Tag Archives: property man

Life in Properties, 1895

The following is a delightful first-person account (author unknown) of life in the property department. It dates way back to 1895, but many of the challenges of the job remain the same:

Not exactly an artist—not by any means a mechanic—it is hard for me to say exactly what head I come under. I remember there was trouble the last time they took the census, for my wife would not hear of my being described as a “property man,” through being afraid those stupid Government officers might think me a man of property and go charging me house duty and income tax, and all sorts of things. A hollow kind of life, do you call it? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Not if it’s done conscientiously, I say. That poet I have heard of must have had me in his eye when he wrote “Things are not what they seem.” It is my mission to make the unreal appear to be real, and whatever you may think about the usefulness of that pursuit as a help to happiness in a respectably-conducted state, the property man is generally more successful in his aim than the actor who looks down upon him. I dare say they never give it a moment’s thought, but the British drama would be a poverty-stricken article without the help of the property man.

King Richard having to go on without a scepter would never be able to render Shakespeare true to nature, and what becomes of your classics, like The Courier of Lyons, if the mail guard isn’t shot at the proper moment? Yes, I have known more than one swagger tragedian have his comb cut through offending the property man. Particularly do I mind an Othello on a sofa with one of the legs sawn through by a gentleman in my line of business as revenge for the swagger tragedian’s bad temper for a whole fortnight. When he and the sofa and the curtain came down all together I thought the roof would have been lifted with laughter. The property man had gone home before the last act, or I am sure there would have been a real tragedy that night—and without any of the Shakespearean dialogue either.

A noble occupation surely, and a strain upon the mind certainly. You are always in terror of forgetting something, and forgetfulness has led to many new readings of popular plays. I recollect omitting to furnish a Hamlet with his tablets. He dived into his cloak for them, and they were not there. So he had to make his notes on imaginary ones, and the next day the newspapers raved about the magnificence of the new reading. Yet the credit belonged to the property-man, who never had any thanks for making the man’s reputation. A week of the legitimate is a regular load on the brain, and those historic plays are enough to drive you mad, what with the banners of this army and that, and the spears and the swords, and the rapiers and the banqueting scenes. Did I ever fit up The Old Toil House?

You’ll be asking me if I ever saw Joe Cave next. Ah! there’s a play for you—full of interest and movement, and those last dying orations for Jack Bunnage—as pretty a bit of poetry as you wish to clap eyes on. None of your drawing-room pieces for me—with their letters and lockets and fans and imitation vases and folderols. Good, honest properties are what I like—something that can be seen from the front with the naked eye and setting the audience wondering how much they cost. Jealous of real horses and cabs and saddle-bag furniture for the interiors? Not a bit of it. Live and let live, I say. Many a property feast have I put on in my time. The public expects property feeds in the legitimate. Sit Macbeth down to a table and ask his guests to drink out of anything but empty goblets, or pretend to do anything in the eating department except fool about with red-cheeked apples before Banquo comes in, and the public would hiss the play off the stage. No, sir, they will not stand any desecration of Shakespeare, and I pity the first Lady Macbeth who dares from the royal table to eat soup with a spoon. It would never do. The playgoer does not expect real food in a Shakespearean piece. He would object to it as a desecration and a degradation. He will permit no interference with the functions of the property man. On the other hand, provide Mrs. Puffy with anything save an honest hot steaming meat pie for The Streets of London and the house would be wrecked.

“Harlequin’s Leap.” Los Angeles Herald, 23 Feb. 1895, p. 11.

The Property Man, 1884

The following appeared in an 1884 issue of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune:

One of the Most Important Individuals About a Theatre

“One of the most useful and important functionaries about a theatre is the property man,” said one who has grown gray in the business the other day. “By the property man is meant the person whose duty it is to furnish the properties for all the plays produced, and to see that they are placed conveniently at hand to be ready when wanted. Properties are everything used in a play except the scenery. The carpets, furniture and curtains, guns and pistols, pocket-books, money, candles, matches, cigars, pianos, pictures, food and drink, letters, musical instruments—all these and countless other things come under the head of properties.

