Tag Archives: 1908

Stage Scenery and the Men who Paint It (part 2), 1908

The following is a few select portions from an article in Theatre magazine in 1908. I posted the beginning of the article a few months ago:

by Mary Gay Humphreys

[Mr. Unitt at the Lyceum Theatre said,] “There is a story told of a firm of which one of the members thought a chandelier would look well in the scene. So he went out and bought a fine crystal affair. At the dress rehearsal he noticed it was not lighted, and demanded the reason. He was told that the act took place in the afternoon, and the light was coming in the windows.

“He went to the back of the house where his partner asked the same question, and was told the same answer.

“‘Well, light it. Who in h–l’s goin’ to stop us?’

“The anecdote gives the note which dominates a large part of theatrical production to-day, ‘Who in h–l’s goin’ to stop us?’…

Ernest Gros
Ernest Gros

“In the evolution of the scenery of a play, the scene painter is or should have the manuscript to read. In the rush of affairs now he may see only one act, or perhaps only the scenario. In the meantime the stage manager has made a plot and works out the exits and entrances on exact lines. Then the stage manager, author and scene painter get together and consult. That, at least, is the way they must do to get the best results. The scene painter sees only the pictorial side and must be held to the practical necessities of the case. One of these is that the wall scenes must be folded that they can be put in the six feet of doors, for scenery must travel. Fireproofing is another great handicap. This is usually done by painting on fireproof cloth, of which the chemicals are pretty apt to affect the colors. Another difficulty is the harmonizing of real things with the artificial. The use of real antiques, real palms, real flowers and foliage does not produce as successful results as when purely artificial scenery and stage properties are depended on.”…

[Mr. Homer Emens said,] “He must have an instinctive knowledge of effects. A handsome thing may not look handsome behind the footlights. An expensive stuff may look cheap. It is a fact that painted properties look more real than do the real things…

On the edge of things, in one of those architectural monoliths described, Mr. Ernets Gros, the scene painter, was found. His office was interesting with a collection of stage models which could be identified as scenes on the Belasco stage. Here was a scene painter’s library filled with handsome volumes labelled “Greece,” “Rome”—every nation, ancient and modern—books of epochs, periods, archaeology, costumes were represented, as well as periodicals of the most luxurious types in paper, illustration and text. Truly an equipment…

“Modern developments have not helped us in the least,” said Mr. Gros. “Scene painting has in no way advanced. The whole matter lies with the manager. If he is a man with artistic perceptions we have one result. If he depends on his advertising, we have another…

“The first thing the scene painter does is to prepare his model. Then he gives the stage carpenter the measurements. When the frame is ready the painting proceeds. Dry colors only are used; no drop of oil goes into scene painting. Fire-proofing has added to our labors by its effect on the colors. When the scenery is ready comes the problem of lighting, which must be determined by experiment. The electric light is brutal. We try to control it by the use of different media, but in no way can we get at the softness and mystery of gas.”

Stage scenery and the men who paint it. M. G. Humphreys, il. Theatre 8: 203-4, v-vi, Aug 1908.

Stage Scenery and the Men Who Paint It, 1908

The following first appeared in an issue of Theatre magazine in 1908:

by Mary Gay Humphreys

That for the most part virtue must be its own reward is the scene painter’s ethics of his own profession. When, as it sometimes happens, the curtain goes up on an empty stage, and the audience breaks into involuntary applause over the beauty of the scene, such are his crumbs of comfort, and he takes them thankfully.

His own standards are much higher than he is able to realize. In this respect there seems to be but little difference between his attitude and that of the painter regularly accredited to the Fine Arts. But at no previous period is his discouragement greater than at this moment, when to the man in the orchestra scenic productions seem to have profited so greatly by modern inventions and scientific developments, as that, for example, of the electric light. Nor on no other man has later managerial conditions borne more hardly.

Physioc and Hawley
Physioc and Hawley

“There is no book that gives the history of scenic art. It would be too sad. It would tell only of disappointed hopes, of melancholy failures.”

This was said by Mr. Unitt in his interesting den at the Lyceum Theatre:

“Scene painting differs from the paintings known as among the Fine Arts only in degree. The principles are the same as in miniature painting. The only difference is you have forty feet of canvas. A portrait must resemble the subject more minutely than the scene resembles a situation, but that does not concern the principles involved. But, unhappily, to say that a picture represents scene painting is to make a disagreeable criticism.

“But it should be remembered that in painting, as the term goes, the artist does as he wishes; he consults no ends but his own. It is not so with the scene painter. His painting furnishes only the background, and this as a picture is likely to be thrown out of key because the other parts, of which he has no control, are not consistent with it. The lighting of the stage, for example, may not agree with the atmosphere the scene painter has given the scene. He also has to contend against costumes out of key, and as the living element of the picture is most prominent, the scene suffers.

