A Television Hero: The Property Man, 1949

The following article first appeared in The New York Times on April 3, 1949.

A Television Hero: The Property Man

by Arthur Altschul

The property department, always an essential element of the theatre, is becoming equally important in television production. During the years of radio, the responsibility for creating an illusion of reality rested with the sound effects department. Now the principal headaches of manufacturing veracity for video belong to the property man.

An indication of the expanding importance of the property department is seen in a few statistics. Last week, for example, NBC had to produce more than 3,000 props for forty-eight television shows. A year ago the same network found its demand for props approximately 5 per cent of what it is today.

Variety shows, dramatic shows, and children’s programs-in that order- take up most of the time of the station’s property man, who every day is in touch with an assortment of museums, antique stores, prop shops, furniture and department stores, factories and zoos, tracking down the more elusive objects required for a show.

Hours of exhausting search culminate in the effect which an audience takes as a matter of course. The type of work and problems that beset a station’s property department are evidenced in the following excerpts from the property sheet for one of Milton Berle’s recent “Texaco Star Theatre” shows:

(1) Opening – regular opening

(2) Berle’s monologue – in street drop.

  • Dogsled on wheels.
  • 5 harnessed dogs.
  • Sign on dogsled – “New York or Bust.”
  • Fur rug to cover occupant.
  • Two tennis racquets with foot cleats.

(3) Paul & Paulette Trio.

  • Bedroom set piece.
  • Trampoline mat.
  • Bed coverlet and pillows.
  • Wardrobe size trunk.

(4a) Florence Desmond.

(4) Desmond & Berle – drawing-room scene.

  • Special love seat.
  • Coffee table.
  • Miniature piano.
  • Regular piano chair for same.
  • Pedestal and book picture frames on piano.
  • Flowers for piano.
  • Cigarettes in large case-for Berle.
  • Matches on coffee table.
  • Package of chewing gum on coffee table.
  • .22 revolver loaded-to Berle.
  • Limp duck with hanging release board.
  • Silver tea service for two, including two cups and saucers, creamer and sugar bowl, slices of lemon, spoons (on coffee table).
  • Long cigarette holder-on coffee table.
  • Monocle attached to cord-for Berle.

(5a) Tony Martin.

(5) Martin & Berle – 3-fold forest backing.

  • Cut-out of Indian girl in canoe.
  • Tube and bulb to be so placed that the girl expels water from her mouth.
  • Canoe paddle.
  • Rifle case-to hold clarinet-to Martin.
  • 2 cap pistols.

(6) Commercial.

  • 2 pair large woolen socks-black and white preferred. One sock with toe cut off and sewn back on loosely.
  • 1 large harmonica.
  • 1 gun.
  • 2 theatre tickets.
  • Skychief can.
  • Eye dropper-larger than usual size (with water)
  • Blindfold (black silk kerchief with elastic).
  • Long Japanese kimono-cover all (size 41, large).
  • 1 1/2 dozen eggs.
  • 3 prop tomatoes.
  • 2 Havolin cans-1 filled with dark liquid to represent Havolin.

The principal problem confronting the television property man involves the matter of time. With new shows constantly on the schedule, creating individual prop problems, he rarely has as much time as he would like for procuring the necessary items. It comes down to a question of doing the best possible job in the time allotted.

On rare occasions the program demands are excessive and chaos is the result. There was, for example, the time that the script for a certain variety show called for the installation in a studio of an actual ice-skating rink. The technicians went to work installing the compressors and pipes required, but the eighteen hours allotted for the job was not sufficient. When the time came for the show to go on, the ice was not yet frozen hard, and an announcer had to tell the audience that the show wouldn’t go on until later in the evening.

Expensive props always create a little anxiety. Vaults are maintained on studio premises for any valuables that may be part of a show, and special lockers have been constructed conveniently for the more fragile ones. Art masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum, such as a Rembrandt valued at $80,000 or a $26,000 Goya-come by special truck accompanied by a guard and a technical consultant. The latter makes sure that the studio lights aren’t too hot and that the art object doesn’t get damaged in the moving.

Hardly a week goes by in which the property men aren’t faced with some unexpected and unanticipated problem. Recently, for example, the script of one show called for the use of a midget automobile. It seemed like a fairly simple task. But before the car was able to appear before the television cameras it had to be taken completely apart and an electric instead of a gasoline motor had to be substituted. Reason: it was discovered that city fire laws do not permit the operation of a gasoline motor in any office or public building.

Originally published in The New York Times, April 3, 1949. Written by Arthur Altschul.