Tag Archives: property-boy

Concerning Stage Viands, 1910

The following originally appeared in a 1910 article by Algernon Tassin.

The rule of the drama, then, seems to be that though all may occasionally hunger, only the comedian may eat. But the gilded épergne heaped high with untempting fruit as the chief furniture of the festive board still remains to be accounted for. The official reason is simplicity itself. Nothing is so apparent as fruit, especially when in high-piled charactry. Since even if the pile were to be ravaged, none of it would there be eaten (and all providers have from time immemorial objected to fruit being taken from the table!), why not have a permanent pile? Thus the épergne and its fruit are one and indivisible, now and forever—they are papier maché. It is naught but the money-saving device of the manager and the labour-saving device of the property boy to escape the nightly marketing. When the Standard Edibles Syndicate is able to get Congress to pass a law prohibiting papier maché on stage-tables, one may be confident that the Associated Order of Stage Mechanics will be powerful enough to get it rescinded. For in the matter of food the second fundamental law of the drama is the Property Boy.

The disquieting trend toward realism begun by Herne and other obsessed disturbers of his peace, he has at least been able to check by ingenious shifts of well-nigh the longevity of papier maché. I recall a banquet table in a ducal hall whereon the perennial épergne which sufficed for our fathers was deemed by some objector in the audience inadequate to the growing demand for actuality. There must be some food capable of being toyed with if such silly people were to be silenced, and the manager thought a light salad of the escarolle pattern would be just the thing. This the property boy proceeded to mix as follows. Purchasing several yards of imperishable Bologna sausage, he minced a few slices at each performance and served them garnished with excelsior. These in individual plates with the communal and lordly épergne in the centre decked the table bountifully. The property boy surveyed the results of his ingenuity with satisfaction well merited; for the salad needed only dusting to be nightly serviceable, and when travelling the épergne and the sausage went together snugly packed in the excelsior. This banquet—although three of the characters on the stage upon being graciously summoned to supper by the duchess loudly proclaimed their hunger—sufficed unrenewed the season through. The star (not being a comedian) failed to be distressed by the languid appetite of her guests, but upon being reproached once more by some captious realist in the audience for the lack of verisimilitude, insisted that at least one of the actors eat of her generous fare. Whereupon the fertile property boy served the designated actor with three dried prunes, of which he afterward kept a bag in stock (which was simple enough, as it travelled also with the salad), all ready for just such centres of culture where exacting critics might reside. “You can cut these up,” he explained, “and they might be anything.” It was true, for the beneficent prune has boundless powers of assimilation: upon the arrogant table of Camille it may become the mushroom and the truffle, or at the board of Louise it may simulate the humble goulash. But the property boy is not constantly engrossed in calculating how he may save his labour and his food allowance; he has his careless and his genial hours. I once beheld upon the stage three intrepid and clinking dragoons toss off a forbidden bumper to an exiled king. When the foremost, with a magnificent flourish, dashed down upon the floor his drained glass and the others followed suit, it was a spirited moment. But when he precipitately dashed himself from the room the effect was somewhat marred. The others held their ground, indeed, but they visibly contended with surprising emotions which they sought to contain. Long afterward the secret of their eccentric behaviour was made plain; by accident or sportiveness the property boy had flavoured their cold-tea with varnish.

Thus either from the nature of Art or the nature of the Property Boy, the theatrical appetite is destined to be thwarted. The question then arises, Why in this regard should not dramatists write with an eye upon the stage? Why should we not have in the theatre jam yesterday and jam to-morrow, but never jam to-day? As the actor (unless intentionally comic) must ever like Jealousy mock the meat he feeds on, why give him food at all? “Each heart hath its sealed chamber,” says a heroine, and why not the stage? Let the dining-room door be barred, for when we enter it we leave illusion behind. If food must be, let it be laid out in the next room. Or if the table be needed for the setting of the stage, let the actors fall to only as the curtain falls; or—for the épergne is always there to lend atmosphere—let the meal be terminated by a messenger boy before ever the soup or even the useful celery. For this or any other coup de grace before meat all lovers of illusion will be truly thankful. Anything is better than the eternal listlessness of apparently healthy people in face of food.

