Tag Archives: snow

Behind the Scenes Part 4, 1890

The following comes from an 1890 news article in the San Francisco Morning Call. You can also check out the first partthe second part and the third part:

More ingenious is the cleverness employed to depict other accessories to a complete dramatic production. As pretty a stage snow-storm as one would wish to witness happens in “The Two Orphans.” The material for this display was formerly fine-cut paper, prepared by book-binders; in its place white kid in equally small pieces is utilized at present for such purposes.

They can be gathered up more readily, and last longer than paper; besides, there is an ultimate saving in cost. Salt hangs with a better effect to a hat or coat, and gives a thoroughly realistic look to the character that has just stepped indoors from a storm.

If a flash of lightening is needed, the effect is generally gained where electric lights are burned, by rapidly switching the current.

The time-honored scheme is to flash a torch of alcohol, rosin or lycopodium. Stage thunder is the rustling of a sheet of iron suspended from a rafter and set into noisy motion by a long handle. The mighty peals of thunder recently heard in the “Silver Falls” at the Boston Theater were created by a new device, the beating of a huge drum about thrice the size of an ordinary bass drum. This ingenious contrivance gives more distance to the sound. Iron switches bunched like a broom wisp when beaten together will give forth the limitation of rain or hail dropping.

In the “White Slave” water is utilized. The howling wind comes from a wheel that forces the air violently through a large tin funnel with a whistle at the smaller end.

The audience shivers at it, but it may have only been the ancient “wind” the property man makes by drawing his thumb and index finger down a rosined string running through a hole in a tin box such as mustard is packed in. That is the trick of the wind in “Davy Crockett” when the wolves are howling at the cabin door.

Tempest-tossed waves and their white caps that meet the eye of the liberated Count of Monte Cristo as he stands on an ocean rock beyond the Chateau d’If and announces with Georgian assurance “This world is mine,” are but a few bags of saltpeter or a plain salt tossed on a green cloth against a scene.

The mighty motion of the sea that awes the gallery gods who have “Romany Rye” on the brain comprises the united efforts of four men, two on either side of the stage, who shake a length of emerald baize known as a “sea cloth.”

Published in The Morning Call, San Francisco, December 25, 1890, pg 19. Originally written by Felix Barnley in 1887.

Recollections of Dirty Snow, 1916

The following little gem comes from Recollections of a Scene Painter, by E. T. Harvey, published in 1916:

Stage snow can now be bought by the barrel, and is made by cutting paper into small discs. In the old days it was quite a laborious task for the property man. He and his assistants would have to work for days with shears to get a supply, and it accordingly was carefully preserved. One night when the “Angel of Midnight” was being played, Barras, who watched everything pretty closely, told the property boy as he went up in the “flies” with the snow box, “to let it down in a perfect avalanche” when he gave the signal. The snowstorm in “Way Down East,” for instance, is done by pulling backward and forward a folded, perforated piece of cloth that sifts the snow down on the stage, and an electric fan dashes it mixed with coarse salt against the window pane and into the open door as “Hannah Moore” is driven out into the storm.

But in the days of fifty years ago the property boys usually just scattered it by the handful from up in the gridiron. When Barras gave the signal for the “avalanche,” Bill Sullivan, the property boy, took the hat box and turned it upside down, emptying the contents upon poor Captain Satan (Leffingwell) lying on his back on the stage, and Sallie St. Clair bending over him. In the box were nails, screws, and all the trash that had been swept up from time to time. Barras had several troubles during that engagement.

Recollections of a Scene Painter, by E. T. Harvey, pp 26-7. Princeton University, 1916.

Mechanical Sound Effects

Before sound could be reproduced by recorded means, any sound effects needed in the theatre had to be created by mechanical means. The props department was in charge of coming up with the machines and devices to achieve that. In the rare cases that live sound effects are used in a modern performance, it still tends to be props’ responsibility, though with the advent of sound designers, you will always have some cross-departmental collaboration.

The devices used for the most common sounds were fairly standard during the last few centuries. I found some great illustrations of these in a 1900 book entitled Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects by Van Dyke Browne (what a name for a scene painter!)

Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds
Thunder sheet and Galloping steeds

Thunder was created by hanging a large sheet of thin iron and shaking it. If you’ve ever carried a large sheet of thin sheet metal, you can imagine the sound something as large in the picture can create.

Wood blocks were used to generate the sound of galloping horses; they had elastic bands to keep them on the prop-person’s hands. The book points out that some property masters preferred the use of coconut halves, though this required the cut ends to be perfectly flat and smooth.

Rain and Wind
Rain and Wind

The sound of rain was made by filling a long box with small pebbles. The box had a center pivot point which allowed it to tilt; all the pebbles would tumble to the other side. If you’ve ever played with a rain stick, it is the same general idea.

The “wind-producing drum” is a bit of a mystery to me. Browne neglects to describe this drawing, and I cannot be certain of its possible sound or intended use. Most of us are more familiar with the next drawing as a machine to create the sound of wind.

Wind Machine
Wind Machine

A piece of silk is draped over a drum made of slats of wood with spaces in between. The drum can be turned to create the sound of wind.

The following are more esoteric devices. With the advent of cinema, foley artists (as the creators of mechanical sound effects were called) had to come up with ways to create sound effects in much smaller places; after all, a cinema has far less space backstage than a theatre for plays.

Horse Trotter
Horse Trotter

This is a horse trotting machine. It acts like a more automated version of hitting two coconut halves together. A shaft above has a number of “tappets” (C1 and C2) which pushes the top cup away from the bottom cup (Fig 2). When the tappet clears, a spring connecting the two cups pulls them back together, creating the sound. The triangular cutouts in the top cup help make a louder and richer sound. The “foot lever” on the bottom is used to adjust the distance of the cups from the shaft. When it is further away, the tappets do not push the cup as much, creating a softer sound. Thus, it gives the operator some control over the volume of the galloping horses.

Sound Machine
Sound Machine

This last machine is an attempt to combine a whole bunch of sound-generating devices into one. The back part (S) has a number of pipes, whistles and bells (V), through which compressed air is run. You can trigger each one individually by turning the air on and off. In the middle of a large drum is a thin sheet of stiff metal (M). Using the handle, you can slap it against the drum to simulate artillery fire. Because it is on a roll (P), you can alter the length of the sheet to control the volume of the slap.

A final lever (R) can be used to generate a rolling effect on the drum, which apparently mimicked the sound of automobiles quite successfully.

The final illustration does not have to do with sound, but it was in the same chapter. I recently wrote a post about the variety of ways a props person simulates snow on stage. Though a snow drop itself is not usually a prop department’s responsibility, it is helpful to know how one works, and so I include the illustration below.

Snow Drop
Snow Drop

Illustrations originally printed in Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects by Van Dyke Browne. 5th ed., 1900, George Routledge and Sons, Limited. You can read the whole book at the Internet Archive.

Snow

Every winter, many performing arts institutions put on some kind of winter or holiday show. From a traditional Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker Suite, to the more modern A Christmas Story and The Santaland Diaries, many of these shows involve snow to some extant. Now, depending on the context of the snow and the traditions of the theater you work at, snow can be the responsibility of one or more departments: props, scenery, sometimes even lighting. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know some of the many ways snow is recreated, whether or not it ends up being the prop department’s responsibility.

For the 1936 Broadway production of Ethan Frome, scenic designer Jo Mielziner was very specific about the properties of the snow which covered most of the stage. It fell to Joe Lynn, the property master, to come up with a recipe. After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes. As Mielziner himelf explains:

The cornmeal provided the right consistency, the quartz gave the crunching sound and the mica simulated the sparkling surface of snow in moonlight.

(from Designing for the theatre: a memoir and a portfolio, by Jo Mielziner; Atheneum, 1965, pg. 90)

Joe Lynn also added some rat poison to the mix to keep vermin away, which is probably not the safest solution available to today’s theatres. Also, using particles and powders as a floor covering—this is true of sand as well—can trigger issues with your fire marshal and even Actor’s Equity; you want to make sure you involve them as soon as possible so that you don’t end up using something which is not allowed.

For snowballs, previous props people have used white bar soap shaved into bits with a cheese grater. The resulting bits can be packed into a snowball which explodes on impact. Others suggest instant mashed potato flakes. In either case, water can be mixed in or spritzed on to make the snowballs stick better. If the actors are throwing the snowballs at people, obviously you want the snowball to break apart on impact as easily as possible. A lot of variables come into play: how hard the actor throws it, what it is hitting against, the temperature and humidity in your theatre, how far in advance you need to make the snowballs, etc. As a result of all these variables, there is no “exact recipe”, and research and development is essential.

Another option is the interior of disposable diapers (new ones, not used ones). They contain a powder called sodium polyacrylate, a polymer which absorbs 800–1000 times its own weight, effectively turning a liquid into a solid gel. It is also sold in magic shops and novelty stores as “slush powder”.

If a show calls for falling snow, it is often the props departments duty to procure the snow, while scenery is in charge of making it fall from the air. I know, it’s bizarre. The preferred method for at least the past hundred and thirty years is using clipped paper. Unfortunately, regular paper will not pass today’s fire retardant standards. If the thought of fire-proofing every snowflake for every performance is too overwhelming, theatrical suppliers, like Rose Brand, sell flame-proofed paper snow flakes. Expect to pay a lot though, and be aware that everyone needs snow during the winter and they are often sold out by this time of the year.

A more modern alternative is plastic flakes. Rose Brand sells these as well, but you can make your own if you wish. You can find paper shredders (for offices) which not only cut in strips, but also crosscut those pieces to make confetti. You can run white grocery bags or garbage bags through one to make your own plastic snow flakes. Bear in mind that you need a lot of snowflakes to make even a short-duration snowfall over a small stage. You’ll need more for multiple performances. You may be tempted to sweep as much as you can from one performance to use in the next one. Be aware that when you are picking up the old snow, you are also picking up all the dirt and dust from the stage. You don’t want to rain crud down onto your performers during a show; the dust can get in their eyes, and larger particles may even injure them when dropped from the top of the stage.