The Property-Room

“Every theatre has what is called a property-room where these things are kept. It has very much the appearance of a pawn-broker’s shop, except that nothing is wrapped up and there is no counter. Come in here and see for yourself,” he continued, as he led the way into a dingy room at the back of the stage, where there was a most heterogeneous collection of such articles as he had named.

“Few people have any idea of the care and responsibility of a property man. He has more on his mind than anybody else about a theatre. There are 150 different things, large and small, that he must remember, and woe betide him if he forgets any one of them or fails to have it in its proper place at the right time. People who visit the theatre have no idea how dependent they are on the property man for their pleasure, for if he forgets anything or does not have everything just as it should be it will give rise to a contretemps, which will retard the action of the scene and mar its whole effect.

A Choice of Pistols

“For example; It is part of his duty to attend to all the fire-arms used on the stage. In the most critical part of the play the leading man is to rescue the leading lady from the tolls of the villain by killing him with a pistol shot. The property man selects the best pistol in his collection, cleans and loads it carefully, fires it off in the property-room to make sure that it won’t miss fire, loads it again, and in a perfectly comfortable frame of mind gives it to the leading man as he goes on for his great scene. The critical moment arrives. The leading man cries out in his most terrible voice: ‘Die villain!’ and pulls the trigger, but the pistol doesn’t go off, so the villain must either fall and die without having been shot, or else he must live on, succeed in abducting the beautiful maiden and thus ruin the play.

I am sorry to say that property men, being somewhat given to profanity, divide their firearms into three classes—the sure, the very sure, and the d****d sure. The first are given to the most unimportant of the supers, the second are given to those of somewhat greater importance, while only the last are ever given to the people who play important parts and whose guns must go off in order to carry out the plot of the play.

“The Property Man”, The Bismarck Weekly Tribune, Oct 31, 1884, pg 2. Reprinted from The Philadelphia Times,

Property Plot from 1893

I came across an article titled “How a Play is Produced” in the 1893 collection of Popular Monthly magazines. It has some wonderful illustrations and useful information that I might post at some point in the future, but I first wanted to share a few of the prop-related items from the article.

First up is a facsimile of a property plot sent out to theaters from a traveling production of Blue Jeans.

Property Plot, 1892
Property Plot, 1892

The article also has a fine description of the props master at the time (almost exclusively men at this time):

The “property” man is another important individual, and has several assistants. His work consists in taking charge of and providing all the movable articles used in the play, such as furniture, carpets, clocks, costumes, guns, umbrellas, books, newspapers, plates, glasses and eatables. These last are usually of the customary property quality, i.e., papier-maché, and the “property man” is the culinary artist who manufactures them. It is no uncommon thing, on inquiring for the “property man” in a theatre, to be told that he is upstairs “making a chicken.”

Finally, we have this wonderful illustration of a property room:

A property room, 1893
A property room, 1893

Source: Hornblow, Arthur. “How a Play Is Produced.” Popular Monthly 1893: 614-22. Google Books. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

Bossing the World part 2, 1921

The following article comes from the 1921 collected edition of “Our Paper,” put out by the Massachusetts Reformatory. The first part was posted previously:

Bossing the World

by John B. Wallace

The property men of the various studios about Los Angeles, where two-thirds of the motion pictures are made, work harmoniously and borrow and rent various properties from one another.

The advent of the motion picture has created a number of new businesses in Los Angeles. Not only are there several establishments that rent exclusively to the studios but some of the large retail furniture houses and department stores have rental departments devoted to supplying the needs of the film colony. The visitor may also see the unusual spectacle of antique shops refusing to sell their curios to collectors, because they prefer to rent them to the studios. This is easily explained, however, when the rental price of certain rare antiques is learned.

While expense is the bugbear of the property man it is the least of the worries of the directors and some of them will go to any extreme to get just what they want for a certain scene.

But even with the dozens of antique dealers scouring the remote spots of the earth the property man often runs against what seems like a hopeless impasse. It is then he must bring ingenuity into play.

For instance, Mr. [Howard] Wells told me of a particular scene that was supposed to be laid in Scotland. In a city like Los Angeles, where the architecture embraces every variety known to civilized man, it was easy to find a house that would pass for a Scotch manor house.

But the rub came when Wells learned that he must supply a lawnmower for the principal character of the scene, to operate on the lawn. An English lawnmower differs in several particulars from an American machine. There was not time to send abroad for one, and as far as Wells knew there was none in the country.

To make it worse, Wells had never seen one of the foreign grass cutters. With the aid of the research department Wells finally found a book containing a picture of an English lawnmower. He studied it carefully, then took an American lawnmower and made it over so that an expert could not distinguish the difference in appearance when it was shown on the screen.

Wallace, John B. “Bossing the World.” Our Paper. Vol. 38. N.p.: Massachusetts Refomatory, 1921. 153. Google Books. Web. 24 Nov. 2015

Bossing the World, 1921

The following article comes from the 1921 collected edition of “Our Paper,” put out by the Massachusetts Reformatory:

Bossing the World

by John B. Wallace

Certainly in comparison with the property man of the speaking stage, a motion picture property man can most properly be called a super-property man. Accordingly I feel that my action is justified when I dub Howard S. Wells, manager of the property department of the largest film studios in California, a super-property man.

He not only has charge of all the properties used by the dozen companies working out of the studios, but he must house and feed the companies that are out on location. He also has charge of the many motor trucks maintained by the company and must see to the transportation of the actors and supplies.

He is responsible for the issuance of the supplies from the immense warehouses in which they are stored. Under him are dozens of set dressers, warehouse men, truck drivers and laborers.

As soon as it is decided to film a certain story, the scenario—or a copy of it—is turned over to Wells and he makes a list of the properties required. The assistant director is also required to make a list and this is compared with that prepared by Wells. This double check is very important.

Suppose, for instance, that a company is in the mountains or in the desert. The absence of one property which the property man has forgotten or overlooked might cause a delay of several days. Such delays would run into thousands of dollars. The old days are past, and efficiency and accuracy are watchwords. He must be a man of infinite resource as well as of practical knowledge.

A set dresser—as the name implies—dresses the set—distributes the articles that belong to a set. He works under the direction of the assistant director. He comes in after the carpenters and painters have finished their work and is the last man on the scene before the actors and camera arrive.

Small articles that can be carried about by the actors, such as guns, suitcases, and so on, are called hand properties and it is the set dresser’s duty to keep a vigilant eye on these to see that they are on hand when required. Every article required by a director in filming a picture is charged against his company. A requisition is issued through Mr. Wells’ office for each property required. The requisition is placed on file and the article charged against the director ordering it. Every property thus issued must either be returned or a proper accounting be made for it.

Notwithstanding the careful check kept upon properties the leakage runs yearly into large figures. Actors are proverbially a happy-go-lucky folk with most inconsistent ideas of thrift, and the motion picture variety is no exception.

Breakage is another cause of loss, in certain plays, especially comedies, the destruction of properties is the action and although such articles are constructed as cheaply as possible the loss often runs into big money.

A walk through the vast storerooms is certainly illuminating to the uninitiated. One entire building is devoted to period furniture, another to draperies and another to bric-a-brac, which embraces everything from antique vases and statuary to oil painting copied from old masters. In one room are dozens of immense chandeliers and ornamental lamps. In another are swords, guns and side arms, dating from every period in history from remote ages to the present. A particular interesting collection at Universal City embraces every vehicles from the “one-hoss shay” to the modern limousine.

Wallace, John B. “Bossing the World.” Our Paper. Vol. 38. N.p.: Massachusetts Refomatory, 1921. 153. Google Books. Web. 24 Nov. 2015