Tag Archives: 1890

Behind the Scenes part 5, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. You can also check out the first partthe second part, the third part, and the fourth part:

A pair of wooden squares covered with sand-paper and rubbed together announces the coming of the engine in “Across the Continent.” A wish of wires did similar service for the locomotive in the “Main Line.” Cheerful, indeed, looked the fire on the hearth in the kitchen of Hazel Kirke’s home when she quitted it for the castle of Arthur Carringford. Gas jets and colored glass caused the illusion.

To be kicked downstairs should be severe punishment; it seems doubly so when done on the stage, for the crash, a machine with a lot of loose shingles working on a cog makes the commotion all the greater. Once in a while a gentleman is fired through a paper window, and in his descent apparently knocks into smithereens a skylight.

A demijohn wicker cover intact, holding broken glass, dropped as the actor takes flight, consummates the disaster to the ignominious character.

A steam pipe, or, when not convenient, slacked lime, will cause a semblance of dust or smoke in earthquakes or explosions.

A poorly equipped theater it is indeed that has not around a genius who can bark like a dog or crow after the manner of a cock…

Realistic properties are steadily encroaching on the art of the property-man. A cage of lions in “Theodora,” horses in “A Run of Luck,” “Jalma,” “Kerry Gow” and dozens of other plays; tanks of real water in which boat-races are carried on and heroines are half-drowned and dived after by brave heroes, etc., etc.

Probably the best piece of stage realism ever put on the stage was the cascade of real water, leaping from a height of fifty feet into the ravine below, seen in the recent production of “The Silver Falls” at the Boston Theater. Tons upon tons of water were utilized in this scene, and the great wonder of this exhibition of stage realism was what became of the water after it had dashed into the rocky ravine.

It was a simple matter. A huge tank was built under the stage, which, when filled to overflowing, was drained into the sewer.

All these realistic effects and such as were seen in “The Soudan” are but forerunners of an era that will leave nothing “faked” but the scenery.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Behind the Scenes Part 4, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. You can also check out the first partthe second part and the third part:

More ingenious is the cleverness employed to depict other accessories to a complete dramatic production. As pretty a stage snow-storm as one would wish to witness happens in “The Two Orphans.” The material for this display was formerly fine-cut paper, prepared by book-binders; in its place white kid in equally small pieces is utilized at present for such purposes.

They can be gathered up more readily, and last longer than paper; besides, there is an ultimate saving in cost. Salt hangs with a better effect to a hat or coat, and gives a thoroughly realistic look to the character that has just stepped indoors from a storm.

If a flash of lightening is needed, the effect is generally gained where electric lights are burned, by rapidly switching the current.

The time-honored scheme is to flash a torch of alcohol, rosin or lycopodium. Stage thunder is the rustling of a sheet of iron suspended from a rafter and set into noisy motion by a long handle. The mighty peals of thunder recently heard in the “Silver Falls” at the Boston Theater were created by a new device, the beating of a huge drum about thrice the size of an ordinary bass drum. This ingenious contrivance gives more distance to the sound. Iron switches bunched like a broom wisp when beaten together will give forth the limitation of rain or hail dropping.

In the “White Slave” water is utilized. The howling wind comes from a wheel that forces the air violently through a large tin funnel with a whistle at the smaller end.

The audience shivers at it, but it may have only been the ancient “wind” the property man makes by drawing his thumb and index finger down a rosined string running through a hole in a tin box such as mustard is packed in. That is the trick of the wind in “Davy Crockett” when the wolves are howling at the cabin door.

Tempest-tossed waves and their white caps that meet the eye of the liberated Count of Monte Cristo as he stands on an ocean rock beyond the Chateau d’If and announces with Georgian assurance “This world is mine,” are but a few bags of saltpeter or a plain salt tossed on a green cloth against a scene.

The mighty motion of the sea that awes the gallery gods who have “Romany Rye” on the brain comprises the united efforts of four men, two on either side of the stage, who shake a length of emerald baize known as a “sea cloth.”

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Behind the Scenes Part 3, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. You can also check out the first part and the second part:

The ingenuity of the “propertyman” comes to the front again in eating and drinking scenes, when the manager of the theater has to furnish the viands. As a substitute for tea, wine, whisky or brandy he serves the actors water colored with a piece of toasted bread to suit the shade of the desired liquid and then strained. This, by the way, is not a device of modern times.

It comes from the days of Shakespeare, according to stage tradition. Sometimes ginger ale or tea is used, but these are not favored generally because they will not suit all tastes.

