Tag Archives: stage manager

Property Man is “It”, 1905

The following is the second excerpt of an article which first appeared in 1905 in the St. Louis Republic. You can read the first part here:

When the leading woman swooned at the sight of the tragic and thrilling vision she would have had a bitter bump on the hard floor had not the property man thoughtfully supplied an upholstered divan at the exact spot, and thereby broke the fall and saved the dramatic situation.

After all is said and done the property man is “it.”

The ordinary theatrical programme carries on the first page of the bill of the play the cast of characters in which the principals see their names in the largest letters, which do not interfere with the typographical make-up of the folder. After the synopsis and the lesser details, in these days so necessary to the proper enjoyment of the drama, musical comedy and other what nots of the theatrical world, one comes across a list of officials which is seldom perused were it not interspersed with stereotyped humor. This list embraces the persons who have made possible the evening’s pleasure to the spectator.

The stage manager and the assistant stage manager come first, since it is their executive management which directs the efforts of everyone else. Frequently are found the stage carpenter, who is responsible for the scenery and stage settings, and the electrician, who handles the light effects and transforms noontide to twilight and black to dawn without batting an eye.

The mistress of wardrobes, who checks up the gauzy gowns of a half hundred coryphées, or who bosses the packing of the Gainsborough hats of a handsome bunch of show girls, at times sees her name among those of the executive staff. The head usher is never missing, and there have been instances where the head bill poster has been enumerated. The piano that was used and the maker of the gowns worn by the principal women of the cast is sure to be found.

But when one cares to know who has made the show what it is, the name is usually missing from the rolls, and back through the stage entrance he must go and around corners of scenery and through crowds of supes until he reaches the den of the property man. Then, indeed, has he come to the beating heart of the production.

Is first to get an idea of the new play
Is first to get an idea of the new play

When the modern comic opera, drama or extravaganza is being prepared for its initial performance, the first man to get a copy of the lines and an idea of the theme of the play is the property man. After the playwright has finished the book and the librettist has turned out the tuneful melodies, all of which comes after the financial backer has set his official seal of approval upon everything that has been done, the property man is taken into the consideration, and while the manager is jaggling over contracts with his stars and secondary representatives are looking up available timber for the lesser parts, the property man is skirmishing the city and country over seeking for those little essentials without which the scenery might as well not be painted and the performers, as in the old Shakespearean days, would as well perform in ordinary street costume.

Originally published in The St. Louis Republic, January 1, 1905.

Managing a Mimic World, 1885

The following is an interview given to a Sun reporter by one identified only as a “veteran stage manager” of one of New York’s stock theatres. It was originally published in the New York Sun, February 15, 1885, on page 6.

“Five different and entirely distinct departments must work harmoniously and without the slightest hitch or delay,” continued the stage manager. “These are the actors, the musicians, the carpenters, the property men, and the gas men. A trifling failure made by the least of any of these may turn a performance into ridicule. Each of the mechanical departments has its own boss, but all are subject to the stage manager’s orders, and he in turn is responsible to the manager.”

“To the property-man’s department belong all furniture, carpets, curtains, ornaments, and all the small articles used by actors, and known in theatrical parlance as hand or side props. Among these are letters, books, guns, pistols, knives, purses, pocketbooks, money, lamps, candles, cradles, and doll babies. Live props, such as dogs, cats, birds, donkeys, and horses, are also under his charge, and are much disliked, as causing a vast amount of trouble. The side props are taken from the property man every night by the call boy, whose duty is to deliver them to the actors and return them after they have been used to the property room. A good property man is hard to find, for he must be something of a carpenter, an artist, a modeler, and a mechanician [sic].

“Papier-maché has come of late years to be largely used in the manufacture of properties, and nearly all the magnificent vases, the handsome plaques, the graceful statues, and the superb gold and silver plate seen to-day on the stage are made of that material. Some of the imitations of china are so perfectly done and so admirably painted that it is not unusual to see an actor tap them to find out if they are real. In making statues a cast is taken from the clay, and the pulp is then firmly pressed into the moulds. Life-size statues which seem to be of bronze or marble do not weigh more than five or six pounds, look just as well as the genuine, and are easily and quickly handled. For traveling purposes the saving in freight alone is a great economy. Entire suits of armor and fruits of all kinds are made of this useful and inexpensive material. The late Mr. Wallace, the husband of Mme. Ponial, was in his day a celebrated property man. Perhaps the two best now living are the brothers William and George Henry of the Union Square and Madison Square Theatres. Both are really excellent artists, and their salaries are deservedly as large as those of good actors.

“In most New York theatres the property man has one regular assistant and two night aids, who are needed to handle heavy carpets, pianos, and furniture. In the old days carpenters and property men were often prone to dispute about the exact lines which divided their duties, but in well-regulated theatres the departments are now generally willing to help each other. Still, a carpenter or grip is not actually bound to put a finger to a carpet or piece of furniture, nor is a property man, even if not occupied, obliged to help with a scene. Some of the distinctions drawn by custom seem to be singular; thus, a whole tree, if set upon the stage and screwed to it for support, is considered a part of the scene, and, as such, belongs to the carpenters, while a stump upon which a person may sit is in the property man’s department. Again, a flight of stairs is set up by the carpenter, but if a carpet is put on it, that must be done by the property man.”

No Screen for Rehearsal, 1903

This originally appeared in The Providence Journal and was published in The New York Times, April 26, 1903.

Lillie Langtry on stage, 1899
Lillie Langtry on stage, 1899

It was last Tuesday when the first rehearsal was on for the third act of “Mrs. Dering’s Divorce.” In this act a screen plays an important part, and it was impossible to have a satisfactory rehearsal without it. A screen had been sent for, but it had not arrived at the theatre. The rehearsal had begun and the company’s stage manager begun to perspire in anticipation of the frigid rebuke that he could see in store.

At last the fatal moment arrived, and Mrs. Langtry discovered that there was no screen for the rehearsal. The proceedings ceased to proceed and the dignified star, after listening to a word of explanation, started up the street. Behind her followed at respectful intervals the stage manager, the assistant stage manager, and the property man, a regular procession.

Where they went was not learned, but evidently not all to the same place. In a little while the Lily returned, soon followed by the stage manager. A few minutes later a screen arrived at the box office and was sent back on the stage. The rehearsal was resumed. In another minute or two the assistant stage manager returned. He brought a screen with him, but it was not really needed. A few minutes later the property man came back breathless. He also had a screen. Within five minutes a messenger arrived in hot haste. He had a screen neatly done up in brown paper. This made four screens for a scene that a short time before had been absolutely screenless. There were a few quiet smiles, but no outbreak of laughter, for that would hardly be advisable when the joke was on Mrs. Langtry.

Written by Adolph Klauber. Originally appeared in The New York Times, April 26, 1903.

Moons, Ripples, and Fire, 1885

The following article originally appeared in “The New York Times” in 1885.

How nature is imitated on the stage.

An old stage manager imparts some instruction—how to counterfeit the change from day to night.

“Nothing,” said an old stage manager, “is more easy to produce on the stage than a moonlight scene, and nothing is ore effective after it is produced. The work begins, of course, with the painting of the scene. The artist has to take into consideration the fact that moonlight must be represented with a different light from the brilliant yellow glare of gaslight which is used for day effects. The great mass of color in a moonlight scene is laid in by the artist in cold grays and greens. The grays must have no warmth in them, nothing of a purplish tinge, for moonlight is cold and hard. The greens are low-toned combinations, chiefly of burnt umber and Prussian blue. The half lights in the painting are put in with the lighter tones of this green, while the high lights are toned up with white tinted with emerald green. Sometimes when a metallic glitter is needed on some point a bit of green foil paper is stuck on. Now such a scene as this, as you can easily see, would look very sombre and unpleasant in strong gaslight.”

“What do they do with it?”

“They put artificial moonlight on it.”


