Tag Archives: new york times

David Belasco and Set Dressing

The following is excerpted from an article entitled “How and When David Belasco Goes Hunting for Atmosphere”, written by Adolph Klauber, which first appeared in The New York Times on October 2, 1904.

David Belasco
David Belasco

“Gentlemen, I have found some pawn tickets–in this room above all others in my house! There under that pile of music!”

“Pawn tickets! Anton! His cuckoo clock–two dollars.”

“That was the first thing I missed–that cuckoo–evenin’s.”

The foregoing is a bit of conversation indulged in by Miss Houston of Houston Street and the musician friends of Herr von Barwig, who came to town last Monday night in the person of David Warfield, at the Belasco Theatre. The dialogue in itself is only important as illustrating a point–the point of this discussion on atmosphere in the theatre and how David Belasco goes out to get it.

It’s an interesting process to watch, and a lot of people who gasped and said: “Ah, how very natural,” “Just the sort of room real people live in,” and “Don’t it look just like an old print,” with other comment of the usual sort that people indulge in when a master of stagecraft reveals his finished work, would have gasped several times more if they could have witnessed the making of this reality and understood how many seemingly trivial details go to create the sum total of naturalness on the stage. The importance of lights, the necessity for correct scenic accessory, the value of color on the emotions–these are rather old and hackneyed themes dragged out and dusted and set up to be admired every time a manager comes along with a play in which the scenes are laid somewhere near home in an environment with which most people are supposed to be familiar. It is different if the place of action, for instance, is some rocky foreign coast or cheerless desert place, where the artist may let his imagination run riot, satisfied that few if any people will know whether his picture does or does not look like the real thing. But though many persons who go to the Belasco these nights may never have seen the inside of a New York boarding house, there are few who will not have formed some sort of a mental picture of how a room in one of the old homes of fashion gone to seed would be likely to look under such conditions as are exploited in Mr. Klein’s play.

Over the mantel in the Houston Street room occupied by the struggling German musician, with whom New Yorkers are alternately laughing and crying these nights, you may happen to notice a spot on the wall where the kalsomining seems cleaner than elsewhere in the room. For a time you may wonder how it happened that in the general distribution of grime and grit this little cupola-shaped place escaped. The pawn ticket and the cuckoo clock allusion provide the explanation. That was the spot where the German’s treasured timepiece hung–before biting, nipping poverty, which so illy combines with artistic pride, forced him to make a visit to his “uncle,” a relative who in time of need and trouble makes no distinctions in birth or nationality, who is as ready to take interest in–or from–a German as an Englishman, an Irishman, or a native of the soil.

But pause to think about that little clean spot on the wall. Isn’t that going pretty far to get realism? Not one person in ten thousand would have thought of it. The obvious is readily apparent to any practical stage manager. But it is the little, elusive trifles like this that make perfection, that perfection which, from the copy books first, and from long trying since, we learned is no trifle. That bit of clean wall illustrates in an unmistakable way just why David Belasco is head and shoulders above other stage managers when it comes to realizing “atmosphere.”

[Eric: I cut a bit out here; these old-timey articles sure like to talk and talk without saying anything interesting. But I also wanted to point out how in 1904, the stage manager acted like our modern scenic designers. Also, the author uses the word “atmosphere” to describe our modern concept of “set dressing”. Back to the story.]

Before that last Sunday night rehearsal Belasco had used his biggest, broadest methods; and apparently not been satisfied with the result he now got down to fine and delicate details. Standing out in the empty, darkened auditorium he watched half a dozen men at work, every now and then tugging nervously at his gray front lock, moving from one seat to another, standing in the centre of the house, then down close to the footlights, or next far back in the gloom of the last seat in the topmost gallery.

One man on the stage was plying a great brush vigorously touching up the walls, the woodwork, and the furniture. That wall needed a bit more aging. The man applied his brush.

“No, No!” came from Belasco in a moment. “No more.” “It’s only water, Governor,” said the man with the brush. “It won’t change the color.”

“All right, then, go ahead. Don’t want to overdo it.” Then turning quickly to another of his assistants, “I want all that furniture polished; make it shine. We’ve got to make them see that Miss Houston is a good housekeeper. But those globes up there. Well, she’s too old to climb up there. They’re too clean. Take ’em down. They want to look as if they’d never been washed. Now mind, no paint on them. Get dirt, real dirt.”

Probably nine out of every ten people at the Belasco Theatre Monday night and since haven’t noticed a pile of old books lying in a shelf near the back of the stage. If they happened to notice them at all the chances are their eyes wandered aimlessly over the pile without taking any special note of the contents. Would they have done so if Belasco at that last rehearsal had not suddenly spotted an error like this:

“Thos books you’ve got in there”–this to the property man–”look like law books. Barwig wouldn’t give law books house room. Throw out those calfskin-covered things. Get some old Gartenlaubes. I want books there that suggest German literature. Got that down?”

The property man, who had been busy with his pencil, made a note, and Belasco was evidently satisfied with his promise to have the books on hand next morning.

Then came a funny bit of atmosphere hunting.

The old Houston Street house, once a home of wealth and fashion, boasts an old style chandelier, one of the kind with pendant crystal prisms, familiar to all of our grandfathers and to some of us. The chandelier used is the real thing, but Belasco from his point of view down in the orchestra chair suddenly observes:

“That chandelier is too well preserved. Remember there is a family of acrobats who do stunts and fall on the floor above. Even without the shaking they give it–well, it’s an old-timer, anyway! Here, let me have that.”

And in a twinkling he had snatched a hammer from the hand of a stage carpenter, mounted a small step ladder, and with a few deft strokes broken a prism here and there and sent a few of them whirling bodily to the floor.”

Then with a satisfied air he stood back and surveyed the result.

Are the rugs just the right color, or will a greener floor covering here or a dull yellow one there be better for the purpose? Is that coal scuttle just the thing, or will one a bit more old-fashioned be more in keeping with the set, at the same time in harmony with the general tone of the scenic picture–for a jarring note of color is often as bad as an actual anachronism. That fact is emphasized when the stage has finally been set for the second act revealing a Fifth Avenue interior in delicious greens.

“I want a bowl of flowers on that table,” says Belasco. In a few minutes the property man appears bearing a bunch of rich red roses. Belasco tugs at his curl and fidgets all over.

“No, no, no. That will never do. That red will send the whole thing awry. No brilliant red on the stage in this scene. Never. Never.”

The audience might not know why instead of listening to Mr. Warfield’s speeches its eyes were wandering up to a girl with a red rose on her corsage. But Belasco knows that red is a persuasive, compelling color that sometimes forces recognition when you don’t want to give it. American Beauties are used, but their color is not obtrusive.

Those are things that the master stage manager must know and think about. Those are the things that go to make perfection–things that are subtle, but oh, how potent in the mimic world! And the greatest stage manager is the one who has most feeling for just such seemingly little things which in the end create the semblance of reality and maintain it. And when a man after six or eight weeks of the most minute and detailed preparation, not to speak of months of closet study based on the results of years of labor and experience, still finds at the eleventh hour that there are a thousand and one little things that he can amend and improve, when no labor and no expense are too great to him to attain his end, he is pretty sure to get some results. When Belasco goes hunting for atmosphere he bags his game.

Friday Funnies

Here are some whimsical tales to tickle your funny bone on this Friday.

When Macready opened in “Lear” at the Nottingham Theatre the “property man” received his plot for the play in the unsual manner, a map being required among the many articles–(map highly necessary for Lear to divide his Kingdom.) The property-man, being illiterate, read mop for map. At night the tragedy commences; Macready, in full stage on his throne, calls for his map; a supernumerary “noble,” kneeling, presents the aged King a white curly mop. The astounded actor rushed off the stage, dragging the unfortunate nobleman and his mop with him, actors and audience wild with delight.

-The New York Times. February 6, 1881

Imagine King Lear being handed a mop! Priceless! This next chestnut is quite a gem as well.

The other night the critical scene in “Iris,” in which Oscar Asche “breaks up housekeeping,” was almost spoiled by a property man. To avenge a fancied wrong the man glued down the vases on the mantle which Mr. Asche breaks first. When that trying scene came Mr. Asche turned Iris into the streets as usual, and turned to the vases. With a sweep of his hand he struck them. They were so firmly glued, however, that only the tops were broken by the blow–and Mr. Asche’s hand incidentally bruised. A property man is now looking for a new job.

-The New York Times. November 2, 1902

Oh that wacky property man! This final anecdote takes place at one of the first theatres I worked at professionally.

