Tag Archives: theatre history

Evidence of Elizabethan Props

I found this wonderful magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

‘In the mean time, I will draw you a bill of properties such as our play wants,’ says Peter Quince, the carpenter, when the performance of ‘the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of “Pyramus and Thisby” has been duly agreed upon by the ‘crew of patches, rude mechanicals that work for bread upon Athenian stalls.’ ‘Properties’ have been, time out of mind, indispensable to theatrical exhibitions. When Melpomene first appeared, she grasped a ‘property’ dagger; when Thalia entered upon the scene, she carried a ‘property’ pastoral crook. Mr. Tennyson’s burthen of ‘Property, property, property,’ has been from days immemorial a sort of watchword to Thespis and his children.

Upon the Elizabethan stage certain properties were almost of the nature of set-pieces or detached portions of scenes. There were as yet no movable scenes employed as backgrounds to the figure-pictures formed by the actors; but the stage was not altogether without furniture or accessories to theatrical illusion. One of the earliest of properties was a representation of ‘hellmouth,’ very frequently employed in the performance of miracle plays and morals. Malone’s liberal quotations from the Diary or Account Book of Henslowe, the manager, under date March 10, 1598-9—the original work has unfortunately disappeared from Dulwich College, where it had long been preserved—supply curious information touching the properties, machinery, and fittings of our early stage. It is clear that rocks and steeples, trees and beacons, pictures now of Mother Redcap and now of Tasso,—in plays by Munday and Drayton and Dekker,—were freely brought upon the stage, in addition to such properties, in the stricter sense of the term, as musical instruments, weapons, armour, clubs, fans, feathers, crosiers, sceptres, skins of beasts, coffins and bedsteads, bulls’ and boars’ heads, a chariot for Phaeton, a trident for Neptune, wings for Mercury, a mitre for the Pope, a cauldron to be employed in the ‘Jew of Malta,’ and a dragon—one of the ‘terrible monsters made of brown paper’ ridiculed by Stephen Gossonin 1581—to figure in the ‘Faustus’ of Marlowe. A mysterious item,’the Moris lymes,’ is supposed by Malone to refer to the limbs of Aaron the Moor in ‘Titus Andronicus,’ who in the original play was probably tortured on the stage; in the same way, ‘ for the playe of Faetan the limes dead,’ may be understood to represent the remains of the hero of Dekker’s ‘Sun’s Darling’ after his fatal fall.

Mr. Payne Collier cites certain manuscript plays by William Percy, written probably about 1600, which are prefaced by a list of the properties requisite for their due performance. These are of the simplest kind—’ a ladder of roapes and a long fourme’ being prominent items—and were employed to vary the aspect of the stage, so that the spectator might persuade himself that the scene represented now Harwich, now Colchester, and now Maldon. A note to one of the plays explains that even the humble accessories contained in the list might be dispensed with upon occasion: ‘Now, if so be that the properties of any of these that be outward will not serve the turn by reason of concourse of people on the stage, then you may omit the said properties which be outward and supply their places with their nuncupations only in text letters.’ From this rather vague stage direction it may be gathered that for a ‘property’—a tree, a tower, a rock, &c.—was often substituted a mere inscription, such as reminded the spectator that he must understand the tapestry enclosing the stage to represent, now Thebes, now Rhodes, and now the Temple of Mahomet: wherever, in fact, the events dealt with by the dramatist were supposed to occur. We learn, on Mr. Collier’s authority, that the technical word ‘properties’ was applied to the appurtenances of the stage as early as the reign of Henry VI. in the ‘Castle of Perseverance,’ one of the oldest Moral Plays in the language. In an account of the furniture, &c., required for the play of ‘St. George’ at Basingborne in the year 1511, the terms ‘properties’ and ‘property making’ are both used, the tireman or wardrobe-keeper being called ‘the garment man.’ In the ‘brief estimate’ of the revels at Court in 1563-4 the ‘properties’ for five plays at Windsor are several times mentioned.

In the Gull’s Horn Book, 1609, there is humorous and minute advice to the gallants who, seated on three-legged stools, at a charge of sixpence each, crowded the stage, much to the annoyance of the actors and the audience in the other parts of the house: ‘Present yourself not on the stage, especially at a new play, until the quaking prologue has by rubbing got colour into his cheeks, and is ready to give the trumpets their cue that he is upon the point to enter; for then it is time, as though you were one of the properties, or that you dropped out of the hangings, to creep from behind the arras, with your tripos or threefooted stool in one hand and a Teston [sixpence] mounted between a forefinger and a thumb in the other; for if you should bestow your person upon the vulgar, when the house is but half full, your apparel is quite eaten up, the fashion lost, and the proportion of your body in more danger to be devoured than if it were served up in the counter amongst the poultry.”

