Tag Archives: strike

Burning the Props, 1939

The following comes from a 1939 issue of The New Yorker. I don’t know if traveling plays still need to be destroyed after the show closes, but I do know you still see a lot of scenery and props end up in the trash at the end of a run.

Flashing Finish

by John McNulty, Eugene Kinkead, and Russell Maloney

It was all rather sad about “The Flashing Stream,” the play written by Charles Morgan, the London critic, which flopped here after being such a success in London. The cast went away in a huff, one of them declaring that presenting the play over here was like putting vintage claret before whiskey drinkers. We poured ourself a stiff slug of redeye at ten last Monday morning and went around to the Biltmore Theatre to watch a curious rite connected with the demise of an English play. When a British production is brought over here, God forbid, the scenery and props are admitted duty-free only on the understanding that at the conclusion of the run they must be either shipped out of the country or destroyed. Nine times out of ten the management elects to destroy them.

When we arrived at the Biltmore we found a jolly crew of vultures from the Williams Transfer Corporation on the stage of the Biltmore, dismantling the single set, an ancient fortress. They were under the supervision of Frank Williams, a partner in the company, a gray-haired veteran of the scenery-transport business. He told us that the general practice had been to chop up the scenery and props right onstage, but that in this instance the customs men had ordered a burning. This, he told us, would necessitate a trip up to the Colgate dumps, near the Bronx River. When they got their trucks loaded, a customs official appeared, checked the inventory, down to the last vase of artificial flowers, and assigned a guard who was with him to make the trip to the dump and see it all burned. We followed the trucks in a taxicab, brooding on the impermanence of everything.

The dump is a large, bare expanse with a pit that smolders eternally, yawning for English drama. The truckmen, half a dozen of them, made a pile of the scenery. “We’ll need gasoline,” somebody said. “This is all fireproofed.” One of the truckmen winked. “The hell we will,” he said, touching a match to the pile. It went up in flames at once. The truckmen, like destructive brownies, skipped about the flames and yelled. “Gone with the wind!” cried one, throwing into the flames a billboard picture of Margaret Rawlings, the star. Another man disemboweled a sofa and set fire to the insides. Then they all began hurling small objects into the flames—cushions, glassware, vases, occasional chairs, all the paraphernalia of English acting. Our last sight of the holocaust, as we drove off in our cab, was a man who, under the approving gaze of the customs guard, was prancing about with an armful of artificial tiger lilies, pitching them one by one into the flames.

Original appearance: McNulty, John, Eugene Kinkead, and Russell Maloney. “Flashing Finish.” New Yorker 29 Apr. 1939: 18-19. Print.

Setting the Stage and Striking the Show, 1905

The following is the final excerpt of an article which first appeared in 1905 in the St. Louis Republic. Check out the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth parts for the full story.

When the curtain has descended after the last encore, “Strike” commands the stage manager, and in a jiffy, the village street is transformed into a camp on the plains. As soon as the main pieces are set, the property man is out in front distributing about the little things he carries in his clothes. The army blanket is spread out and tin plates, battered and smokey, are thrown around in artistic confusion. Out of one pocket McCarrick pulls a deck of cards and lays out a trio of poker hands. Money and chips are piled up at the proper spot. From another pocket comes a newspaper, and from still another he draws a pencil, without which the climax of the act would be a failure. All of these things he has prepared with as much diligence and care as though he were arranging the crown for the coronation of an emperor. If he did not he would probably lose his job.

He is the first man on the stage after the curtain has been rung down and gathers up his precious possessions with the same system and care with which he laid them out. Back into the trunk they go, in perfect order, and after careful inventory has been made. The next performance finds them just as they were left and already for the show to begin.

McCarrick has been in the business for twenty-three years as a property man. He started by accident as a helper to the property man in a New York theater. Two weeks later his boss made a fatal slip, which ruined the climax of the whole play, and McCarrick got his job at once and he has been in the game ever since. He has been with many of the most prominent theatrical organizations which have toured America, and has crossed the continent repeatedly. So constant has been his work that it has become second nature with him to learn the book of the play with which he is connected, and every line and every cue is as firmly fixed in his memory as it is in the gray matter of the stage manager and of the performers themselves.

Many have been the close shaves he has had caused by missed railroad connection or delays in securing needed articles, and his store of thrilling and amusing anecdotes of his quarter century behind the scenes is wonderfully interesting.

He has the figures for being about as important personage as any one connected with the theatrical world, and in quiet modesty bears the pressing duties which are his.

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

Friday’s Link List

The DIY movement and small, creative businesses are becoming more and more important to the economy as a whole. Many props people either freelance as their own “business”, or run side businesses making things (such as selling things on Etsy). Save Us. Be Creative! takes a look at this growing trend.

On the other side of the coin, traditional theatre work is still worth fighting over. This past week saw the end of a particularly intense strike by IATSE stagehands at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. This article delves into the reasons behind it and why young theatre technicians spent two weeks outside in the cold and snow to protest their concerns. Coincidentally, the play the theatre was putting on was The Mountaintop, which imagines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last day as he prepares to address a crowd of striking workers. The company could not find any workers to break the strike, so they tried to run it without any technical elements; this included having an actress sit in a folding chair and read the lighting and sound cues (“Thunder and lightning! Crack!”).

In sadder news, this week legendary makeup artist Stuart Freeborn passed away. Though he has worked on films since before World War II, he is most famously known as the man who created Yoda and Chewbacca. The BBC has a good roundup of his life and career, as well as a very in-depth radio interview they did a few months back. The NY Times has a nice slideshow of his Star Wars work, while The Week has a collection of five stories about Stuart that are not made up. If you have the time, here is a video of Stuart himself talking about his work: