The Property-Man in Vaudeville Theatre

The Property-man

(from The vaudeville theatre, building, operation, management, by Edward Renton, 1918)

“Resourcefulness” should be the middle name of the individual who is competent to occupy the position of property-man in a theatre. There are other important qualifications, but this one is essential. He may be called upon to supply anything from an Egyptian mummy to a three week-old child, upon a moment’s notice. He must be a bit of a carpenter, something of an artist, a great deal of a diplomat, and he must be “on the job” from the rising of the sun to considerably after the setting thereof-in other words, this is not the place for a lazy or a shiftless man.

A property-man should have the ability to meet people pleasantly and to make a favorable impression. He should cultivate cordial relations with transfer companies, with the various merchants of the city, and with other persons from whom he is likely to need favors in the way of borrowed properties. He will be faced with the necessity of requesting loans from homes, pawn-shops, museums and other public institutions, stores and individuals. He should be able to convey the impression of responsibility- and should live up to it. To a peculiar degree, he has the reputation of the theatre in his keeping; it is absolutely essential that he call for properties loaned or rented at the time agreed upon, that he care for such articles most assiduously while they are being used and that
he return them promptly and in the same condition as when borrowed.

Whatever agreement has been made for remuneration to the lender, whether in the form of passes, money or the patronage of the theatre, display in the program or other manner, should be strictly and conscientiously adhered to. If, regardless of the cause, borrowed properties are damaged during their transportation to or from, or use in the theatre, the property-man should not attempt to slip them back to the owner without advising him of the damage. It is best to make a clean breast of it with appropriate apologies and a sincere offer to repair the damage or pay for the article-for if the merchants and others know this is the theatre’s practice, they will more willingly loan the property-man the articles he needs.

The property-man should be allowed a reasonable number of passes with which to “square” his borrowings; but he should be required to account carefully for them and be checked by the management upon their use.

It requires dexterous and intelligent handling of props “on stage” to avoid costly breakage and damage. A few suggestions tending to the prevention of this are: Remove pictures from scenery, bric-a-brac from mantels and tables, floor-lamps, desk-lamps, etc., “into clear” before the setting is struck. Then as the set is struck and openings made, remove tables, chairs, lounges, pianos, and the heavier stuff; and in placing or storing props and furniture against walls or packs, take care to avoid putting them in the way of stuff to be quickly handled into the next set. Fragile articles, such as vases, clocks, bric-a-brac, etc., should be immediately stored in the property-room, in their proper places, and not left about the stage, on tables, etc., to be knocked over and broken. As soon as the set is finished, furniture and like props left on the stage against walls, etc., should be covered with heavy unbleached muslin sheets or coverings, of which four or five, ranging in size from 12 feet by 12 feet to 12 feet by 20 feet, should be furnished the property department. Number each of these prop covers consecutively in large black figures, to prevent their being torn up for cleaning rags and to aid in checking this department when inventories are made. Proper use of these coverings will save paying for re-finishing many a scratched table, piano or chair.

Small rugs, portieres, draperies, lace curtains, etc., should be hung over poles in a special part of the property-room or in a separate, dust-proof place, set aside as the rug and drapery room. In this same room, adequately wide, clean shelves should be available for storing sofa pillows, scarfs and small draperies.

The property-room holds much of the material necessary for making the stage picture attractive, and seldom receives the attention it deserves. It should be as nearly dust-proof as possible, absolutely dry, and kept perfectly clean and orderly.

Ground-cloths, stage-carpets and rugs should be swept daily, and when placed in any set should be run over with a Bissell “Hotel” size carpet-sweeper. Floor coverings will then look as they should when the curtain goes up, and a bi-weekly vacuum cleaning, if the house has a machine, will lengthen their life and keep them fresh-looking almost indefinitely.

If, through unusually rough or careless use, an artist damages or wrecks a piece of furniture or a prop, he should be required to pay for repairing or replacing it, whichever is necessary. As soon as the damage is done, the property- man should make a report to the manager, stating the nature of the injury to the article in question and giving an estimate of the cost of repairing or replacing it. The artist should be notified immediately that this amount will be deducted from his salary, and if any argument results from this, it will take place while all the circumstances are fresh in the minds of those concerned. Promptness in attending to such occurrences will eliminate disputes and probable unpleasantness at the conclusion of the artist’s engagement.

It is customary in many theatres for the property-man to attend to sending out and receiving the laundry for the artists. The writer has found no objection to this custom, which is quite a convenience to the artists, provided that the theatre be not involved in any manner in the case of loss or miscarriage of bundles. The small commission allowed the property-man by the laundry is considered a legitimate perquisite of the position. It goes without saying that it should not, and in the author’s observation it does not, interfere with the proper performance of his regular duties.

An accurate inventory should be made of all properties at the beginning of each season, written up in triplicate, one copy retained by the property-man, one filed with the manager, and one with the accounting officer or department of the proprietor of the theatre. At the end of the season, or once annually if the theatre runs the year around, this should be carefully checked, and all shortages accounted for by manager’s memo authorizing discarding, junking, sale or other disposal. Inasmuch as the property-man is held responsible for all of this material, it follows that he should be furnished with adequately secure premises in which to store it. If a property is hopelessly wrecked, or has outlived its usefulness, the matter should be called to the attention of the manager, who, upon personally verifying the condition, should issue a memo in triplicate authorizing the property-man to make a certain specified disposal of it, and one copy of this memo should be attached to each of the original inventories. When during the season a property is purchased, a similar memo thereof should be made and filed with each of the inventories. Thus a clear and checkable record is maintained with a minimum of effort, and the system will save the loss, in one way or another, of many small and inexpensive and probably some costly properties each season.

The importance of the department presided over by the property-man is sometimes not adequately realized by the management; its value will vary according to the intelligence, loyalty and ambition of the individual employed, and according, also, to the amount of co-operation and appreciation which he receives from his employer.

Published by Gotham Press, Inc., 1918