Tag Archives: drink

Behind the Scenes Part 3, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. You can also check out the first part and the second part:

The ingenuity of the “propertyman” comes to the front again in eating and drinking scenes, when the manager of the theater has to furnish the viands. As a substitute for tea, wine, whisky or brandy he serves the actors water colored with a piece of toasted bread to suit the shade of the desired liquid and then strained. This, by the way, is not a device of modern times.

It comes from the days of Shakespeare, according to stage tradition. Sometimes ginger ale or tea is used, but these are not favored generally because they will not suit all tastes.

To one actor the ale is too pungent, to another the cider is too sour, while the third may not be able to take tea without milk, which, of course, could not be used without impairing the color of the drink. So toast-water has been accepted as the regular thing, agreeable to ever palate.

There are managers of companies and stars who will have the genuine article itself, and in that case provide it at their own expense.

Clara Morris and Fannie Davenport do this. “Rip Van Winkle” Jefferson swallows whisky straight when he “smiles” to the health of the other characters at the end of the comedy, and remarks, “This one don’t count.”

In the memorable representation of Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” years ago, John Gilbert, Lester Wallack and Harry Montague were in the cast. They used in the tap-room scene an English tankard filled with Bass’ ale.

Occasionally stage realism asserts itself, and decrees that only legitimate accessories shall be used in the portrayal. Then it is this especial “piece of business” becomes a feature of the plays, as in the “Hearts of Oak” four years ago, where a party of eight sat down to a New England dinner of meat, pies, coffee and rolls. The component parts of the meal were served in view of the audience, piping hot, and were eaten with relish by the actors and actresses around the table.

Perhaps the most costly stage repast when done correctly is the breakfast in “Camille,” that the heroine gives to Armand, Easton and Mme. Prudence. The period of the drama is modern, and the surroundings on a scale of excellence calling for silverware of recent design and the best of food.

A “propertyman” would supply it in this way: A pot of tea, white cups and saucers, a plate of sliced bread and a papier-mache chicken or ham. How the itinerant actor, who grubs country towns for his patronage, and who cannot supply money or properties, manages to set this scene is as great a source of conjecture as the reasons that induce him to mold the genius to the histrionic requisites of the play.

Every theatre-goer knew John T. Raymond ate pared apples as Colonel Sellers in “The Gilded Age,” whereas the action of the scene called for turnips. So much for eating and drinking on the stage.

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

The Agonies of a Stage Manager, 1914

The following was written by Arthur Fitzgerald and originally printed in the New York Times, November 22, 1914. It included the following bio of the author:

Mr. Fitzgerald is the stage manager of “The Law of the Land,” the grisly melodrama by George Broadhurst, which has been running all Fall at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre, with Julia Dean in the role of the woman who kills her husband, to the great delight of many audiences.


Fine productions are seen in New York. Certainly nothing finer exists than the American housing of plays. Contrary to an all to general opinion, the staging of plays in America is not reckless. Lavish, yes, in the outlay of money, but painstaking always. The producers are not “satisfied with anything.” I have known one man to replace a single chair seven times because it did not blend with the room.

In our play, “The Law of the Land,” this exactness has been instilled into every one “back stage,” so that our stage machinery works like a perfect clock. The curtain rises punctually, the necessary properties are checked and rechecked and are always in their places. When a telephone bell on stage is to ring “in the middle of a word,” as we say, the man off stage who pushes the button does it just as carefully and just as seriously as if he were playing his part in full view of the audience. There is an extra gown at the door in case something unforeseen should happen to the one which the butler ordinarily carries in for that funny situation in the last act. The property man has instructions to taste the near-whisky used in the first act. Imagine an experience of mine in the north of England. The hero was about to drink a toast to the heroine. He took a mouthful of the drink—it was varnish! In our second act grapefruit is actually eaten. Grapefruit is puckery. Miss Dean has a most demanding role, and the grapefruit does not help much. I spend my leisure hours at the grocer’s finding the finest fruit.

