Tag Archives: anecdote

Prop Man’s Predicament, 1937

The following amusing anecdote was found in a 1937 issue of The Christian Science Monitor.

An ingenious piece of fiction from one of the studios tells of the literary adventures of one Arthur Camp, a property man. It seems (according to this press release) that Camp needed a manuscript rejection slip for use in a picture to which he had been assigned.

Prop men pride themselves on being able to produce anything, so Camp sat down and penned an article on movie-making and sent it to a national magazine.

He thought, of course, that he would get it back with a rejection slip. However (surprise! surprise!), the magazine bought the article.

Of course, Camp could have had the studio printshop make up some of the slips. Or he could have borrowed one from any of a thousand unsuccessful Hollywood authors. But that wouldn’t have made a good story. —Milwaukee Journal.

This article was found in the Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1937.

Same Chicken in Chicago

The following is an anecdote from a 1916 book titled “Recollections of a Scene Painter”.

Another story of [John E.] Owens that Harry Phillips, the old Health Officer, will confirm. One night, at the old National, Owens was playing “Caleb Plummer” in “Cricket on the Hearth.” It is the scene of the toymaker’s cottage in the snow. The miniature is set in the middle of the stage and the characters are having a dinner party. It is just before Gruff Tackleton makes John Perrybingle jealous of Dot about the stranger. Caleb is carving the chicken, or trying to, for on this occasion he was not making any impression upon it. Of course, the property man, who is expected to be caterer as well as everything else, gets the blame, and Owens, boiling with rage, walked out of the cottage and across the stage to the little side door leading to that “L” in the alley back of Third Street, fired the chicken as far as he could up the alley, saying: “That is the same d—d chicken I had in Chicago.”

Originally published in “Recollections of a Scene Painter”, E.T. Harvey, W.A. Sorin Co., Cincinnati, 1916, pp 37-38.

How I Became a Prop Maker

Put ten prop makers in a room and you’ll get ten different stories of how they became a prop maker (you’d also get one hell of a party). I thought I would share my own convoluted path of how I have gotten here.

My parents are both artists: potters by trade. They fed my brother and I a steady diet of art supplies growing up. We would transform all sorts of boxes and other random objects into vehicles and machines for our stuffed animals to use. One of our favorite toys was He-Man. I remember desperately wanting the Castle Grayskull playset when it first came out. Of course, a toy that large was far too expensive; nonetheless, we kept pleading. Finally, my dad started building his own version of Castle Grayskull for us. I think he used chicken wire over a wooden base, coated with a mix of papier-mâché and plaster.

They often gave us bits of clay to sculpt and shape on our own. When I got old enough and wanted a job, my dad put me to work making production molds for his cast pieces, and then casting the pieces.

In junior high school, we still had this class called “Industrial Arts”, in which twelve-year-old children are allowed to cut wood on a bandsaw and squirt hot plastic into injection molds. I remember the feeling that was awakened in me when I cut a fancy letter “E” out of a piece of pine in that class. It was a two-part revelation; first, I discovered how these wooden objects were created, and second, that I possessed the ability to create them. I also cast a piece of iron in green sand, doing every part of it except the actual pouring of the molten metal. It gives a kid a lot of confidence to have a cast iron object and be able to say “I made that.”

In my first year of high school, after choosing all the necessary classes for my preparation to be a college student, I found one free period. A buddy and I convinced each other to take wood shop. During the first half of the year we studied and practiced drafting. The second half, we built a bookcase. From scratch. We had to draft the piece out and make a cut-list, select and buy our lumber, plane the surfaces, join the edges, cut the pieces to size, make the joinery, assemble it, and apply the finish. It was all pine wood, with no plywood or MDF; the back was made with a whole bunch of boards tongue-and-grooved together. I still have that bookcase.

I began my undergraduate career as an engineer, but grew bored with the lack of hands-on work I thought it would entail. I was living and working with a lot of the theatre and film kids. We had a film club, which consisted of a bunch of us running around filming goofy things with a camera. I thought some theatre classes would help me make better films. Along the way, I grew to appreciate theatre more than film, and ended up graduating with a degree in theatre and an emphasis in scenic design.

After a few years of working as a stagehand, carpenter and electrician, I went back to graduate school for scenic design. After the first year, I got a summer job at the Santa Fe Opera as a props carpenter, building furniture and other large items. That was when it kind of clicked in my head that making props was what I really loved. It was the combination of technical skills and creative thinking in the context of a collaborative art form that really drew me in. The variety of daily tasks kept me engaged in a way that a job where I built the same thing over and over again would leave me bored.

Prop Jokes from 1911

Here are some jokes and funny anecdotes from various newspapers, all of which appeared in 1911.

In a fourth of July oration in Denver N. C. Goodwin once remarked on the small means wherewith Washington achieved such great ends.
“When I think,” said Mr. Goodwin, “of Washington’s terrible handicap, my mind goes back to the town of Nola Chucky.
“An actor manager was to appear for one night in Nola Chucky, and accordingly he wired the proprietor of the Nola Chucky opera house:
“‘Will hold rehearsal tomorrow afternoon. Have stage manager, stage carpenter, property man and assistant, chief electrician and all stage hands at theater prompt to hour.’
“He received this telegram in reply:
“‘He will be there.'”

The San Francisco Call, July 22, 1911, Page 7.

Property Man: “Did your company have a long run in Squeedunk?”
Comedian: “They chased us only two miles out.”

University Missourian, September 18, 1911, Number 7, Page 4.

An English actor tells a good story of the old days of the touring fitup companies. They were at Oldham playing a melodrama called “Current Cash.” One of the properties essential to the piece was a light rowing scull, with which the hero had to push himself off into the stream. When the company reached Oldham the oar was missing, but the property man promised to have one ready for the evening’s performance, says the Pall Mall Gazette. That afternoon, with evident pride, he produced from the sacred recesses of his room a real human skull, and when it was pointed out to him that it was hardly what was required he declared in haughty tones:
“If that skull’s good enough for ‘Hamlet’ it ought to be good enough for a piece like ‘Current Cash.'”

The Manning Times, August 30, 1911, Page 6.

The Covetous Property Man, 1904

The following first appeared in The New York Times, July 24, 1904:

“There is no more assiduous collector of odds and ends than the average theatrical property man,” said a well-known actor. “Everything is fish for his net, you might say, and the contents of the chest or trunk of one of these individuals after a forage through the country would easily hold its own with Dickens’s famous curiosity shop…

“If you wish to find out the thoroughness with which the average property man accumulates, just ask him for any article, I don’t care what, and see if nine times out of ten he won’t produce it.”

“By accident I was a witness once of the manner in which a property man adds a coveted object to his collection. Our show was playing at Richmond, Va., at the time. Among the ‘props’ furnished by the theatre’s property man was a handsome rifle, which he had borrowed from a local firearms firm for the week.

“On Friday I had occasion to go to the theatre to get something I had forgotten. As I made my way to the dressing rooms I noticed our company’s property man standing to one side of the darkened stage, in a ray of sunlight, examining this rifle with the air of a connoisseur. There was nobody else in the theatre at the time, and he apparently had not seen me. I would probably have passed him by unnoticed but for the fact that he was holding a conversation with himself, which ran thus:

“‘You seem to be a pretty nice gun,’ he said, holding the rifle up to his shoulder and running his eye critically along the sights.

“‘Ever been on the road?‘ he continued, carefully scrutinizing the stock of the weapon.

“‘Why, you have no idea what a lot of fun you can have out on the road,’ he kept on seductively. ‘A great deal better than being stuck in a little town like this.

“‘How would you like to go on the road?‘ he queried, as if he had a sudden inspiration.

“‘You would? All right. I think I can fix it for you.’

“And he made for his trunk to see if he could lay in the rifle crosswise. He was just able to get it in, and the last words I heard him say to the enraptured weapon were:

“‘I’ll sign you with this company right away.‘”

Originally published in The New York Times, July 24, 1904.