Tag Archives: 1910

The Carpentry of the Musical Show, 1910

The following article was first published in The San Francisco Call, August 28, 1910, page 14. It is excerpted from a larger article called “The Carpentry of the Musical Show”, by Garnet Warren, and describes the process a Broadway show travels from inception to opening night.

The gentleman of theatrical properties has also had pressed into his hands that universal scenario, with rough sketches of furniture by the scenic artist. The stage managers have been conferring, too, with the busy author as to the lists of properties required. Rough instructions are all that are sufficient for most of these.

So away goes the propertyman to his workshop among the dust and cobwebs. It is large and has rough, red bricked walls. Fifteen to eighteen men work here in the busy summer season—fellows in blue shirts and overalls and the clothing of toil. The floors are bare and loaded up with dust, shavings, paint, unfinished carpentry, finished chairs and statues. The practical propertyman would seem able to construct most things. He makes machines for wind effects; he paints the odds and ends of scenery; he builds furniture and electric light fixings and makes rugs and carpets and door knobs and even paper mache statues from his own designs. In the six busy weeks before a production begins, too, his work is of a feverish description. About 3,000 separate pieces are sometimes required. The busy bee would appear to come a disastrous second to the propertyman.

The First Rehearsal of Principals. Photo by Byron.
The First Rehearsal of Principals. Photo by Byron.

Editor’s note: Notice how the photograph above shows the use of rehearsal props and costumes.

Excerpted from “The Carpentry of the Musical Show”, by Garnet Warren, first published in The San Francisco Call, August 28, 1910, page 14.

Here There be (More) Dragons

As some of you may have noticed, this site was difficult to get to for the last week, and hasn’t been updated for awhile either. My hosting service had a server crash, and it has taken them some time to get everything back up and running. The site has been extremely slow to load since last Wednesday, and virtually impossible to update. It looks like everything is back to normal now, as evidenced by the fact that you are reading this.

When last we left, I was talking about how to build a dragon—the creature named “Fafner” from the opera Siegfried, to be exact. The Metropolitan Opera House has had several over the years. The first was built by William De Verna in 1887. A new one was constructed in 1913, refurnished in 1937 and finally replaced with another dragon in 1947 (the dates in my previous article were a little off). This last one was built by the mechanical magicians at Messmore and Damon. Since writing that last blog, I have found some additional dragons which existed in between those three.

Fafner circa 1898
Fafner circa 1898

The dragon in the illustration was created for the 1896 production by a Mr. Siedle, described as the property master of the Metropolitan Opera House. To construct this monster,

the head of the dragon was modeled in clay, and each line and horny scale and boss was the result of careful calculation. After the head was modeled, a plaster of paris mold was taken from it, and from this another plaster cast was made, upon which the actual head was built up out of papier maché. After the papier maché work was finished, it was painted dark green; different shades were, of course used.

The body of the dragon is of cloth; the legs and feet are not attached to it, but are put on by the two men who operate the dragon. The feet and claws of the dragon are pulled on by combination overalls and boots…

The tail consists of a number of sections of wood articularted by means of hinges. It is covered with painted cloth.

The dragon holds two men inside who operate it. The man in front wears a heavy belt that supports the wires for the eyes and the rubber hose for the steam to his nose. The eyes are lamps covered in painted silk. The man in the back is the one who actually controls the head, using a lever which swings on the front man’s shoulders. The man in the front also controls the jaw, antennae and tongue.

The wires and hoses run off stage through the wings. Two stage hands are back there, one to operate the steam, the other the lights.They also help the men get into and out of the dragon suit. A number of stage hands are also needed to guide the men backstage while wearing the suit.

In a New York Times article from 1910, Edward Siedle, here described as the technical director of the Met (though his job duties include the props), talks about the dragon.

Mr. Conried imported a German dragon when he first put on ‘Siegfried.’ Later, I had another dragon made in my own shop, as the dragon was not altogether a success. This one in turn perished in the San Francisco disaster [ed: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, during which the Met Opera company was on tour. The scenery and props for all the operas on that tour, as well as many musical instruments, were destroyed], so that the present dragon has been made since then, and is the most successful of the three. It was made after the manner of the first one which I made, but it has modifications. This little stage toy cost in the neighborhood of $350.

This dragon was made for the 1903 production at the Met. I’m guessing that this is the same Siedle who made the 1896 one; they sound remarkably similar. He continues:

Fundamentally it is a thing of canvas, but it is painted and molded with various materials. When it is not in use it will fold up and can be put into a small box.
This dragon shakes its bristles, its eyelashes and its eyelids move, vapor comes through its nostrils, and its head has three separate movements. Two men are concealed inside of it. Their legs form the legs of the dragon and their shoulders support the upper framework. From the inside they regulate the movements of the bristles, the winking of the eyes.

This dragon also has electric lights for eyes. The head can also be controlled from offstage with a series of thin wires. A total of seven stage hands are in control of the dragon while it is on stage. The singer providing the voice, meanwhile,was hidden in bushes midstage singing through a megaphone.

The 1910 Fafner dragon at the Met
The 1910 Fafner dragon at the Met

From here, we only have to look at the 1972, 1987 and the currently running 2011 productions of Siegfried to complete our look at all the Fafner dragons used by the Met since its inception. But that is a tale for another time.


Hopkins, Albert A., and Henry Ridgely Evans. Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, including Trick Photography. New York: Munn &, 1898. pp 332-4.

“The Mysteries of Staging a Grand Opera.” New York Times 27 Feb. 1910.

The Old Proproom at the Walnut St Theatre, 1910

The following comes from the New-York tribune, July 03, 1910. Written by Charles Bloomingdale, Jr., it tells the story of Charles Hoffner, props master at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, PA. Incidentally, the Walnut is the first professional theater I’ve ever worked at, as an apprentice stagehand ninety-one years after this article was written. I’ve cut some of the parts that don’t deal with props to keep this short, but you can read the full article at the above link.

Charles Hoffner
Charles Hoffner

Hats off, gentlemen! Age, in the person of the Past, quavers “Good morrow” to you: the old, musty, dusty proproom of the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia bids you come in from the garish glare of to-day and sink in its shadows of bygone yesterdays, bids you see and touch the things that Forrest, Booth, Macready, Kean, Charlotte Cushman, Dion Boucicault, and other giants of the stage saw and touched–yes, and used–in those dear, dead days when the drama was palmy. Hats off, gentlemen and enter!

The Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia is the oldest standing playhouse in America. In February, 1808, it was erected, and for one hundred and two years it has flourished. Once it stood at the outskirts of the town, then the center; now the town has grown many, many miles beyond it. But its proproom–its old proproom; for it has two now–is the same as when Pepin and Preschard opened the theater with a circus and pantomime one hundred and two years ago.

What is a proproom? A proproom is a room for properties. And what are properties? Anything and everything, costumes excepted, used on the stage during a play. A property room looks like the average junkshop, possibly more so. A chair is a property; so is a clock, a cane, a candle, a chain, a corkscrew. And a bottle is a property too, and the forged will and the mortgage papers, a horseshoe, a feather duster, and a paper of pins. And the property man of the theater has all these hundreds of seemingly inconsequential things under his thumb and gets them when they’re needed. Continue reading The Old Proproom at the Walnut St Theatre, 1910

Concerning Stage Viands, 1910

The following originally appeared in a 1910 article by Algernon Tassin.

The rule of the drama, then, seems to be that though all may occasionally hunger, only the comedian may eat. But the gilded épergne heaped high with untempting fruit as the chief furniture of the festive board still remains to be accounted for. The official reason is simplicity itself. Nothing is so apparent as fruit, especially when in high-piled charactry. Since even if the pile were to be ravaged, none of it would there be eaten (and all providers have from time immemorial objected to fruit being taken from the table!), why not have a permanent pile? Thus the épergne and its fruit are one and indivisible, now and forever—they are papier maché. It is naught but the money-saving device of the manager and the labour-saving device of the property boy to escape the nightly marketing. When the Standard Edibles Syndicate is able to get Congress to pass a law prohibiting papier maché on stage-tables, one may be confident that the Associated Order of Stage Mechanics will be powerful enough to get it rescinded. For in the matter of food the second fundamental law of the drama is the Property Boy.

