Tag Archives: studio

A Factory for Making Plays

The following article was originally published in the New York Times, November 25, 1906:

Situated in the storehouse and wharf district of the extreme west side, and running through the entire block from Twenty-seventh to Twenty-eighth Street, the casual observer would never imagine by a glance at its unpretentious exterior that a veritable fairy-land lurked within its four plain brick walls.

The person who is fortunate enough to gain admittance past its argus-eyed German watchman stationed at the main door will be amply repaid for the visit. Erected by Henry W. Savage, a theatrical manager, for the building of his plays, the play factory is capable of turning out even the largest productions complete without their leaving the building for anything whatever, and here one may watch the entire construction of a play underneath one roof. The greater part of the time there are 250 people at work in the factory. These include scene builders, painters, electricians, costumers, florists, and property men. Continue reading A Factory for Making Plays

Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

I’ve been finding a lot of great advertisements for theatrical property companies and other related businesses from The Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide and Moving Picture Directory. These ads appeared between 1898 and 1913. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the theatrical business scene in New York City from a century ago. I also love the style of the ads themselves, with their odd mix of formality and flair.

Morse Company Theatrical Properties, 1903

Turner Prop Storage

Douthitt Set Dressing

Gebhardt, props

Perry, Ryer and Co Imports

Prof. Dare Inventor

I like the previous man’s name: Professor Dare. In addition to prop-related businesses, I’ve also found some interesting ones for scenery studios and scenic artists.

Continue reading Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

When nothing is happening

It happens. It’s rare, but it happens. You get to work or your studio, and nothing is happening. You have no upcoming projects, the phone isn’t ringing, your emails are all answered, and you have no meetings. It is especially prevalent this time of the year, when half the country seems to be out of town or hunkered down in their homes for the holidays. You can spend all day watching Netflix, or you can take advantage of the downtime with some things you never have time for but which will improve your shop and skills in the long run. Here are some of my favorites.

Clean. I know you clean your shop every day (right?). And you probably do a big clean every week (when you have time). Still, there always seems to be something dirty in your shop no matter how often you clean, so here’s your chance to empty the vacuum cleaner, scrape the paint traps, and dust the tops of the chandeliers.

Maintenance. I’m talking about sharpening the chisels and oiling the pneumatic staplers. All tools require some maintenance, even if it’s only needed once or twice a year. If you don’t know the current state of your tools, now is a good time to check each one and make a list of what needs fixing and what needs replacing. It’s also a good time to get rid of those random tool parts from tools you no longer have that every shop somehow accumulates (or put them in your big bin of “found objects to use as prop parts”).

Organize. I don’t mean to imply that your shop isn’t already the paragon of proper organization. It doesn’t hurt to check all your bins of bolts to make sure they only contain the right sizes and cull out all the random bits that have found their way into the wrong drawers. While you’re at it, make sure you can close all the drawers; if one seems to be constantly overflowing, now is a good time to think of a way to divide up the contents and reorganize your hardware. It is also a good chance to take stock of how your supplies are faring and whether you need to order anything new (if your shop doesn’t have someone who does that).

Learn a new skill. This is one of my favorites. No matter how advanced you are, there is always something in the world of props that you’ve never quite mastered. Maybe it’s an artisan skill, such as welding or fabric draping, or maybe you just want to brush up on Excel or CAD. It’s your choice whether you want to just practice or if you want to take on a whole project utilizing your new skill so you have something to show for it at the end. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can undertake an improvement to your shop, such as building new shelves using a saw you haven’t used before.

Tinker. Closely related to learning a new skill is tinkering. Maybe you want to experiment with different ways to pull of an effect which didn’t quite work in your last show, or maybe you just want to check out some new blood recipes you found on the internet. The world of props has a whole host of tricks and effects which can always use improving. Perhaps you can finally solve the problem of making a cell phone ring on cue.

Read. If you know what shows are coming up in your season, you can get a jump on them by reading the scripts now. When we’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to read a script for fun without stressing over every prop that is mentioned in it (all the needles just fell off the Christmas tree at once! How am I going to pull that off?). Alternatively, you can peruse the books on your shelf or look up information in other places about the time period of your upcoming plays to make yourself more informed about the context. Even if you don’t have any shows you want to prepare for, the prop master has an endless supply of reading material which can inform his or her profession. And hey, if you’re really bored, why not look through the archives of my blog to catch up on any articles you may have missed?

Scout new sources. Maybe being in the shop is the last thing you want to do when there is nothing going on. If you don’t have to be there, now is a great time to check out stores, flea markets and other suppliers that you otherwise haven’t had the chance to. It is especially nice this time of the year, as the throngs of holiday shoppers have gone home and discounts can be found.

Portfolios. A props person should always have an up-to-date portfolio, even if one is not actively seeking employment. A lull between shows is a good time to make sure of this.The least you can do is gather all the photographs you can find of past shows. Portfolios aren’t just for individual artisans; it’s a good idea to have a “shop” portfolio as well.You can show off what your shop has done in the past to tours which come through, or in presentations to groups, or at conferences such as USITT. It also doesn’t hurt to brag on your accomplishments to your bosses and the higher-ups every once in awhile. Even if you can’t think of a specific reason to keep a portfolio, you don’t want to be caught in a situation where someone asks to see examples of your shop’s work and all you have is a dusty photograph from a 1982 production of Christmas Carol.

The Movie Prop-Hunters’ Museum

The Movie Prop-Hunters’ Museum

by Charles Abbott Goddard

The prop man must scratch the word “can’t” from his vocabulary. The property man of the studio, the man who gets various articles that appear to make the setting realistic, has to know what to get for the studio to develop settings which the audience sees completed.

In order to achieve this vital aim, the chief of the department and his men are ever on the alert. They don’t wait until something is requested before they start looking for it. They always strive to be a little ahead of the game. They get a line upon everything which they think will ever be used as a prop and enter it in their index. They never miss an opportunity. If they see a strange vehicle, an unusual antique or anything else which isn’t on their lists, they get all possible information concerning such an article, where it may be found at a moment’s notice, and put that information down in black and white in the department files. Only a few weeks ago the chief of props in one studio, while driving in the business section of Los Angeles, saw a Ford taxicab of the 1913 model. He noted immediately that it possessed a very unusual feature — that despite its age, it looked almost new, having received excellent care and perhaps little usage. The value of such a condition lay in the fact that pictures are often produced wherein the action supposedly takes place some years ago, but in which new or almost new properties are required. The property must be physically new, yet it must be suited to the period of time in which the action takes place. He chased the taxicab for twelve blocks and finally caught it. He obtained the address where it might be obtained and a description of the car, which he entered in his index. Not more than two weeks later a director asked for just such a car for a comedian to drive. Without difficulty the machine was secured and rented.

In the studio department there are two property indexes. One is a list of the properties on hand in the prop room and names, describes, and numbers something like sixty-five thousand items. The other is a list of obtainable props, much larger than the first list, and contains all necessary information about properties not on hand but which may be secured on short notice. This list includes a ridiculous variety of entries, ranging from trained monkeys, snakes, and canary birds to false teeth.

from Illustrated World, March 1922, Vol. 37, No.1 (pp. 849-851, 939)

Photography Props

I found an interesting little article about props in photography, which is actually a reprint from a 1922 article in Abel’s Photographic Weekly.

[T]he photographer felt moved to point out the fact that the modern camera specialist must have at hand more “props” as they are called in theatrical circles, than many a small sized theatre.

Some of us working in props already know the world of photography props is another outlet for our skills. I know other props artisans who have worked full-time for photography studios, and I myself spent a day at a studio doing carpentry during a shoot.

In photography, it is often the art director responsible for putting together the set and props. The art director will either pull this all together on their own, or hire outside help, sometimes even contracting the work to a scene shop. Some photographers will work on their own, either with an in-house staff of carpenters, decorators, and painters, or as in the case with many portrait photographers, by acquiring their own inventory of props one by one. Photographers will often post on the internet, either through Craigslist, Etsy, or some other site, when they are looking for custom props to be built.

So if you’re ever looking to branch out, or find some work in the off-season, don’t forget about photography.