Tag Archives: 1903

What Becomes of Stage Scenery, 1903

The following is a portion of an article which first appeared in The New York Times on June 7, 1903.

In the Spring of the year the scenery of plays that have failed in New York in the course of the Winter and the season which draws to a close may be found accumulated in a large storage warehouse far over on the west side of the city, in the locality of Twenty-eighth Street. This has served during many years as the chief mausoleum of the remains of these failures. The expenses of the interment include cartage at $5 a load, handling by the warehouse employes at $2 a load, and storage at $4 a load monthly. The acceptance states that settlement must be made quarterly, and that all goods held in arrears in payment twelve months will be seized and sold at auction. There is also the little bill for insurance which many an owner contracts with the fond hope that something may happen in the fire line before the year’s end.

In addition to this large place of storage there are a couple of rambling old stables on Thirteenth Street, east of First Avenue where much scenery that in the last half dozen years cost a snug fortune reposes in solid stacks awaiting the last judgement. In a small room of a neighboring scene painter are the models on view of the handsome interiors and exteriors piled away. Now and then somebody, harboring the notion of producing a play for trial at a nominal expense, drops in to examine this second-hand stock. Nothing results, however, satisfactory to any one concerned. The scenery representing picturesque mountain retreats and grottoes, on view once in a great spectacle, is a misfit for a domestic drama or a comedy. The nine scenes of a melodrama that sunk $6,500 are also of no use in the play, which requires new features up to date.

Mention should be made of the fact, though, that since the stock companies became more or less prosperous in and around New York, some small opportunity has come in sight to unload the scenery in storage. But such interest as there can be for the general reader in this statement must be stimulated by calling attention to the absurd difference between the cost of the scenery and its selling price. The manager, for instance, of two stock theatres in Brooklyn purchased not very long ago from a well-known player, who has given up being his own manager, five loads of scenery, nearly all new, and representing a cash outlay of almost $4,000, for $75. The cost of transportation across the bridge was $25 additional. There were seven wall-drops included in these loads, any one of which cost more originally than the whole purchase at second hand.

Originally published in The New York Times, June 7, 1903.

No Screen for Rehearsal, 1903

This originally appeared in The Providence Journal and was published in The New York Times, April 26, 1903.

Lillie Langtry on stage, 1899
Lillie Langtry on stage, 1899

It was last Tuesday when the first rehearsal was on for the third act of “Mrs. Dering’s Divorce.” In this act a screen plays an important part, and it was impossible to have a satisfactory rehearsal without it. A screen had been sent for, but it had not arrived at the theatre. The rehearsal had begun and the company’s stage manager begun to perspire in anticipation of the frigid rebuke that he could see in store.

At last the fatal moment arrived, and Mrs. Langtry discovered that there was no screen for the rehearsal. The proceedings ceased to proceed and the dignified star, after listening to a word of explanation, started up the street. Behind her followed at respectful intervals the stage manager, the assistant stage manager, and the property man, a regular procession.

Where they went was not learned, but evidently not all to the same place. In a little while the Lily returned, soon followed by the stage manager. A few minutes later a screen arrived at the box office and was sent back on the stage. The rehearsal was resumed. In another minute or two the assistant stage manager returned. He brought a screen with him, but it was not really needed. A few minutes later the property man came back breathless. He also had a screen. Within five minutes a messenger arrived in hot haste. He had a screen neatly done up in brown paper. This made four screens for a scene that a short time before had been absolutely screenless. There were a few quiet smiles, but no outbreak of laughter, for that would hardly be advisable when the joke was on Mrs. Langtry.

Written by Adolph Klauber. Originally appeared in The New York Times, April 26, 1903.

A Property Man’s Confession, 1903

The following article comes from The New York Times, February 15, 1903:

A property man who has seen many years of service in New York theatres, and who has just lost his position on account of an oversight that almost ruined a first-night production, talked to a New York Times reporter about the difficulties that beset property men in general.

“If an actor takes any pride in his part,” he said, “he usually looks after his personal properties himself. He never takes any chances on making a bull on his part through the forgetfulness of a property man. If it is necessary for him to find a coin, a roll of bills, or a letter in his pocket, he goes to the property room for it before he goes on the stage. But if, on the other hand, he is expected to find a dagger on a table or a note hidden in a desk, he never worries about it. He takes it as a matter of course that the property man has put it there before the curtain goes up. If the property man has a reputation for forgetfulness, (and he soon loses his job if he has,) the actor or actress manages to take a look over the scene before the curtain rises to see that all is right.

“The general impression with an audience when an actor reads a letter on the stage is that he is merely glancing at blank paper and that the lines of the letter have been committed to memory with the rest of the part. As a matter of fact, this is seldom the case, especially with women. Many of them copy the letter themselves. I have even known them to copy the letter in Lady Macbeth.

