Tag Archives: reprint

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Constructing a God

The following is an excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, written in 1888. The author, Gustav Kobbé, tours the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Be sure to check out the previous excerpt when you are finished here! The following details the construction of a large idol for the Met’s 1888 production of “Ferdinand Cortez”. As an added bonus, you can read the original New York Times’ review of that production.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

[T]he property-master had made out a list of the articles to be manufactured in his department. He had not been hampered by the problem of historical accuracy. He found drawings of Mexican antiquities from which he made sketches of the Mexican implements of war and peace to be used in the opera, and from a genuine Mexican relic of that period, seen by chance in the show window of a store, he obtained his scheme for the principal property in the work, the image of the god Talepulka. He found he could have all these historically correct, except that he did not think it necessary to go to the length of decorating the idol with a paste made from a mixture of grain with human blood. A problem arose, however, when he considered the construction of the idol. He ascertained from the libretto that the idol and the back wall of the temple are shattered by an explosion, and that, just before the catastrophe, flames flash from the idol’s eyes and mouth. He consulted with the gas-engineer, who had already considered the matter, and concluded that it would be most practical to produce the flames by means of gas supplied through a hose running from the wings.

The property-master then made the following note in his plot book: “Flames leap up high from the heathen image—the gas-hose must be detached and drawn into the wings immediately afterward so as not to be visible when the image has fallen apart.” The necessity of having the gas-hose detached determined the method of shattering the idol. It is a theatrical principle that a mechanical property should be so constructed that it can be worked by the smallest possible number of men. This principle was kept in view when the method of shattering Talepulka was determined upon. The god was divided from top to bottom into two irregular pieces. These were held together by a line, invisible from the audience, which was tied around the image near the pedestal. Another line, leading into the wings, was attached to the side of the top of one of the pieces. At the first report of the explosion a man concealed behind the pedestal, whose duty it also is to detach the gas-hose, cuts the line fastened around the idol, and the pieces slightly separate, so that the image seems to have cracked in two jagged pieces. At the next report a man in the wings pulls at the other line and the two pieces fall apart.

The manner in which the effect of flames flashing from the eyes and the mouth of Talepulka was produced was only outlined in the statement that it was accomplished by gas supplied through a hose. The complete device of the gas-engineer, a functionary who in a modern theatrical establishment of the first rank must also be an electrician, was as follows: Behind the image the flow of gas was divided into two channels by a T. One stream fed concealed gas-jets near the eyes and mouth, which were lighted before the curtain rose and played over large sprinkler burners in the eyes and mouth. These burners were attached to a pipe fed by the second stream. When the time arrived for the fire to flash, the man behind the pedestal turned on the second stream of gas, which, as soon as it issued from the sprinkler-burners, was ignited by the jets. By freeing and checking this stream of gas the man caused the image to flash fire at brief intervals. Thus only two men were required to work this important property.

Constructing the "Talepulka" prop
Constructing the "Talepulka" prop

The idol was but one of four hundred and fifty-six properties which were manufactured on the premises for the production of “Ferdinand Cortez,” and when it is considered that the average number of properties required for an opera or music-drama is three hundred and fifty, it will be understood that the yearly manufacture of these for an opera-house which every season adds some three works to its repertoire is an industry of great magnitude. For instance, one ton and a half of clay was needed for modelling the Mexican idol, and that property represents three months’ work. It was first sketched in miniature, then ”scaled”—that is, projected full size on a huge drawing-board—next modelled in clay, and then cast in plaster. The modelling and casting of properties are done in a room in the basement of the building, on the o-p-side [Eric: opposite-prompt side, in this case, stage-left] of the stage. The idol was cast in twenty pieces. These were transferred from the modelling-room to the property workshop on the third floor of the building, prompt side, where are also several other rooms in which properties are made, the two armories, the scenic artist’s studio, and the property-master’s office. In the workshop the properties are finished in papier-maché, the casts being used as moulds. They are not filled with pulp, which is one method of making papier-maché, but with layers of paper. The first layer is of white paper, moistened so that it will adapt itself to the shape of the cast. Layer after layer of brown paper is then pasted over it. The cast having been thus filled is placed in an oven heated by alcohol, and baked until the layers of paper form one coherent mass the shape of the cast. Properties thus manufactured have the desirable qualities of strength and lightness.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, 1888: Introduction

In 1888, Scribner’s Magazine published a wonderful article called “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”. The author, Gustav Kobbé, visits the backstage areas of the Metropolitan Opera. He describes the various shops and workers who create an opera, from conception to opening night. It is one of the most fantastic and detailed looks at the practical construction of a theatrical production I’ve run across from this time period, and so I am presenting all of the relevant parts on properties in their entirety. As the article is quite long, I’ve broken it up to run over the next few days; this will also allow me to take a break from writing during the Thanksgiving holiday. Enjoy!

