Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 157 – Jack of all Trades

Part 157: Jack of All Trades

The Chicago Sunday Tribune had a Sunday Supplement titled “Worker’s Magazine: For the Man who Works with Hand or Brain.” On April 9, 1905, L. G. Pick wrote the article “Stage Carpenter is a Star, Jack of All Trades.” Here is the first installment as it should be read in its entirety:

“It’s fun to be in it after you once get into it, but I wouldn’t advise any young fellow to start into it with a hope of making a career through the work.” This is what a stage carpenter employed at one of the large theatres, a man of twenty years experience in his line, says when questioned in regard to the stage carpenter’s work.

“There are plenty of interesting things to see in and around the back of a stage, plenty of amusing things are always happening, which to a man with a sense of humor are a big manner of compensation, but that just about lets the job out. After a man gets to be a stage carpenter, he seldom goes any further. And no young man should thus limit his ambition.”

Despite the man’s advice, and surely he knows where he talks, it is not probable that there will be any serious diminution in the number of young men who will try to tread the way that leads to the glare of the footlights via a stage carpenter’s position. The glamour of the stage is over even this laborful position, and the “backs” of all the big theaters are full of young men who someday hope they will have the head carpenter’s job. Other’s who have not managed to get work anywhere on the stage are casting longing eyes toward the work. These and the public in general, including particularly the public that sits out in front, have the vaguest sort of notion of what a stage carpenter’s work consists of. None of them appreciate fully what the stage carpenter must know and be.

Stage carpenters work seven days out of the week. In this they are unique. Six days is generally reckoned a full week’s work, but Sunday and Saturday is just the same to men who see that the play is properly staged. They also work on an average thirteen hours a day, and when there is a change of play at the house where they are employed they sometimes have the privilege of being on duty thirty-six hours at a stretch. In this they also differ from most workmen, especially from other tradesmen.

But while the stage carpenter is, strictly speaking, a union tradesman, for the craft is well organized in all the larger cities, he is not to be classed in anyway with the man who builds your house or repairs your sidewalk, or does any of your work of the general house carpenter.

The carpenter is in most cases stage carpenter and property man in one. Occasionally the work is divided between two men, but usually the same man looks after the procuring of the “props” for a production as cares for the arrangement of the scenes of the play. In this double capacity the carpenter is much more than an ordinary workman. He is an artist, essentially an artist, if he is a success in his line. He, best of all men, knows how a scene is going to look after he and his men get through “putting it on,” and he knows best just what to do to make the people out in front believe that they are looking at the briny deep lashing itself to pieces on a rock bound coast, when as a matter of fact they are only seeing some loose canvas heaving under the efforts of three or four supers, and some brown canvas tacked to a frame. He knows how to place the “mountain pass” at the back of the stage so that the escaping hero may safely flee from the pursuing villains to his mountain fastness. No man, possibly with the exception of the star and the stage manager, has so much to do with the failure or success of a play. But the audience, which sits out in front and sees the finished productions, has no inkling of the truth. The carpenter doesn’t get his name on the bills.

But the knowledge of how to stage a play; how to fill a property plot, and actually make, if necessary, the scenes that are to appear on the stage, is not at all the knowledge that the stage carpenter must posses. He must be an all around “peach,” taking the word of a world renowned play producer for it.”

“He must know how to handle men. He always has ten or fifteen men under him. If he is at a big theater, and when the production calls for a large number of “supes” the carpenter – property man – is the man who must handle the “mob,” the “race track crowd,” or the “army.”

Sometimes this makes a hundred men that he had directly under him, and when one considers that “supes” and other stage characters are not of the meekest natures to be found, it will be seen that most men would have their hands full keeping this mob in order and seeing that it gets on the stage in the proper way.

Besides keeping this number of people in hand the stage carpenter must at the same time have his eye on the prop men and their work, see that the setting for each scene are done in proper time and proper manner, and give his attention to a hundred and one details at the same time.

To be continued…

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