Another story which has to do with edibles on the stage used to be told by Joseph Jefferson, who described the incident as happening in the early days of the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. “Camille” was the piece that was being played and all was going beautifully. Then came a scene between Camille and Armand, in the course of which a a servant was to enter with lights. “In those days,” said Mr. Jefferson, “Sea Island cotton was stage ice cream, just as molasses and water was stage wine.”

Armand and Camille were seated at the table and the crowded house was rapturuously following their scene. Then in came the maidservant with the wobbliest sort of a candelabrum, but the scene was so tense that nobody seemed to notice her. However, as she set down her burden between the lovers one of the candles toppled over and set fire to the ice cream. That was more than the audience could stand and the curtain was rung down.

-The New York Times. June 5, 1910

Sounds like that show was “on fire” that night! I hope these quirky little tales leave you smiling for the weekend.

The Agonies of a Stage Manager, 1914

The following was written by Arthur Fitzgerald and originally printed in the New York Times, November 22, 1914. It included the following bio of the author:

Mr. Fitzgerald is the stage manager of “The Law of the Land,” the grisly melodrama by George Broadhurst, which has been running all Fall at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre, with Julia Dean in the role of the woman who kills her husband, to the great delight of many audiences.


Fine productions are seen in New York. Certainly nothing finer exists than the American housing of plays. Contrary to an all to general opinion, the staging of plays in America is not reckless. Lavish, yes, in the outlay of money, but painstaking always. The producers are not “satisfied with anything.” I have known one man to replace a single chair seven times because it did not blend with the room.

In our play, “The Law of the Land,” this exactness has been instilled into every one “back stage,” so that our stage machinery works like a perfect clock. The curtain rises punctually, the necessary properties are checked and rechecked and are always in their places. When a telephone bell on stage is to ring “in the middle of a word,” as we say, the man off stage who pushes the button does it just as carefully and just as seriously as if he were playing his part in full view of the audience. There is an extra gown at the door in case something unforeseen should happen to the one which the butler ordinarily carries in for that funny situation in the last act. The property man has instructions to taste the near-whisky used in the first act. Imagine an experience of mine in the north of England. The hero was about to drink a toast to the heroine. He took a mouthful of the drink—it was varnish! In our second act grapefruit is actually eaten. Grapefruit is puckery. Miss Dean has a most demanding role, and the grapefruit does not help much. I spend my leisure hours at the grocer’s finding the finest fruit.

The moon shines through a window onto the body of the dead man, and our producer and Mr. Broadhurst were not satisfied with the light during the first week of rehearsals. I went to an artist friend’s studio for three nights, during which where was no moon, but on the fourth night the moon shone and I got the effect. Next night at rehearsal we tried it at the theatre and Mr. Broadhurst asked, “Is that moon coming in through the top of the theatre?”

The finger print charts are not faked, but are genuine, and the method used in taking them and in their use has been approved by Inspector Faurot of Detective Headquarters.

Lawyers’ papers and documents, pencils for the stenographer, vichy, a waste basket, a bit of crumpled paper, an amber trimmed jet tassel, a dog collar, a dog whip, a revolver—these so-called “necessary props” are tripled and must each be in its place. The slightest change is a most dangerous proceeding.

In Dublin, once, a statue of the Virgin Mary was necessary to the play. In the hurry it was left to the property man. When the statue was undraped a moment before the curtain went up it was found to be the statue of Venus de Milo. The actor who referred to it in his part had a splendid presence of mind and read his line, “She is as chaste as the Virgin Mary and has a figure like the Venus de Milo.”

Originally printed in the New York Times, November 22, 1914.

In the Boston Museum’s Prop Room, 1903

The following is from a newspaper column entitled, “Some Odds and Ends from Stageland’s Daily Gossip”, first published in 1903.

Some idea of the varied collection of objects which accumulate in the property room of a theatre is to be obtained from a description of the contents of the old Boston Museum property room, which will soon be scattered to the four winds. In a general way the public has learned to know that the “property man” of a theatre is one who looks after such details of the productions as concern chairs and tables, the bottles that the people pour their liquor from, and the pen and ink used by the heroine to indite her loving messages.

The master of properties must still be a resourceful person, but in the old days, where the frequent changes of bills necessitated additional “props” every week or so, the ingenuity of this functionary was often taxed to the utmost. The property room of the Museum is thus described in The Boston Globe:

“The apothecary’s shop in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ wasn’t a circumstance to the old property-manufacturing shop in the cellar of the Museum, where may be seen skulls and crossbones, stuffed animals of both wild and domestic species, wings for witches, angels, and decils, and other curious things that can’t be enumerated in a column. The animals, both real and of papier maché, repose on shelves all around the walls, a weird, grinning, motley troupe of once indispensable stage characters that would have brought their possessor to the stake in witchcraft days, and all destined for the dirt heap within a few days.

“There are the wolves’ heads, with gleaming teeth, fangs, and eyes, that were wont to be thrust beneath the door of the log cabin which the stout arm of Frank Mayo held in place in the thrilling honeymoon scene in ‘Davy Crockett.’ The big bellows with which Tilly Slowboy once blew the fire in ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ hangs upon the wall, and the cradle in which she rocked the baby lies in a corner. In another corner are stacked old rusty muskets, including some flintlocks that defended the breastworks in Dr. Jones’s centennial drama, ‘The Battle of Bunker Hill’ twenty-eight years ago.

“From the centre of the ceiling, suspended by strings, hang three mangy looking stuffed animals that were once features in conveying the moral lessons taught by the waxwork tableaus, sold more that a decade ago. For sixty years these animals, a domestic cat, a dog, and a monkey, have been comrades, but they must now go the way of all else identified with the Museum.

“The cat and dog, now half hairless and showing repulsively their dried-up gums and loosened teeth, used to be pictures of ease and contentment when representing the sole objects of the affection of the old maid and the old bach in a wax tableau.

“The monkey had his mission to fill also, but what it was is now forgotten. Of late years he has hung by a movable string before the door of the property room in such a way that he would drop with a dull thud on the breast of any one entering the door, a startling experience for an unsuspecting stranger, which has contributed to the enjoyment of the property man’s life, however.

“In another part of the cellar is stored a raft of stage furniture of every kind. There are the seats of Caesar and Brutus from the Senate house, the royal chairs of Macbeth and his restless helpmeet, the big, glittering chair in which John Wilkes Booth was crowned as Richard III., and the gracefully formed mediaeval chairs in which Hamlet has oft pondered the proposition, ‘To be, or not to be.’

“There are stacks of spears and halberds and Roman standards, and a pathetic souvenir in the shape of a rude human effigy of burlap stuffed with excelsior, which is recognized as the dummy used in the burial of Ophelia, over which the Queen strews flowers and weeps and says, ‘Sweets to the sweet, fair maid.'”

From The New York Times. May 17, 1903.

The End of Making Props

At times, it feels that more and more plays these days call for real props and real furniture. Looking through the past days of theatre history, it seems that props used to be constructed more often than these days. With the tastes of designers evolving to want more realistic items and less “proppy” pieces, and with the amount of time between the initial designing and the need for real objects in the hands of the actors, it seems inevitable that one day prop people will be merely buying and distributing things rather than building art for the theatre.

I ran across this article recently. In it, a property master laments:

“I groan for the decease of the good old times when a property man was a property man and not merely a distributor of borrowed articles…

There was a time when the property man was an artist in his line, because he was required to build and fashion nearly all the properties used upon the stage. But now his occupation is an empty thing. All the props are borrowed, and all the property man has to do is set ’em around on the stage and take care of them when they’re not in use. The days of the hifalutin modern society drama have altered things sadly. Now we must have real ebony furniture, real bronzes, real china and porcelain vases, real Turkish rugs, real chandeliers, gas fixtures, brackets, rustic settees, real helmets and shields, the finest French silk flowers, and blow me if I don’t believe they’ll get to manufacturing real snow yet! Why, do you know, there is one theatre in this City that buys all the fine furniture used on its stage, and at the end of the run of a piece sells it for perhaps $100 less than it cost. Now, all that sort of thing is destructive to the artistic being of the property man. After a while, the property man will exist only in history. He will be a pale-faced vision of the past. Men will tell with wonder of the fellows who in days gone by could make a fine bronze urn or an oaken mantelpiece as of men who were giants in their day.”

Do you know when this was written?  It first appeared in the New York Times in December 30, 1883. That’s right: almost 127 years to the day.