Shams in the Theatre, 1880

The following article comes from The Daily Dispatch, Richmond, VA, December 2, 1880. I added a few paragraph breaks to make it a little easier on the eyes.

Shams in the Theatre

The Ingenious Work of the Property Man–Remarkable Effects Produced with Cheap and Common Materials.

(New York Tribune.)

Theatrical properties, so called, include all things placed upon the stage except what are painted as part of a scene by the scene-painter. Urns, vases, flowers, pictures, pianos, carpets, rugs, furniture, and all ornaments are “properties.” Besides these, all articles used by the actors in the performance of the play, such as canes, cigars, pistols, clubs, knives, pocketbooks, money, and other things of similar nature are properties. The property-man of a theatre has a responsible and arduous-position. Upon him depend many of the important points in a play. The check for $30,000 that saves the impecunious artist from an untimely grave; the secret drawer and hidden will, which, when revealed, restore the wandering heir to his rightful inheritance; the marriage-bell that hangs above the heads of the happy lovers in the fifth act; and the pitiless snow through which the shivering blind girl wanders singing her mournful songs, all are prepared by the property-man. Sad is the lot of that luckless wight who forgets to load the pistol with which the desperate villain is slain. The property-man is provided by the stage-manager with a complete list of the properties needed for each scene, and it is his duty to see that they are prepared and in their proper places before the curtain rises.

In the earlier days of the drama it was customary for the property-man to make all his own properties. From the simple bronze urn to the massive oaken fire-place, everything was slowly and laboriously wrought out by this being of inexhaustible ingenuity. In the Shakspearean [sic] drama the property-man still has a plenty of this kind of work; for the helmets, spears, shields, and battle array of the motley groups of dumb warriors are all the results of his toil. In the modern drama, however, it has been found easier and more effective to borrow properties than to make them. The ebony easels, the Turkish rugs, the rare engravings, the bric-a-brac, and art objects that crowd the parlors of the modern Crœsus on the stage are readily borrowed from some enterprising dealer, who lends them for the sake of the advertisement. One of the leading theatres in this city actually buys the elegant furniture displayed on its stage, selling it after the run of the play has ceased for perhaps $100 less than the original cost.

Nevertheless there are many little things which the property-man is still obliged to manufacture. Urns, which can be used at any time, bronze figures, flower-pots, flowers, and rustic furniture are usually made by this industrious worker. All the articles just mentioned, except flowers and rustic furniture, are made from old scraps of wrapping-paper. The maker obtains some common clay, wets it, and, laying it on a broad, smooth board, models it in the shape he wishes. Around this model he builds a wooden box. He then mixes some plaster of Paris and water, making the mixture pretty thick, and stirring it rapidly to prevent its hardening. It is poured over the clay mould and allowed a half hour to dry. The mould is then separated from the plaster and an urn of the latter material is found completely formed and ready for the paper. Heavy paper, free from all glazing, is used. It is first torn into small pieces and soaked thoroughly in clean water. The mould is then carefully greased with sweet oil or lard, and a wet coat of paper is laid on, care being taken to see that it fills up all the nooks and crannies of the mould. Four additional coats of the paper are then put on smoothly and evenly. Then comes a layer of muslin and glue. Three more coats of paper are added, and the article is allowed to dry about twelve hours. When it is perfectly free from moisture, the inner coats of paper are drawn out, leaving the muslin and the three outside layers of paper. Only half of a vase or urn is moulded at a time. When the two halves are ready, their edges are neatly trimmed and sewn together with strong twine. The twine is covered with a thin coat of paper, and the urn is ready for coloring. It receives first a coat of whitening, after which it is sand-papered. Then the final coat of color is put on, and whatever ornaments are desired can be added. In this way a capital imitation of a blue-and-gold vase, a bronze urn or figure, can be obtained. The blue-and-gold vase is painted with the distemper color used by scenic artists, and gilded; a bronze vase receives a coat of bronze powder, such as can be bought in any paint-store. Silver and gold goblets are also easily counterfeited in this manner, though these things are sometimes turned out of wood. It takes four days to make a pair of urns in this way, and requires great care. If the mould is not properly greased the urn will stick to it and tear when an attempt is made to take it from the mould.

Articles made in this way are very light, and can be kicked about, as they always are, without breaking. Old oaken fireplaces made of this material, and apparently weighing 500 pounds, weigh in reality about fifteen pounds. What is called a “banquet set,” consisting of plates, knives, forks, roast chicken, potatoes, baskets of fruit, and other things needful for a feast, is sometimes made of paper. Flowers are made of tissue-paper. The paper is cut in circular pieces, and fastened to short sticks. These are then set in a wire frame. A handsome marriage-bell can be produced in this way. Rustic chairs are made from common wooden chairs. Rope covered with paper answers for the twigs which twine around the back, arms, and legs. Vines are made of paper, rope, and wire. Heavy ferns and tropical plants are easily counterfeited. A sheet of pasteboard is cut in the shape of a leaf. A piece of rattan is then split, and the pasteboard insterted. The whole is then colored in a suitable manner. The weight of the pasteboard leaf bends the rattan stem, and its swaying at the lightest touch gives it a natural appearance.

A snow-storm is all paper, and is a production which the property-man detests. The snow consists of small bits of white paper, which he must cut. These cuttings are placed in the snow-box. This is a long narrow box, the bottom of which is made of slats. It is suspended above the stage by a rope at each end. By pulling one rope a see-saw motion is giben to the box, and the snow sifts through the bottom. A cloth is spread upon the stage, and the snow, falling upon it is carefully swept up with an economy that nature does not need, and used again the next night. The silver moon, that looks so calmly upon the agonies of the players, is a hollow sham. It is simply a cone suspended by wires with the base toward the audience. This base is covered with pale-green silk, and a candle inside supplies the mild radiance that enchants the eye. The fellow who falls from the scaffolding in “L’Assommoir” is made of rattan; the limbs are jointed, and the mummy is dressed in old clothes. His face is made of the inevitable paper. Stage money, as many know, is counterfeit beyond all doubt. The coin is usually made of tin. The paper money sometimes consists of old counterfeits taken in at the box-office, and sometimes of the advertising green-backs that are circulated in the streets. The property-man also makes the colored fires which illuminate the last acts of the spectacular plays, and which invariably appear with fairy transformations. Red fire, which is most used, consists of stronchi, shellac, and potash. The flames which lick the sides of burning dwellings are of powdered lycopodium. This is placed in an instrument known as a “flash torch,” which has a pepper-box top and a lamp over it. When the torch is swung the powder sifts through into the lamp-flame and blazes up in long tongues of flame. The most effective lightning is made of magnesium. A small pinch is placed on the blade of a knife and lighted. It produces a quick, blinding glare that is very realistic. It is not used profusely, as it costs $20 per ounce.

Originally published in The Daily Dispatch, Richmond, VA, December 2, 1880.