He has got into our tiring-house amongst us,

And ta’en a strict survey of all our properties,

says Byeplay, referring to Peregrine in Brome’s comedy of ‘The Antipodes,’ 1640, and a description follows of various theatrical properties, ‘our jigambobs and trinkets,’ and other scenic accessories:

Our statues and our images of gods,

Our planets and our constellations,

Our giants, monsters, furies, beasts, and bugbears,

Our helmets, shields and vizors, hairs and beards,

Our pasteboard marchpanes and our wooden pies…

Peregrine is a sort of Quixote, and acts accordingly:

Whether he thought ’twas some enchanted castle,

Or temple hung and piled with monuments

Of uncouth and of various aspects,

I dive not to his thoughts; wonder he did

Awhile, it seemed, but yet undaunted stood;

When, on a sudden, with thrice knightly force,

And thrice, thrice puissant arm, he snatcheth down

The sword and shield that I played Bevis with,

Rusheth amongst the foresaid properties,

Kills monster after monster, takes the puppets

Prisoners, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all

Our jigambobs and trinkets to the wall.

Spying at last the crown and royal robes

I’ th’ upper wardrobe, next to which by chance

The devil’s vizors hung, and their flame-painted

Skin-coats, these he removed with greater fury,

And (having cut the infernal ugly faces

All into mammocks) with a reverend hand

He takes the imperial diadem, and crowns

Himself King of the Antipodes, and believes

He has justly gained the kingdom by his conquest.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 282-284.)

Backstage helps out on September 11th

Ten years ago this weekend, I was working as a stagehand apprentice at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. I’ve gathered some news stories about how fellow technical theatre and film employees stepped in and helped out on September 11th and its aftermath. If you know of any others, leave a comment or drop me an email.

IATSE Local 52 Volunteer Their Expertise To Rescue Efforts in New York

Local 52 is coordinating with New York-based Production Houses that are providing generators and back-up equipment at no charge. Studio Mechanics are working voluntarily (at no compensation) around the clock manning spot lights, flood lights, torches and mechanical cutters to cut through the steel, concrete and other debris in efforts to rescue those who may be trapped in the rubble.

September 11: The Industry Pitches In

On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, Musco Lighting received a call from the NYPD requesting the use of its mobile lighting trucks.

Another story of people in our industry pitching in comes from Charlie Libin, a DP/grip who, along with David Skutch of Luminaria Ltd., have been volunteering to help with the lighting at the World Trade Center site.

“On Wednesday, the city wanted to use Pier 94 as a morgue and asked us to put up drapes and lights to create a welcoming place for the families,” explains Longert. “On Thursday they changed their minds and asked us to help in the construction of the Family Assistance Center.”

“In five minutes the Local 52 crew and I got it up and running.” With some supplemental lighting from the Law & Order lighting package, they turned a darkened sound stage into a makeshift hospital.

IATSE Donates $50,000 To New York State World Trade Center Relief Fund

In the wake of the horrific events at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D. C. and in Pennsylvania, the IATSE has donated $50,000 to the New York State World Trade Center Relief Fund, it was announced by Thomas C. Short, President of the International Union. These monies are intended to aid the relief efforts of the New York State and City emergency response, Short added.

IATSE New York Locals One, 751, 764, 798, ATPAM 18032 And USA829 Accept Limited Wage Reduction To Keep Broadway Lit

In an effort to keep legitimate theater productions on Broadway lit, New York locals and the IATSE have jointly agreed to a 25% wage reduction for a four week period, it was announced by Thomas C. Short, President of the International. This decrease came in response to the economic chaos created by the recent attack on the city. As a result, five major productions including Chicago, Full Monty, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Rent, are threatened with closing unless substantial economic relief can be found.

Monona Rossol is well-known to many in the technical theater community. She has been working for decades to make our theatres safer, and many of us have attended her seminars over the years, which is usually the first time we hear about how hazardous all the materials we work with are. She was also one of the first to speak out about how toxic the air around Ground Zero was. In this interview at Green Theater Initiative, she says:

I live on Thompson right near Houston, and when the wind shifted on September 11th and all that dust and odor drifted uptown, I had my first ever asthma attack. They were announcing on the radio that the air was fine, and I said, “I don’t think so!” Any common-sense chemist knows that you cannot grind 16 acres of buildings into dust, with all of their computers, plastics, asbestos, fiberglass, and metals, and tell people the air is okay. So I formed an alliance with the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, and their lawyer, Joel Kupferman. I told him how to take samples and create a chain of custody to the lab; and we had our own samples analyzed. I did a radio broadcast on the 17th of September on PBS saying, essentially, “Are they crazy? This air is horrendous and people should not be cleaning up this dust on their own.” We did our first joint press release on September 22nd, making us the first people to speak out, and that was just because no one else did it.

