Tag Archives: property-room

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.

Behind the Scenes: The Property Room

Originally printed in the article “Behind the Scenes” from Chambers’s Journal, 1898

Another department of this world of illusion is the property-room, so called because there the various “properties” or “props” are constructed and stored for use. Props comprise all the portable articles required in a play. Guns and pistols — which too often fail to go off at the critical moment — are props; loaves of bread, fowls, fruit, all made of a rough papier-mâché, are also props. We may also include those wondrous gilt goblets, only seen on the stage, which make such a nonmetallic thud when they fall and bounce upon the boards, as among the achievements of the property-man. But it is at pantomime-time that that individual is at his busiest. Big masks and make-believe sausages and vegetables, without which no pantomime would be complete, are mingled with fairy wands, garlands of artificial flowers, basket-work frames for the accommodation of giants, and other articles too numerous to mention. How the right things are forthcoming at the right moment is one of those mysteries only known to property-men. Had one of these useful members of the theatrical world the ability and inclination to write a book, what an entertaining volume could he turn out!

A London or first-class provincial theatre would not perhaps furnish examples of those stage contretemps which are often more amusing to the onlookers than the play itself; but in minor country theatres the most absurd and incongruous make-shifts are often introduced on the score of a very necessary economy. For example, at one country theatre, we remember a “prop” which figured in Act I as a sofa. It was a flat piece of scenery about six feet in length, with scroll edges which represented feet. In Act II this same prop was turned round, and hung upside down by a cord round the hero’s neck. It was painted on the side now presented to the audience like a boat; and as the actor grasped the heroine with one arm, he worked the boat up and down with the other while he proceeded across the stage behind a line of canvas representing a stormy sea. On this touching picture the curtain came down amid uproarious applause. Another occasion we call to mind, upon which a flat piece of scenery was used to represent a very solid object, when the resulting applause was of a more derisive nature. In this piece, a very full-flavoured melodrama, the heroine was in peril of her life by being placed by the villain across a railway track. On came an impossible locomotive, piloted at the back by a scene-shifter invisible to the audience, until by some mishap the engine fell flat on its face like a pancake, amid a roar of laughter from a delighted public. Such accidents as these never occur in a well-equipped theatre. Indeed, the complaint is sometimes made that the scenic illusion is so complete and beautiful that the attention of the audience is unduly distracted from the action of the play.

From Chambers’s Journal, Vol. I, 1898, pg. 786