The Property Workshop at the Metropolitan Opera-House, 1888
The Property Workshop at the Metropolitan Opera-House, 1888

Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House, by Gustav Kobbé.

The regions in which the labor of preparing a musico-dramatic work for production goes on are a veritable bee-hive of activity. They embrace, besides the rooms of the heads of the various departments—musical conductor, stage-manager, scenic artist, costumer, property-master, gas-engineer, and master carpenter—those in which their ideas are materialized. Connected, for instance, with the property department is a modelling-room, a casting-room, two rooms in which such properties as flowers, grass-mats, and birds are manufactured, two armories, and three or four apartments in which properties are stored—but this is taking the reader a little too far behind the footlights for the present.

Some idea of the labor this involves may be formed from the statement that at the Metropolitan Opera-House it took from August, 1887, until January, 1888, to mobilize this host for the conquest of Mexico under “Ferdinand Cortez,” [Eric: an opera by Gaspare Spontini] a period of about the same length as that usually consumed at large opera-houses in preparing a work for production. On the 1st of August, 1887, the managing director handed the libretto to the members of his staff. They immediately set to work to exhaust the bibliography of the episode lying at the basis of the action as thoroughly as though they intended to write a history.

I said that spectacular works (“scene-painter’s and property-master’s pieces”) called for a far greater quantity of material features than “Tristan and Isolde.” It can be stated of Wagner’s works in general that the properties required for their production are less numerous and that as a rule the scenery is less gorgeous than that required for spectacular opera. Yet it is more difficult to mount a Wagner opera or music-drama than it is to mount the “Queen of Sheba,” “Merlin,” “Aida,” “L’Africaine,” or “Ferdinand Cortez.” The reason is that Wagner’s works call for quality instead of quantity… [The property-master] is confronted with problems of great intricacy, the solution of which requires mechanical genius as distinguished from the mere manual dexterity called for in the manufacture of swords, shields, and numerous other properties. Indeed, the mechanical properties used in Wagner’s works are constant objects of study, attempts to improve them by simplifying the apparatus for working them being made from time to time.

First printed in “Behind the Scenes of an Opera-House”, by Gustav Kobbé. Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 4, October 1888.

The Influence of Properties upon Dramatic Literature, 1889

The following comes from The Theatre, Vol 4, by Deshler Welch. Theatre Pub. Co., 1889, pg 4.

Scenery and “Properties.”

Their Influence upon Dramatic Literature.

By scenery is meant the paintings in perspective and movable with the change of place represented in the play.

The word “properties” we find technically applied to the appurtenances of the stage in England as early as 1511. In an account of the furniture used for the play of St. George during the Revels at Court in that year, “properties” and “property making” are both used. The person in charge of them was called the “tire-man,” and the one in charge of the “apparel” was called the “garment-man.”

In the estimates of the Revels in 1563 the “properties” for five plays at Windsor are mentioned several times. The “tireman,” as well as the “book-holder” (the prompter), is also spoken of by Ben Jonson in the induction to his play, “Cynthia’s Revels,” and both are mentioned by many other dramatic writers of that time.

As long ago as 1561 the public theatres only had, instead of scenery, besides the curtain in front, other curtains at the back of the stage. These were called “traverses,” and served to indicate another inner apartment, when one was needed. These were also afterward called “arras.” In “Hamlet” we find Polonius places himself behind the “arras.” Beds, chairs, and other “properties” needed on the stage, were thrust on through these hangings.