The disquieting trend toward realism begun by Herne and other obsessed disturbers of his peace, he has at least been able to check by ingenious shifts of well-nigh the longevity of papier maché. I recall a banquet table in a ducal hall whereon the perennial épergne which sufficed for our fathers was deemed by some objector in the audience inadequate to the growing demand for actuality. There must be some food capable of being toyed with if such silly people were to be silenced, and the manager thought a light salad of the escarolle pattern would be just the thing. This the property boy proceeded to mix as follows. Purchasing several yards of imperishable Bologna sausage, he minced a few slices at each performance and served them garnished with excelsior. These in individual plates with the communal and lordly épergne in the centre decked the table bountifully. The property boy surveyed the results of his ingenuity with satisfaction well merited; for the salad needed only dusting to be nightly serviceable, and when travelling the épergne and the sausage went together snugly packed in the excelsior. This banquet—although three of the characters on the stage upon being graciously summoned to supper by the duchess loudly proclaimed their hunger—sufficed unrenewed the season through. The star (not being a comedian) failed to be distressed by the languid appetite of her guests, but upon being reproached once more by some captious realist in the audience for the lack of verisimilitude, insisted that at least one of the actors eat of her generous fare. Whereupon the fertile property boy served the designated actor with three dried prunes, of which he afterward kept a bag in stock (which was simple enough, as it travelled also with the salad), all ready for just such centres of culture where exacting critics might reside. “You can cut these up,” he explained, “and they might be anything.” It was true, for the beneficent prune has boundless powers of assimilation: upon the arrogant table of Camille it may become the mushroom and the truffle, or at the board of Louise it may simulate the humble goulash. But the property boy is not constantly engrossed in calculating how he may save his labour and his food allowance; he has his careless and his genial hours. I once beheld upon the stage three intrepid and clinking dragoons toss off a forbidden bumper to an exiled king. When the foremost, with a magnificent flourish, dashed down upon the floor his drained glass and the others followed suit, it was a spirited moment. But when he precipitately dashed himself from the room the effect was somewhat marred. The others held their ground, indeed, but they visibly contended with surprising emotions which they sought to contain. Long afterward the secret of their eccentric behaviour was made plain; by accident or sportiveness the property boy had flavoured their cold-tea with varnish.

Thus either from the nature of Art or the nature of the Property Boy, the theatrical appetite is destined to be thwarted. The question then arises, Why in this regard should not dramatists write with an eye upon the stage? Why should we not have in the theatre jam yesterday and jam to-morrow, but never jam to-day? As the actor (unless intentionally comic) must ever like Jealousy mock the meat he feeds on, why give him food at all? “Each heart hath its sealed chamber,” says a heroine, and why not the stage? Let the dining-room door be barred, for when we enter it we leave illusion behind. If food must be, let it be laid out in the next room. Or if the table be needed for the setting of the stage, let the actors fall to only as the curtain falls; or—for the épergne is always there to lend atmosphere—let the meal be terminated by a messenger boy before ever the soup or even the useful celery. For this or any other coup de grace before meat all lovers of illusion will be truly thankful. Anything is better than the eternal listlessness of apparently healthy people in face of food.

“I do not believe,” says Joseph Jefferson —who was by no means a lover of realism —”that the introduction of cabbage and potatoes in the banquet scene of Macbeth would make the play one bit more interesting.” But the unfair illustration is not even pertinent. At the banquet in Macbeth no one is required to eat—it is interrupted before it really begins. The illusion is entirely preserved by the épergne as a coming event which throws its shadow before, and the guests depart ere its perfidy is disclosed. In his increasing dalliance with real life and common sense, let the modern playwright beware of banquets or even lunch baskets. They are but Barmecidal. Since no one may eat but the comedian—whose crammed cheeks do not provide an inextinguishable delight except in vaudeville—let him even reform food altogether, save that which can with reasonableness be nibbled. The food problem on the stage can only be settled by universal boycott.

Written by Algernon Tassin. First appeared in The Bookman, Volume 31, published by Dodd, Mead and Co., 1910.

Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees, 1910

(The following was originally published in The New York Times, September 4, 1910)

Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees

A Little Army of Them Required to Set the Scenes and Handle Mechanical Side of Every Production

There are fully 1,500 men appearing on the stage in New York every night that the audience never sees and very seldom hears one or two of them pounding cocoanut shells on board – or it may be the more modern horseshoe shaped mallets striking a smooth stone slab – and thereby suggesting the invisible presence of a galloping steed. Sometimes, too, when the music is playing softly, the audience sitting near the stage catches a rumbling sound of heavy things being moved, or hears a muffled voice or two.

But for the most part this little army of people in the profession is never seen or heard during a performance, and is almost as little appreciated as the man who pays off the actors or the artist who designs the posters.

They are the men who tie the scenery together, who bring in the furniture, who manage the lights, and pull the strings, literally, that make the houses and mountains and things stand around in their proper places. At the Hippodrome – and there, by the way, they often are seen by the audience – they are the chaps who drag the ton-weight carpets around and put up marvelous structures for the acrobats and others to stand on – the men who seem to know how to do anything. They call them “rough necks” in a circus.

Just because their union is making an effort toward an increase in pay and certain other privileges, these men have been brought to the public’s attention in the last few weeks. Since heavy sets and elaborate mechanical effects arrived the force back of the curtain line has increased to the point of having strict discipline and, according to some of those in the business, to having a pride of work. Almost without exception stagehands are interested in the success of their part of the performance nowadays, and take almost as much pride in having things right, and having them right in the shortest possible time, as the actor does in receiving a “hand” at the end of a scene.

There are four divisions of stagehands, all under the immediate direction of the stage carpenter, who is boss back of the curtain line after the stage manager, and in some things before him. There are the “grips,” who handle the scenery and nothing else; the “clearers,” who handle the movable properties, from pins to locomotives, but who will not touch a piece of scenery; the “flymen,” who take care of the ropes above the stage and whose duty it is to haul up and let down the “hung” scenery, and the electricians and “operators,” who take care of everything relating to the lighting of the stage, and in their case alone they overflow to the front of the house and look after the lighting there.

Theoretically, these divisions never overlap. A “grip” simply will not handle a “prop,” and a “clearer” may not so much as look hard at an electrical “fixture,” even though the fixture is about to fall off from its insecure attachment. If a scene has a practical fireplace, with a grate and a nice red electric light to make the fire glow, the “grips” take away the painted chimney piece, the “clearers” remove the grate, and the electricians carry away the incandescent bulb and the wire attached thereto.

There is a story told of an occasion when a portable bathtub full of water was used in one scene. The bath was a “prop,” to be handled by the “clearers.” No “grip” had any right to touch it. One night – this was on the road – the “clearers” put the tub down in a passage way leading to that particular theatre’s “scene dock,” where the “flats” not in use were slid away until needed. They forgot the tub, which was a big tin affair painted green, having completed the clearing of the stage and gone to the side door for fresh air. The “grips” went after the painted “flats” to complete the setting of the stage. One after the other they came to the tub, climbed laboriously over or around it, hauled out the scenery, lifted it over the obstacle, and climbed back again. They simply had no right to move the tub, or in any way interfere with the work of the clearers.

When specialization began to set in and stage hands became organized, there was considerable discussion as to where the duties of the various divisions ended and began. There was a dispute months long as to whether a grass mat used in an exterior scene was a “prop” or a part of the scenery, and also into which category a movable fence should come. Now everything that is used to “dress the stage” is considered a “prop”; the carpets, hangings, pictures on the wall, growing plants, real waterfalls – everything that does not belong directly to the scenery.

As soon as the curtain is down and the possibility of it going up again in response to plaudits of the multitude has disappeared, the stage hands leap to their work. The clearers began to take off the “props” of this act, through the doors first, and then through the open space left by the grips when they have begun to move the scenery. The stage is usually free of all “props” by the time all of the “flats” are down and stacked out of the way. Then the properties for the next act are brought on and put in the middle of the stage, while the setting of the walls – if it be an interior scene – is being brought out and put in place. While the walls are being built with that strange flapping sound that the audience sometimes hears from the front – that is made by the ropes used in tying the sections together – the clearers are putting the furniture in the locations suggested by the author of the play, or, more likely, by the same director.

It is all done on schedule. Every grip and every clearer knows exactly what he is to do and how he is to keep from interfering with what some one else is doing. When the order is given to “strike,” which means clear the stage for the next act, each man in the gang leaps for the particular “prop” or piece of scenery delegated to his care, and hustles it out of the way with a total disregard for the shins of whoever may be in the way. When the stage is being cleared or set it belongs to the stage hands only, and even the star of greatest magnitude has no right to be in the way. The stage manager of the company is the only person who may remain with impunity in the precincts of the mechanics’ quarters. And he stands as close as possible to the curtain line, out of the way, but where he can see what is going on, and gives whatever directions are necessary about the lowering of the “borders,” and the arranging of the scenery and props. It is the stage manager who gives the signal for the curtain to be raised after he has looked over the work of the stage hands and found it good.

The stage force in the theatres in New York averages from twenty to fifty men to each house, depending on the nature of the attraction current there. This average holds, of course, in all first-class theatres in other cities, and in most of the one-night stand places. That there are fully 1,500 men employed back of the curtain line and out of sight of the audiences in New York is somewhat within the actual figures, but it is a close approximation. This week, for example, one big musical production that has been running all Summer will end its local engagement, and the number of men at work will be reduced just that much, so far as this one theatre is concerned. On the other hand, new plays coming into the city will demand the aid of some, if not all, of these men. Of course, they are all members of the union, of the “T.M.A.,” the Theatrical Mechanics’ Association. The number of union stage hands in every city is generally in excess of the number of workers required, because there must always be enough authorized workers to take care of the largest kind of theatrical productions.

When a “road” attraction is about to arrive in a town the local stage carpenter receives a “scene plot,” sent on ahead of the company, which tells him just how many grips, how many clearers, how many fly men and electricians will be needed. He has them ready when the production arrives in town. The company carries at least a carpenter and a property man of its own, and in unusual cases, when the settings are particularly heavy or intricate, it carries several trained stage hands besides. The company carpenter has charge of the setting of the scenery, though the local stage hands are under the direction of the local carpenter. When the attraction remains for any length of time in one theatre the company carpenter sometimes turns over the entire stage to the local man after the play has been given for several performances.

In the case of a “New York production,” when the play is coming in for a hoped-for long run, the stage force is rehearsed for the opening performance. Before the “first night” three or four scene and light rehearsals are given for the purpose of familiarizing the crew with the scenery and the running of the play, and then a further rehearsal at the time of the final full company dress rehearsal, immediately before the play opens. When the attraction opens out of town a short time, before coming into the city is usually the custom to take at least a part of the crew to the other city, so that they may have the scenic side of the play down pat by the time it comes to New York.

One large musical comedy now running on Broadway may be taken as an example of how the force is divided and how many people are needed. This play has two or three heavy sets, and also requires several quick changes of scenery. Its stage crew consists of a head carpenter and assistant, seventeen “grips,” head property man and his assistant and seventeen “clearers,” six flymen, two chief electricians, and fourteen “operators,” or assistant electricians, which does not include four men on electrical duty in the front of the house – sixty in all. The record for setting the heaviest scene complete is thirty seconds. At the Hippodrome the force runs well past 100, with the proportion of the “clearers” much greater.

The “clearers” it must be remembered, are responsible not only for the movable scenery on the stage, but for the things the actors and chorus people carry in their hands. In the musical play mentioned it was found necessary to give each “clearer” a number, plainly displayed on his cap, so that the members of the company could recognize the man from whom each was to receive his or her “prop.” At the Hippodrome, where sometimes as many as 1,000 “props” are required for one scene, such as the ballets, there is a real army of “clearers” on duty. One division gives out the “head props,” such as helmets and fancy head dresses that do not form an integral part of the costumes, and another division has charge of the “hand props,” which consist of spears, guns, wands, baskets of flowers – everything that is to be carried in the hand.

In vaudeville there are different laws and different customs, after the general rules of the union. There each of the seven or eight acts on the bill is a company in itself, with different scenic and property requirements. The principal member of the “act” is supposed to pay for the special work done for his part of the programme, outside of the necessary moving of scenery and handling of staple “props.” The payment is generally done in the form of gratuities at the end of the week’s engagement, and the average performer is usually very glad to do the paying. In vaudeville a property man or a “grip” while attending strictly to his business can often cause a performer considerable annoyance – “crab the act” according to the vernacular – and by a slight zeal beyond his actual duties he can add much to the success of the actor. Vaudeville stage hands, too, frequently have a chance to play parts.

Stage hands are recognized as good authorities on plays. The head carpenter’s prophesy at the end of a first performance is usually worth listening to, and it is not often that the property man makes a mistake. And after two weeks of an attraction there is not a stage hand in the theatre who does not feel that he could play any part in the piece. Not as the vaudeville stage hand plays parts, by being the butt of the comic juggler’s comedy or coming on as a bellboy or a waiter, but as the actor plays them, only in the stage hand’s own mind, a good deal better.

Sometimes they try it. One Christmas time the stage hands at the Belasco Theatre, which is now the Republic, put on a burlesque of “The Rose of the Rancho” for Mr. Belasco’s benefit, and surprised the “governor” and the other invited guests by their histrionic ability. And last Spring, at a performance given for the Hippodrome Sick Benefit Fund, the stage crew from the Bijou gave an act of “The Lottery Man” so well that the regular company began to be worried.

Many of the workers on the stage “hold down” other jobs. They are required only six nights and two afternoons during the week, except when scene rehearsals are called. Almost any daylight occupation can be attended to without interference with the work at night. A very incomplete census of the stage hands in town indicates that a good proportion of them are married. At one big house they have got into the habit of marrying members of the chorus, and one of the happiest of the big force over there this season is a “clearer” who was excused from rehearsals one day last week to go home and see the new baby. Last Winter its mother was one of those who went down into the water and astonished out-of-town visitor by not coming up again.

– first published in The New York Times – September 4, 1910