Tag Archives: property man

Behind the Scenes at the Theatre, 1861

Originally published in Dwight’s Journal of Music, 1861.

Now let us step into the “property room.” This is under the charge of an individual known as the “property man” of the theatre, and “theatrical properties” are the various articles other than dresses used in the representation of plays; consequently the property room of a large theatre is quite a museum, and really a very curious sight to one who visits it for the first time.

Here are embroidered purses of gold (filled with broken china and tin), fat pocket books of (newspapers) bank notes by rich old uncles in farces, kings’ golden sceptres, fairies tinselled wands, goblets of gold, flagons of silver, tin cups for peasants’ revels, and papier mache chickens and roast beef for dinner scenes, caskets of jewels, gorgeous Dutch metal candelabras, signet rings for monarchs, and staffs for beggars and witches, Othello’s handkerchief, the witches’ cauldron, Romeo’s vial of poison, Shylock’s scales and knife, Falstaff’s jug of sack, Friar Laurence’s rosary, Prospero’s wand, clubs for mobs, shillelaghs for Irishmen, writing aparatus for lovers to write hurried letters, kings to sign death warrants, and spendthrift’s heirs to draw bills, the “letters” used in different standard plays, all alphabetically arranged and properly superscribed ready for use, so that they serve whenever the play is performed, wills and deeds with broad seals and black marks made to look well “from the front,” crown jewels, jugs of ale without the ale, and a thousand other things used in mimicking life and representing romance.

We must not, however, forget the armory part of the property man’s charge, not the least curious part of his collection. Hero the visitor finds stands of muskets enough for a company, glittering spears for a Roman legion, gleaming battle axes for barbarians, curved scimitars for Moslems, and straight blades for true cavaliers, Spanish rapiers, Highland claymores, Toledo blades, and English broadswords. The fasces of tho Roman lictors and pole-axes of the Queen’s guard stand side by side, the executioner’s big axe and block repose grimly in a corner, while on the walls are daggers of all sorts and sizes, from the delicate one which the maiden draws as a protection against dishonor, to the broad blade bared by the murderer or ‘front wood robber,’ who steps softly over the stage when the lights are turned down, to thuds of the big fiddle; pistols, tomahawks, and other murderous implements in glittering profusion.

Whenever it happens that any of these properties are needed, the prompter makes a requisition on the “property man” the morning before the play in which they are used is performed, and the latter sees that they are ready in the evening, either in the dressing-room of the actor, if they are to be carried upon the stage, or upon the stage in their proper scene and position. The property man is generally an expert in imitating real articles with papier-mâché, paint, gold leaf, tinsel and Dutch metal; he manufactures the dragons, demons’  heads, and furnishes the blood, thunder and lightning, stormy waves, and sun and moon for the establishment.

From Dwight’s Journal of Music, Volumes 19-20, by John Sullivan Dwight, 1861, pp. 228-229

Why the term “prop master”?

Why do we use the term “property master”? In our modern world of “directors”, “managers”, and “heads”, why use the word “master”? Where does it come from?

The term “property master” is in reference to the old European guild systems. In a guild, a person would apprentice to a master for several years, learning the trade. He (or she) would then become a journeyman, traveling from one master to the next, practicing their craft in exchange for housing and a daily wage. Finally, one would apply to the guild for membership, often having to complete a masterpiece showing competence in your given trade. Only a master could run their own shop. Thus, a props master denotes one who is proficient in the craft of props, and is qualified to run a props shop.

Did props people actually belong to a guild in the Middle Ages? Probably not; as seen in my previous post, guilds supplied the props for Medieval pageants. Thus, the bread was supplied by the master bakers, and the ships provided by master shipwrights. A “property-master” would be redundant. It would appear that the term did not exist while guilds were predominant in Europe.

The term “property” was used in a theatrical sense since at least 1425 A.D. We have evidence of what these properties are from the late Middle Ages on through the Elizabethan Period. We know that the companies accumulated and stored props, that they commissioned special props from the guilds, and that the actors themselves would supply a lot of the more personal props. However, we don’t know the term for the person who would head the organization of all these props. Perhaps there was none, and the duties were split between the owners, managers, and artists of the company.

We first hear about a general “property-man” in 1749. W.R. Chetwood’s A General History of the Stage describes a property-man as “the person that receives a bill from the prompter for what is necessary in every play; as purses, wine, suppers, poison [etc.]”. The earliest occurrence of the term “property-master” I could dig up is in England in 1831. This sentence appears in “The Royal Lady’s Magazine”:

The other parts were filled as usual, Curioni being the Idreno, and Lablache the Assur. Curioni makes a woful [sic] mistake in dressing himself like a Cherokee Indian: somebody should instruct him, that there is more than one India, and that he errs in thinking he is king of that which is in the west. Talking of costume, cannot the property-master find something more resembling a crown than the bottomless tin-pot which is at present stuck on Arsace’s head.

The Royal Lady’s Magazine. July, 1831 (pg. 56)

It would appear than that the head property-man began to be called a property master well after the guilds had begun their decline. This terminology is also confusing because a props shop does not operate as a guild in the legal sense. Some occupations, such as electricians or contractors, are required to be licensed, which is similar to the requirement that a crafts-person belong to a guild in order to participate or run a shop. A property master does not need a license nor any specific schooling or degrees to operate.

Unofficially of course, a props career still operates like a guild in many ways. I began as an “apprentice in props”, followed by a property carpenter journeyman position at the Santa Fe Opera. The Actors Theatre of Louisville where I once worked also hires journeyman. (Check out “The Wanderers“, an interesting look at the modern revival of journeymen artisans in Europe.) The idea, if not the name, of journeyman can be seen in the career paths of many theatre artisans as they travel from theater to theater taking a variety of seasonal and over-hire positions to build their resumes and portfolios.

You don’t hear a lot about formal apprenticeships anymore, where a beginner spends five to seven years cleaning the shop of a master in exchange for knowledge and housing. Many theaters have apprentice programs (sometimes called “internships”) which last for a season or a year, some of which are quite good. There are of course, many other theaters which hire apprentices and interns and use them merely as cheap labor, imparting no guidance or knowledge whatsoever. We all like the satisfaction of solving a problem on our own, but the value of being taught the basics in the beginning cannot be underestimated. It is highly inefficient for so many people to be reinventing the wheel every year in theatre, especially when there so many more worthy prop challenges.

But I digress. What I’ve described here is the most reasonable sounding theory I’ve heard on why the head of a props department is called a “property-master”. If you’ve ever heard your own theories, or heard additional evidence either for or against this one, let me know!


Props in the last century

I just wanted to share some great old prop photographs I’ve come across on the Life photo archive hosted on Google. Remember, it’s also a great place to find primary photographic research since the invention of photography.

© Time Inc., by Allan Grant, 1956
© Time Inc., by Allan Grant, 1956

Look at the amazing craftsmanship it took to create these miniature human figures.

Continue reading Props in the last century

Historic Description of a Props Master

(originally from The Young Woman’s Journal, 1921)

The Property Man

“Props”— provides, cares for, and places in proper position on the stage all furniture, draperies, lugs, carpets, lamps, telephone, letters, documents, etc. — in fact, all articles needed in the play except the personal properties of the actor. Things only used by a single actor — such as a fan, a cane, an eyeglass, a parasol, a handkerchief, a letter, if it remains with the one person and not given to another or is not left on the stage —  these are personal “props.” A small table should be provided on either side of the stage for offstage “props,” such articles as are needed to be carried on stage, or for properties brought off stage. The property man should see that actors do not carry such “props” to their dressing rooms, but that they are left on the table provided. Stage drinks — which are made of grape juice, ginger-ale, or root beer, according to the color needed, are cared for and bought by “props” on order of the director countersigned by the business manager.

The property man should take an artistic pride in his stage picture and spend a good deal of time to secure, by renting or borrowing or making, the exact style of furniture and things needed for the play. A period play with modern furniture which one sees in stock performance is ludicrous. Charlie Millard, the veteran property man of the Salt Lake Theatre made all his properties and furnished the actors in Brigham Young’s time with even personal “props.” The stage manager furnishes “props” with a property plot containing a list of properties needed for each scene in the play.

The Young Woman’s Journal, vol 32, pp. 561-2, 1921

The Movie Prop-Hunters’ Museum

The Movie Prop-Hunters’ Museum

by Charles Abbott Goddard

The prop man must scratch the word “can’t” from his vocabulary. The property man of the studio, the man who gets various articles that appear to make the setting realistic, has to know what to get for the studio to develop settings which the audience sees completed.

In order to achieve this vital aim, the chief of the department and his men are ever on the alert. They don’t wait until something is requested before they start looking for it. They always strive to be a little ahead of the game. They get a line upon everything which they think will ever be used as a prop and enter it in their index. They never miss an opportunity. If they see a strange vehicle, an unusual antique or anything else which isn’t on their lists, they get all possible information concerning such an article, where it may be found at a moment’s notice, and put that information down in black and white in the department files. Only a few weeks ago the chief of props in one studio, while driving in the business section of Los Angeles, saw a Ford taxicab of the 1913 model. He noted immediately that it possessed a very unusual feature — that despite its age, it looked almost new, having received excellent care and perhaps little usage. The value of such a condition lay in the fact that pictures are often produced wherein the action supposedly takes place some years ago, but in which new or almost new properties are required. The property must be physically new, yet it must be suited to the period of time in which the action takes place. He chased the taxicab for twelve blocks and finally caught it. He obtained the address where it might be obtained and a description of the car, which he entered in his index. Not more than two weeks later a director asked for just such a car for a comedian to drive. Without difficulty the machine was secured and rented.

In the studio department there are two property indexes. One is a list of the properties on hand in the prop room and names, describes, and numbers something like sixty-five thousand items. The other is a list of obtainable props, much larger than the first list, and contains all necessary information about properties not on hand but which may be secured on short notice. This list includes a ridiculous variety of entries, ranging from trained monkeys, snakes, and canary birds to false teeth.

from Illustrated World, March 1922, Vol. 37, No.1 (pp. 849-851, 939)