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.
Last spring, I posted an article about the life-sized elephant prop in the 1891 musical, “Wang”. Here is another article about that elephant. I originally credited the construction of the beast to Edward Siedle; his obituary states he built it around 1900. This article credits the invention of the elephant to Woolson Morse, so perhaps Siedle’s elephant was built for the 1904 revival. Sorry the images are such low quality; perhaps someone out there can get better scans from the originals for me.
Not Barnum’s, But the Great Mechanical Wonder.
Few theatre-goers have any intelligent conception of the mechanism of some of the “animals” that are in the cast of a modern spectacular drama or comic opera. A long time ago when the heifer was part and parcel of “Evangeline,” it caused an infinite amount of merriment, but few ever stopped to think how it was done. Although its construction was simple enough, the effect was wonderfully amusing.
A representative of this paper met with Manager John W. McKinney at the Wieting opera house, and through his courtesy was enabled to critically examine the working model of the monster mechanical elephant in “Wang.” DeWolf Hopper’s delightful comic opera, which will be presented for the first time in this city on next Thursday evening at the Wieting opera house.
“The elephant,” said Mr. McKinney in explanation, “is a much more complicated creature than any other mechanical property ever used upon the stage, and while it amuses the play-goer, its mechanism is one of study, and the men who do the elephant act are not enjoying themselves as much as the people who are in front. With those men playing elephant is hard work, especially as the elephant is constructed on scientific principles, and in order to make it work properly several consultations were held with the editor of The Scientific American, as well as with several prominent bridge engineers and architects.
“The body of the Hopper elephant is built upon the cantilever principle and by the law of mechanics its weight, as well as the weight of its’ rider, is thrown downward and squarely distributed to the eight points of union as indicated in the above picture.
A. Wheels for the eyes.
B. Wheels for the trunk.
C. Cord for drawing trunk inward.
D. Cord for drawing trunk outward.
E. Leather thongs for operating wheels.
F. Hook from which head is suspended.
The two men “who make the elephant” fore legs and hind legs, have something else to do besides stamp about the stage. They are joined together by a yoke which fastens the neck, shoulders and arms of each man, and this yoke serves as a communication between the two men. When the front legs want to make a movement this yoke prompts the hind legs as to their action. If the front legs want to advance that movement naturally draws the hind legs. By the mechanical construction of the “beast” the rider is enabled to shift his position on the back of the elephant at will. If this law were violated or not adhered to, the elephant’s equilibrium would be upset.
The legs of the elephant are made of gutta percha and are worn precisely as trousers, and are held in position by heavy suspenders. The soles of the feet are made of heavy India rubber. The head rests upon a socket, which gives it an elephantine undulation. And in this head is a clockwork system of pulleys and wheels used by the man who plays the front legs. By this system he manipulates the trunk, tusks, eyes and ears. When the tender wants to curl the trunk inwards he inclines his head forward, grasps a tag at the end of a thong which is fastened to the trunk and by a movement of his head sets in motion a large wheel which turns so as to draw the thong tight, thus giving the desired result.
Woolson Morse, the young man who composed the music of “Wang,” is the inventor of this wonderful piece of stage mechanism, the excellence and fine adjustment of which is so apparent to the spectator who by the above description of the interior can tell “just how the wheels go round” when he witnesses “Wang.”
“Seeing the Elephant.” The Evening Herald [Syracuse] 9 Jan. 1893: 4. Fulton History. Web. 12 July 2016. <http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html>.
This article first appeared in an 1891 newspaper. The elephant discussed here was built by famed Met Opera technical director Edward Siedle.
Update: I found another article which claims this elephant was built by Woolson Morse. I now think Siedle built the elephant for the 1904 remount of this show.
Actor DeWolf Hopper’s big elephant that drinks a quart of beer every night and on Saturday afternoons at the Broadway Theater, threatens to become troublesome to the management, says the New York Sun. The elephant has been kicking vigorously for a week past. The kick comes from the elephant’s hindquarters. In order to understand the full significance of the insubordinate behavior it is necessary to explain that in private life the “Wang” elephant is Mr. James Flynn and Mr. Mike Stevens Holahan. Mr. Flynn is the accomplished front legs and beer-drinking trunk of the elephant, and Mr. Holahan is the hind legs, and it is he who initiated the kicking. Mr. Flynn shows a disposition to join in the protest, and favors an elephantine strike.
When he is not the hind legs Mr. Holahan is the property-man of the opera company. He has to look after the costumes and wax candles, spears, bits of cut paper, Wang’s treasure-chest, and a lot of other miscellaneous stuffs used in the stage production. He was requested the other night to work on Sundays, too, and look after the distribution of display posters along Broadway on that day, and to paste the posters on the bill-boards. He intimated that this was crowding him a trifle too much, and that he did not propose to dabble in paste-pots at all. The matter was compromised by hiring a professional bill-poster to do the work.
Mr. James Flynn’s complaint is based on the plain ground of overwork. Mr. Flynn is a strong man, but he asserts that it is getting to be pretty tough work on hot nights carrying Mr. de Wolf Hopper on his head, and working the trunk of the elephant at the same time. Mr. Hopper is about seven feet high and weights in proportion to his towering stature. Mr. Flynn says this weight, combined with a Turkish bath atmosphere inside the papier-mache head of the elephant, and the necessity of keeping track of the innumerable pulleys that operate the rubber trunk of the elephant, gives him a headache every night. Moreover, he says that after he escapes from his half-hour imprisonment in this oven, he has to appear as a dancing master, and lead a dance of Emperor Wang’s twelve Siamese daughters-in-law, and later he has to climb on stilts and become a high priest—considerably higher, in point of fact, than Mr. Hopper himself. Mr. Flynn says that he quits the performance completely played out after his triple achievement. Manager Ben Stevens said last night that he thought he could square matters temporarily by allowing Mr. Flynn to partake of a bumper of beer as generous as that consumed every night by the elephant.
A funny thing in connection with the discontented elephant is that any number of children and adults, too, have written to Manager Stevens to find out whether the elephant is really alive. A Broadway merchant made a bet a fortnight ago, after he had seen the elephant drink its beer, that it was really a live baby elephant. He bet a new white tile on the point.
“The Elephant Kicks.” The Morning Call [San Francisco] 8 June 1891: 7. Print.
This fifth excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878, describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.
Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878
Nor is he more necessary to pantomime and melodrama than to Shakespeare. Grimaldi, indeed, upon occasions, finding a scarcity of the appliances necessary to the business of harlequinade, resorted to the public markets, and made live pigs, ducks, and geese do duty for the usual property animals—the property-man, very likely, thinking poorly of such efforts of nature in comparison with the works of art he would have produced had time permitted; just as Mr. Johnson [Eric: His name is actually Alexander Johnston, not Johnson], the machinist of Covent Garden, viewing Chunee, the real elephant at Drury Lane, is reported to have said: ‘I should be very sorry if I couldn’t make a better elephant than that!’ But as a rule no performance is possible without the property-man. What, for instance, would ‘Macbeth’ be, bereft of its properties: its witches’ cauldron, eye of newt and toe of frog, apparitions, torches, crowned kings, the dagger with which Duncan is slain and the bloodstains which are afterwards to render Macbeth’s hands ‘a sorry sight’? How could ‘Hamlet’ be played without the partisans of Francisco and Bernardo, the fencing foils for the last scene, the poisoned cup out of which Gertrude is inadvertently to drink, the book Hamlet is to read, denouncing its slanders, the miniature portraits upon which he is to descant, and that famous skull—once adorning the shoulders of Yorick, the king’s jester—over which he is to muse?
This skull seems oftentimes to have been no figment or property of pasteboard, but a real thing—there being so many skulls about in the world, and obtainable at a small cost—although there is a story told of a sheep’s head being brought on as a property to serve the purpose of the scene, and enable Hamlet to meditate as usual and point the accustomed morals. This involved a bad compliment to the departed Yorick, however, and assumed the complete ignorance of the audience in regard to comparative anatomy. Nor is it to be believed that Hamlet could seriously repeat his philosophical speeches, gazing steadily the while at the straightened forehead of the innocent sheep. Macready relates in his Diary of his performing ‘ Hamlet’ at Boston, U.S., in 1848: ‘Was struck at the grave scene with the extraordinary weight of the skull which was given to me. I thought it was loaded; then it occurred to me it might be filled with earth—but no. Mr. Ayling observed to me it might be a negro’s skull; looking at the receding forehead, I perceived it was so. But, directly, this circumstance seemed to confirm to me Agassiz’s theory, that the brain did not develop itself after childhood; the brain does not grow, but the bone does. The weight of this skull went in confirmation of this ingenious theory.’ Of a subsequent performance at Richmond in the same year he writes: ‘Acted Hamlet, taking much pains, and, as I thought, acting well; but the audience testified neither sensibility nor enthusiasm, and I suppose it was either not good or “caviare to the general.” They gave me the skull, for Yorick’s, of a negro who was hung two years ago for cutting down his overseer.’
(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 290-291.)
I have elephants on the mind today; I’m not sure why.
This elephant is from a French show in 2006 called “Visit From The Sultan Of The Indies On His Time-Travelling Elephant”. It was designed by François Delarozière, made mostly of wood and needed 22 handlers to operate its hydraulics and motors. But wait, there’s more.