The Unreality of Stage Realism

I found the following passage quite interesting. It is from an article written by Elisabeth Hunt in 1912, at the dawn of the New Stagecraft movement:

We are roused to full consciousness of what we have long dimly felt — that costly stage realism has o’erleapt itself and begun to create unreality. Practical properties are all very well; but when they are so ingenious and expensive as to attract attention to themselves, they are as disillusioning to an audience as if they were cheaply and absurdly impractical. Distraction is distraction, as fatal to dramatic illusion when it results from foolish extravagance as when it is mere poverty of resources.

For example: A genuine telephone switchboard on the stage becomes at once the most unreal thing in the world. Being where it does not belong, and where it must have been difficult to place, it makes a sensation—which it would not in life. To the audience it is a constant reminder that the stage where it is fixed is a stage, and not the room which it pretends to be.

As a matter of fact, a cheap, make-believe switchboard that could not be manipulated at all would not destroy the illusion more completely.

It continues:

As to the statement that realistic surroundings inspire the actor, somehow that does not ring true. And when extreme examples are urged, they sound positively puerile.

In one of the plays of last season, a certain stage represented a doctor’s office with the usual furniture, including a large desk and a stack of card index boxes. The public was privileged to know — press notices, probably — that the desk was completely filled, drawers, pigeonholes and all, with letters and papers such as a physician would accumulate, all addressed to the stage doctor or signed with his name; that the stationery spread before him had his name and address on letter heads and envelopes; and that, to crown this triumph of managerial art, the index boxes were full of cards, every one of which was completely made out.

The actor who played the part of the doctor was experienced and accomplished. It really seemed possible that he might have kept his impersonation, even if some of those cards had been left blank. In fact, any actor who has hard training back of him is apt to resent the idea that his concept of a part can be made to depend on preposterous realism which is invisible or meaningless to the audience. An imagination that is superior to footlights, open flies, and canvas walls is not likely to suffer from the consciousness that an unused drawer in a desk is empty. Moreover, if an actor’s hold on his part can be strengthened by mechanical means, it may as easily be weakened, in case some contraption is forgotten in setting the stage. What inspires the intelligent actor more than anything else that can be furnished him in the theater is a comfortable, commodious, well ventilated dressing room. Such humane accommodation could not, perhaps, be made to figure in a startling press notice; but it would quite conceivably encourage better art.

Nearly a hundred years later, and it’s sounding all too familiar.

You can read the entire article, entitled “Acting Scenery”, at Google Books.

Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees, 1910

(The following was originally published in The New York Times, September 4, 1910)

Busy Stage Workers the Public Never Sees

A Little Army of Them Required to Set the Scenes and Handle Mechanical Side of Every Production

There are fully 1,500 men appearing on the stage in New York every night that the audience never sees and very seldom hears one or two of them pounding cocoanut shells on board – or it may be the more modern horseshoe shaped mallets striking a smooth stone slab – and thereby suggesting the invisible presence of a galloping steed. Sometimes, too, when the music is playing softly, the audience sitting near the stage catches a rumbling sound of heavy things being moved, or hears a muffled voice or two.

But for the most part this little army of people in the profession is never seen or heard during a performance, and is almost as little appreciated as the man who pays off the actors or the artist who designs the posters.

They are the men who tie the scenery together, who bring in the furniture, who manage the lights, and pull the strings, literally, that make the houses and mountains and things stand around in their proper places. At the Hippodrome – and there, by the way, they often are seen by the audience – they are the chaps who drag the ton-weight carpets around and put up marvelous structures for the acrobats and others to stand on – the men who seem to know how to do anything. They call them “rough necks” in a circus.

Just because their union is making an effort toward an increase in pay and certain other privileges, these men have been brought to the public’s attention in the last few weeks. Since heavy sets and elaborate mechanical effects arrived the force back of the curtain line has increased to the point of having strict discipline and, according to some of those in the business, to having a pride of work. Almost without exception stagehands are interested in the success of their part of the performance nowadays, and take almost as much pride in having things right, and having them right in the shortest possible time, as the actor does in receiving a “hand” at the end of a scene.

There are four divisions of stagehands, all under the immediate direction of the stage carpenter, who is boss back of the curtain line after the stage manager, and in some things before him. There are the “grips,” who handle the scenery and nothing else; the “clearers,” who handle the movable properties, from pins to locomotives, but who will not touch a piece of scenery; the “flymen,” who take care of the ropes above the stage and whose duty it is to haul up and let down the “hung” scenery, and the electricians and “operators,” who take care of everything relating to the lighting of the stage, and in their case alone they overflow to the front of the house and look after the lighting there.

Theoretically, these divisions never overlap. A “grip” simply will not handle a “prop,” and a “clearer” may not so much as look hard at an electrical “fixture,” even though the fixture is about to fall off from its insecure attachment. If a scene has a practical fireplace, with a grate and a nice red electric light to make the fire glow, the “grips” take away the painted chimney piece, the “clearers” remove the grate, and the electricians carry away the incandescent bulb and the wire attached thereto.

There is a story told of an occasion when a portable bathtub full of water was used in one scene. The bath was a “prop,” to be handled by the “clearers.” No “grip” had any right to touch it. One night – this was on the road – the “clearers” put the tub down in a passage way leading to that particular theatre’s “scene dock,” where the “flats” not in use were slid away until needed. They forgot the tub, which was a big tin affair painted green, having completed the clearing of the stage and gone to the side door for fresh air. The “grips” went after the painted “flats” to complete the setting of the stage. One after the other they came to the tub, climbed laboriously over or around it, hauled out the scenery, lifted it over the obstacle, and climbed back again. They simply had no right to move the tub, or in any way interfere with the work of the clearers.

When specialization began to set in and stage hands became organized, there was considerable discussion as to where the duties of the various divisions ended and began. There was a dispute months long as to whether a grass mat used in an exterior scene was a “prop” or a part of the scenery, and also into which category a movable fence should come. Now everything that is used to “dress the stage” is considered a “prop”; the carpets, hangings, pictures on the wall, growing plants, real waterfalls – everything that does not belong directly to the scenery.

As soon as the curtain is down and the possibility of it going up again in response to plaudits of the multitude has disappeared, the stage hands leap to their work. The clearers began to take off the “props” of this act, through the doors first, and then through the open space left by the grips when they have begun to move the scenery. The stage is usually free of all “props” by the time all of the “flats” are down and stacked out of the way. Then the properties for the next act are brought on and put in the middle of the stage, while the setting of the walls – if it be an interior scene – is being brought out and put in place. While the walls are being built with that strange flapping sound that the audience sometimes hears from the front – that is made by the ropes used in tying the sections together – the clearers are putting the furniture in the locations suggested by the author of the play, or, more likely, by the same director.

It is all done on schedule. Every grip and every clearer knows exactly what he is to do and how he is to keep from interfering with what some one else is doing. When the order is given to “strike,” which means clear the stage for the next act, each man in the gang leaps for the particular “prop” or piece of scenery delegated to his care, and hustles it out of the way with a total disregard for the shins of whoever may be in the way. When the stage is being cleared or set it belongs to the stage hands only, and even the star of greatest magnitude has no right to be in the way. The stage manager of the company is the only person who may remain with impunity in the precincts of the mechanics’ quarters. And he stands as close as possible to the curtain line, out of the way, but where he can see what is going on, and gives whatever directions are necessary about the lowering of the “borders,” and the arranging of the scenery and props. It is the stage manager who gives the signal for the curtain to be raised after he has looked over the work of the stage hands and found it good.

The stage force in the theatres in New York averages from twenty to fifty men to each house, depending on the nature of the attraction current there. This average holds, of course, in all first-class theatres in other cities, and in most of the one-night stand places. That there are fully 1,500 men employed back of the curtain line and out of sight of the audiences in New York is somewhat within the actual figures, but it is a close approximation. This week, for example, one big musical production that has been running all Summer will end its local engagement, and the number of men at work will be reduced just that much, so far as this one theatre is concerned. On the other hand, new plays coming into the city will demand the aid of some, if not all, of these men. Of course, they are all members of the union, of the “T.M.A.,” the Theatrical Mechanics’ Association. The number of union stage hands in every city is generally in excess of the number of workers required, because there must always be enough authorized workers to take care of the largest kind of theatrical productions.

When a “road” attraction is about to arrive in a town the local stage carpenter receives a “scene plot,” sent on ahead of the company, which tells him just how many grips, how many clearers, how many fly men and electricians will be needed. He has them ready when the production arrives in town. The company carries at least a carpenter and a property man of its own, and in unusual cases, when the settings are particularly heavy or intricate, it carries several trained stage hands besides. The company carpenter has charge of the setting of the scenery, though the local stage hands are under the direction of the local carpenter. When the attraction remains for any length of time in one theatre the company carpenter sometimes turns over the entire stage to the local man after the play has been given for several performances.

In the case of a “New York production,” when the play is coming in for a hoped-for long run, the stage force is rehearsed for the opening performance. Before the “first night” three or four scene and light rehearsals are given for the purpose of familiarizing the crew with the scenery and the running of the play, and then a further rehearsal at the time of the final full company dress rehearsal, immediately before the play opens. When the attraction opens out of town a short time, before coming into the city is usually the custom to take at least a part of the crew to the other city, so that they may have the scenic side of the play down pat by the time it comes to New York.

One large musical comedy now running on Broadway may be taken as an example of how the force is divided and how many people are needed. This play has two or three heavy sets, and also requires several quick changes of scenery. Its stage crew consists of a head carpenter and assistant, seventeen “grips,” head property man and his assistant and seventeen “clearers,” six flymen, two chief electricians, and fourteen “operators,” or assistant electricians, which does not include four men on electrical duty in the front of the house – sixty in all. The record for setting the heaviest scene complete is thirty seconds. At the Hippodrome the force runs well past 100, with the proportion of the “clearers” much greater.

The “clearers” it must be remembered, are responsible not only for the movable scenery on the stage, but for the things the actors and chorus people carry in their hands. In the musical play mentioned it was found necessary to give each “clearer” a number, plainly displayed on his cap, so that the members of the company could recognize the man from whom each was to receive his or her “prop.” At the Hippodrome, where sometimes as many as 1,000 “props” are required for one scene, such as the ballets, there is a real army of “clearers” on duty. One division gives out the “head props,” such as helmets and fancy head dresses that do not form an integral part of the costumes, and another division has charge of the “hand props,” which consist of spears, guns, wands, baskets of flowers – everything that is to be carried in the hand.

In vaudeville there are different laws and different customs, after the general rules of the union. There each of the seven or eight acts on the bill is a company in itself, with different scenic and property requirements. The principal member of the “act” is supposed to pay for the special work done for his part of the programme, outside of the necessary moving of scenery and handling of staple “props.” The payment is generally done in the form of gratuities at the end of the week’s engagement, and the average performer is usually very glad to do the paying. In vaudeville a property man or a “grip” while attending strictly to his business can often cause a performer considerable annoyance – “crab the act” according to the vernacular – and by a slight zeal beyond his actual duties he can add much to the success of the actor. Vaudeville stage hands, too, frequently have a chance to play parts.

Stage hands are recognized as good authorities on plays. The head carpenter’s prophesy at the end of a first performance is usually worth listening to, and it is not often that the property man makes a mistake. And after two weeks of an attraction there is not a stage hand in the theatre who does not feel that he could play any part in the piece. Not as the vaudeville stage hand plays parts, by being the butt of the comic juggler’s comedy or coming on as a bellboy or a waiter, but as the actor plays them, only in the stage hand’s own mind, a good deal better.

Sometimes they try it. One Christmas time the stage hands at the Belasco Theatre, which is now the Republic, put on a burlesque of “The Rose of the Rancho” for Mr. Belasco’s benefit, and surprised the “governor” and the other invited guests by their histrionic ability. And last Spring, at a performance given for the Hippodrome Sick Benefit Fund, the stage crew from the Bijou gave an act of “The Lottery Man” so well that the regular company began to be worried.

Many of the workers on the stage “hold down” other jobs. They are required only six nights and two afternoons during the week, except when scene rehearsals are called. Almost any daylight occupation can be attended to without interference with the work at night. A very incomplete census of the stage hands in town indicates that a good proportion of them are married. At one big house they have got into the habit of marrying members of the chorus, and one of the happiest of the big force over there this season is a “clearer” who was excused from rehearsals one day last week to go home and see the new baby. Last Winter its mother was one of those who went down into the water and astonished out-of-town visitor by not coming up again.

– first published in The New York Times – September 4, 1910