I like this article with interviews of the original creators and operators of Jabba the Hut. It’s unfortunate that, these days, he is made entirely in CGI. At least you can still find giant puppets in theatre,.
Speaking of How to be a Retronaut, I’m adding it to the sidebar as a permanent link because it continues to be so incredible. It’s constantly updated with photographs and video from throughout history, in particular color film from periods you didn’t know had color film. At the site, you can search their posts by decade too. It’s not the most comprehensive source for research imagery, but it has a lot of pictures you can’t find anywhere else.
Playbill has an article on Charlie Rasmussen, the oldest active member of IATSE Local One. At 85, he is still running 8 shows a week of Sister Act as the head carpenter. He gives a great answer when asked why he chose show business: “An old-timer told me years ago that if I was going to work with my hands, I should go where I’m going to make the most money.”
The fan of both horror and theatre is sure to have heard of Grand Guignol. Though a producer of a variety of works, the infamous Parisian theatre is best known for its horror plays performed in the years leading up to World War II. Founded in 1894 by Oscar Méténier, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol offered up stories such as Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations, by André de Lorde: A doctor performs gruesome brain surgery his wife’s new-found lover. The man is turned into an insane zombie and plunges a chisel into the doctor’s brain. Anyone familiar with EC Comics will recognize the kind of plots this theatre performed.
When a theatre regularly displays amputations, burning in acid, eviscerations, stabbings and all other manner of violent actions, a prop person may ask: how realistic were these effects, and how were they pulled off?
Perhaps one of the best kept secrets of the Grand Guignol was their fake blood. Many sources speak in fascination that it would congeal after a few minutes like real blood. Mel Gordon, a theatre Professor at U.C. Berkeley and Grand Guignol expert, says that the base is made of a heated mixture of equal parts carmine and glycerin (Callboard magazine, April, 1996). Carmine is a bright red pigment made by boiling dried insects; you can find paints which use that pigment, though finding it in its pure form is more difficult and necessitates looking for specialty online stores. You can still buy glycerin at drug stores and online. It is often added to stage blood to give it a bit of sheen under the lights. Further justification for this theory is found in a Time Magazine article entitled “The Theater: Murders in the Rue Chaptal” from March, 1947:
The theater has a secret recipe for blood; when the stuff cools it coagulates and makes scabs. Thrill-hungry customers in the small auditorium get a dividend when they overhear the hoarse backstage whisper: “Vite [tr: quickly], Edmond! Warm up the blood.”
Edmond Beauvais was the chief propman of the theatre in the mid-1940s. The last director of the theatre, Charles Nonon, personally mixed nine different shades of blood daily (Time Magazine, November 30, 1962). We learn more about the possible ingredients of this fake blood from two articles about the tour of Grand Guignol which hit San Francisco in 1950. Director Robert T. Eley called on local druggist Barnes-Hind for a 2 percent solution of “methyd cellulose” (Five Star Final, April 10, 1950) and (Pace, Michael Farriday, March 1951). I’m going to make the assumption that both of these articles are actually talking about “methyl-cellulose”. It thickens in cold water and gels when heat is added. You can buy it in its pure form or find it in popular constipation medications; it was used to make the ectoplasm in Ghostbusters. Blood which did not need to flow could be made from currant jelly (“The Relationship between Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol and the Cinema 1897-1962”, Sean J. O’Leary, 2005).
Nonon also made viscera from red rubber hose and sponges soaked in blood. Taxidermists supplied animal eyeballs, which he coated in aspic (a clear jelly made from meat stock) and stuffed with anchovies marinated in blood (Time, 1962). Sheep’s eyes were popular, but any animal would suffice because then the eyeball could bounce when dropped (Callboard, 1996). Edible eyeballs were made by a local confectioner’s shop (Pace, 1951). A tongue that was ripped out was made of rubber (Five Star Final, 1950) and (Pace, 1951). According to The Columbia encyclopedia of modern drama, Paul Ratineau, the stage manager, depended on the daily delivery of fresh animal parts by local butchers.
In order to deliver the goods, a variety of devices and trick props were required. These included rubber knives, concealed bladders, tubes and small, strategically located steam pipes (See Magazine, March, 1950), a dagger squirting “blood” from a vial hidden in an actor’s hand, quick flaming powders, a table with props hidden in upstage drawers (The New York Times Magazine, P.E. Schneider, March 1957). Daggers with retractable blades could also squirt blood from the handles; Mel Gordon explains that “a turkey baster, rubber ball, or an eye dropper could provide a good base for building a blood squirting knife” (Callboard, 1996).
In the photograph below, we see how some trick knives are like the classic “arrow-through-the-head” gag prop, where the two halves are separated by a metal clasp which fits around the actor’s limb.
Gordon also explains how the Guignol-eurs chopped off a man’s hand:
Cutting off a man’s hand is easier than it sounds. Stiffen a glove with glue water so it holds it’s shape and paint it like a real hand. The actor wearing the glove should still be able to move his fingers a bit. When the hand is chopped off the “chopper” removes the glove and the “chopee” moves his hand up into his cuff which is reinforced with a cardboard tube and fitted with a blood pack. The stiffened glove should hold it’s shape perfectly as the unwilling amputee writhes in pain (Callboard, 1996).
Another eye-popping effect involves hiding a fake eye in the hollowed-out handle of a spoon. Conversely, an actress could wear a plaster or latex quarter mask which holds a fake (sheep’s) eye, lactose powder, and a blood capsule. If she wears her hair over that half of her face (“Veronica Lake” style), the effect would be quite flawless (Callboard, 1996). Mel Gordon describes a more complicated eye-gouging device:
The retractable blade of the knife moves into the handle which squirts blood when pressed against the victim’s face. Affixed to the end of the handle is a piece of adhesive “skin” (latex or lamb skin) with a slit to allow the blade to move through it. As the handle is pressed against the victims eye the sticky “skin” is pressed to the eyelid leaving a gory empty eye socket. When the knife handle is pulled away the blade is released back into position. The actor with the knife squeezes a air pump in the handle and a rubber eyeball on the end of the knife inflates. The eye appears to be impaled on the tip of the knife. Many magic shops sell an inflatable ball and pump mechanism that could work as a base for this prop (Callboard, 1996).
Much of the development of the theatre’s effects are due to the above-mentioned Paul Ratineau. Many of the tricks were secret; some were even patented. Most were devilishly simple though. Their power and Ratineau’s cleverness did not come solely from the tricks though. He overcame a number of challenges. First, the stage itself was only twenty feet by twenty feet large, with the audience close enough to shake hands with the actors (“Theatre du Grand Guignol,” The Drama Review. Frantisek Deak, 1974). Second, the tricks needed to work consistently, in full view of the audience, and while the actors performed in character with other actors in the height of often-crazed emotions.
It should be no surprise then, that Ratineau also developed much of the Grand Guignol’s characteristic lighting. Besides setting the mood, the lighting could hide the imperfections in the prop trickery as well as guide the audience’s eyes to where it was desired. Similarly, the arrangement of the scenery and objects on stage combined with the blocking served to direct or misdirect the audience’s attention (O’Leary, 2005). Sound effects (also pioneered by Ratineau) were critical in bridging the gap between what an audience sees and what they imagine they are witnessing. Finally, dramatic tension and the power of marketing helped sell the bloodshed portrayed on stage by warming the audience up to a heightened level of expectation. The mystery of the special effects themselves added to the legend surrounding the Grand Guignol. In other words, the actual trick props, while clever, might seem crude and unrefined when studied under normal light and out of the context of the performances.
When money became tight, the theatre would prefer to stab women rather than men, because their smaller costumes were cheaper to clean. For head wounds, men were the victims because their short hair was easier to wash (Schneider, 1957). Schneider goes on to recount some of the more serious mishaps and accidents:
Naturally, all this gruesomeness is sheer illusion, but the sham is not always devoid of risk. Once, during an actress’ simulated hanging, the protective device broke and she almost did get hanged. Another recently was burned by the flame of a revolver. In “Orgy in the Lighthouse,” the heroine suffered even more; on one night, she almost caught fire; on another, her male partner began to live his part a bit too much and beat her up in earnest, so that she was forced to go off to the country to nurse a nervous breakdown.
See? Gore and horror aren’t always happy fun times.
Molière (1622-1673) performed his plays in Paris, where theatres were inside and lit by candles. He performed at the salle du Petit-Bourbon at the Louvre, followed by the Palais-Royal. Finally, he performed some of his works at Versailles for King Louis XIV. We know quite a bit about the acting styles, the sceneography, and the costumes of his time. But how were props dealt with? Where did they come from, and who was in charge of them?
We can piece together information of how Molière acquired and used props by looking at the general theatre conditions in France at the time. We also have some actual surviving props from his theatre company, and several record books. The picture which forms is similar to conditions in theatres of adjoining countries and eras, such as Elizabethan England. There is some form of bureaucratic control in the theatre buildings, including people responsible for commissioning props. There does not appear to be “prop makers” or “prop masters” per se; rather, the theatre troupes, composed of the actors and a manager, are responsible for maintaining their own stock of props for the shows they perform (this, of course, is where the term “property” comes from).
General Theatre Conditions
The French theatre in Molière’s time customarily employed several people. The decorateur, or theatrical painter, decoraged the stage and auditorium. He worked with the machinest to produce all the scenery and machines.
The official now called the Régisseur in those days went by the name of premier garçon de théâtre; he had to superintend all the properties and keep account of them, to supervise the supers or assistants used in the different plays, and to see that “all who appear before the public are decently dressed and wear proper shows and stockings.” He also performed small parts, rang the bell when the play was to begin, and warned the actors when it was their turn to enter. Under his orders there were four stage-servants, half “machinists,” half call-boys.
We can glean some more information from L’Impromptu de Versailles (The Impromptu at Versailles, written in 1663). This one-act farce by Molière was written in response to criticisms against him, and the actors in this troupe played exaggerated versions of themselves as they rehearse a new play. We can pull off-handed remarks about the props and their use to construct a bit of information about standard practices of Molière and his company. For example, in scene IV, Molière instructs his actors: “Those coffres, Mesdames, will serve you for easy-chairs.” The actors obey; we can assume that the actors would have been familiar with using rehearsal furniture at least some of the time, otherwise they would have expressed objection or confusion. The French word “coffres” translates to “chests” or “trunks”. As for the easy-chair, the fauteuil was an upholstered arm chair popular at that time.
The chair is a Louis XIII style armchair made of wood, upholstered with black sheepskin, and set on casters. It is 4 feet by 2 feet 2 inches by 2 feet 8 inches (123 x 68 x 82 cm). It was first used in 1673 by Molière for the premiere of Le Malade imaginaire, and is the chair he died on during the performance. It was used by successive actors playing Argan until 1879. That’s 209 years, math-wizard. At that point, it had become so worn that a replica was made for the current Argan and the original placed on display.
A nitecap worn by Argan (played by Molière) is also housed there.
An engraving of a 1674 remount of The Imaginary Invalid (the year after Molière’s death) shows the stage picture.
The armchair appears to be the only set prop. Set dressing is nonexistent. The only hand props are the fan, and the spears held by the guards on the far sides of the stage. Really, the fan should be considered a personal prop. At this time in France, it was the actress’s (and actor’s) responsibility to costume herself, even at great expense. Conceivably, the fan could have been her personal property as well. Since the plays at the time used archetypal characters, and the settings were very consistent, one might surmise that props were mostly pulled from their stock, which would have been fairly modest. After all, if they used the same armchair for 209 years, the modern convention of purchasing and constructing new props for every single production was probably not practiced at that time.
Other information for reconstructing the public performances are found in 4 existing accounting books kept by Molière’s company. Basic production costs covered include lighting, heat, printing and posting of playbills, and wages to production staff and theatre personnel, such as the concierge, copyist and prompter, orchestra, ticket-seller and ticket-taker, door monitors, the décorateur, actors’ domestics, ushers, and candle-snuffer. Extraordinary expenses include building and operating stage machines, fabricating costumes and stage properties, wages paid to singers, instrumentalists, and dancers.
One of these accounting books is the register of Charles Varlet de la Grange. He was an actor in Molière’s troupe and kept a daily account of the business dealings, as well as major events in the members’ lives. You can check out a description and photos of La Grange’s register, or read Édouard Thierry’s edition (in French). By studying this register, we can find out what props were used in his various plays, and whether there were any “prop” tricks. For example, in L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), first performed in 1662, props mentioned include a chair in III.2 and a purse with some counters to serve as coins for I.4.
According to La Grange’s reports, Le Malade imaginaire received a lavish staging with “the prologue and intermèdes filled with dances, vocal music, and stage properties”. The theatre troupe had to order the wood, iron, and canvas for carpenters, upholsterers, and painters. The first two carpenters were named Caron and Jacques Portrait. The workers were paid by the day. For its 1674 revival, La Grange listed the following production expenses: menuisiers (carpenters), ouvriers et assistans (workers who operated the machinery and set-changes), 2 laquais et decorateur (2 lackeys and the set-designer), and surcroist de chandel (candle supplement).
Similar records can be found in registers by La Thorillière and Hubert, two more members of Molière troupe. You can read the original register of La Thorillière (in French) for more fun.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies