Anyone who has spent any time in the theater has heard the phrase “Break a leg!” It is the traditional means of wishing good luck for a performer.
There is a certain image (as seen below) making the rounds again, which makes a bold claim about the origin of this phrase. The first time I saw it, I made a note to do some research; it makes a claim that I have not seen anywhere else. For a few days, I disappeared down a rabbit hole of theatrical superstitions and practices on Vaudeville, but I never posted it. Now that I have been seeing this image again, I realized I wanted to set the record straight.
In a previous post, we learned that the first props master of the Metropolitan Opera was a man named A. J. Bradwell, and that he came from a family of props masters stretching back nearly two hundred years. Who were the Bradwells? I’ve been researching them for awhile and wanted to introduce you to the main ones I’ve found: four generations of props masters spanning a time from the 18th century all the way to the 20th century.
William Bradwell (?-1849)
William Bradwell was a theatrical decorator and machinist in London. He worked on many of the props, tricks, and effects at Covent Garden from 1806-1839. His work on the pantomimes were so well-known that his name was used to advertise shows as a sign of quality. He was once referred to as “the fairies’ couch maker.” He worked directly under such English stage greats as Dibdin the Younger, Macready, and E.L. Blanchard (in fact, Bradwell hired a young Blanchard as a props running crew at the beginning of his career).
He and his wife Elizabeth had a son named Edmund in 1799.
Edmund Bradwell (1799-1871)
Edmund was working at the Theatre Royal in Dublin until Robert Elliston took him back to London to build properties and machinery for the Surrey Theatre. He worked at a number of theaters, such as the Olympic, Lyceum, and Her Majesty’s Theatre, and quickly developed a reputation for innovative “transformations.”
Edmund and his wife Margaret had at least seven daughters, and two sons who continued in the business: Edmund William Bradwell, and Alfred John Bradwell.
Edmund William Bradwell (1828-1909)
Edmund William was born in Ireland immediately before his father returned to London. His work as a builder and decorator seems to have been more focused on the decoration of theatre interiors. A number of theatres that opened or were renovated around this time had some of the design and decoration executed by E. W. Bradwell.
EW and his wife Elizabeth had three daughters and one son. The son, William Edmund Valentine Bradwell, appears to have followed in the family business at least a bit.
William Edmund Valentine Bradwell (1858-1938)
William was born on Valentine’s Day. His occupation was listed as both a builder’s artist and a decorative artist in surviving paperwork. I don’t know much more about him than that.
Alfred John Bradwell (1845-after 1891)
Alfred was Edmund’s son and Edmund William’s brother. His career began as an assistant to his father on a number of pantomimes throughout London, learning to accomplish all sorts of mechanical transformations and properties. He built his own reputation as a pantomime properties artisan at Drury Lane after his father died. He emigrated to the United States and became the first properties master at the Metropolitan Opera when it opened in 1883. He also trained Edward Siedle, a properties master who would go on to become technical director at the Met, transforming it into a technical powerhouse in the early twentieth century.
He and his wife Annie had a number of children, with their son Herbert Augustus Bradwell continuing the business. He had another son, Ernest Athol Bradwell, who appears to have worked as both an actor and a stage carpenter over the years.
Herbert Augustus Bradwell (1873-1911)
Herbert was born in London, but mostly grew up in New York City after his father joined the Met Opera. He became quite the well-known creator of electrical and mechanical effects on stage. In the early twentieth century, Coney Island was the home of massive live spectacles, such as volcanic eruptions and train crashes. Herbert was coproducer and an effects creator for one of the most successful ones known as “The Jonestown Flood,” in which an entire town was flooded during every performance. When this closed, he produced his own show in the same building known as “The Deluge,” a recreation of the Noah’s Ark story. It was wildly successful, and he transferred the show to London. It failed there, and a second attempt at a disaster spectacle in Brussels ended up burning to the ground. Now broke, he brought his family back to New York, and ended up starving himself to keep his family fed. This led to a mental breakdown that put him in the hospital, where his heart eventually gave out. He died at the young age of 44, completely destitute.
The umbrella gun scene in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most visually memorable in the play. George, tired of his wife Martha’s insults in front of their guests, exits offstage. He sneaks back wielding a shotgun aimed at her head. The guests see him and scream as he pulls the trigger. Instead of the loud report of a bullet, though, a brightly-colored umbrella emerges from the barrel. Hilarious, right?
The original production was written to use a trick umbrella they already had in stock, but every production since has given the props master a headache as they try to figure out the gag. I initially checked with other theaters who had done this show, but theirs had either broken or been disassembled. The rental options out there were either too expensive or looked unrealistic. I decided I needed to build my own.
I needed a pretty thick barrel to fit an umbrella inside. It would look out-of-proportion if I just stuck it on a regular shotgun body. I scaled up the stock and fore-end to cut and shape out of oak.
I bought a chainsaw grinding disc for this project because I had always wanted to try one. It was amazing; it acted like a wood eraser. I just pointed it to the wood I didn’t need and it made it disappear. I will never attempt wood carving without one of these again.
The receiver would need to hold all the parts of the shotgun together and hide all the mechanisms inside of it I cut out several pieces of flat steel stock to weld a hollow container.
With just a welder, angle grinder, and belt sander, I was able to fabricate a decent looking receiver.
I took an existing umbrella from stock which had its own spring mechanism to make it pop open. I cut off the handle but left the hollow shaft in place. I welded a steel rod to the shotgun that the umbrella could sleeve onto and travel back and forth. To minimize binding, I put a bit of UHMW rod on the end of the umbrella that was slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the copper tube I was using for the barrel. I used copper tube because it was the most rigid tube I could find with the thinnest walls.
I drew up a full scale trigger mechanism in cardstock to figure out what would fit within what I had built. It was just two pieces: a trigger that rotated on a pin, and a long lever with a latch on the end that held the umbrella against a spring until the trigger was pulled. I traced the pieces to steel and cut them out. I slipped a small piece of spring into the fore-end to return the trigger after it is pulled. I slid a long spring over the metal rod in the barrel to actually propel the umbrella after the trigger is pulled.
I painted the barrel to match the receiver and stained the wood pieces darker before sealing them. I coated all the static pieces of interior and exterior steel with shellac to prevent rust. Any pieces of steel which moved against another part was coated with dry lube. I built the gun for easy disassembly in case any future users needed to fix or replace a part.
I have a video which shows all the parts as they are assembled. You can see the various inner mechanisms in more detail if you are interested in how it all works, and if you wanted to see it actually fire.
I receive a number of inquiries every month from strangers who found my work and want me to build a prop. They range from churches who put on small performances, to magicians who want to make their show more exciting, to cosplayers who want a fake weapon. Sometimes, people just need some weird, custom item built that does not fit any other craft or discipline.
I can usually tell from their first email whether I want to do business with them. If you are looking to hire a prop maker, here are a few tips and tricks to make sure they respond back.
Tell me what you want.
I will occasionally find an email that simply says, “I may have a project for you. Give me a call.” In my world, a “project” can mean anything from making a fake thumb to carving a Mount Rushmore parade float. I need some sense of the scope and scale of the project at the beginning, as well the general topic. You do not need to have all the details worked out, just a brief description. If you need a chair shaped like a mushroom, great, let us talk more. If you need an 18th century ballroom gown, I have no idea how to make that, and it is a waste of both of our times to discuss anything else before you reveal what the project actually is.
You don’t need to have any knowledge about specific materials or construction methods. You just need to give me the circumstances: will it be used outside? Does it need to fit in your car? Will children handle it? How heavy can it be?
Know your budget.
If you have something very specific to build, then I can come up with a bid of what it will cost. But if you are open, then I can come up with a range of solutions to fit most any budget. I can do a $3000 severed head, I can do a $300 severed head, and I can do many other options in between. And on a side note…
It may cost more than you anticipate.
I find it much easier to deal with businesses and companies in the entertainment industry, because they are used to dealing with prop builders and fabrication shops, and know how much these things cost. When I quote them a price, it is in line with what they have spent on similar things in the past. When I deal with individuals outside the industry who have never hired a prop builder before, the costs can be shocking. They see a cheap plastic sword on Amazon for $39 and think a custom-fabricated version will cost the same.
If I am contacted by a stranger who is not local, it is not even worth my time to consider projects less than a couple hundred dollars. Once you subtract materials and supplies, I can barely cover the cost of babysitting to spend time in my shop. Why would I want to spend my nights working on someone else’s project when I could be playing with my kids?
Give me a deadline.
Prop builders are busy folks, and they cannot just drop everything to start work on your project. If you have a specific timeline to complete the project, it becomes easier for the prop builder to carve time into their schedule. The shorter your timeline, the more expensive the project will be. I can do almost anything for the right price.
Also, be realistic about your deadlines. If you live in Seattle and you contact me, a North Carolina prop builder, for something you need in a week, it won’t happen. First, it may take a day or two just to hash out the details over email and commit to the project. Second, it will take a few days just to ship it there. That leaves almost zero time for the project itself, which may require materials to be ordered and paint to dry, not to mention I am already working on multiple projects at any given time.
Do your research.
If you really want a prop built, you should be contacting more than one prop builder. It is far easier to work with someone locally who you could visit in person, or at least pick the prop up personally. Chances are, there is one nearby. Look up local theaters and see if they list the prop department on their website. Not all prop builders have their information online, so it may take a few emails asking around before you get a name and contact information.
When you do find a prop builder, make sure your project is in line with other projects they have done. A prop builder who makes rubber ducks can probably make a rubber goose for you. However, a prop builder who fabricates medieval armor may not have the tools or skills to make that same rubber goose.
The best way to find prop builders is by asking other prop builders. If you contact one who cannot build your prop, ask them if they know anyone else who might be interested. We love referring jobs to other props people we know.
What are your thoughts?
Do any other prop builders out there have advice for people contacting them? Let me know!
The title of “prop designer” seems to appear more now than in the past. More experienced prop masters have made note that younger props people are being credited as prop designer on their shows, or self-identifying as one on their resumes. Is this just a trick of perception, or are prop designers actually growing in number? Continue reading The Rise of the Prop Designer→
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies