timber for the lesser parts, the property man is skirmishing the city and country over seeking for those little essentials without which the scenery might as well not be painted and the performers, as in the old Shakespearean days, would as well perform in ordinary street costume.

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

Managing a Mimic World, 1885

The following is an interview given to a Sun reporter by one identified only as a “veteran stage manager” of one of New York’s stock theatres. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 15, 1885, on page 6.

“Five different and entirely distinct departments must work harmoniously and without the slightest hitch or delay,” continued the stage manager. “These are the actors, the musicians, the carpenters, the property men, and the gas men. A trifling failure made by the least of any of these may turn a performance into ridicule. Each of the mechanical departments has its own boss, but all are subject to the stage manager’s orders, and he in turn is responsible to the manager.”

“To the property-man’s department belong all furniture, carpets, curtains, ornaments, and all the small articles used by actors, and known in theatrical parlance as hand or side props. Among these are letters, books, guns, pistols, knives, purses, pocketbooks, money, lamps, candles, cradles, and doll babies. Live props, such as dogs, cats, birds, donkeys, and horses, are also under his charge, and are much disliked, as causing a vast amount of trouble. The side props are taken from the property man every night by the call boy, whose duty is to deliver them to the actors and return them after they have been used to the property room. A good property man is hard to find, for he must be something of a carpenter, an artist, a modeler, and a mechanician [sic].

“Papier-maché has come of late years to be largely used in the manufacture of properties, and nearly all the magnificent vases, the handsome plaques, the graceful statues, and the superb gold and silver plate seen to-day on the stage are made of that material. Some of the imitations of china are so perfectly done and so admirably painted that it is not unusual to see an actor tap them to find out if they are real. In making statues a cast is taken from the clay, and the pulp is then firmly pressed into the moulds. Life-size statues which seem to be of bronze or marble do not weigh more than five or six pounds, look just as well as the genuine, and are easily and quickly handled. For traveling purposes the saving in freight alone is a great economy. Entire suits of armor and fruits of all kinds are made of this useful and inexpensive material. The late Mr. Wallace, the husband of Mme. Ponial, was in his day a celebrated property man. Perhaps the two best now living are the brothers William and George Henry of the Union Square and Madison Square Theatres. Both are really excellent artists, and their salaries are deservedly as large as those of good actors.

“In most New York theatres the property man has one regular assistant and two night aids, who are needed to handle heavy carpets, pianos, and furniture. In the old days carpenters and property men were often prone to dispute about the exact lines which divided their duties, but in well-regulated theatres the departments are now generally willing to help each other. Still, a carpenter or grip is not actually bound to put a finger to a carpet or piece of furniture, nor is a property man, even if not occupied, obliged to help with a scene. Some of the distinctions drawn by custom seem to be singular; thus, a whole tree, if set upon the stage and screwed to it for support, is considered a part of the scene, and, as such, belongs to the carpenters, while a stump upon which a person may sit is in the property man’s department. Again, a flight of stairs is set up by the carpenter, but if a carpet is put on it, that must be done by the property man.”