Tag Archives: 1923

Stage-hands’ Union, 1923

The following article was published over 85 years ago. It’s an interesting look into not only what the stagehands union (now known as IATSE) did back then, but how it was viewed by some people. It’s also an interesting look at how the union was viewed back then. It’s important to note that the union – in fact, no union – is as strong as it was back in the 1920s. It would also be fascinating to look at how this article thought the union was destroying theatre, and compare it to what the state of theatre – and the union – is today. So please don’t think this article reflects any of my personal views or agenda, other than historical curiosity.

The Stage-hands’ Union

originally written by Lincoln J. Carter, Jr., 1923.

If you have ever chanced to wander down one of the alleys just off the Rialto of New York, known to all the world as Broadway, you have undoubtedly been impressed by the number of theaters which converge at various points and have noted that three or four stage doors will often be only a few feet apart. When it is considered that in this somewhat limited area lies the Mecca of all the playwrighters, producers, and site of some fifty houses, the reason for the propinquity of the stage doors is bared. On nights when the weather is mild and the shows are going on, little groups of heavy-set men, dressed in a promiscuous assortment of old clothes, congregate near these rear entrances, smoking and chatting about a wide variety of matters. At a certain moment those near one of the theatres will disappear into its depths for some minutes, then they will reappear and hustle into the house across the way. When they again return to the alley perhaps a few may rest only temporarily before the stage door of a third playhouse closes behind them. Who are they? Why, the stage hands, members of the oldest union in the theatrical business; and they have arranged a schedule permitting their drawing pay from two or three places for striking or making a set merely because they have found that the acts of each play end at different times. New York is their paradise. By this system some of them are drawing bigger salaries than many of those who perform before the footlights.

Their union began in the early years of the present century and has now grown to be one of the strongest influences in stageland. Even the clearers have an organization and the work is divided into branches. Each theatre has a crew consisting of a Head Carpenter and his two to sixteen assistants called “grips,” a Property Man with from one to four aids, a Flyman who may have one or eight men working under his orders, and an Electrician with from one to fifteen assistants. A traveling show has a much smaller staff, depending on the house to furnish most of the necessary help, and these are merely a Head Carpenter, Property Man, Flyman, and Electrician. If the production is a heavy scenic one several aids to each of these may be carried and they may call on the theatre for more.

A big Winter Garden show may have as many as thirty or forty men of this latter class and then employ a number of clearers, possibly twenty, whose duties consist only in taking off and placing furniture, rugs, decorations, or properties. One of the most comical sights to be seen behind the curtain is one of these big husky fellows calmly and leisurely walking off the stage carrying a prop, telephone, or a small chair—anything so long as it is the lightest he can get hold of—because the union rules prohibit them from moving more than one thing at a time. Apparently the regulations are thus merely to give more men a chance to work and to make an already easy effort still easier.

The stage carpenters direct the work of the hands behind the curtain. The “grips” handle the frame scenery and any painted scenery on frames or on the floor of the stage. They will touch nothing else, for if they should they would be ejected from the union.

The flymen are in the rigging loft and take care of all the drops, or scenes painted on cloth, or hanging scenery.

The property men and clearers handle all the furniture, carpets, pictures, curtains, bric-a-brac, and all else that is not painted scenery.

The house and company electricians are responsible for the lighting effects, directing them and having a number of assistants, one to each lamp, either in front or in back of the curtain.

No one is allowed by the union to touch anything outside of his own line. A carpenter or a “grip” may not handle a chair or a curtain and vice-versa. Actors are not allowed to participate.

In the larger cities the unions are very strong and they limit the membership in order that a carpenter or stage hand, who is so old that he can hardly stand, may still belong to the union. As a result, they are never overcrowded and there is no chance of the ancient members being crowded out. The natural outcome of such a combination is that pay has risen higher and higher. About fifteen years ago thirty dollars a week was considered good salary for a carpenter who now gets from fifty to fifty-five. Even the “grips” receive about forty.

Outside of the head carpenter and electrician there is absolutely no skilled labor of any kind and all that is necessary is strength and a little practice. The hours are very easy. A “grip,” for instance, goes to work at seven-thirty and is off at eleven; he only works then if a set is being made or struck. In other words, he labors about a half hour of that time and spends the other three hours in waiting to do something. The hauling crew has the hardest work, especially if their show makes many jumps.

While the actors draw no pay for rehearsals, that of the stage crews goes right on.

This is quite different from the old days before the union became so strong. It is also a reason, for the decline of one of the most spectacular things on the stage—scenic effects. In the early years of the century there were no restrictions as to what work each branch should do and as a result the entire company from the cast to the electrician lent a hand in working the mechanical devices which produced the necessary illusion. The heavy man and the ingenue of the show might operate one thing while the carpenter and the property man were doing another, and so on. With all this assistance prohibited in the present day by union rules and a heavy salary demanded for the additional aid required, it is no wonder that producers have been fighting shy of one of the devices that often used to make a play a great success solely on the merits of its scenic effects.

The union is also responsible for the ever increasing price of admission, another fact of which the general public remains ignorant. The expenses of the average show behind the curtains ranges from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars a week. The audience never sees the men to whom this money is paid and generally remains in a blissful state of vacuity about their existence. But with such a heavy expense is it any wonder that some steps were necessary to cover it?

There have been several methods tried out in an effort to cut down this expense. One has been to bring in nonunion men. But the membership has then promptly placed “stink bombs” in the theatre, picketed it, and used other measures which have immediately caused the show to fail. The amusement public is very unstable and will let nothing interfere with the enjoyment of its pleasures. Such methods have done away with their patronage.

Still another means of getting away from the heavy burden of the stage hands has been to eliminate scenery. But in this case the public has been educated to such lavish sets that it promptly puts its foot down and the play wastes away unless some scenery is forthcoming.

So, the problem of the stage hands union is a big and a growing one. It means that admission prices will still soar much higher or else scenery must be done away with. So far no one knows the answer to the problem.

originally published in The Michigan Chimes, Vol. IV, Num. 6, March 1923 (pp. 22. 35-36)

Dressing Interior Sets for the Motion Picture Camera

Dressing Interior Sets for the Motion Picture Camera

by E. E. Sheeley(originally published in American Cinematographer, 1923)

The dressing of moving picture sets calls for something more than a pleasing effect to the eye—any interior may be ever so pleasing in itself but its composition may be entirely conflicting when the camera angles are taken into consideration.

Every cinematographer knows how difficult it is to shoot an interior which, though probably beautiful to the eye, presents almost insurmountable obstacles to transfer its appearance to the screen just as beautifully. While an interior may, to all indications, be “tastefully” dressed, it may, on the other hand, involve such a series of clashing factors as to render impossible its being practically photographed.

Should Be Ready for Camera

When the cinematographer sets his camera up on an interior, that interior should be as nearly perfect as possible so that he will not be obliged to waste valuable time in making experiments in the shooting of the action of the characters before it becomes conclusively evident that the entire “dressing” of the set must be altered. If there is any experimenting—and there is plenty of it—to be done in the dressing of an interior, let that experimenting be done before the director calls his players and the cinematographer to the set for the making of the scenes in a production.

It is the duty, then, of he who dresses the interiors to exert every effort that the decoration of such sets be in accord with photographic possibilities rather than work against the camera and the cinematographer. Usually the fulfillment of such duties falls under the jurisdiction of the art director and cinematographers in his department who preside over the technical, the property and similar departments which carry out the actual physical dressing of the interiors.

Study Scenario for “Dressing”

The first step in the dressing is a careful perusal of the scenario so as to determine just what is needed. Here is where the severest difficulties very often arise. It may so happen that the scenario writer may recommend some certain interior construction and dressing, and it may be the case that the scenarist, though a very brilliant person in his line, may possess virtually no technical or architectural training so that the construction he recommends cannot be carried out at all if the interior is to be photographed; in fact, it would be necessary to give a set six walls in many instances in order to carry out the designation of the scenario department. It might be said here that if the scenarist, who does not have technical or architectural knowledge, would take it upon himself to learn as much as he could about the possibilities and the limitations of the camera, about the details which go to dress a set properly, about set construction even if he speaks only to the carpenter on the stage, he would increase his own efficiency immeasurably and prove an even more valuable man to his organization.

Every Step Considered

When the scenario is studied, those who dress the sets consider every step of action that is taken on the interior in question. The furnishings which go into that interior must aid the action as much as possible. Nothing that would obstruct the execution of the action may be used. Camera angles must be kept in mind at all times; nothing should be ordered that would violate the photographic factor in the least.

If the set does not house contemporary action but represents some fixed period, then every care must be made to furnish it correct to the slightest detail. We of course are familiar with the various furnishings and decorations which are in vogue today, so that an interior which calls for them naturally will not prove so hard to dress as an interior whose furnishings are of a period which has become strange to us.

Mathematical Calculations

Then there are all sorts of mathematical calculations to be made concerning the interior, and he who does not have a thorough knowledge of all branches of mathematics at his command will find himself at sea.

Property Houses Enlisted

When a list of objects which are deemed as suitable for the interior are finally drawn up, it is turned over to the “outside” man of the property department — that is, the man whose duty it is to assemble all the articles which are designated on the list. He makes a thorough canvass of all sources of such supplies — at the great property houses which have brought together for motion picture use materials from every part of the world. His duties are of the utmost importance, too, since the actual physical dressing of the set depends on him. He must know what an article’s camera possibilities are for certain uses. He must be able to pick objects correctly the first time so that time is not wasted in returning them to the property houses and exchanging them for others winch should have been selected in the first place. The “outside” or property man has also been given a copy of the script at the very beginning and he also studies it minutely with regard to period, given details, etc.

Effects With Props

Just as effects are to be made by the use of lighting, other effects are accomplished by the placing of objects in the dressing of sets. A picture placed here or an ornament there may eliminate bleakness or break a vacant effect. If great depth is to be shown in a minimum of set space, this may be accomplished by “forcing the perspective,” just as is done in drawing. Every interior must be balanced. Objects must be so planted that they fit in with every point of action that is to happen in the set.

Test of Sets

Before the set is turned over to the director, it is given the acid test within our organization when two cinematographers who comprise a special experiment department set up their cameras on the set in question and pass finally on its “photographic fertility.” If it is found that the set is cinematographically satisfactory, a chart which, with full data, has been especially prepared is turned over to the director who is to use it, pointing out the suggested angles which the experiments and construction have established as the best to shoot from. Of course when it is known which cinematographer is to shoot the set in question the props have been selected to harmonize with his own photographic individuality.

Originally published in American Cinematographer, vol. III, No. 12. March, 1923 (pp. 5-6).

About the Author: E. E. (Elmer) Sheeley was an art director for dozens of films between the 1920s and 1940s, most notably The Wizard of Oz in 1939.