Tag Archives: 1915

Dragons and Geese in Opera, 1915

Edward Siedle, Technical Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, gives the author an account of some of the animals and fantastic creatures used on stage in the opera. I posted another selection from this article last year:

by Mercy Gorham

“To make the dragon in ‘Siegfried’ possible, two men in turn act as the front and hind legs of the creature and control the working of the mouth, eyes and ears. Two more are required to handle the wires which lower and elevate the head, beside the electrician who watches the lights in the eyes, the one who controls the vapor and steam proceeding from the dragon’s nostrils, and lastly the conductor, who has to watch the score carefully, so as to give the cue for the various movements of the dragon. The technical director himself attends to the side movements of the head.

“The bear in ‘Siegfried’ is worked by the property man. In ‘Koenigskinder’ the geese are real, and must be cared for when not on duty in a room of their own. Every day their wants are attended to, their bath kept clean. Though used but six times during the opera season, these aristocratic birds live on the fat of the land. There is one property goose that takes the crown away and later brings it back again, and this is operated by the property man.

“‘Lohengrin’ has its swans, ‘Rheingold’ its small dragon, ‘The Magic Flute’ its enormous elephant with howdah and Oriental draperies. While these are but minor illustrations of the inventive genius necessary to produce grand opera, they give some small idea of the tremendous responsibility resting on the heads of departments beyond the curtain line, the infinite attention to detail necessary, and the enormous labor, both mental and physical, required to give grand opera patrons the series of perfect stage pictures for which they pay and which they have a right to demand.”

Gorham, Mercy. “Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line.” The Theatre Magazine Jan. 1915: 41. Google Books. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line, 1915

The following originally appeared in a 1915 issue of Theatre Magazine:

Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line

by Mercy Gorham

“Every night is a first night with us,” observed Edward Siedle, Technical Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, as he watched a scene “break” in “Koenigskinder.” He stood talking of that mysterious realm beyond the footlights, always an enigma to the average operagoer, and he talked entertainingly, too, as a man is apt to do when his work is his hobby…

“I suppose the ‘property’ department is most popular with the laity, doubtless because it is better understood than the rest. It is a very important division, too, as will be seen when one takes into consideration the enormous number of properties used in all the operas and the vital importance of each in its turn. Take the matter of floor coverings alone, such as carpets, medallions and stage cloths, for in every scene the stage is covered with a cloth in keeping with the ensemble, and one can compass in a small measure the enormous amount of material there is to be cared for.

“Each scene calls for its own equipment. If it is a garden then there is earth and grass, benches and marbles to be provided. A street scene calls for paved ways; palaces for tesselated floors; the small parlor for its hard-wood floors and modern rugs and carpets; doors and windows for curtains and draperies; tables for pedestals and bric-a-brac; gardens for trees and flowers and rock scenes for their practical rocks.

“As the scenes of operas are laid in every part of the world, there must be a great variety of settings provided. Not a few illustrate mythological subjects, while others are Oriental in spirit. The properties of each require not only care in the handling, but a lot of research, trouble and expense in the making. These have all to be listed in their plots, showing precisely where they are placed when on the stage. Those not on the stage, but which are brought on during the performance, must also be carefully marked on the plot.”

Gorham, Mercy. “Grand Opera Beyond the Curtain Line.” The Theatre Magazine Jan. 1915: 21. Google Books. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs, 1915 (part 2)

The following comes from a 1915 book called “Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs”. I published the first portion of the chapter on props way back in 2009. Here, without further delay, is the conclusion.

Stimulate initiative and invention wherever possible. A round collar box is only a collar box until you use it for an earthen bowl. A white cardboard shoe box is cut down a little, covered with black tissue paper, has a little yellow pane inserted in each side, and a curtain ring for a handle. Behold a lantern for a Yankee minute-man, or Paul Revere, or anyone else who wants to use it.

Remarkable stage furniture can be made from wooden boxes of all sizes. A packing case makes a dais. Several boxes nailed together and stained brown will make a peasant’s cupboard.

Three boxes nailed together like this |¯| will make a hearth. If it is to be a mediæval or fairy tale hearth, cover it with cheap gray cambric, bulked to look like stone, and marked with splotches of white and brown chalk. Be sure you turn the unglazed side of the cambric outward. Use chalk because paint will not show up well on cambric. A brick fireplace for a modern scene can be made in the same way, covering the boxes with brick chimney paper than can be bought at Dennison’s Tissue Paper Co., Boston, Chicago, or New York. One of their catalogues will prove invaluable to directors living in the country. A narrow box on rockers, stained brown, becomes a Puritan or eighteenth century cradle. Gilded and hooded it is the cradle of a royal Princess. Couch seats can be made from boxes, only be sure that they are secure.

Originally published in “Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs”, by Constance D’Arcy Mackay, 1915 (pp 95-96)

Good Furniture and the Moving Pictures, 1915

The following article was originally published in Good Furniture Magazine, October, 1915.

Good Furniture and the Moving Pictures

by William Laurel Harris

Few people realize the prodigious growth of the motion picture business or how this sudden development of public entertainment has reached out into every walk of life. Not only in our big cities but in every town, village and hamlet the motion picture theatre holds its place and prospers. Ten million people, it is said, visit the “movies” every day. It has been said that through the “movies” a propagandum of art might be established to spread grace, beauty and culture throughout the land. It has even been suggested that architects might take a hand and find their vocation in directing the composition of scenes for the film makers.

With these ideas in mind, it was the intention of the writer to develop the theory of such a work in a solemn and learned editorial. But first he had the happy thought of visiting the people that have to do with busy “movies” and of learning first hand just how the situation stands from their point of view. His first impression, of course, was “confusion worse confounded.”

The point of view of one man interviewed is of special interest to readers of Good Furniture. He is a dealer and maker of furniture in every style to be used in making motion pictures. His main shop on a side street near Sixth Avenue is jammed from basement to attic with furniture piled tier on tier in every direction. Censers, sanctuary lamps, beer-hall signs, chandeliers and lanterns in every style are hanging from the ceiling. Pictures are along the walls, stand in corners and are piled against the stairway. Here one sees portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Frederick the Great and decorative panels, stained glass windows of religious subjects, with modern landscapes and figure work of a widely varied character, all jumbled up together. In fact, everything in the way of furniture and furnishing is here represented in some way.

Noticing the surprised look on the wrriter’s face when he beheld the miscellaneous character of furniture and curios heaped up in all directions, the owner of the place said apologetically, “I never know what they will want next.”

At the rate of seven van loads a day this furniture goes out to the “movie” studios. Originally this shop of motion picture furniture was an antique dealer’s store in the theatrical district, renting things now and then for dramatic productions. About six or seven years ago calls began to come from motion picture producers for furnishings to make their scenes. One. day a request will come for the stuff to make the studio of an old Italian artist, a man of culture who has fallen into misfortune at the end of his life. The furniture must be fine but dilapidated, with some of the scats out of the chairs, and there must be portraits of great men, including one of Guttenberg. “As for the furniture, we don’t want any theatrical props; we want the real stuff.”

And so the orders go. The next one may be for the furnishings of a monastic cell or it may be for Napoleon in all his glory or for the court of Louis XIV.

“Yes,” the manager of this curious furniture store told me, “these movie men when they thought out their business, thought it out all wrong. They thought they wanted fakes and the bigger the better; but now they find they want the real thing and that is what draws the crowd.” So it appears that instead of the motion picture men educating the public, as has been sometimes suggested, the public has educated them and taught them the value of good furniture.

This enterprising furniture man then proudly took the writer into his special order department and explained how it often occurs that a motion picture producer suddenly finds he must have a picture of the Petit Trianon or of a ball room at Versailles, and no one in town has the furniture to make the scene. “He then orders it made expressly, after drawings out of books on historic furniture and furnishings. Of course, he will not keep the furniture; we charge him for making it and then later on we can rent it again. Then, too,” continued the furniture man, “we frequent the auction rooms and people think we are crazy, the prices we pay. For if we really want a table, a chair or a whole bed room suite, we never let it go. Why, we have a bed room suite that old Commodore Perry gave to Mrs. Belmont for her own use, all carved over and over with the birds cut in the wood. How all these ‘movie’ men are getting wise on styles! If we should send a Jacobean suite for a French chateau, you ought to hear the howl. Our business has grown because we are willing to take lots of trouble, and we have fine things that can give character to any show. We have the biggest business of this sort, in New York and we like the fame and reputation. But the real reason why we have fine statuary, pictures, tapestry and good furniture is because our bread and butter is in it.”

Originally published in Good Furniture, October 1915, by William Laurel Harris

Writing for Vaudeville

The following is excerpted from “Writing for Vaudeville” by Brett Page, published in 1915:

Into the mimic room that the grips are setting comes the Property-man–”Props,” in stage argot–with his assistants, who place in the designated positions the furniture, bric-a-brac, pianos, and other properties, that the story enacted in this room demands.

After the act has been presented and the curtain has been rung down, the order to “strike” is given and the clearers run in and take away all the furniture and properties, while the property-man substitutes the new furniture and properties that are needed. This is done at the same time the grips and fly men are changing the scenery. No regiment is better trained in its duties. The property-man of the average vaudeville theatre is a hard-worked chap. Beside being an expert in properties, he must be something of an actor, for if there is an “extra man” needed in a playlet with a line or two to speak, it is on him that the duty falls. He must be ready on the instant with all sorts of effects, such as glass-crashes and wood-crashes, when a noise like a man being thrown downstairs or through a window is required, or if a doorbell or a telephone-bell must ring at a certain instant on a certain cue, or the noise of thunder, the wash of the sea on the shore, or any one of a hundred other effects be desired.

In the ancient days before even candles were invented–the rush-light days of Shakespere and his predecessors–plays were presented in open court-yards or, as in France, in tennis-courts in the broad daylight. A proscenium arch was all the scenery usually thought necessary in these outdoor performances, and when the plays were given indoors even the most realistic scenery would have been of little value in the rush-lit semi-darkness. Then, indeed, the play was the thing. A character walked into the STORY and out of it again; and “place” was left to the imagination of the audience, aided by the changing of a sign that stated where the story had chosen to move itself.

As the centuries rolled along, improvements in lighting methods made indoor theatrical presentations more common and brought scenery into effective use. The invention of the kerosene lamp and later the invention of gas brought enough light upon the stage to permit the actor to step back from the footlights into a wider working-space set with the rooms and streets of real life. Then with the electric light came the scenic revolution that emancipated the stage forever from enforced gloomy darkness, permitted the actor’s expressive face to be seen farther back from the footlights, and made of the proscenium arch the frame of a picture.

“It is for this picture-frame stage that every dramatist is composing his plays,” Brander Matthews says; “and his methods are of necessity those of the picture-frame stage; just as the methods of the Elizabethan dramatic poet were of necessity those of the platform stage.” And on the same page: The influence of the realistic movement of the middle of the nineteenth century imposed on the stage-manager the duty of making every scene characteristic of the period and of the people, and of relating the characters closely to their environment.” (The Study of the Drama, Brander Matthews.)

On the vaudeville stage to-day, when all the sciences and the arts have come to the aid of the drama, there is no period nor place, nor even a feeling of atmosphere, that cannot be reproduced with amazing truth and beauty of effect. Everything in the way of scenery is artistically possible, from the squalid room of the tenement-dweller to the blossoming garden before the palace of a king–but artistic possibility and financial advisability are two very different things.

In the argot of the stage the word “property” or “prop” means any article–aside from scenery–necessary for the proper mounting or presentation of a play. A property may be a set of furniture, a rug, a pair of portieres, a picture for the wall, a telephone, a kitchen range or a stew-pan–indeed, anything a tall that is not scenery, although serving to complete the effect and illusion of a scene.

Furniture is usually of only two kinds in a vaudeville playhouse. There is a set of parlor furniture to go with the parlor set and a set of kitchen furniture to furnish the kitchen set. But, while these are all that are at the immediate command of the property-man, he is usually permitted to exchange tickets for the theatre with any dealer willing to lend needed sets of furniture, such as a desk or other office equipment specially required for the use of an act.

In this way the sets of furniture in the property room may be expanded with temporary additions into combinations of infinite variety. But, it is wise not to ask for anything out of the ordinary, for many theatre owners frown upon bills for hauling, even though the rent of the furniture may be only a pair of seats.

For the same reason, it is unwise to specify in the property-list– which is a printed list of the properties each act requires–anything in the way of rugs that is unusual. Though some theatres have more than two kinds of rugs, the white bear rug and the carpet rug are the most common. It is also unwise to ask for pictures to hang on the walls. If a picture is required, one is usually supplied set upon an easel.

Of course, every theatre is equipped with prop telephones and sets of dishes and silver for dinner scenes. But there are few vaudeville houses in the country that have on hand a bed for the stage, although the sofa is commonly found.

A buffet, or sideboard, fully equipped with pitchers and wine glasses, is customary in every vaudeville property room. And champagne is supplied in advertising bottles which “pop” and sparkle none the less realistically because the content is merely ginger ale.

While the foregoing is not an exhaustive list of what the property room of a vaudeville theatre may contain, it gives the essential properties that are commonly found. Thus every ordinary requirement of the usual vaudeville act can be supplied.

The special properties that an act may require must be carried by the act. For instance, if a playlet is laid in an artist’s studio there are all sorts of odds and ends that would lend a realistic effect to the scene. A painter’s easel, bowls of paint brushes, a palette, half-finished pictures to hang on the walls, oriental draperies, a model’s throne, and half a dozen rugs to spread upon the floor, would lend an atmosphere of charming bohemian realism.

Special Sound-Effects fall under the same common-sense rule. For, while all vaudeville theatres have glass crashes, wood crashes, slap-sticks, thunder sheets, cocoanut shells for horses’ hoof-beats, and revolvers to be fired off-stage, they could not be expected to supply such little-called-for effects as realistic battle sounds, volcanic eruptions, and like effects.

If an act depends on illusions for its appeal, it will, of course, be well supplied with the machinery to produce the required sounds. And those that do not depend on exactness of illusion can usually secure the effects required by calling on the drummer with his very effective box-of-tricks to help out the property-man.

ARGOT.–Slang; particularly, stage terms.

GLASS-CRASH.–A basket filled with broken glass, used to imitate the noise of breaking a window and the like.

GRIP.–The man who sets scenery or grips it.

OLIO.–A drop curtain full across the stage, working flat against the tormentors (which see). It is used as a background for acts in One, and often to close-in on acts playing in Two, Three and Four.

PROPERTIES.–Furniture, dishes, telephones, the what-not employed to lend reality–scenery excepted. Stage accessories.

PROPERTY-MAN.–The man who takes care of the properties.

PROPS.–Property-man; also short for properties.

WOOD-CRASH.–An appliance so constructed that when the handle is turned a noise like a man falling downstairs, or the crash of a fight, is produced.

View the full text of the book.