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Joining the Circus

Who hasn’t dreamt of running away and joining the circus? Charles Mayer actually did it. In his book, Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles, published in 1922, Mayer talks about his early years when he was a property-boy with a touring big-top show.

I was nearly seventeen when Sells Brothers’ Circus came to Binghamton, New York, where I was living with my parents. That day I joined some other boys in playing hookey from school, and we earned our passes by carrying water for the animals. It wasn’t my first circus, but it was the first time that I had ever worked around the animals and I was fascinated. I didn’t miss the big show, but all the rest of the day I was in the menagerie, listening to the yarns of the keepers and doing as much of their work as they would allow. That night, when the circus left town, I stowed away in a wagon.

The next morning, in Elmira, I showed up at the menagerie bright and early. The men laughed when they saw me. I had expected them to be surprised and I was afraid that they might send me away, but I found out later that it was quite an ordinary thing for boys to run away from home and join the circus. And the men didn’t mind because the boys were always glad to do their work for them. I worked hard and, in return, the men saw that I had something to eat. That night I stowed away again in the wagon.

In Buffalo I was told to see the boss—the head property-man—and I went, trembling for fear he was going to send me back home. Instead, he told me that I might have the job of property-boy, which would give me $25 a month, my meals and a place to sleep—if I could find one. There were no sleeping accommodations for the canvas and property crews; we rolled up in the most comfortable places we could find, and we were always so dead tired that we didn’t care much where we slept.

$25 a month and no place to sleep. This is around 1880, still over a decade from the founding of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes. By 1896, the rates for traveling men were $20 a week for Assistant Propertymen.

Since those early days in the circus, I’ve been around the world many times, and I’ve seen all sorts of men, living and working in all sorts of conditions, but I’ve never found a harder life than that of property-boy, unless, perhaps, it’s that of a Malay prisoner. Sometimes I wonder how I stood it and why I liked it. But I did stand it and, what is more, I loved it so much that I persuaded the boss to keep me on when we went into winter quarters.

The moment we arrived at a town, the head canvas-man rode to the lot on which we were to show and laid it out; that is, he measured it and decided on the location of the tents. The men with him drove small stakes to indicate where the tentpegs were to be placed. In the meantime, the property gang unloaded the show. Then we drove the four-foot stakes for the dressing-tent into whatever kind of ground the lot happened to have. A man can work up a good appetite by swinging a fourteen-pound hammer for an hour or so before breakfast, but before we started we had also many other things to do. The dressing-tent had to be spread and hoisted; then the properties were sorted and placed in their position for the performers to get ready for the parade. Meanwhile the canvas-gang was getting the “big-top” up. Then, when the parade started, we went to the “big-top” and arranged the properties there, made the rings, adjusted the guys, ropes and wires for the aerial acts and laid out all the paraphernalia for the ground acts. While we were doing these things, the canvas-men were stringing the seats. Then we had breakfast.

When the parade returned, there were cages to be placed in the menagerie tent and the parade properties to be prepared for shipping. By the time that work was finished, the crowds had arrived for the show and we stood by to handle the tackle of the various acts. At night, after the show had started, we began taking down the smaller tents and stowing the properties just as fast as they came from the “big top.” Then, when the show was loaded, we took one last look over the lot to be sure that nothing had been left behind.

No, we didn’t care much where we slept—just any spot where we dropped was good enough.

It sounds like remarkably like many touring companies today. Some things never change.

The next season I went with the Adam Forepaugh show; then with the Frank Robbins show. I learned the circus business from the ground up and I was rapidly promoted. In 1883, I joined R. W. Fryer’s show as head property-man and transportation master. It was a responsible position, which required every bit of the knowledge I had gained in the few preceding years. I had charge of all the circus property and I was boss of a large crew of men. The job kept me on the jump day and night. The canvas and property crews were made up of the toughest characters I have ever struck in my life—a man had to be tough in those days. They were hard to handle, but they were good workers and I got along all right with them.

They were always just a little bit tougher than any local talent we came up against on the tour, even though a circus used to attract the worst men for miles around. At Albuquerque one night, four “bad men” came to see the show. When they came up, Fitzgerald, who was one of the partners, was taking tickets at the entrance. He tried to get tickets from them, but they pulled out guns. One of them said: “These are our tickets.” Fitzgerald let them in and passed the word along to the crew. The men took seats and, when the show started, they let loose with their guns, shooting through the tents and letting a few bullets fly into the ring. Sometimes a bullet would strike near a performer, raising a puff of dust and scaring him half to death. The “bad men” were sitting with their legs dangling down between the seats. Some of the crew took seats near them, just as if they were part of the audience, and a dozen property-men sneaked under the tent. When the signal was given, they grabbed the dangling legs and pulled. Then the circus-men in the seats jumped up and, without letting the audience know what was happening, they snatched the guns. Down went the “bad men” between the seats. It all happened so quickly and so quietly that the audience didn’t realize what had become of them. The canvas-men “toe-staked” them; that is, they hit them over the heads with the toe-stakes that are driven into the ground to keep the seat-stringers from sliding. A toe-stake is of just the proper size and weight to use in a fight, and it is the circus-man’s idea of a good weapon. The crew buried the four men while the show was on. I thought there would be trouble before we could get out of town, but the men weren’t even missed.

Now, I may not fully grasp the use of language from this time period, but I’m pretty sure Mayer just described how the circus-men murdered four men and buried them under their tent. Some things do change.

(Mayer’s writing originally published in “Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles” by Charles Mayer, published by Duffield, 1921.)

Fun Prop Quotes

Today, let me regale you with several quotes I’ve collected from mid-twentieth century books on props.

“One of the key jobs on any film set is that of the property master, and his range of activity is perhaps the largest of all. If it ‘moves, it’s mine,’ the prop man can say, on most occasions.”
People who Make Movies, by Theodore Taylor, 1967 (pg 76).

“In the property-maker’s room lives the wizard of the studio. He is always experimenting with new compositions with which to get the multitudinous effects that he is called on to supply. Latex, rubber solution, glues, Rhodoid, cellophane, resinous plastics, Perspex, and ingenuity – these are his materials. He is an inventor, a chemist, a bit of an artist, and an engineer.”
Designing for Films, by Edward Carrick, 1950 (pg. 106).

“The three basic types of properties are stage props, such as furniture, news desks, and lecterns; set dressings, such as pictures, draperies, and lamps, and hand props, which are items such as dishes, telephones, and typewriters actually handled by the talent.”
Television Production Handbook, 5th ed., by Herbert Zettl, 1992 (pg. 440).

“The most important part of any storage area is its retrieval efficiency. If you must search for hours to find the props to decorate your office set, even the most extensive prop collection is worth very little. Clearly label all storage areas, and then put the props and scenery back every time in the designated areas.”
Television Production Handbook, 4th ed., by Herbert Zettl, 1984 (pg. 28).

“As soon as the actors are free of books, important hand props (those handled a good deal by the actors) should be brought to rehearsal – or rehearsal substitutes provided – so actors can practise the use of them and save time at dress rehearsals.”
Directing for the Theatre, by Wieder David Sievers, 1965 (pg. 246).

Confusions in the Definition of a Prop

The definition of a prop is a sometimes nebulous thing. We all know that a book or an apple is a prop. But what about a purse or a built- in bookcase? And why is props in charge of manual sound effects and bushes? The confusion stems from the fact that what a prop is and what a prop shop does can be different things. To confound this, one prop shop may have slightly different duties than another; also, the duties of a prop shop in theatre are different then that of a props crew in film. As one final confusion, an individual production may see a slight modification in the duties of the prop shop based on the specific challenges in relation to the workloads of the various shops. A scene shop may build a certain prop because their shop is better equipped for its manner of construction. It is still a prop in the academic sense. After the show, it goes into the prop shop’s storage, and if used again, it is a props person that pulls it from the stock. Likewise, in a future production, the prop shop may be better equipped and can build a similar prop on their own. It is not the scene shops duty just because they built one in the past.

Keep these three confusions in mind when talking about the definition of a prop. Though usually the same, the academic definition of a prop and the practical obligations of a prop shop are sometimes at odds.

The Property-Man in Vaudeville Theatre

The Property-man

(from The vaudeville theatre, building, operation, management, by Edward Renton, 1918)

“Resourcefulness” should be the middle name of the individual who is competent to occupy the position of property-man in a theatre. There are other important qualifications, but this one is essential. He may be called upon to supply anything from an Egyptian mummy to a three week-old child, upon a moment’s notice. He must be a bit of a carpenter, something of an artist, a great deal of a diplomat, and he must be “on the job” from the rising of the sun to considerably after the setting thereof-in other words, this is not the place for a lazy or a shiftless man.

A property-man should have the ability to meet people pleasantly and to make a favorable impression. He should cultivate cordial relations with transfer companies, with the various merchants of the city, and with other persons from whom he is likely to need favors in the way of borrowed properties. He will be faced with the necessity of requesting loans from homes, pawn-shops, museums and other public institutions, stores and individuals. He should be able to convey the impression of responsibility- and should live up to it. To a peculiar degree, he has the reputation of the theatre in his keeping; it is absolutely essential that he call for properties loaned or rented at the time agreed upon, that he care for such articles most assiduously while they are being used and that
he return them promptly and in the same condition as when borrowed.

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