You can read Comments on Exposure and Human Health Evaluation of Airborne Pollution from the World Trade Center Disaster, co-written by Rossol, as well as the the report on The Public Health Fallout from September 11, published by the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project.

Salaries of US Theatre, 1798

One of our earliest looks at theatre in the US comes from William Dunlap’s A history of the American Theatre, published in 1832. In it, he presents the following salary information, which we can glean some insight on to how props were acquired and who was in charge.

The theatre of New-York had now but one director or manager,—a circumstance which had not occurred in the United States before. An estimate of the expenses of the theatre at this time, 1798-9, will perhaps be acceptable to the general reader, and useful to those concerned in similar establishments. The salaries to actors and actresses, as follows, amount to 480 dollars weekly, viz: Mr. and Mrs. Hallam, 50; Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, 45—the first 20, the second 25; Mrs. Oldmixon, 37; Mr. Cooper, 25; Mrs. Melmoth, 20; Mr. Tyler, 20; Mr. Jefferson, 23; Mr. Martin, 18 (and for superintending the stage and making properties, 7 more); Mr. Hallam, jun., 16; Mrs. Hogg, 14; Mr. Hogg, 13; Miss Westray, 13; Miss E. Westray, 12; Mr. Lee, 12, as performer and property-man; two message carriers (each 8), 16; Mrs. Seymour, 16; Mr. Seymour, 9; Mr. Miller, 12; Miss Hogg, 4; estimate for three others, 54 ; Mrs. Collins, 12; with supernumeraries, 32. To this was added a wretched prompter of the name of Hughes, at 10, and an intelligent box-office keeper, Mr. Joseph Falconer, at 14. Dressers, 20; orchestra, 140 (consisting of Mr. James Hewet, as leader; Messrs. Everdel, Nicolai, Samo, Henri, Ulshoeffer, Librecheki, Pellessier, Dupuy, Gilfert, Nicolai, jun., Adet, Hoffman, and Dangle). Other expenses were estimated thus:— Lights, 109; Labourers, 24; Doors and Constables, 50; Cleaning, 5; printing, 68; properties, 6; wardrobe, 15; fires, 15; Mr. Ciceri and his department (the scenery and painting, not including materials), 60; rent, 145; amounting to $1161, without including any remuneration for the personal services of the manager. (Dunlap, pg 248)

[emphasis mine]

From that, we can see that one of the actors in the company received additional compensation for superintending the stage and making the properties. I’m not sure what “superintending the stage” actually means, since another person is listed as the prompter, which I thought to be the person managing the rehearsals and performances. Another actor served a dual role as performer and property-man, though no extra salary, probably because he plays only minor roles. Finally, there was an estimated $6 spent per week on properties, though whether that is for buying and renting items, or for materials to make them is not stated.

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

Joe Lynn, Tony Award winning Props Master

Tomorrow, the nominees for this year’s Tony Awards will be announced. Once again, there will be no category for Prop Design, or recognition of props people in any capacity. The only time a props person has ever been recognized at the Tony’s was in 1949, when Joe Lynn won for his work as master propertyman on Miss Liberty in the (now defunct) category of “Best Stage Technician”. I first wrote about him in my article asking “Why is there no Tony Award for Props?” and I thought I would write a little more about what I know of him (especially now that I’ve added a “Joe Lynn” page on Wikipedia).

He was born in August of 1887 and died in 1969. His career in props began in 1915, and by his own account, he has worked on hundreds of Broadway shows.

Ethan Frome

In 1936, a dramatic version of the novel Ethan Frome was put on at the National Theatre. It was staged by Guthrie McClintic, with scenic design by Jo Mielziner. The stage was covered in snow, and I wrote about Joe Lynn’s solution to the snow in a previous post:

After much trial and error, they arrived at a mixture of white cornmeal, ground quartz and powdered mica flakes.

The Eve of St. Mark

Joe Lynn was the prop master of the 1942 production of The Eve of St. Mark at the Cort Theatre. It was directed by Lem Ward, with scenic design by Howard Bay. The May 22, 1943, issue of The New Yorker featured a short article on the letters which Lynn created for this production.

Every day, and twice a day on matinée days, he has written a real letter for the use of Mary Rolfe, who plays the girl, and she has added a few words of her own before sealing it. There’s no need for any of this super-realism, you understand; a sheet of paper with a few random scribbles on it would be good enough to fool even the people in the front row.

The show ran for 307 performances, and Joe wrote a letter for each one; when the show went on tour, the prop man for the road company was ordered to follow in this tradition. The July 5, 1943, issue of The Princeton Bulletin reveals that Lynn had donated three of these letters for their exhibit on Maxwell Anderson, the author of The Eve of St. Mark. You can read the issue online or download a PDF of it.

Death of a Salesman

1949 saw Lynn again working with Jo Mielziner as well as director Elia Kazan for the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman at the Morosco Theatre. In his 1965 memoir, Mielziner writes about the difficulty in finding a particular icebox for the show:

[T]hey were hard to find, even in the best junkyards. However, [Lynn] told me not to worry: “We’ll allow ourselves enough time so that if we can’t find one, we can make it.” A good property man like Joe Lynn is incredibly versatile; what he can’t find, he must–and can–make.

You can see the icebox–and other props which Lynn built and acquired–in the photograph below:

(L-R) Director Elia Kazan and playwright Arthur Miller on the Broadway set of "Death of a Salesman"
(L-R) Director Elia Kazan and playwright Arthur Miller on the Broadway set of “Death of a Salesman”

Miss Liberty

Joe Lynn was the props master on the 1949 production of Miss Liberty at the Imperial Theatre. This show was directed by Moss Hart, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and the sets and costumes were designed by Oliver Smith. The show itself was not very well received, and the Tony Award which Lynn received for the show was the only nod the show got at the awards; it was the same year South Pacific had come out, which snatched up ten Tony’s.

The Tony Award for Best Stage Technician was received by only 14 people, and ceased to be a category after 1963. Joe Lynn was the only property master to win one.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Joe Lynn worked again with Kazan and Mielziner on the 1955 debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Morosco. Besides its importance in the history of American theatre, the show is also noteworthy for being Ming Cho Lee’s first paid Broadway gig. In Designing and Painting for the Theatre, by Lynn Pecktal, Lee himself tells us:

Then I did a bar in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that was very important. A portion of the bar lifted up and it was all catty-cornered on a raked platform. Joe Lynn, the prop man on that show, said we would have to build it because we would never find it. And I drew the bar so accurately that he was able to build it straight from the drawing and it worked, which was a marvelous compliment.

Lee is being a little modest here. In USITT presents the designs of Ming Cho Lee, Delbert Unruh tells us:

Warren Clymer had left the studio and Lee was assisting on all of the shows, but it was his drafting of the complicated bar unit for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that got him his first paycheck. The bar had to open up at the flip of a switch and it was sitting on a raked stage. Lee prepared the drafting of the bar and it was sent to Joe Lynn, the legendary Broadway prop man. Lynn came to the studio to discuss the props for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and told Mielziener, “This kid is OK. I can build from this drawing.” He became the second assistant in the studio at $75.00 per week and now felt fully vindicated in the eyes of his father and stepfather.

So in his own small way, Joe Lynn had a part in Ming Cho Lee’s success, a path which would lead to Lee becoming one of the father’s of contemporary American scene design.

Other Broadway productions

Nobody thinks to include props people and other stage technicians in their databases, so searching for other shows which Joe Lynn has worked on involves going through the original Playbills from the time period. A few I’ve found include:

1943 A New Life Royale Theatre written and directed by Elmer Rice Scenic Design by Howard Bay
1960 Send Me No Flowers Brooks Atkinson Theatre directed by James Dyas Scenic Design by Frederick Fox
1961 Under the Yum-Yum Tree Henry Miller’s Theatre directed by Joseph Anthony Scenic Design by Oliver Smith
1963 The Private Ear and The Public Eye Morosco Theatre directed by Peter Wood Production Design by Richard Negri

For Send Me No Flowers, the credit is listed as “special props by Joe Lynn and Dunkel Studio Associates”. Anyone who has access to other Playbills of the time and can search for shows Joe has worked, I’d love to hear about it. For that matter, anyone who has further information or anecdotes about the only Tony Award—winning props master, drop me a line.

Update (July 31, 2014):

The article originally stated Lynn was born on February 2, 1898, and died March 15, 1984, which was totally wrong. I’ve updated the post with the correct information.