Tag Archives: propertyman

A Strange Passage in my Life, 1835

The following occurred in 1835 and comes from a collection of stories about life on the stage. I find it notable in describing what a props run crew person was charged with, as well as revealing what the pay was for overhire on large shows:

A Strange Passage in my Life

by E. L. Blanchard

It had long been his earnest desire to obtain a practical knowledge of the mode of working stage machinery, and when an old friend of his family, Mr. William Bradwell, the ingenious theatrical mechanician, for many years associated with Covent Garden, proposed that he should be placed on the “property” staff of that establishment as a recipient of the nightly eighteenpence paid to extra hands during the run of spectacular pieces, the offer was eagerly accepted. Throwing in such trifling literary services as a couplet or a comic song for a pantomime, and occasionally assisting in the authorship of a playbill, the duties I had to discharge in this department were neither irksome nor unpleasant.

The distribution of banners, shields, and spears was committed to my charge, and when “Macbeth” was played, I had to count out the exact number of branches required for Birnam Wood to come to Dunsinane, and to see that the forest sent on by human instalments was duly returned and stacked, when the scene was over, in its accustomed corner.

When it was necessary for the evil demon to go below, it was my hand that gave the signal for the trap to descend, and the match to be applied to the pan of red fire; and, when the good fairy had to be despatched on some benevolent mission above, mine were the arms ready to receive her in the flies, and respectfully enfold the waist that had to be unhooked from the strong hold of the “traveller.”

When the revolving pillars of the ascending temple, used in the melodramatic romance of “Aladdin,” produced such a pretty effect, that a round of applause was sure to follow, I felt, as the invisible promoter of this peaceful revolution, bound to acknowledge the complement with an unseen bow. When the radiating star opened in the first scene of “The Bronze Horse,” to inspire by an encouraging dream the slumbering Zamna, Prince of China—represented by Mr. John Collins, uneasily reclining on a most uncomfortable mossy bank in the foreground, and usually grumbling during his supposed sleep about calico flowers being nailed to his couch with sharp tin tacks, placed the wrong way—mine was the hand giving movement to the complicated mechanism.

When Claude Frollo was flung by Quasimodo from the Tower of Notre Dame, it was my mission to hurl through the window the substituted dummy, and my misery to learn that a left-handed deputy, appointed one evening, had sent the stuffed figure through the wrong window, and pitched it into the middle of the pit, among a crowd of amazed spectators, who, after nursing the tattered effigy for awhile in a seemingly affectionate manner, returned it with such force across the footlights, that it fairly knocked down Mr. Henry Wallack, who entered at that moment as Quasimodo, and sent the Esmeralda, Miss Vincent, into such a fit of irrepressible laughter, that it became necessary to ring the curtain down as speedily as possible.

Scott, Clement. Stories of the Stage. London: G. Routledge, 1881. 22-23. Google Books. 25 Oct. 2007. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=TRgOAAAAQAAJ>.

The Tangible Elements of Fantasy, 1909

The following comes from a 1909 edition of the San Francisco Call. Besides the description of the props, pay attention to an early description of spike marks.

The Tangible Elements of Fantasy

by Walter Anthony

In the first place as you wander about the stage observing the traps which have been cut into the floor; the mysterious marks here and there which show the exact location of every individual piece of furniture and scenery; the accumulation of cannons and birds and dogs’ heads; the lion, the crocodile, which as tasted of Captain Hook’s hand and wants the rest of the pirate for dinner; the dog’s skin, that poor Harcourt has to perspire in; the maze of wires to swing the Darling children out of the window when Peter Pan teaches them the difficult art of flying—I say, when you take in the mass of mechanical detail which the production of “Peter Pan” requires, your admiration will grow for Barrie, the whimsical Scotchman, who conceived the whole thing; for Manager Walter Hoff Seely, who has not hesitated at putting $8,ooo into the production; and for George Foster Platt, the stage director, who is bringing all the ends of this fantasy together and is literally piecing together moonbeams and moth wings.

Then Stage Director Platt takes descriptions and roughly draws the scene, Ralph Nieblas, the scene painter, makes a model out of cardboard, with every measurement carefully indicated. When the model is done, it is an exact reproduction in miniature of what the scene is going to be like. Nieblas and William Finley, the head carpenter, get together and puzzle it out. Finley told me he had to be able to make anything from heaven in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to hell in “The Black Crook.”

Plans and specifications, drawn by Platt’s imagination from Barrie’s imaginary pictures, are made and the work of producing the scenery and the properties begins. Meanwhile, the propertyman is scouring the city for accessories, such as the bell which is used on the ships; for in the pirate boat scene there must be a real bell with a real clapper, to emit real vibrations. William Richardson, who is the propertyman, is now in a state bordering on nervous prostration, for the strange things he has had to collect include everything that a fantasy could demand. “I got the bell at a ship chandler’s,” he said, “and a bad cigar for Captain Hook to smoke at every performance, but I will not tell you where I got that. It wouldn’t be fair to the pirate. I had to get a hook for him to wear after the crocodile has eaten his hand, and the list of things that I have raced around town for would bewilder the most enthusiastic shopper in the world.”

Tangible Elements of Fantasy

Anthony, Walter. “The Tangible Elements of Fantasy.” The Call [San Francisco] 11 Apr. 1909: 25. Library of Congress. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.