To one actor the ale is too pungent, to another the cider is too sour, while the third may not be able to take tea without milk, which, of course, could not be used without impairing the color of the drink. So toast-water has been accepted as the regular thing, agreeable to ever palate.

There are managers of companies and stars who will have the genuine article itself, and in that case provide it at their own expense.

Clara Morris and Fannie Davenport do this. “Rip Van Winkle” Jefferson swallows whisky straight when he “smiles” to the health of the other characters at the end of the comedy, and remarks, “This one don’t count.”

In the memorable representation of Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” years ago, John Gilbert, Lester Wallack and Harry Montague were in the cast. They used in the tap-room scene an English tankard filled with Bass’ ale.

Occasionally stage realism asserts itself, and decrees that only legitimate accessories shall be used in the portrayal. Then it is this especial “piece of business” becomes a feature of the plays, as in the “Hearts of Oak” four years ago, where a party of eight sat down to a New England dinner of meat, pies, coffee and rolls. The component parts of the meal were served in view of the audience, piping hot, and were eaten with relish by the actors and actresses around the table.

Perhaps the most costly stage repast when done correctly is the breakfast in “Camille,” that the heroine gives to Armand, Easton and Mme. Prudence. The period of the drama is modern, and the surroundings on a scale of excellence calling for silverware of recent design and the best of food.

A “propertyman” would supply it in this way: A pot of tea, white cups and saucers, a plate of sliced bread and a papier-mache chicken or ham. How the itinerant actor, who grubs country towns for his patronage, and who cannot supply money or properties, manages to set this scene is as great a source of conjecture as the reasons that induce him to mold the genius to the histrionic requisites of the play.

Every theatre-goer knew John T. Raymond ate pared apples as Colonel Sellers in “The Gilded Age,” whereas the action of the scene called for turnips. So much for eating and drinking on the stage.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Behind the Scenes part 2, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. The first part can be found here:

Though he borrows household effects and commonplace things that can be readily had, he manufactures much. In the banquet scene of “Macbeth,” which is often represented with fully 100 persons before the audience, the shining tankards, brilliant cups, luscious-looking aggregations of fruits, even the fowl, are made of this unique paper [papier-mâché].

Who has ever gazed upon the immense cannons, the lifelike horses, the warlike accouterments in the battle scene of “Henry V,” and was not impressed with their faithfulness to the real? Yet the admiring spectator would laugh himself tired if he saw the “property boy” pick up a horse with one hand, put a cannon under the opposite arm and walk off complacently after the curtain went down.

The hankering of the propertyman after imitation has originated many interesting effects by novel methods. Several times in the American drama, “Held by the Enemy,” there is occasion to feign the sound of horses’ hoofs moving rapidly on a hard road, as if the animal were carrying his rider at a deep gallop. This noise is counterfeited by a patent wooden clapper, slapped on a marble slab covered with a piece of rubber. The operator using both hands can moderate as he chooses the steps of the supposed horse, from apparently a long distance to just outside the scene, with startling vividness.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Behind the Scenes, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call:

Behind the Scenes

The property-room is a theatrical sepulcher. Buried in dust and stage debris are mementos of histrionic grandeur. A warrior’s helmet is crowded by a three-legged stool; the figure of a proud god, whose presence shed luster on the perspective of a “bleached alley,” is degraded by the oppression of a big old candlestick that hangs across his breast; the soft-toned mandolin, (the fellow in the orchestra was making the music) whose notes as they wafted into life under the gentle touch of the fair player, wooed back her recreant lover, hangs on a wall, a veritable “fake.”

It never had any strings, nor had its companion, the crazy-looking violin. With dented sides and lonesome looks vessels of golden hue are piled in one corner beside a lot of rag carpet.

Here is a stack of muskets not one which was fired in a century, if appearances go for anything. There is an ink-well that never was blackened by writing-fluid, and a pen used to sign death-warrants and marriage-certificates that had its point blunted in inditing signatures that never showed on paper.

There are huge letters and pretentiously sealed packages with never a line in them.

All about, in shabby disillusion, is seen the mechanical mimicry of the objects in real life.

The propertyman is an artist in his way and in these days of stage realism as essential to the success of a play as the author himself. Gone are the times when a table and a few chairs were all he had to “set” in a scene. This age demands that he be a skilled mechanic, able to manipulate the stage substitute for wood and minerals, papier mache, so that his talent will produce anything from a strawberry to an armored knight or the skull used in the grave-digger’s scene in “Hamlet.”

As a result his worth to the stage has been elevated, and his salary climbs up into high-priced figures.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.