Tag Archives: sound effects

Ingenious Stage Machinery, 1892

The following comes from an 1892 Theatre Magazine article:

Probably the most ingenious stage machinery that the Meininger Company possesses are their contrivances for producing thunder in all its varied forms. Four distinctly different apparatuses, every one perfect in its way, are used for this purpose. The result accomplished with them is as close an imitation of nature’s thunder as human ingenuity will ever be able to make.

The principal apparatus consists of several wooden boxes, about one foot square, which run along the entire length of the wall from roof to cellar. Inside of each box, from one to two feet apart, slanting boards are placed, running about half way across the interior, as shown in the cut. At the very top of the box are several compartments, in which a number of iron balls of different sizes are placed. By means of a rope-and-spring attachment any one of these compartments can be opened from the stage, and thus the balls contained in it permitted to tumble down their tortuous course to the cellar. The noise that this creates is almost exactly like the thunder of a near storm. At first, owing to the great height from which the balls are started, the sound reaches the audience but faintly, growing gradually louder and more reverberating as the descent of the balls becomes more rapid and as they reach the level of the stage. With their passage down into the cellar the noise again grows gradually less and more distant. With this apparatus alone, however, no low, gradual dying out effects or that faint, gradually increasing rumbling of a far-away approaching storm can be given. For this purpose, then, an instrument made on the principle of a drum is called into service. It is a huge, square wooden box over the top of which a thick vellum is tightly stretched.

The operator uses, besides a couple of drumsticks, about a dozen wooden balls of various sizes, which are rolled around on the parchment in a most dexterous manner. The sounds produced in this way can be perfectly graduated according to the number and the size of the balls used and the manner in which they are rolled.

To simulate the crashing of a thunderclap a contrivance built on the principle of a policeman’s rattle is employed. On top of a huge box, about ten feet long and four feet square, a number of wooden slats are fastened so that they act like springs. A cylinder with wooden pins, resembling somewhat the cylinder of a music-box, is at one end of the box. On being turned the pins lift and drop the end of the slats in rapid succession.

The fourth device to contribute to the various “thunder effects” is the familiar sheet of iron, which is too old and well-known an institution to require description. All the apparatuses mentioned are in different parts of the theatre back of the stage and in the loft, so as to avoid having the sound come from one direction, and by their skillful manipulation and the exact blending or combining of the different sounds at the proper moment remarkably realistic effects are produced.

The lightning by the Meiningers is done with a camera lucida, an invention by one Baehr, of Dresden. It is a contrivance resembling a big magic lantern and is worked on the same principle. A powerful electric light is burned inside of it. Behind the focus is a revolving disk of dark glass plates, on every other one of which are faintly traced the outlines of different kinds of lightning. The disk is revolved very quickly, so as to throw the flash on the canvas for only an instant’s duration. The sheet lightning is also produced with an electric apparatus, one of which is used on either side of the stage.

The pouring and pattering of rain and the beating of hail require four different contrivances. The most novel of these is a wooden box, about twelve feet long and six inches square, inside of which are numerous slanting sheets of tin, punctured with small holes. A number of peas are rushed continuously up and down the box, rolling over the puntured tin and tumbling from one sheet to the other in a manner like that described of the iron balls in the “thunder box.” There are two or three of these “rain-boxes” in the possession of the Meiningers, each one differing from the other only in the angle and width of separation of the tin sheets within.

A soft spattering of rain is produced with an ordinary sieve on which a handful of peas are rolled around, while a more violent downpour, mingled with pelting hail and lashed by the wind, is given by means of a large revolving cylinder of wire gauze, inside of which are a lot of round pebbles.

For the marvelously realistic gusts of wind in the storm scene of “Julius Cæsar” an apparatus is employed which closely resembles a large revolving fan used for ventilating purposes. In this case, however the tips of the fan as it revolves scrape lightly against a broad strip of stiff silk, thus giving a swishing sound.