The moon shines through a window onto the body of the dead man, and our producer and Mr. Broadhurst were not satisfied with the light during the first week of rehearsals. I went to an artist friend’s studio for three nights, during which where was no moon, but on the fourth night the moon shone and I got the effect. Next night at rehearsal we tried it at the theatre and Mr. Broadhurst asked, “Is that moon coming in through the top of the theatre?”

The finger print charts are not faked, but are genuine, and the method used in taking them and in their use has been approved by Inspector Faurot of Detective Headquarters.

Lawyers’ papers and documents, pencils for the stenographer, vichy, a waste basket, a bit of crumpled paper, an amber trimmed jet tassel, a dog collar, a dog whip, a revolver—these so-called “necessary props” are tripled and must each be in its place. The slightest change is a most dangerous proceeding.

In Dublin, once, a statue of the Virgin Mary was necessary to the play. In the hurry it was left to the property man. When the statue was undraped a moment before the curtain went up it was found to be the statue of Venus de Milo. The actor who referred to it in his part had a splendid presence of mind and read his line, “She is as chaste as the Virgin Mary and has a figure like the Venus de Milo.”

Originally printed in the New York Times, November 22, 1914.

Faking a Beer Can

For our upcoming production of The Book of Grace by Suzan-Lori Parks at the Public Theater, we need beer. Technically, we need about ten beers per night.

A real can, and two prop cans with fake labels
A real can, and two prop cans with fake labels

Unfortunately, in most legitimate theatres, you cannot have the actors drinking beer during a performance. You need to figure out a way to have a beer can filled with water or something equally innocuous. One way to do it is by emptying a beer can and refilling it. This can be tricky if you also want to crack the lid as part of the stage action; the sound is made because the contents are under pressure, and unless you re-pressurize the can when filling it, you’ll lose that satisfying crack noise. Your other option is to cover a can of non-alcoholic liquid with another label. You can either cut the label out of a real beer can, or manufacture one out of paper. We’ll take a brief look at both methods.

Cutting the top off of a can
Cutting the top off of a can

To cover one can with the label off another, you need to start by cutting off the top and the bottom. Aluminum cans cut easily with an X-Acto blade, snap-off blade, or box cutter. You don’t want to use a power tool like a band saw or jig saw, as the movement of the blade will shake the can and tear it uncontrollably. Once you remove the top and bottom, you can slice down the side to make a flat rectangle of metal.

A fully cut can label
A fully cut can label

Once you have the label cut out, it’s time to attach it to your other can. Many actors prefer not to drink soda or anything too sweet during a show, as it snots up their throats. They may also have special diuretic needs that may preclude using certain drinks. Your best bet is canned carbonated water. Whether you choose seltzer, club soda, tonic water, or sparkling water depends on personal preference, but also on what the cans look like. The club soda I’ve used here has a very non-descript can that does not make itself known after it has been covered.

Wrapping the club soda with the beer label
Wrapping the club soda with the beer label

Budweiser cans have the advantage of using white as a background color; you can use white electrical tape to attach the label. If you use a different brand, you need to experiment with other types of tape. Clear packing tape is a great option if you want to avoid a colored line along the top and bottom. Make sure whatever tape you use is strong enough to keep the sharp edges of the aluminum from cutting through.

Finished can
Finished can

Wrapping a can of carbonated water with a paper label is another way to go. This is a good idea if your printing costs are less than the cost of acquiring beer cans. The most difficult part of this is generating the artwork. Photographing or scanning the labels can leave unrealistic shading. If you are uncomfortable using a computer graphics program to assemble and even build parts of the labels from scratch, this may not be the route for you.

Paper labels
Paper labels

You can use tape to attach the labels on the paper ones as well, or an adhesive on the back (please excuse the messiness of the tape job in the photograph below). You may find the paper label is a lot duller than an aluminum one, so you can spray it with your favorite glossy or semi-glossy clear coat.

A can covered in a paper label
A can covered in a paper label

Whichever method you decide depends on the specifics of your production. There are many variables which can effect the look of the can from the audience, such as the lighting or distance to the stage. The production may have other peculiar blocking that will affect your prop choice. If the actors crush the cans, you may not wish to cover it in a second layer of aluminum, as it may make it harder or even more dangerous to pull that off.

Just remember, whatever your show needs, you “can” do it!