Tag Archives: clearers

A Brief History of IATSE

Without labor nothing prospers.


It is written in letters of fire that the day of injustice to the working men of our craft must soon draw to a close.

– Lee M. Hart, second president of the National Association of Theatrical Stage Employes, 1895

Happy Labor Day, everyone! I hope you are having a relaxing weekend, though more likely, you are taking this long weekend to work on this fall’s shows (like I am).  Regardless of how you feel about unions in general, or IATSE in particular, there is no doubt that the history of IATSE has shaped the history of working in theatre and in props in America.

Propmen and Clearers

On July 17, 1893, seventeen men in New York City met for the first convention of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Property-men were part of the union. Before organizing, they made fifty cents a day, and were often made to work in other departments regardless of their skills. Continue reading A Brief History of IATSE

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)

Play Production in America, 1916

(this article originally appeared in the book Play production in America in 1916)

“Props,” as I have remarked before, is the property man. He is in command of usually four or five “clearers” — the New Theater that was, had thirty-two — who carry off the furniture, rugs, and so forth, and place them in convenient but unobtrusive positions at back or in the wings.

In some of the older theaters, a trap was opened in the middle of the stage, and through this the properties were passed below; but the practise was generally abandoned in favor of leaving space for the property man and clearers to go on and off the scene while it is in course of erection or in course of dismantling. I have seen a property man with an armful of china, walk nonchalantly through a doorway to the stage, while the doorway, as part of the scene, was being slid into place from a distance.

The next set may be an exterior. The ground cloth is spread first, or the cloth of the preceding act may be removed revealing the new one already in place beneath it. Then the property man brings on the movable objects in his charge, benches, rocks, flower-beds, and so on, and piles them in the middle of the stage so that the grips may build the scene without interruption. He works from the middle outward, usually completing his work at about the time the grips do theirs. Flymen are occupied, meanwhile, in the lowering of drops and borders, and the grips in placing the flats, representing houses, perhaps, or walls.

At this point the electrician becomes active. He must adjust his border lights, place his wing lights, strips and bunches. After connecting the plugs, he places an assistant at each open lamp, as the law requires, and tests the entire arrangement to insure smooth operation. This over, the scene is ready.

Props, Juice, and Carp notify the manager to that effect, and the second act is called. “Clear!” and “Places!” bring the actors into position. A red lamp, w1nking of the musicians’ lights, or a buzzer, tells Herr Director to conclude his entr’acte music. The foots go on and the house lights out. The bell rings, or the switch is turned, and the curtain rises.

Three Departments Of The Crew

It will be observed that the stage crew is divided into three departments, Carpentry, Property, and Lighting, each independent of the others, but all three working harmoniously toward a common end. Largely for purposes of publicity—although the stage manager declared he did it for convenient identification — the three stage departments of the Punch and Judy Theater, New York, were once outfitted respectively with red, white, and blue caps.

At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, where the change of bill is frequent during the season, day and night crews are maintained. The night crew takes down all the used drops and carefully packs them with reference to their numbers, and next day the day crew places them in the storehouse.

The force at the New York Hippodrome is frequently as many as two hundred men—about sixty electricians, sixty property men and clearers, twenty-five grips, and thirty-five engineers who attend the pumps that fill and empty the big tank. All properties and scene pieces there, are numbered to correspond to the men who are to handle them, while cues, on a darkened scene, are given by lights placed high in an alcove on one side of the stage. All men in the crew are rehearsed in their parts as thoroughly as the actors; consequently few changes of scene there — and there may be nineteen or twenty — take more than thirty seconds each.

It would require many pages to do more than indicate the duties of the various members of the stage crew, for they are constantly being confronted with new problems. A stage hand has little time to loaf, and full opportunity to build himself up from trade to profession.

Occasional disagreements are about all that inform the great theater-going public that such occupations exist. It is at such times that one hears talk of “unions” and “associations” that sound singularly inappropriate concerning attaches of Fairyland.


When one hears of union stage employees, he should remember that there is a distinction between their union proper — the I.A.T.S.E. (International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees) — and their fraternal order — the T.M.A.’s (Theatrical Mechanics’ Association). To join the first, one must have worked in a theater two years, and, before going on the road, been in the union two years. It is a powerful organization, and has settled, as an instance of its value in arbitration, what was formerly a prolific cause of argument — what is property, and what is scenery? Say a fountain is used in a set. What is it to be called? The union calls it property; so Props and his clearers are compelled to set and to strike it.

originally published in Play Production in America, by H. Holt and Company, 1916, (pp. 235-237)