Tag Archives: humor

The Covetous Property Man, 1904

The following first appeared in The New York Times, July 24, 1904:

“There is no more assiduous collector of odds and ends than the average theatrical property man,” said a well-known actor. “Everything is fish for his net, you might say, and the contents of the chest or trunk of one of these individuals after a forage through the country would easily hold its own with Dickens’s famous curiosity shop…

“If you wish to find out the thoroughness with which the average property man accumulates, just ask him for any article, I don’t care what, and see if nine times out of ten he won’t produce it.”

“By accident I was a witness once of the manner in which a property man adds a coveted object to his collection. Our show was playing at Richmond, Va., at the time. Among the ‘props’ furnished by the theatre’s property man was a handsome rifle, which he had borrowed from a local firearms firm for the week.

“On Friday I had occasion to go to the theatre to get something I had forgotten. As I made my way to the dressing rooms I noticed our company’s property man standing to one side of the darkened stage, in a ray of sunlight, examining this rifle with the air of a connoisseur. There was nobody else in the theatre at the time, and he apparently had not seen me. I would probably have passed him by unnoticed but for the fact that he was holding a conversation with himself, which ran thus:

“‘You seem to be a pretty nice gun,’ he said, holding the rifle up to his shoulder and running his eye critically along the sights.

“‘Ever been on the road?‘ he continued, carefully scrutinizing the stock of the weapon.

“‘Why, you have no idea what a lot of fun you can have out on the road,’ he kept on seductively. ‘A great deal better than being stuck in a little town like this.

“‘How would you like to go on the road?‘ he queried, as if he had a sudden inspiration.

“‘You would? All right. I think I can fix it for you.’

“And he made for his trunk to see if he could lay in the rifle crosswise. He was just able to get it in, and the last words I heard him say to the enraptured weapon were:

“‘I’ll sign you with this company right away.‘”

Originally published in The New York Times, July 24, 1904.

Macready and his Deer Skin

This is the final excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It 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.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

When Macready produced ‘As You Like It,’ with great completeness, at Drury Lane in 1842, he was anxious to procure a real deer-skin for exhibition in the forest scenes, and by way of illustration of the song ‘ What shall he have that killed the deer?’ The Duke of Beaufort seems to have gathered that some difficulty had arisen in the matter. Macready enters in his Diary: ‘The Duke of Beaufort called and inquired of me about the deer-skin I wanted for “As You Like It.” He very courteously and kindly said he would send to Badminton, and if there was not one ready he would desire his keeper to send one express. It was extremely kind,’ concludes the tragedian, evidently deeply touched by the ducal interest in a stage property.

Only one word more about stage properties.

Mr. Three-stars, the eminent tragedian about to appear for the first time upon a provincial stage, made express inquiries concerning ‘the acoustic properties’ of the house. Thereupon the anxious property-man rushed into the presence of the manager. ‘We have not got all the properties yet, sir; Mr. Three-stars wants the acoustic properties.’ ‘Get them at once, then; let Mr. Three-stars have everything he wants!’ was the prompt reply of the energetic manager.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pg. 293.)

Props at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776

This is the second excerpt in a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It 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

In the ‘Tatler,’ No. 42, [Eric: published July 16, 1709] Addison supplies a humorous list of properties, alleged to be for sale in consequence of the closing of Drury Lane Theatre. Notice is given, in mimicry of an auctioneer’s advertisement, that a ‘magnificent palace with great variety of gardens, statues, and waterworks, may be bought cheap in Drury Lane, where there are likewise several castles to be disposed of, very delightfully situated; as also groves, woods, forests, fountains, and country seats with very pleasant prospects on all sides of them: being the moveables of Christopher Rich, Esquire, [the manager,] who is giving up housekeeping, and has many curious pieces of furniture to dispose of, which may be seen between the hours of six and ten in the evening.’ Among the items enumerated appear the following:

A new moon, something decayed.

A rainbow a little faded.

A setting sun.

A couch very finely gilt and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap.

Roxana’s nightgown.

Othello’s handkerchief.

A serpent to sting Cleopatra.

An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Cæsar, Bajazet, King Henry VIII., and Signor Valentini. The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once.

This was an allusion to Cibber’s feeble tragedy of ‘Xerxes,’ which was produced at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1699, and permitted one performance only.

The whiskers of a Turkish bassa.

The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox: consisting of a large piece of burnt cork and a coal-black peruke.

A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz. a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet holes upon the breast.

Six elbow chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flowerpots for their partners.

These articles of furniture, of a mechanical or trick sort, employed in pantomimes, are referred to in a letter published at a later date in the ‘Spectator’ from William Screene, who describes himself as having acted ‘several parts of household stuff with great applause for many years. I am,’ he continues, ‘one of the men in the hangings of the Emperor of the Moon; I have twice performed the third chair in an English opera; and have rehearsed the pump in the “Fortune Hunters.”‘ Another correspondent, Ralph Simple, states that he has ‘several times acted one of the finest flower-pots in the same opera wherein Mr. Screene is a chair,’ &c.

A plume of feathers never used but by Å’dipus and the Earl of Essex.