“But nothing has tended to retard the development of scene painting as has the decay of the old stock companies. In those days the scene painter was part of the working staff of the theatre, and in daily intercourse with his principals. It took time, if you will remember, to produce such scenes as those in ‘The Amazons.’ This could be only accomplished by having a manager with artistic perceptions, and a staff that felt that pride and enthusiasm which must accompany good work.

“The method of production is now entirely different. The scene painter is not part of the theatrical staff. His is an employee of a firm. He is required to produce as rapidly as possible the scenery for perhaps twenty plays. The greater number of these will be failures, and others must be ready to take their place. This means a large plant and more rapid work. The scene painter cannot follow up his work; frequently he never sees it afterward. He has absolutely no opportunity for individuality, and naturally does not take the same interest as he did in that artistic atmosphere engendered when he was a member of the staff of a theatre.

“The conspicuous defect to-day in stage production is the lack of team work. The men who now control these matters are not distinguished for their keen artistic sense as was the manager in the old days. The commercial element, that has to be considered in view of the number of plays and possible failures, requires that the plays be put on as cheaply as possible. Suppose the scene painter attempts to carry his point and the play fails. He would probably have to listen to such comments as:

“‘Now, if you had put that girl on the fence and thrown a lot of color around her, the play would have gone far better. See?'”

Stage scenery and the men who paint it. M. G. Humphreys, il. Theatre 8: 203-4, v-vi, Aug 1908.


Returning Broken Glass, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908. Check out the first part of this article here, the second part here, and the third part here.

Note: The “shake” which Harry Rosemond refers to is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the US, the result of which left 80% of San Francisco destroyed.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

It is the soft word and the pass for two that turneth away wrath. No one knows better than Harry Rosemond, for more than once in his career has has met the irate one at the door and with a smile on his face begged him to “come in and enjoy it.”

“But we can’t always square things with a pass, or a season ticket, either. There’s a friend of mine lives out here near the theater who has some of the finest Bohemian glass in town. It is his hobby. Spends money galore all on Bohemian glass. Time of the shake the glassware was in a closet and was hardly touched. I borrowed two vases and a centerpiece for a set for an actress. She had finished the week before the shake, but I was so busy around the house I couldn’t find time to take the glass back. April 18—br-r-r-r-r! Got to the theater about 9 o’clock. Glass all right. Got busy helping people out of hotels and things. Orpheum stage filled with trunks. Fire can’t get across Market street. No. Fire got across about 10 o’clock Wednesday night. Worked like the devil getting trunks out. Morrisey had moved his stuff from the Palace hotel to the theater. Had to move it all out again. Thought of the glasses. Packed them carefully in a bag. Went out in the street. Squad of soldiers coming around the corner. ‘Everybody skip!’ ‘Can’t,’ I said. ‘Waiting for wagon for trunks.’ ‘Waitin’ for hell!’ says one, and he gave me a whack with the stock of his gun. The blamed fool smashed clean through the bag of glass. After we’d opened at the Chutes the man called for his glass. Nothing doing. Didn’t lose a piece at home. House saved. Man started to eat the Orpheum. I offered a pass. Nix. Season ticket. Nix. I said it was one of the accidents of the shake. He said I should have returned them when I had finished with them and not kept them laying in the property room. He was right, and he taught me the big, big lesson of returning things as soon as the act closed. Vanderslice used to loan me jewelry, and I was foolish enough once to borrow a diamond necklace. But no more of that for me. If any one wants diamonds they must furnish them, for if I find them on the property plot I’ll be ready with one large pot of paste and some pieces of glass. That’s all.”

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.

Finding the Wrong Props, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908. Check out the first part of this article here, and the second part here.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

Despite the sad tones and the rush and jump of it all, the men in the “prop” room get a lot of fun out of it all. No man takes more pride in his work than he does when he sees his “efforts” placed before an admiring public. Harry Rosemond is a bit of an actor too, and is seen off and on by the Orpheumites playing small roles when a change of bill is made and no one in town is available for the part. His knowledge of the stage and absolute familiarity with the ‘what’s what’ behind the footlights helps him greatly in handling his property room to the best advantage.

“Big Foster of Foster & Foster kicked right on the stage during his act because the piano stool did not match the piano. He growled and grumbled the whole week, but we only gave him the ha-ha and he had to go on with the stool that did not match the piano. ‘Twas the only one I could find in town. But that is not a marker to the fellow who went on in the old O’Farrell street house. He was so all-fired particular about his setting that he hung around the prop room for three days before he went on to see what I was digging up to dress his scene with. He looked all over the stuff that I had borrowed and had made up for him and seemed perfectly satisfied.

