All posts by Eric Hart

The Property Man in 1888

The following comes from an 1888 magazine article:

The Property-Man

The days of the property-man are passed in deceiving the public. The average theatre-goer does not always realize that he is indebted to the Master of Properties (as he is sometimes called), for many of the most striking effects on the stage. A call for the scene painter might, in justice, be equally responded to by the property-man. Being essentially a Jack-of-all-trades, he has served an apprenticeship at several vocations before drifting behind the scenes of a theatre. He is something of a carpenter, a good deal of a student, and above all an artist.

Upon the property-man rests in great part the responsibility of properly mounting a play, and from the time when the property plot is given to him he must rely on his own artistic judgment. The plot in question is a list of articles, known as properties, or “props,” which he is required to furnish. It comprises everything from a fine-tooth comb to a church organ, and he must be equal to the emergency of manufacturing any article on the schedule. To use a technical term, there is nothing in heaven or on earth that a property-man may not be required to “fake.”

A well-stocked property-man in one of our metropolitan theatres resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned curiosity shop. As a rule, it is a long room, occupying the entire top floor of the building, with a low ceiling. In the centre of it is placed a work bench, while near by stands a baking oven. The floor is literally covered with bulky “properties,” such as a pianos, lounges, boats, pillars, trunks, ancient and modern furniture, grass mats, cradles, pulpits, coffins, etc. On the walls hang pictures, mirrors, guns, helmets, swords, shields, knapsacks, drums and cutlasses. From the ceiling dangle hats, cloaks, draperies, skipping ropes and lanterns. On every available table are placed skulls, knives, belts, speaking-tubes, baskets, plates, false teeth, vases, Indian clubs and dumb-bells. Numberless other “props” are scattered haphazard everywhere.

Papier maché is the prime factor used in the manufacture of stage properties. For instance, in making an ornamental vase, the property man first makes a clay model from which he forms a plaster cast. Into this he pastes thin layers of papier maché, and then places the vase in the oven already mentioned. When quite hard it is removed and painted, according to taste, to represent the real china article. A coat of varnish finishes the work. As a rule, furniture on the stage is nothing more than paste-board. A cannon, apparently weighing 300 tons, is made of paper, and can easily be carried by a small boy; and in many a banquet scene hungry comedians must smack their lips over a papier maché turkey.

Tin is also of great value to the Master of Properties in making theatrical armor, swords, daggers, etc. Spectacular pieces tax the ingenuity of the property-man, as he must be past-master of every trick in his trade to produce proper effects for these glittering productions.

“The Property- Man”, Hyde-Fiske. The Epoch, vol 4, no. 99. New York, December 28, 1888. pp 382-383. Google Books, accessed 10/1/20. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Epoch/jnk4AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

Upcoming Prop Webinars

Introducing S*P*A*Minars: A monthly webinar series on all things props!

We’ll be kicking things off this coming Sunday at 8pm EST with Nikki Kulas, Prop Master at First Stage in Milwaukee, WI, talking about Puppets!

Life is Hard, Puppets Aren’t: Tips and Tricks for Puppet Building.

If you’ve ever wondered what type of stitch to use on puppet seams or how to make your puppet’s eyes, then Nikki is here to help! In her webinar, she will talk puppets, and do some demonstrations of quick puppet building techniques that will help extend your puppet’s life.

Register here: http://bit.ly/SPAMinarPuppets

Registration will remain open until 6PM EST on the 20th and a link to the Zoom S*P*A*Minar session will be sent out to all registered attendees 1 hour before the start of the webinar.

All S*P*A*Minars will be recorded and videos shared here the week following the event.

Life is Hard, Puppets Aren't

Upcoming S*P*A*Minars include:

October 18: Bloody Hell! A variety of ways to execute blood special effects. Jen McClure, Prop Master, Yale Rep

November 22: Texture 101 Taking your props to the next level Ben Hohman, Properties Director, Utah Shakespeare Festival

December 20: I Eat Glue 35 years of props and costume crafts Jay Lasnik, Props Master, Penn State University

Calendar of Future Webinars

The Spectacle of Cinderella in 1866

[The following is an account of a truly extravagant production of Cinderella in Paris, 1866. The amount of people involved feels more like a blockbuster film than a theatrical production; these féerie, a mixture of dance, melodrama, and spectacle, were indeed the blockbusters of their time.

Gallica, the National Library of France, has a number of images and drawings related to this production.]

There was recently brought out at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, in the most splendid style, a  fairy piece founded on “Cinderella.” It contains thirty-two tableaux, and there are no less than six hundred and fifty different costumes seen in the course of the play; the ballet is danced by the Princesses of the Stars, and the Princesses of the Island of Flowers, the Princesses of the Island of Butterflies, the Princesses of the Crystal Grottoes, the Princesses of the Island of Volcanoes, the Princesses of the Diamond Mines; the final apotheosis changes four times. Nothing so splendid was ever seen in Paris. Enormous sums of money were spent on it. There are seven hundred people employed every night in connection with the piece, namely:

One head machinist, five head gas men, five electric light men, five costumers, five seamstresses, five shoemakers, five property men, five magazine men, five armorers, one head stage manager, four deputy stage managers, seventy-six machinists, forty gas men, eighteen dressing men, eighteen dressing women, twenty call boys, two hundred and ninety-seven female figurantes, thirty-four danseuses, twelve infant danseuses, and twenty-four actors and actresses; total, seven hundred and eleven persons. During the three months preceding this performance, sixty women and men were at work making the six hundred and fifty costumes worn in the piece; for six months before it was played forty-two carpenters, blacksmiths, locksmiths, etc., were employed making the machines and scenes. The dry goods bill for silk and golden goods bought in London and Lyons is $13,000; the stocking, net cost, $3650; the embroidery, $4000; the ornaments (made by Granger), $1880; the shoes, $2020; the bonnets, etc., $1500; flowers, $1220; belts, $460; diamond shields, $580; armor, helmets, etc., $840; feathers, $560; pasteboard, $480; “property,” $2140 – total, $31,200. Add the scenery, drapery and mirrors used, which cost above $20,000, but say only $10,000 – total $51,200. The daily expenses are $420. It is reckoned the piece will run three hundred nights at least, and take between $2000 and $2200 a night. The expenses, including $60,000 original outlay, will be $186,000 for three hundred nights; the receipts will be between $600,000 and $660,000, leaving in the manager’s hands between $404,000 and $465 – a prize worth struggling for.

Public ledger. [volume 3] (Memphis, Tenn.), 18 Sept. 1866. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85033673/1866-09-18/ed-1/seq-1/>

“Anything But Costumes” Closing

Anyone who has worked in props on the East Coast recognizes the name “Anything But Costumes.” Tucked away on a small farm in New Jersey halfway between Philadelphia and New Jersey, this prop rental company serviced theaters, films, and television shows in both cities, and everywhere in between. Props people on Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway relied on their low prices and wide selection to keep their shows in budget, and knew they could fill out their set dressing with just a single trip.

Word spread this week that they are closing at the end of the summer. The pandemic has already made it difficult to imagine a time when theater will return and all of us will get back to the work we love, but it is now even harder to imagine propping these shows without such a reliable and necessary resource available to us.

The owners, Linda and Lowell, sent out the following statement with their plans:

After 25 years Anything But Costumes will be closing this summer.  We have lost our lease and COVID-19 has just made business extremely difficult. We had hoped another party would take over and continue our mission of supplying schools and theaters with less expensive props.

We will be selling all the props and also lots of other stuff, like shelving, ladders, hand trucks, supplies, craft items, fabric, display cases, lumber, etc. If you are interested in buying items you can make an appointment to come here and look or you can buy from our online catalogue. The purchase price would be twice the rental price shown in the catalogue.   At some point we will probably have an auction later in the summer.

 

SPAM Grants Deadline Change

The following is an official announcement from the Society of Properties Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M), of which I am a member:

S*P*A*M has decided to temporarily suspend the awarding of the Jenn Trieloff and Edie Whitsett Memorial Grants.  Many producing organizations operating on a Summer schedule have suspended operations due to the uncertainty created by the global pandemic and its economic fallout. Theatres that normally begin producing in the late summer and early fall are in a state of flux and unsure of when – or even if – they will be undertaking their 2020-21 seasons.  It is for these reasons that the Society of Properties Artisan Managers has reluctantly reached the decision to postpone the deadline for and presentation of the  Jen Trieloff and Edie Whitsett Memorial Grants. The new deadline and presentation date will be announced as soon as possible.  All current applications will remain active and we encourage the submission of new applications.  Because of the uncertainty surrounding employment opportunities, we will be adding an additional requirement to the application process.  In addition to providing a cover letter, résumé and  link to a portfolio, before the grant is awarded we will ask for confirmation of the internship or apprenticeship from the applicant’s employer.  We believe that it is not only possible but vitally necessary for theatre professionals at all levels to remain strong and hopeful and to support one another as we navigate these uncertain territories.  S*P*A*M regrets any confusion or inconvenience caused by this change in plans.  Stay safe, be kind to one another and Prop On.