Modern plots, commonly known by the name of trapdoors, ladders of ropes, vizard masques, and tables with broad carpets over them.

A wild boar killed by Mrs. Tofts and Dioclesian.

Mrs. Tofts, as the Amazonian heroine of the opera of ‘Camilla,’ by Marc Antonio Buononcini, was required to slay a wild boar upon the stage. A letter published in the ‘Spectator’ professed to be written by the performer of the wild boar: ‘Mr. Spectator,— Your having been so humble as to take notice of the epistles of other animals emboldens me, who am the wild boar that was killed by Mrs. Tofts, to represent to you that I think I was hardly used in not having the part of the lion in Hydaspes given to me. …As for the little resistance which I made, I hope it may be excused when it is considered that the dust was thrown at me by so fair a hand.’

The list concludes:

There are also swords, halberds, sheephooks, cardinals’ hats, turbans, drums, gallipots, a gibbet, a cradle, a rack, a cartwheel, an altar, a helmet, a back-piece, a breast-plate, a bell, a tub, and a jointed baby.

But this supposititious catalogue is scarcely more comical than the genuine inventory of properties, &c., belonging to the Theatre Royal in Crow Street, Dublin, 1776. A few of the items may be quoted:

Bow, quiver, and bonnet for Douglas.

Jobson’s bed. (For the farce of’ The Devil to Pay.’)

Juliet’s bier.

Juliet’s balcony.

A small map for Lear.

Tomb for the Grecian Daughter.

One shepherd’s hat.

Four small paper tarts.

Three pasteboard covers for dishes.

An old toy fiddle.

One goblet.

Twenty-eight candlesticks for dressing, and six washing basons, one broke, and four black pitchers.

Eleven metal thunder-bolts, sixty-seven wood ditto, fivo stone ditto.

Three baskets for thunder balls.

Rack in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Elephant in ‘ The Enchanted Lady,’ very bad.

Alexander’s car.

One pair of sea-horses.

Six gentlemen’s helmets.

Altar piece in ‘ Theodosius.’

The statue of Osiris.


Frost scene in ‘ King Arthur.’

One sedan chair for the pantomime.

The scaffold in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Several old pantomime tricks and useless pieces of scenes.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 284-286.)

Props Summit Tonight, and Fun Links for the Weekend

Piles of swag for the gift bags
Piles of swag for the gift bags

Still not sure whether you should come to the 3rd Annual Props Summit in New York City tonight? Even though we will have a guest speaker? What if I told you that you’ll get a gift bag filled with goodies? Jay Duckworth has been making some phone calls and sending some emails to get all sorts of cool prop stuff for everyone who shows up, from companies such as Rosco and Rose Brand.

As for those who can’t make it, here are some links to brighten your day:

Dave Lowe has a well done video showing a quick paint treatment to simulate rust. He uses just three paint colors and an old paintbrush.

Mr. Jalopy has a quick welding primer over at Make: Projects. It’s short and sweet, but has some nice photos.

Collector’s Weekly brings us this tour through a fake vomit factory. Not only do you see how this gag (get it?) is made, but you get the whole back story on its history (via Mark Frauenfelder).

Finally, here’s a brief anecdote about Michelangelo carving the David statue, illustrating one of the many ways to deal with a picky designer.

How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator

I don’t have the author of the following piece, nor could I locate the original source. In fact, it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere on the internet. So if anyone knows the originator of the following essay, I would love to hear about it. And for the rest of you, it’s too entertaining not to share.

How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator

Set decorator is a euphemism for set dresser. Often effeminate stagehands, dressers are really outside prop men, and all they do for a living is shop. Occasionally, a few great set decorators will go down in the anals of this business, but most set decorators just shop and steal.

Stealing is required in set decorating, and if you aspire to this vocation you must learn several forms of stealing. The most common forms of stealing are lying, kickbacks and false billing. Lying is simple; put in for cabs and, in reality, walk everywhere you go. Bill six hours for looking for just-the-right wicker basket, when you really took five minutes to order it blind by telephone. Kickbacks are almost automatic; do your shopping at the most over-priced prop house in your area, and make sure you get yours regularly. For false billing, either get your own forms and bills, or walk into a store and say, “See that $25 item? I’ll give you 50 bucks for it if you’ll give me a receipt for $100.”

Let us say you follow my advice so far, and you land yourself a job as an outside prop man. So big deal, you are shopping, stealing and swishing—that does not make you a great; no one is looking up to you. You have got to be better.

To be a great, not just good, set decorator you must develop your sources. See if you can go an entire year without buying or renting a single item from anyone you did not set up in business. Develop companies of your relatives and friends. Buy an item on Monday, use it on a one-time-only basis on a show on Tuesday, and return it for full credit early Wednesday. (If anyone asks where it went, say the star’s lover asked for it.)

Now start using terms like rococo, art deco and chiaroscuro. Use the word “period” constantly. “It just isn’t the right period. I won’t do it, period. I have my period.” As soon as anybody threatens your territory shout at him, saying he wouldn’t know the difference between Corinthian and Doric. Get close to the star of the show and use your best baloney. Tell her she would look great against an Etruscan escutcheon, and you will be the envy of the entire studio.