“Some very amusing stage bulls have happened over the blank letter business for which stage managers have exacted a good many dollars in fines. I remember on one occasion a playwright who is known in the profession for having the lines emphasized exactly as he wants them, and who has some very peculiar ideas as to ‘business,’ decided to change an important letter within three hours of the first performance. He went to his club to write it. When the curtain went up he had not returned. The stage manager had mislaid the original letter, so the villain in the play went on with a blank letter and did the best he could from the text of the original, which he had not taken the trouble to memorize. After the first act we received word that the playwright, in his hurry to get across Broadway, had been run over by a newspaper wagon and was in a bad way at the Roosevelt Hospital. The play failed, and was taken off before he got a chance to see it. But he always blamed the failure on the letter that never came.

“My finish was over a letter to be read in a play we were producing for the first time in Brooklyn. There was a very long communication in that referring to complications over an estate, and expressed in very technical terms. The leading lady had expressly told me that she could not commit such a thing to memory, and asked me to copy it. I promised to do so, and forgot all about it. The letter was delivered by messenger to the actress on the stage, while she was talking to the man who wanted to get control of her property. She tore open the envelope, saw the blank sheet, and paused for a moment. I wondered what she was going to do. She had nerve, I tell you.

“‘Oh, these business letters,’ she exclaimed, petulantly, ‘what a nuisance they are. Here, you read it,’ handing it over to the man.

“He grasped the situation, and the blood rushed to his face. ‘Bless me,’ he exclaimed, ‘there must be something wrong about this. I must find the messenger who delivered it.’ Then he made a rapid exit.

“It took five minutes for him to get around to the prompter, and secure the manuscript of the play. Meanwhile the actress moved about the stage arranging some flowers, and toying with some things on the mantelpiece. When the actor returned he had a bunch of manuscript four inches thick, from which he read one page of typewritten letter that told what was coming in the next three acts. Some one in the audience took the story to the newspapers, and the next morning the incident got everything that was coming, and I received a note from the management with two weeks salary in lieu of notice.”

Originally published in The New York Times, February 15, 1903.

In the Boston Museum’s Prop Room, 1903

The following is from a newspaper column entitled, “Some Odds and Ends from Stageland’s Daily Gossip”, first published in 1903.

Some idea of the varied collection of objects which accumulate in the property room of a theatre is to be obtained from a description of the contents of the old Boston Museum property room, which will soon be scattered to the four winds. In a general way the public has learned to know that the “property man” of a theatre is one who looks after such details of the productions as concern chairs and tables, the bottles that the people pour their liquor from, and the pen and ink used by the heroine to indite her loving messages.

The master of properties must still be a resourceful person, but in the old days, where the frequent changes of bills necessitated additional “props” every week or so, the ingenuity of this functionary was often taxed to the utmost. The property room of the Museum is thus described in The Boston Globe:

“The apothecary’s shop in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ wasn’t a circumstance to the old property-manufacturing shop in the cellar of the Museum, where may be seen skulls and crossbones, stuffed animals of both wild and domestic species, wings for witches, angels, and decils, and other curious things that can’t be enumerated in a column. The animals, both real and of papier maché, repose on shelves all around the walls, a weird, grinning, motley troupe of once indispensable stage characters that would have brought their possessor to the stake in witchcraft days, and all destined for the dirt heap within a few days.

“There are the wolves’ heads, with gleaming teeth, fangs, and eyes, that were wont to be thrust beneath the door of the log cabin which the stout arm of Frank Mayo held in place in the thrilling honeymoon scene in ‘Davy Crockett.’ The big bellows with which Tilly Slowboy once blew the fire in ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ hangs upon the wall, and the cradle in which she rocked the baby lies in a corner. In another corner are stacked old rusty muskets, including some flintlocks that defended the breastworks in Dr. Jones’s centennial drama, ‘The Battle of Bunker Hill’ twenty-eight years ago.

“From the centre of the ceiling, suspended by strings, hang three mangy looking stuffed animals that were once features in conveying the moral lessons taught by the waxwork tableaus, sold more that a decade ago. For sixty years these animals, a domestic cat, a dog, and a monkey, have been comrades, but they must now go the way of all else identified with the Museum.

“The cat and dog, now half hairless and showing repulsively their dried-up gums and loosened teeth, used to be pictures of ease and contentment when representing the sole objects of the affection of the old maid and the old bach in a wax tableau.

“The monkey had his mission to fill also, but what it was is now forgotten. Of late years he has hung by a movable string before the door of the property room in such a way that he would drop with a dull thud on the breast of any one entering the door, a startling experience for an unsuspecting stranger, which has contributed to the enjoyment of the property man’s life, however.

“In another part of the cellar is stored a raft of stage furniture of every kind. There are the seats of Caesar and Brutus from the Senate house, the royal chairs of Macbeth and his restless helpmeet, the big, glittering chair in which John Wilkes Booth was crowned as Richard III., and the gracefully formed mediaeval chairs in which Hamlet has oft pondered the proposition, ‘To be, or not to be.’

“There are stacks of spears and halberds and Roman standards, and a pathetic souvenir in the shape of a rude human effigy of burlap stuffed with excelsior, which is recognized as the dummy used in the burial of Ophelia, over which the Queen strews flowers and weeps and says, ‘Sweets to the sweet, fair maid.'”

From The New York Times. May 17, 1903.