David Belasco

Belasco’s Property Room, 1920

The following is the first part of a 1920 article on David Belasco’s property collection:

Belasco’s Property Room Houses Antique Gems

by Frank Vreeland

Fortunate is the man who has a theatre where the memories of past triumphs of the stage linger about rare souvenirs of the occasion, but if that man has also a storage place filled with curios which is considered to be haunted he is thrice blessed, according to current ideas.

In such a happy situation is David Belasco, whose Belasco Theatre is filled with old hand bills of Booth and other stage celebrities and unusual prints of theatrical performances—besides mementoes of Napoleon—so that it might be said to be a paper monument to past glories. In addition he has a storeroom in connection with his warehouse at 511 West Forty-sixth street, where many of his most valuable “props” are kept, dating back to his first managerial experiences, as well as pounds and pounds of antiques which Mr. Belasco is constantly collecting, even if they are not to be used to make any production more realistic, but merely to complete his assortment of relics.

David Belasco
David Belasco

Lounging Place for Spooks

It is the collection in this storeroom, valued at $50,000, that is believed by Belasco henchmen to be a favorite lounging place for spooks. As might be expected of the man who revealed a deep interest in psychic matters by his production of “The Return of Peter Grimm” and “The Case of Becky,” Mr. Belasco himself holds to the idea that spirits hover about the storeroom—which indicates how wide awake they are, even if dead, to pay attention to such a fascinating display.

Belasco’s head property man, Matthew Purcell, firmly believes that this room is the rendezvous for the ghosts of players who even in their other state can’t keep away from the paint and trappings of their profession. Mr. Purcell has been with Mr. Belasco eighteen years. His Celtic mysticism may account for his readiness to see a ghost as well as a joke. And by the same token, being Irish, he takes his ghosts humorously and says the ghosts are good fellows if you’re not afraid of them.

But he says he’s known property men who didn’t care to be on speaking terms with the wraiths, and who consequently have come out of the property room screaming. Watchmen from a private agency have refused to go into the place unless accompanied by a property man who isn’t afraid of meeting the misty visitors. Concerning one of Mr. Belasco’s other storage houses, where the larger scenic investiture is kept, a story is related of a watchman who thought he saw something moving one night and shot the walls full of bullets.

The “haunted” storeroom, the one containing the smaller relics, unquestionably has an eerie atmosphere. It is spooky, indeed, in the dim crepuscular illumination from a dusty skylight, with supernatural forms seeming to float near the ceiling—even though one finds afterward that they’re only the silken hangings from “Polly With a Past.” Vague, threatening forms seem to lurk in the semi-darkness, and menacing arms seem stretched out for one, but one grows bold on finding them nothing but breastplates, deer antlers, hunting horns and swords—when the lights go on.

The electric bulbs reveal a room about thirty feet long and half as wide, with most of the curios on view in cabinets which must make it very convenient for the ghostly visitors. While looking over the exhibits one hears curious noises—the wailing of children, the yowling of cats, the slamming of a cabinet door behind one’s back—and the writer, who heard them, isn’t a spiritualist—not while there’s plenty of candle-power.

Original Publication: Vreeland, Frank. “Belasco’s Property Room Houses Antique Gems.” The Sun and New York Herald 1 Feb. 1920, Sunday Magazine Section sec.: 7. Print.

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