“Well, suppose the scene to be a woody glade with a large opening in the trees showing a distant landscape. The drop scene at the rear of all is painted to represent the sky and landscape. In front of the drop, about three feet away, a low piece of what is known as profile work runs across the stage. This is painted to represent rocks, grass, &c., and is called a ground piece. Behind it and hidden from the audience runs across the stage a row of green ‘mediums.’ These are argand burners with green chimneys. Of course, they throw a soft greenish light upon the lower part of the scene. Another row runs across in front of the upper part of the drop, and is ‘masked in’ from the audience by a sky border. To this light is added that of a calcium thrown through a green glass upon the stage from the flies. And there you have your moonlight effects.”

“How do they get the moonlight on the water?” Continue reading Moons, Ripples, and Fire, 1885

A Property Man’s Confession, 1903

The following article comes from The New York Times, February 15, 1903:

A property man who has seen many years of service in New York theatres, and who has just lost his position on account of an oversight that almost ruined a first-night production, talked to a New York Times reporter about the difficulties that beset property men in general.

“If an actor takes any pride in his part,” he said, “he usually looks after his personal properties himself. He never takes any chances on making a bull on his part through the forgetfulness of a property man. If it is necessary for him to find a coin, a roll of bills, or a letter in his pocket, he goes to the property room for it before he goes on the stage. But if, on the other hand, he is expected to find a dagger on a table or a note hidden in a desk, he never worries about it. He takes it as a matter of course that the property man has put it there before the curtain goes up. If the property man has a reputation for forgetfulness, (and he soon loses his job if he has,) the actor or actress manages to take a look over the scene before the curtain rises to see that all is right.

“The general impression with an audience when an actor reads a letter on the stage is that he is merely glancing at blank paper and that the lines of the letter have been committed to memory with the rest of the part. As a matter of fact, this is seldom the case, especially with women. Many of them copy the letter themselves. I have even known them to copy the letter in Lady Macbeth.

“Some very amusing stage bulls have happened over the blank letter business for which stage managers have exacted a good many dollars in fines. I remember on one occasion a playwright who is known in the profession for having the lines emphasized exactly as he wants them, and who has some very peculiar ideas as to ‘business,’ decided to change an important letter within three hours of the first performance. He went to his club to write it. When the curtain went up he had not returned. The stage manager had mislaid the original letter, so the villain in the play went on with a blank letter and did the best he could from the text of the original, which he had not taken the trouble to memorize. After the first act we received word that the playwright, in his hurry to get across Broadway, had been run over by a newspaper wagon and was in a bad way at the Roosevelt Hospital. The play failed, and was taken off before he got a chance to see it. But he always blamed the failure on the letter that never came.

“My finish was over a letter to be read in a play we were producing for the first time in Brooklyn. There was a very long communication in that referring to complications over an estate, and expressed in very technical terms. The leading lady had expressly told me that she could not commit such a thing to memory, and asked me to copy it. I promised to do so, and forgot all about it. The letter was delivered by messenger to the actress on the stage, while she was talking to the man who wanted to get control of her property. She tore open the envelope, saw the blank sheet, and paused for a moment. I wondered what she was going to do. She had nerve, I tell you.

“‘Oh, these business letters,’ she exclaimed, petulantly, ‘what a nuisance they are. Here, you read it,’ handing it over to the man.

“He grasped the situation, and the blood rushed to his face. ‘Bless me,’ he exclaimed, ‘there must be something wrong about this. I must find the messenger who delivered it.’ Then he made a rapid exit.

“It took five minutes for him to get around to the prompter, and secure the manuscript of the play. Meanwhile the actress moved about the stage arranging some flowers, and toying with some things on the mantelpiece. When the actor returned he had a bunch of manuscript four inches thick, from which he read one page of typewritten letter that told what was coming in the next three acts. Some one in the audience took the story to the newspapers, and the next morning the incident got everything that was coming, and I received a note from the management with two weeks salary in lieu of notice.”

Originally published in The New York Times, February 15, 1903.