Tag Archives: New Yorker

Burning the Props, 1939

The following comes from a 1939 issue of The New Yorker. I don’t know if traveling plays still need to be destroyed after the show closes, but I do know you still see a lot of scenery and props end up in the trash at the end of a run.

Flashing Finish

by John McNulty, Eugene Kinkead, and Russell Maloney

It was all rather sad about “The Flashing Stream,” the play written by Charles Morgan, the London critic, which flopped here after being such a success in London. The cast went away in a huff, one of them declaring that presenting the play over here was like putting vintage claret before whiskey drinkers. We poured ourself a stiff slug of redeye at ten last Monday morning and went around to the Biltmore Theatre to watch a curious rite connected with the demise of an English play. When a British production is brought over here, God forbid, the scenery and props are admitted duty-free only on the understanding that at the conclusion of the run they must be either shipped out of the country or destroyed. Nine times out of ten the management elects to destroy them.

When we arrived at the Biltmore we found a jolly crew of vultures from the Williams Transfer Corporation on the stage of the Biltmore, dismantling the single set, an ancient fortress. They were under the supervision of Frank Williams, a partner in the company, a gray-haired veteran of the scenery-transport business. He told us that the general practice had been to chop up the scenery and props right onstage, but that in this instance the customs men had ordered a burning. This, he told us, would necessitate a trip up to the Colgate dumps, near the Bronx River. When they got their trucks loaded, a customs official appeared, checked the inventory, down to the last vase of artificial flowers, and assigned a guard who was with him to make the trip to the dump and see it all burned. We followed the trucks in a taxicab, brooding on the impermanence of everything.

The dump is a large, bare expanse with a pit that smolders eternally, yawning for English drama. The truckmen, half a dozen of them, made a pile of the scenery. “We’ll need gasoline,” somebody said. “This is all fireproofed.” One of the truckmen winked. “The hell we will,” he said, touching a match to the pile. It went up in flames at once. The truckmen, like destructive brownies, skipped about the flames and yelled. “Gone with the wind!” cried one, throwing into the flames a billboard picture of Margaret Rawlings, the star. Another man disemboweled a sofa and set fire to the insides. Then they all began hurling small objects into the flames—cushions, glassware, vases, occasional chairs, all the paraphernalia of English acting. Our last sight of the holocaust, as we drove off in our cab, was a man who, under the approving gaze of the customs guard, was prancing about with an armful of artificial tiger lilies, pitching them one by one into the flames.

Original appearance: McNulty, John, Eugene Kinkead, and Russell Maloney. “Flashing Finish.” New Yorker 29 Apr. 1939: 18-19. Print.

Props from “You Can’t Take it With You”, 1937

The following article, by Eugene Kinkead and Russell Maloney, first appeared in The New Yorker in 1937:

“You Can’t Take it With You,” Moss Hart’s and George Kaufman’s play about that mad Morningside Heights family, the Sycamores, recently established a theatrical record by putting seats on sale eighteen weeks in advance. Also, it probably holds some kind of record for the number and complexity of its props; all in all, there are about seven hundred props, requiring the attention of three property men instead of the customary one. “We have more props than ‘White Horse Inn,'” the head prop man, Al Burkhardt, told us when we went backstage to investigate. As we probably need not tell you, the play has only one set, which represents the living room of the Sycamores’ apartment. First thing you notice is the magazines scattered here and there in corners. There are about three hundred and fifty of them—1929 Navy-Princeton football programs, and back numbers of Review of Reviews, Magazine of Wall Street, New York Masonic Outlook, and other conservative publications; nothing exciting, like The New Yorker, because that might distract from the actors.

The three snakes in a solarium are mechanical ones; Al Burkhardt works them from backstage, by means of a lever. The flies, brought on in a bottle to be fed to the snakes, used to be fishing flies from Davega’s; now, for some reason, they’re raisins. The letters scattered about, some of which Grandpop reads aloud, are mostly letters from hotels, soliciting the patronage of the “Of Thee I Sing” company when it was going on tour. The wastepaper basket is filled mostly with crumpled-up jottings made by Mr. Kaufman during rehearsal. We fished out one of the sheets, and found it covered with vague but stimulating phrases: “Stamp scene messy—Penny’s red beret—You, too, can take the pimples off your face—He will get them yet if they do not get him—go right into pirouette.” The fern in the bay window of the set is a fake. The cornflakes are real. Among the “atmosphere props” (things that aren’t handled) are a Filipino fly whip, a key to the City of Buffalo, a hundred-year-old string of wampum, a palette left behind by Donald Oenslager (who designed the set), a tusk of ivory, and a real hand-carved African war shield. The ship model that hangs from the ceiling cost $100, but this is offset by Mr. Oenslager’s good luck in picking up, for a song, a print that turned out to be a Piranesi, worth $150. If there’s anything left of it by the time the play closes. The two kittens who appear in the first act come from the Medor Kennels; they are brought and called for every night by a man named Samuel. They have to be replaced every two weeks, because they have to be small kittens.

One of the hardest things to acquire was a Meccano model of a ship, called Queen Mary in the play. Originally, they had a model of the Empire State Building, with the line “I christen thee ‘Empire State,’ and I wouldn’t be in your shoes for anything.” The present gag, with the ship, is “This is the Queen Mary.” “No. She hasn’t got the right hat on.” Well, the stagehand who was assigned the job of finding a Meccano Queen Mary scoured New York for a week, without success. Finally he thought of telegraphing the Meccanno factory at New Haven, and they sent him just what he wanted. He rushed up to Mr. Kaufman at rehearsal with the thing, and said, “L-look, M-mr. K-k-kaufman.” (We forgot to tell you he stuttered.) Unable to get any further with that sentence, he pointed at the model and said, “F-from, f-from N-new Haven.” “Did you run all the way?” asked Mr. Kaufman.

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 13, 1937, written by Eugene Kinkead and Russell Maloney.

How to Build a Dragon

I previously shared an article from 1888 about a giant dragon named Fafner used in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Siegfried. It had a papier-mâché head, a canvas hide and curled leather scales. It could move its mouth, close its eyelids and issue forth steam from its lungs. So who created such an impressive piece of stage property?

Grooming the Dragon
The Metropolitan Opera's Dragon circa 1888

It would appear a man named William “Old Bill” E. De Verna constructed it. He was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY, in 1834, and died in the same neighborhood in 1897. He had achieved enough prominence in the theatrical world to have an obituary published in The New York Times, with his occupation listed as “maker of theatrical properties.” According to the obituary

He built a large factory called in Bay Ridge the “dragon” factory, where he manufactured scenic accessories. When the Metropolitan Opera House was built he was engaged to supply all the properties used in the German opera. The big dragon of “Siegfried” was considered one of the most perfect examples of the property maker’s art.

A second dragon was built for the Met around 1911. In 1937, the Metropolitan Opera made a few improvements to this second iteration of Fafner. A “New Yorker” article describes how they replaced his metal scales with a painted canvas hide to cut down on his weight.

Like the original, the 1937 dragon also had a papier-mâché brow. It could “prance around”, open and close its jaws and spread its fins. It was operated by two stagehands, Charley Walters and Paddy Downey, who had been playing Fafner since around 1922. They were not chosen for any specific reason; Phil Crispano, the head property man, “just told them to get in there one day.” The smoke from the dragon’s nostrils was at one time supplied by live steampipes, but has since been replaced with a vapor made from ammonia, muriatic acid and rose water (to improve the smell).

Interestingly, the 1888 article describes the scene with the dragon as lasting forty minutes, while the 1937 articles says it was over in just fifteen.

A new dragon was commissioned in 1948 to replace the “the ancient bundle of canvas and rubber hose the Met has seen fit to fob off for thirty-seven years as Fafner”. This one was built by Messmore and Damon, a company headquartered on West Twenty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. Messmore and Damon were known for the full-scale mechanical dinosaurs they debuted at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

According to another article in the “New Yorker”, this new dragon took advantage of the company’s prowess in mechanical engineering, as well as the new breakthroughs in materials available to prop makers. The jaw could move, the tongue could flick in all directions and the eyes could roll in their sockets. The whole cave was moved downstage so he could be seen better; traditionally, the dragon appeared far upstage, probably to conceal the limitations of dragon construction at the time. The paw of this Fafner actually dangled into the orchestra pit. He was also split into two pieces; his head came out of the wings downstage, while his tail appeared from the wings upstage to make it appear that a much larger dragon was present just offstage.

The 1948 Fafner’s teeth were constructed of solid maple, his tail was foam rubber and his claws had rubber tips. Real steam was used for his nostrils once again—the chemical smoke caused the singers to cough—though now it was provided by a portable steam generator.

And the cost for this modern marvel? A whopping two thousand dollars. Okay, so that’s actually just over $19,000 today, but still, being able to buy a custom working dragon for less than the price of a new car is pretty spectacular.