“I do not believe,” says Joseph Jefferson —who was by no means a lover of realism —”that the introduction of cabbage and potatoes in the banquet scene of Macbeth would make the play one bit more interesting.” But the unfair illustration is not even pertinent. At the banquet in Macbeth no one is required to eat—it is interrupted before it really begins. The illusion is entirely preserved by the épergne as a coming event which throws its shadow before, and the guests depart ere its perfidy is disclosed. In his increasing dalliance with real life and common sense, let the modern playwright beware of banquets or even lunch baskets. They are but Barmecidal. Since no one may eat but the comedian—whose crammed cheeks do not provide an inextinguishable delight except in vaudeville—let him even reform food altogether, save that which can with reasonableness be nibbled. The food problem on the stage can only be settled by universal boycott.

Written by Algernon Tassin. First appeared in The Bookman, Volume 31, published by Dodd, Mead and Co., 1910.

Recollections of Dirty Snow, 1916

The following little gem comes from Recollections of a Scene Painter, by E. T. Harvey, published in 1916:

Stage snow can now be bought by the barrel, and is made by cutting paper into small discs. In the old days it was quite a laborious task for the property man. He and his assistants would have to work for days with shears to get a supply, and it accordingly was carefully preserved. One night when the “Angel of Midnight” was being played, Barras, who watched everything pretty closely, told the property boy as he went up in the “flies” with the snow box, “to let it down in a perfect avalanche” when he gave the signal. The snowstorm in “Way Down East,” for instance, is done by pulling backward and forward a folded, perforated piece of cloth that sifts the snow down on the stage, and an electric fan dashes it mixed with coarse salt against the window pane and into the open door as “Hannah Moore” is driven out into the storm.

But in the days of fifty years ago the property boys usually just scattered it by the handful from up in the gridiron. When Barras gave the signal for the “avalanche,” Bill Sullivan, the property boy, took the hat box and turned it upside down, emptying the contents upon poor Captain Satan (Leffingwell) lying on his back on the stage, and Sallie St. Clair bending over him. In the box were nails, screws, and all the trash that had been swept up from time to time. Barras had several troubles during that engagement.

Recollections of a Scene Painter, by E. T. Harvey, pp 26-7. Princeton University, 1916.

Joining the Circus

Who hasn’t dreamt of running away and joining the circus? Charles Mayer actually did it. In his book, Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles, published in 1922, Mayer talks about his early years when he was a property-boy with a touring big-top show.

I was nearly seventeen when Sells Brothers’ Circus came to Binghamton, New York, where I was living with my parents. That day I joined some other boys in playing hookey from school, and we earned our passes by carrying water for the animals. It wasn’t my first circus, but it was the first time that I had ever worked around the animals and I was fascinated. I didn’t miss the big show, but all the rest of the day I was in the menagerie, listening to the yarns of the keepers and doing as much of their work as they would allow. That night, when the circus left town, I stowed away in a wagon.

The next morning, in Elmira, I showed up at the menagerie bright and early. The men laughed when they saw me. I had expected them to be surprised and I was afraid that they might send me away, but I found out later that it was quite an ordinary thing for boys to run away from home and join the circus. And the men didn’t mind because the boys were always glad to do their work for them. I worked hard and, in return, the men saw that I had something to eat. That night I stowed away again in the wagon.

In Buffalo I was told to see the boss—the head property-man—and I went, trembling for fear he was going to send me back home. Instead, he told me that I might have the job of property-boy, which would give me $25 a month, my meals and a place to sleep—if I could find one. There were no sleeping accommodations for the canvas and property crews; we rolled up in the most comfortable places we could find, and we were always so dead tired that we didn’t care much where we slept.

$25 a month and no place to sleep. This is around 1880, still over a decade from the founding of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes. By 1896, the rates for traveling men were $20 a week for Assistant Propertymen.

Since those early days in the circus, I’ve been around the world many times, and I’ve seen all sorts of men, living and working in all sorts of conditions, but I’ve never found a harder life than that of property-boy, unless, perhaps, it’s that of a Malay prisoner. Sometimes I wonder how I stood it and why I liked it. But I did stand it and, what is more, I loved it so much that I persuaded the boss to keep me on when we went into winter quarters.

The moment we arrived at a town, the head canvas-man rode to the lot on which we were to show and laid it out; that is, he measured it and decided on the location of the tents. The men with him drove small stakes to indicate where the tentpegs were to be placed. In the meantime, the property gang unloaded the show. Then we drove the four-foot stakes for the dressing-tent into whatever kind of ground the lot happened to have. A man can work up a good appetite by swinging a fourteen-pound hammer for an hour or so before breakfast, but before we started we had also many other things to do. The dressing-tent had to be spread and hoisted; then the properties were sorted and placed in their position for the performers to get ready for the parade. Meanwhile the canvas-gang was getting the “big-top” up. Then, when the parade started, we went to the “big-top” and arranged the properties there, made the rings, adjusted the guys, ropes and wires for the aerial acts and laid out all the paraphernalia for the ground acts. While we were doing these things, the canvas-men were stringing the seats. Then we had breakfast.

When the parade returned, there were cages to be placed in the menagerie tent and the parade properties to be prepared for shipping. By the time that work was finished, the crowds had arrived for the show and we stood by to handle the tackle of the various acts. At night, after the show had started, we began taking down the smaller tents and stowing the properties just as fast as they came from the “big top.” Then, when the show was loaded, we took one last look over the lot to be sure that nothing had been left behind.

No, we didn’t care much where we slept—just any spot where we dropped was good enough.

It sounds like remarkably like many touring companies today. Some things never change.

The next season I went with the Adam Forepaugh show; then with the Frank Robbins show. I learned the circus business from the ground up and I was rapidly promoted. In 1883, I joined R. W. Fryer’s show as head property-man and transportation master. It was a responsible position, which required every bit of the knowledge I had gained in the few preceding years. I had charge of all the circus property and I was boss of a large crew of men. The job kept me on the jump day and night. The canvas and property crews were made up of the toughest characters I have ever struck in my life—a man had to be tough in those days. They were hard to handle, but they were good workers and I got along all right with them.

They were always just a little bit tougher than any local talent we came up against on the tour, even though a circus used to attract the worst men for miles around. At Albuquerque one night, four “bad men” came to see the show. When they came up, Fitzgerald, who was one of the partners, was taking tickets at the entrance. He tried to get tickets from them, but they pulled out guns. One of them said: “These are our tickets.” Fitzgerald let them in and passed the word along to the crew. The men took seats and, when the show started, they let loose with their guns, shooting through the tents and letting a few bullets fly into the ring. Sometimes a bullet would strike near a performer, raising a puff of dust and scaring him half to death. The “bad men” were sitting with their legs dangling down between the seats. Some of the crew took seats near them, just as if they were part of the audience, and a dozen property-men sneaked under the tent. When the signal was given, they grabbed the dangling legs and pulled. Then the circus-men in the seats jumped up and, without letting the audience know what was happening, they snatched the guns. Down went the “bad men” between the seats. It all happened so quickly and so quietly that the audience didn’t realize what had become of them. The canvas-men “toe-staked” them; that is, they hit them over the heads with the toe-stakes that are driven into the ground to keep the seat-stringers from sliding. A toe-stake is of just the proper size and weight to use in a fight, and it is the circus-man’s idea of a good weapon. The crew buried the four men while the show was on. I thought there would be trouble before we could get out of town, but the men weren’t even missed.

Now, I may not fully grasp the use of language from this time period, but I’m pretty sure Mayer just described how the circus-men murdered four men and buried them under their tent. Some things do change.

(Mayer’s writing originally published in “Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles” by Charles Mayer, published by Duffield, 1921.)