Tag Archives: magic

First Prop Links of December

Get Up Close With the Props of Dear Evan Hansen – Take a look backstage at the hit Broadway show to see how the props are stored. This series of photos is a great look at all the minute detail that goes into preparing seemingly ordinary props. Even the most mundane details have some story behind it, or some kind of trick rigged into it to make the show run smoothly and consistently.

Woman’s Day Magazine’s Star Wars Playset Designs (1978, 1980) – In two separate issues in 1978 and 1980, Woman’s Day Magazine published plans and instructions to construct Star Wars playsets for the popular action figures. These plans had you build them fully from scratch, using sheets of plywood, plastic, laminates, and other raw materials. This article includes links to the original plans as well, so grab them while you can!

The Secret Tools Magicians Use to Fool You – In another photo series, Louis De Belle has photographed devices used by magicians for his upcoming book, and shares a few of them with us here. He doesn’t actually give away how any of the tricks work, but it is a fun exercise to guess what each magical prop accomplishes.

National Theatre explores “exquisite miniature world” of stage set models – The National Theatre in London has an exhibition of some of the set design models for shows that have been produced there since the 1970s. The exhibition runs until March 2019, and was curated by Eleanor Margolies, author of Props (Readings in Theatre Practice).

Magic Music Box

A few months ago I was contacted by Hershey Park about building a magical music box. They were doing a Christmas show and wanted an exquisite antique music box owned by Santa. It had wood inlay designs and brass details. The actors would dance with it, but they wanted it to be able to light up, emit fog, and have the winding handle turn on its own.

Exterior of box
Exterior of box

This was a tight turnaround; 34 days from initial contact to having the prop in their hands. Nearly half of that was just hashing out the design and working on the contract.

Interior of box
Interior of box

The inside of the lid had an inscription and some inlay work. The inside of the box itself had a music box mechanism and a variety of floating gears.

Spinning handle
Spinning handle

The handle could be turned by the actor, and it also spun magically. The inside of the box lit up as well.

Fog effect
Fog effect

Oh yeah, a puff of magic smoke also came out of the box. The lights, fog, and spinning handle could all be activated independently of each other, triggered by a wireless dimmer hidden inside.

I was really proud of how this turned out. These are the kinds of projects I love doing.

Friday Props in the News

A lot of articles on props people came out this past week. Great news for those of us who like to read!

Southern California Public Radio had a talk with Jim Elyea, founder of History for Hire, the famed prop house out in Los Angeles. The interview is just under six minutes long, and well worth a listen.

Steve Levine has been a prop master for 40 years, working on films like Airplane!, Cocoon, and Apollo 13. Check out this great interview with him where he goes into detail about his lengthy career. He also has a book coming out soon, which is probably the first book about working as a Hollywood props master.

Like magic? William J. Schmeelk builds magic props and illusions for some of the top magicians in the country. Check out this article and video about his unique business.

In sadder news, Joe Longo has passed away. He was a long time prop master for Star Trek, working on The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, the first five seasons of The Next Generation, and all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine. Trekcore has a collection of old interviews of Joe, including a video, while Star Trek.com has some remembrances by long-time colleagues of Longo.

Magically-Appearing Flags

This past summer, our production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at the Santa Fe Opera had a lot of tricks. Like… a lot of them. One trick I worked on was a set of magically-appearing flags. The set had seven flag poles along one wall, and during one big moment of pomp and circumstance, the design team wanted flags to suddenly appear on them. The idea is kind of like those “bang” flags that pop out of guns in the cartoons.

Flag tubes
Flag tubes

The basic mechanism behind the trick is that each flagpole has a second pole which sleeves inside. The two poles have slightly less than half of their surface notched out, as you can see in the photo above. The outer pole is fixed in place on the set, while the inner pole can spin around inside. So you can spin the inner pole to a position where the whole flag pole looks like a solid rod, and the flag is trapped inside. Then when you spin the inner pole around so the notches line up, the flag is free to drop down.

You can watch it all in action in the video below. The video also shows how I rigged the tubes so they could be activated by pulling a string off-stage, since there was no room on set to activate them directly.


Nathan Santucci

photograph by Leila Navidi
photograph by Leila Navidi

The Las Vegas Sun has a little article about Nathan Santucci, the prop-builder for Penn and Teller.

Good ‘magic’ is bloody science – Las Vegas Sun.

Santucci – who has many skills, including woodworking, plastic working, milling, welding, painting and SCUBA diving for underwater props – spends most of his days with blood on his hands and his clothes and the seat of his car. It gets everywhere.

Mostly this is because of the trick where the guys use a timber mill-size circular saw to cut their lovely assistant in half.

The article also has a great story about a fake snake.

I’ve always thought trick props can be approached in the same way as magic props. Building a prop for a stage illusion requires the same sort of creative thinking and knowledge of mechanics, pneumatics, electronics, and other control systems.

Unfortunately, information about magic is a closely guarded secret. Information in books tends to focus on sleight-of-hand tricks, or well-known illusions. Magic websites suffer from being overwhelmed by spam sites, link farms, and plain old con jobs.

Surprisingly (or not), some of the best information on these kinds of tricks can be found on DIY Halloween decoration websites.