(the following first appeared in an 1887 issue of the New York Tribune. The dragon in this article is the same as described in this article by Gustav Kobbé. I believe this dragon was built by a man named William De Verna, and that the property master in this article acts more like a house property position rather than the fabricator. I could be wrong, but what follows is still a great description of the dragon’s construction)
The Prodigious Monster Which Will Lash His Tail and Roar at Siegfried
The preparation of the beast which will take the part of the Dragon in “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera House is an interesting study. Up among the flies Property-master Bradwell has the creature in charge and the evolution of the animal is exercising his best ingenuity. The Dragon in its early stage of development gives the unheroic idea of an immense battle. The body and tail are of steel wire wound in spiral shape and tapering off from a diameter of three feet at the shoulders to a minimum at the tip of the tail thirty feet away. Over this framework a covering of green silesia has been placed to afford a chance for fastening on the scales. These will be some 5,000 in number and are made of leather in strips five inches or so in length and about three inches in width. These overlap each other and are tinged with iridescent colors which will give the beast a glittering and imposing aspect when he is completed and in working order beneath the electric light.
The steel wires project about the shoulders and front part of the beast’s body, so that when covered with scales the dragon has the appearance of a horny monster. The head and feet are of papier mache. The head is some three feet in length and of about the same depth, with a lower jaw which is ominous in size. The feet are three-toed and cover a space two feet square. Yet head, feet and body are together so light that they will not weigh over fifty pounds all told. The feet are front feet, of course only two in number. The rear part of the body runs on two casters.
A man will work the monster from the inside, his head extending up into a huge hummock just behind the dragon’s head, his feet being encased in Wellington boots fitted into the feet of the animal. The manipulator will be enabled by a system of wires to turn the casters, swing them around and at the same time control the head movements and the lower jaw of his charge. Incandescent electric lights form the dragon’s eyes and the eyelids of these are also moved by the inhabitant within. Steampipes will be introduced at the tail of the dragon and at the proper moment steam will be forced out of his nostrils. When the steam and the eyelids and the jaw and the head are working at their liveliest, men in the flies, with wires attached to the dragon’s tail will make that part of the beast thresh the air in fury, while in the wings a mighty trumpet will sound forth the musical notes in which the Dragon will express musical sentiments appropriate to the occasion, at least until Siegfried shall put an end to the tumult. Mr. Bradwell is proud of his progeny and thinks his initial appearance will be a great success.
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.
Inside the ‘Jitney’ Set: Picturing Pittsburgh Onstage – The NY Times takes a look at how set designer David Gallo and props supervisor Scott Laule brought the set to August Wilson’s Jitney to life. Set in 1970’s Pittsburgh, a lot of the set dressing and details come from conversations with Wilson himself when Gallo designed the original set back in 2000.
The tiny town that builds show-stopping sets for Beyoncé, Kanye and Madonna – This is such a great article on all the massive scenic shops which exist in Lititz, PA, the heart of Amish country. I grew up not too far from there, but I never knew that companies like Tait Towers have built nearly every rock and roll set here since the late 1960s. The larger tech theater schools send a lot of their graduates there, but most people are unaware how much fabrication and painting work can be found in the area.
This ‘Circus’ has elephants … in puppet form – A circus is not much of a circus without elephants, but most of these elephants are poorly treated. So the only humane solution is to build life-size puppet elephants. USA Today gives us a close-up look at how the puppet elephants in Circus 1903 come to life.
Batman’s Original Utility Belt Was Made Out Of Sponges – The headline tells the story. Before HD, television shows could get away with glueing brightly colored sponges to a belt and calling it a Batman costume. I have also heard that some of the phasers in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation were simply painted blocks of balsa wood.
Giant, Flame Spewing Animatronic Dragon – The only thing better than a life-sized elephant puppet is a giant, flame-spewing animatronic dragon. Check out how Zollner Electronics fabricated this monster for a seasonal folk play in Germany.
Follow along with the story of Twan Baker, the prop baby who has been in two Broadway shows and over half a dozen regional theatre productions. He is kept and cared for by a growing family tree of actors and writers and has his own adventures.
Steve Hoefer has been writing a series of beginner’s guides to various tools, and his latest is on drills and bits. If you’ve ever grabbed a spade bit to drill through metal, please stop and read this guide first.
Finally, are you a fan of the Fake and Bake blog (a blog all about making fake food)? Anna Warren, the writer and a good friend, has branched out and started a company called Tactile Craftworks making handmade and hand-bound leather journals with etched details (among other things). They have just started a Kickstarter to produce an Atlas Series of journals, with covers of maps of either Milwaukee or Chicago. Head on over and check it out, and maybe pick up a journal or two!
Here is a very cool video showing how Frank Ippolito made a life-sized dragon. Capcom wanted the front portion of one of their video game monsters for their booth at the E3 gaming conference, so they turned to sculptor and special effects artist Ippolito to make it happen. Tested shot this video, which shows all the stages of the build, from planning to creating the structure, and from sculpting the foam to coating it with a hard shell. If you ever wanted to create your own life-size dragon, this video is a good place to start.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies