Category Archives: Reprints

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.

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. <>

Actors Properties, 1899

The following comes from an 1899 guide to succeeding as an actor. It is interesting how it describes the difference between what items are owned by the theater and what was traditionally supplied by the actor:

‘Properties’ —the general term for stage furniture and all other accessories apart from scenery—is of course short for ‘the property of the theatre’; just as an actor’s wardrobe for the stage is expressed in the plural, but laconically ‘props.’ ‘Hand props,’ or properties, consist of such articles as a newspaper, letter, cigarette, pistol, etc.; these, with the more cumbrous furniture, armour, weapons, etc., are placed under the charge of the ‘property man.’

The dressing of a modern play forms no small item in an actor’s expenditure, for he is expected to find everything, from his wigs down to his shoes. Costume plays are now, in the West-End and in the best touring companies, completely ‘dressed’ by the management; but in all inferior organizations the time-honoured rule still holds good, viz., that actors must provide their own tights, shoes, boot-tops, wigs, crêpe hair, frills, ‘ballet shirts,’ gloves or gauntlets, hats, feathers, swords and sword-belts, and various other oddments too numerous to particularize. The originator of this rule was no less a personage than Sir Charles D’Avenant, since it formed one of the many ‘items’ in his articles of agreement with his company of players on the opening by royal license of the Salisbury Court Theatre in 1660. It was as follows: ‘The management shall not provide the actors with hats, feathers, gloves, ribbons, swords, belts, bands, shoes, and stockings.’ When the stock companies were universally in vogue, each theatre in town and country had its own wardrobe comprising ‘shirts,’ ‘shapes,’ ‘square-cuts,’ togas, gowns, and ‘tuck-ups’ ; nowadays everything is ordered new for a West-End production, and after the run of the piece stored away or sold off by auction to the highest bidder.

Wagner, Leopold. How to Get on the Stage and How to Succeed There. pp 87-88, Chatto and Windus, London. 1899.

Mr. Bradwell, Prop Master of the Met

Last week we were looking at the very first dragon used at the Metropolitan Opera for Wagner’s Siegfried. It was taken care of by the property master there, known only as Bradwell. Who was Bradwell? I found another article from 1891 which gave a bit more information about this man:

“Then Mr. Hay, the executive lieutenant of Director Stanton, turns us over to Mr. Bradwell, the veteran property-master. Mr. Bradwell is from the Drury Lane Opera House, London, and his family have been identified with the property profession for nearly two hundred years. It is a very responsible post, for the whole ‘setting’ and ‘business’ of every performance depends upon the resources of the property department. The ‘properties’ of nearly half a hundred operas, stowed away in rooms, vaults, and racks all over the house, form a more bewildering chaos than the most disordered mind could conceive.”

The article also gives us some information about the Met at this time. This is before the opera moved to its current location in Lincoln Center. “At the right, or Thirty-ninth Street side, on the various floors, are the director’s office, the principal artists’ dressing-rooms, those of the male chorus, the offices of the various heads of departments, music library, property carpenter-shop, papier-maché-rooms, armor-rooms, etc. On the left, or Fortieth Street side, are the greenroom, the main scene-room, the property-master’s offices and store-rooms, dressing-rooms of the female chorus and ballet, and various work-rooms devoted to the manufacture of costumes and stage properties of every description, from a twenty-foot dragon, down to the flower which Marguerite pulls to pieces in the garden scene of ‘Faust.'”

The article also features a very well-done collage illustrating several backstage scenes:

Illustrations of the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1891
Illustrations of the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1891

Tyrrell, Henry. “Grand Opera at the Metropolitan.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 17 Jan. 1891, pp. 459–460. Google Books,

Getting Wagner’s Dragon Ready, 1887

(the following first appeared in an 1887 issue of the New York Tribune. The dragon in this article is the same as described in this article by Gustav Kobbé. I believe this dragon was built by a man named William De Verna, and that the property master in this article acts more like a house property position rather than the fabricator. I could be wrong, but what follows is still a great description of the dragon’s construction)

The Prodigious Monster Which Will Lash His Tail and Roar at Siegfried

The preparation of the beast which will take the part of the Dragon in “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera House is an interesting study. Up among the flies Property-master Bradwell has the creature in charge and the evolution of the animal is exercising his best ingenuity. The Dragon in its early stage of development gives the unheroic idea of an immense battle. The body and tail are of steel wire wound in spiral shape and tapering off from a diameter of three feet at the shoulders to a minimum at the tip of the tail thirty feet away. Over this framework a covering of green silesia has been placed to afford a chance for fastening on the scales. These will be some 5,000 in number and are made of leather in strips five inches or so in length and about three inches in width. These overlap each other and are tinged with iridescent colors which will give the beast a glittering and imposing aspect when he is completed and in working order beneath the electric light.

The steel wires project about the shoulders and front part of the beast’s body, so that when covered with scales the dragon has the appearance of a horny monster. The head and feet are of papier mache. The head is some three feet in length and of about the same depth, with a lower jaw which is ominous in size. The feet are three-toed and cover a space two feet square. Yet head, feet and body are together so light that they will not weigh over fifty pounds all told. The feet are front feet, of course only two in number. The rear part of the body runs on two casters.

A man will work the monster from the inside, his head extending up into a huge hummock just behind the dragon’s head, his feet being encased in Wellington boots fitted into the feet of the animal. The manipulator will be enabled by a system of wires to turn the casters, swing them around and at the same time control the head movements and the lower jaw of his charge. Incandescent electric lights form the dragon’s eyes and the eyelids of these are also moved by the inhabitant within. Steampipes will be introduced at the tail of the dragon and at the proper moment steam will be forced out of his nostrils. When the steam and the eyelids and the jaw and the head are working at their liveliest, men in the flies, with wires attached to the dragon’s tail will make that part of the beast thresh the air in fury, while in the wings a mighty trumpet will sound forth the musical notes in which the Dragon will express musical sentiments appropriate to the occasion, at least until Siegfried shall put an end to the tumult. Mr. Bradwell is proud of his progeny and thinks his initial appearance will be a great success.

New-York tribune. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 23 Jan. 1887. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>