Tag Archives: 1919

When Prop or Player Fails, Part 3, 1919

I’ve been posting some excerpts of prop mishaps from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails” (here and here). Since they were so entertaining, I thought I would post a final duet of tales from that article:

Franklyn Ardell’s talent for comedy turned a stage wait in “The Crowded Hour” the other night into the biggest laugh of the performance. The climax of the third act is reached when a bomb from an airplane strikes the house in which Jane Cowl, frantically operating a telephone switchboard, is trying to save a division threatened with destruction. At the time Miss Cowl is calling Soissons on the telephone, and the word is the cue for the bomb explosion and the collapse of the house. On this night, as she called “Soissons!” the bomb exploded, but the house failed to collapse. Miss Cowl waited an agonizing second, and then again called “Soissons!” Again a wait, and as she was about to call a third time the voice of Ardell could be clearly heard all over the house. “Never mind Soissons!” he whispered. “Call ’em up back stage and find out what in blazes is the matter.”…

A slip which was the fault of no one in particular took place some years ago at a performance of “Madame Sans-Gêne” in Scranton. The scene of the first act was a kitchen, or perhaps a laundry, and Kathryn Kidder, in the leading role, was lifting red hot irons from a presumably red hot stove. So hot was the stove, in fact, that Miss Kidder was applying a tentative finger to each iron as she lifted it, and indicating as she withdrew it that the stove was hot indeed. In the midst of the scene, however, the theatre cat chose to stroll out upon the stage, and, as luck would have it, elected to climb up on the supposedly hot stove. And there it calmly sat, licking its paws in lazy comfort. The audience gave way to uncontrolled merriment, and the entire act went for naught.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

When Prop or Player Fails part 2, 1919

Last week, I posted some excerpts of prop mishaps from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” They were so much fun, I thought I would share a few more from the same article:

One of the best of the missing prop stories is concerned with a performance of “Virginius” given many years ago by James O’Neill. In this play another character was required to bring to O’Neill an urn supposed to contain the ashes of his dead sweetheart, and on one occasion, as he was about to make his entrance, the actor could not find the urn. Hearing his cue spoken on the stage, he hurriedly snatched up a small water cooler, which stood on a table back stage. Although it had a spigot on one side, it was about the size and general shape of the urn, and could readily pass for it on the stage, which was dimly lighted. In the ensuing scene Mr. O’Neill put out his hand to touch the urn, as was his wont, and was unlucky enough to touch the spigot and turn it. He was kneeling in prayer at the moment, and the ice cold water began to run down his bare knee. He gave no sign that he was in discomfort, however, and the scene was played without interruption…

Richard Mansfield, in “Ivan the Terrible,” used a green hassock in the throne room scene, and during the run of the play at the New Amsterdam Theatre here the hassock became so worn that the star demanded that it be reupholstered. Mansfield’s Saturday program was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and by sending the hassock to the upholsterer early Saturday morning the stage manager thought to get it back in plenty of time for the Monday night performance of “Ivan.” It failed to arrive, however, and in the emergency a small red hassock, of the sort provided by the theatre management for its juvenile patrons, was put in front of the throne instead. The entire stage setting was green, and this bit of bright red greeted the star as he made his entrance preparatory to mounting the throne. His reply to the stage manager was to lift the hassock neatly with his foot and send it spinning out into the audience…

At the Red Cross performances of “Out There” at the Century in the Spring there occurred on the opening night a stage wait which most of the audience sensed. Following the departure of ‘Erb to enlist, at the end of the first act, the mother and sister of Annie have one or two speeches before the curtain falls. The sister then bids her mother take a drink, and the curtain drops as she lifts the flask to her lips. This night, however, the curtain did not fall. Helen Ware, who was playing Princess Lizzie, looked uneasily off stage and then said: “Have another drink.” Beryl Mercer, playing mother, drank again. But still the curtain did not fall. “Have another drink,” said Miss Ware, equal to the emergency. Fortunately the curtain finally fell at this point, and Miss Mercer was saved from drinking herself to death in the interests of art. It developed later that Laurette Taylor, who had just left the stage, had stopped to chat with the youth who operated the curtain, and had so distracted his attention that he missed his cue.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

When Prop or Player Fails, 1919

The following excerpt comes from a 1919 New York Times article titled, “When Prop or Player Fails.” The article describes mishaps on stage due to missing or malfunctioning props, a problem which has plagued actors since theatre began.

One of the most familiar and most absurd stories of histrionic presence of mind is concerned with an old-time melodrama which called for an actor to file his way through prison bars, only to be shot dead later as he stood on the wall of the prison, about to escape. The file had been brought carefully into the plot, so that the audience was fully aware that the prisoner had it in his possession. On the night in question, as he stood on the prison wall after sawing his way through the bars, the gun of the prison guard failed to go off when the trigger was pulled. The actor, however, fell from the wall as he was accustomed to, but instead of lying where he dropped, he staggered down to the footlights.

“My God!” he gasped, to the audience. “I’ve swallowed the file!” And dropped dead.

The gun which fails to go off is one of the most frequent causes of embarrassment to an actor. There is the long familiar story of the actor who pulled the trigger as usual one night, in a scene in which he was supposed to murder another character, only to be met by a click instead of the customary report. The other man, however, fell down as usual when the trigger was pulled, so the first player did what he could to save the situation. Looking from the revolver in his hand to the man prostrate on the floor, he remarked, “These Maxim silencers are certainly wonderful things,” and the play went on…

Arthur Byron of “Tea for Three” tells of a melodrama in which he was supposed to shoot E. J. Henley, only to find that the gun would not go off. He made several attempts, and then Henley whispered “Stab me! Stab me!” Byron, unfortunately, had nothing with which to stab him, so he brought about his demise by clubbing him over the head with the revolver.

Originally published in The New York Times, January 12, 1919. “When Prop or Player Fails”, author unknown.

How David Belasco shops for props, 1919

The following is an excerpt from “The Theatre Through its Stage Door”, written by David Belasco, and published in 1919.

During all the time that rehearsals have been in progress—and perhaps for many weeks or even months before the first reading—other preparations for the production have been going on. Carpenters have been building the scenery in my shop, artists have been painting it at their studios, electricians have been making the paraphernalia for the lighting effects, property men have been manufacturing or buying the various objects needed in their department, and costumers and wig-makers have been at work. All these adjuncts to the play have been timed to be ready when they are needed. At last comes the order to put them together. Then for three or four days my stage resembles a house in process of being furnished. Confusion reigns supreme with carpenters putting on door-knobs, decorators hanging draperies, workmen laying carpets and rugs, and furniture men taking measurements.

Everything has been selected by me in advance. My explorations in search of stage equipment are really the most interesting parts of my work. I attend auction sales and haunt antique-shops, hunting for the things I want. I rummage in stores in the richest as well as in the poorest sections of New York. Many of the properties must be especially made, and it has even happened that I have been compelled to send agents abroad to find exactly the things I need. For instance, I sent an agent to Bath, England, to buy all the principal properties for “Sweet Kitty Bellairs.” It was necessary, also, to send to Paris to obtain many of the objects which fitted into the period of “Du Barry.” I purchased the old Dutch furniture I used in “The Return of Peter Grimm” fully two years before I had put the finishing touches on the writing of that play, and most of the Oriental paraphernalia of “The Darling of the Gods” I imported direct from Japan.

When I produced “The Easiest Way” I found myself in a dilemma. I planned one of its scenes to be an exact counterpart of a little hall bedroom in a cheap theatrical boarding-house in New York. We tried to build the scene in my shops, but, somehow, we could not make it look shabby enough. So I went to the meanest theatrical lodging-house I could find in the Tenderloin district and bought the entire interior of one of its most dilapidated rooms—patched furniture, thread-bare carpet, tarnished and broken gas fixtures, tumble-down cupboards, dingy doors and window-casings, and even the faded paper on the walls. The landlady regarded me with amazement when I offered to replace them with new furnishings.

While the scenery and properties are being put together I lurk around with my note-book in hand, studying the stage, watching for defects in color harmonies, and endeavoring to make every scene conform to the characteristics of the people who are supposed to inhabit them. However great the precaution I may have observed, I generally decide to make many more changes. Then, when the stage is furnished to my satisfaction, I bring my company up from the reading-room and introduce them to thme scenes and surroundings in which they are to live in the play.

David Belasco with the Heads of His Artistic and Mechanical Departments
David Belasco with the Heads of His Artistic and Mechanical Departments

In the above photograph, “they are building a miniature stage-setting of the play, ‘Marie-Odile.’ Every stage-setting used at the Belasco Theatre is built from an exact miniature model which is fully equipped, even to the lighting.”

Text and photograph originally published in “The Theatre Through its Stage Door”, written by David Belasco, and published in 1919.

Shakespeare for Community Players: Lanterns

This is the fourth excerpt from a chapter concerning prop-making in “Shakespeare for Community Players”, by Roy Mitchell. Be sure to check out the previous parts on weapons, tableware, and furniture.


Lanterns should be made of soft tin and riveted into shape. It is possible to buy lanterns, but it is more fun to make them.

Figure 17: Lanterns and torch sticks
Figure 17: Lanterns and torch sticks

Figure 17 shows some types of lanterns as well as torch-sticks. Floor candlesticks, which are universally useful for all types of interiors, may be made up of curtain-pole set on a foot or held erect with a tripod. A small tin pan makes an excellent drip-cup. A method of simulating massive candles is given in the chapter on lighting. Smaller candelabra may be of wooden lattice-work in a variety of forms, or of round wood held together with cross-bars (see Figures 14 and 18).

Figure 18: Small candelabra
Figure 18: Small candelabra

Another method is to make a grill out of wall-board reinforced with wooden battens. The best single candlestick is part of a baluster nailed to a square base. The candle goes in a hole bored in the top. A nail-point sticking up in the bottom of the orifice will give stability to the candle. If you have occasion to make or use Greek lamps, do not trouble with oil. Use tapers adjusted to last for the scene, or a bit of candle inset.

Figure 19: Lantern and pole
Figure 19: Lantern and pole

Figure 19 shows a lantern and a pole to be carried in lieu of torches. It is made of draughtsman’s linen stretched Chinese-lantern fashion on a wooden frame. The frame may be made of heavy iron wire if desired, and many beautiful forms achieved. The design may be applied in coloured ink such as draughtsmen use.

Reprinted from Shakespeare for Community Players, by Roy Mitchell, J.M. Dent & Sons ltd., 1919 (pp 64-66)