“Ingenious Stage Machinery.” Theatre Jan. 1892: 31-32. Google Books. Web. 28 Feb. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=QR1LAQAAMAAJ>.

Original Romeo and Juliet Props Found

If you’re a Shakespeare buff or just interested in theatrical history, you may be aware that archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology are currently excavating the Curtain Theatre. The Curtain is one of the earlier theatres used by Shakespeare, and its well-preserved remains are filling in a lot of gaps about our knowledge of Elizabethan theatre. It has already yielded some surprises: the stage is rectangular, not circular as previously supposed. And last week, you probably saw the news articles exclaiming that props from the original Romeo and Juliet were unearthed. Is this true? Or rather, how likely is this?

Bone comb found at Curtain Theatre, (C) MOLA
Bone comb found at Curtain Theatre, (C) MOLA

Continue reading Original Romeo and Juliet Props Found

Behind the Scenes part 5, 1890

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

A pair of wooden squares covered with sand-paper and rubbed together announces the coming of the engine in “Across the Continent.” A wish of wires did similar service for the locomotive in the “Main Line.” Cheerful, indeed, looked the fire on the hearth in the kitchen of Hazel Kirke’s home when she quitted it for the castle of Arthur Carringford. Gas jets and colored glass caused the illusion.

To be kicked downstairs should be severe punishment; it seems doubly so when done on the stage, for the crash, a machine with a lot of loose shingles working on a cog makes the commotion all the greater. Once in a while a gentleman is fired through a paper window, and in his descent apparently knocks into smithereens a skylight.

A demijohn wicker cover intact, holding broken glass, dropped as the actor takes flight, consummates the disaster to the ignominious character.

A steam pipe, or, when not convenient, slacked lime, will cause a semblance of dust or smoke in earthquakes or explosions.

A poorly equipped theater it is indeed that has not around a genius who can bark like a dog or crow after the manner of a cock…

Realistic properties are steadily encroaching on the art of the property-man. A cage of lions in “Theodora,” horses in “A Run of Luck,” “Jalma,” “Kerry Gow” and dozens of other plays; tanks of real water in which boat-races are carried on and heroines are half-drowned and dived after by brave heroes, etc., etc.

Probably the best piece of stage realism ever put on the stage was the cascade of real water, leaping from a height of fifty feet into the ravine below, seen in the recent production of “The Silver Falls” at the Boston Theater. Tons upon tons of water were utilized in this scene, and the great wonder of this exhibition of stage realism was what became of the water after it had dashed into the rocky ravine.

It was a simple matter. A huge tank was built under the stage, which, when filled to overflowing, was drained into the sewer.

All these realistic effects and such as were seen in “The Soudan” are but forerunners of an era that will leave nothing “faked” but the scenery.

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

A Clap of Thunder, 1902

The following first appeared in The Salt Lake Herald, on July 27, 1902.

Many stories are told of Dion Boucicault as occurring during the active life of that playwright actor. One relates to the time he was playing a piece called “The Vampire” at the Princess theatre, London. The opening scene represented the highest regions of the Alps by moonlight, while a thunderstorm raged in the distance. The Vampire (Mr. Boucicault) was seen lying dead on the mountain peak, to all appearances, but as a ray of moon touched his body he came to life.

Of course, the thunder was produced in the usual manner by the property man with a “thunder sheet.”

One night in the height of the season a tremendous clap of thunder startled the audience and interrupted Mr. Boucicault in the middle of a speech. Lowering his voice so that it could be heard only by the property man, he said:

“Very well, Mr. Davis, you are making more mistakes. That clap of thunder came in the wrong place.”

Mr. Davis replied in stentorian tones, which could be plainly heard all over the auditorium:

“No fault of mine, sir; it wasn’t my thunder. Thunder’s real out of doors, perhaps you can stop it there.”

Originally published in The Salt Lake Herald, July 27, 1902, page 11.

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.