Kicked because the tool didn't match the piano
Kicked because the tool didn’t match the piano

“Well, Sunday came and the show went on for the matinee and everything was going lovely. The drop came down after his act for a stunt in ‘one.’ He had left the stage and we were clearing it for the next set when back he comes with a little bottle in his hand. He goes up to the mantelpiece we had pushed to the back wall, takes down a candlestick he had ordered, poured a little over it out of the bottle he had, and then turned on me. ‘You’re a lot of cheap stiffs here,’ he shouted. ‘I noticed while I was on that there was no sparkle to that candlestick. I asked you for a silver one. This is pewter.’ And the next day he made me go all over town and at last we found one in a second hand shop on Folsom street kept by an old Jew who used it for his Sabbath lights.

This candle stick ain't silver
This candle stick ain’t silver

“But I had a hard one the other night,” said Rosemond, as he clasped the arm of Big Mack the special. “Ralph Johnston, the bicycle man, wanted an 18 foot ladder to get up to his stand with. He forgot to put it on his ‘prop’ list and I had to get it. Of course, like all the rest of those fellows, they forget all about everything until Saturday night, and they open on Sunday mat. Eighteen-foot ladder, mind you, but I got it. Walked around town from 11 till nearly 1 in the morning. Way up on O’Farrell street we saw a painter’s scaffold. Saturday night. No work Sunday. Must have it for show Sunday. Found painter’s name on ladder and went into flat. Told lady I’d come for ladder. Swung the scaffold around and dragged the big one into the flat window. Walked with it to the theater. In luck; no cops on the way. Called up painter and told him what I had done. Painter was madder than blue blazes. Swore he’d take the ladder away before the show started. Told him to come down and try it. Met him at the door, gave him passes for two for the matinee. Painter so tickled to see his old ladder on the stage, let us keep it for the two weeks.”

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.

Simple Requests, Impossible Demands, 1908

The following article and images first appeared in The San Francisco Sunday Call, March 22, 1908. Check out the first part of this article here.

Note: The fire and ruins which Harry Rosemond refers to are the result of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the US, the result of which left 80% of San Francisco destroyed.

The Problems of the Prop Man

by C. W. Rohrhand

Bergere saw a safe in the ruins
Bergere saw a safe in the ruins

“We do have some funny stunts thrown at us back in the ‘prop’ room,” continued Rosemond, a smile coming over his face and his eyes lighting up. “Yes, sir, we certainly have some funny stunts thrown at us back in the ‘prop’ room. We opened the Orpheum at the Chutes on the 21st of May after the fire and the first rattle out of the box along comes Bergere. Says she wants to play ‘The Red Thief,’ and nothing but a real safe will do for her to blow the door off. I tell her we can’t get a safe. She does not believe me, but takes me all over town. Not a safe to be hand. All the safes here and in Oakland being bought by wholesale houses starting offices in flats and residences in the Mission and Western Addition. We come to the corner of O’Farrell and Van Ness and stop to look at the bread line in front of the cathedral. She grows pathetic. Can’t stand it. Must cry. Turns her head away. Looks down the block of ruins. Dunbar’s old place, O’Farrell and Polk. Big safe sticking out of ruins. ‘Harry,’ says she, ‘Harry, look at that! that’s the safe we want.’ Marine guard on O’Farrell street, another on Polk. Orders to shoot any one looting premises. I’ll admit I gave up. Chalk it against me. Bergere did not play ‘The Red Thief’ until we got to the new house a year afterward. Plenty of safes then. Plenty of time to make a safe. I made one.

“You see, after the fire, when we started at the Chutes we had nothing in our ‘prop’ room except the regular tables and chairs. The first Sunday we got our first dose of ‘Harry, I forgot to put it down on the prop list, but, you know, I make a quick change and need a table. You know, Harry, any old table will do.’ Any old table! With three makeup tables taken and us at Twelfth avenue and Fulton street and 20 minutes to 2 and the opening show—any old table! I tried to get one from Wallenstein, who runs the cafe. Nothing doing. I begged the candy girl. No response. I tried to steal Manager Morrisey’s desk. Frost; he had his eye on it. I tried to get Miss Carlisle’s typewriter table. Nix. I walked over to the park, cut down two trees, stole two boards from the back fence and made a table. Time, 25 minutes. I guess that’s bad?”

Forgot to mention that he wanted a table for "quick change"
Forgot to mention that he wanted a table for “quick change”

Things do not always come as easy for the property man as the throwing together of a makeup table. Sometimes he’s called on for the impossible at the very last moment before the curtain rises.

“Take Burkhart, for instance,” said Harry, with a sad, far away look. “She’s an actress all right. She’s ‘there’ before any kind of a house. But for a woman who wants props and don’t know exactly what she wants she beats them all. She wants anything that will look nice and doesn’t tell us what ‘look nice’ means. And worst of all, she waits till the music rehearsal on Sunday morning to fix up her scene.”

Originally published in The San Francisco Call, March 22, 1908, page 4.