Vintage Finds – Radford Family Bible

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Next to antiques and theatre, my third greatest passion is likely genealogy. Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time researching my own family history, and knowing the joys and frustrations that come with it have made me bother to take the time to document anything I come across in my own vintage/prop hunting that may be of interest to other family history buffs.

My most recent acquisition for Bygone Theatre’s upcoming show (join us September 24th to find out what that is) was an old family bible. While the cover is falling off and the pages are foxed and worn, it still contained some interesting pieces of history, that might be useful to anyone researching a Radford family from Huntington W. VA.

I’m including here the photos I’ve taken of selected pages from the bible; if this is part of your family tree, please let me know. I don’t have any additional information but after this year’s show, I’d be happy to send it along to someone who it would have meaning for.

Note: it was obtained from an estate auction here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which likely means that a relative owned it. However, there are people out there like myself who just collect old things for fun, so I can’t be certain, but it may be a helpful link.

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Agnes Anderson Radford, Julia Radford, Gilly Radford, Welland Radford, Henry Radford, Stella Radford, Nellie Radford, Henry Douglas Radford,

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Anderson Radford Julia Peters, James English Julia Radford,

Anderson Radford, Mary Peters, Joseph Peters, Henry Radford

Mrs Anderson Radford Receipt

Nellie Radford Perfect Attendance

 

Cheque, please!

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I get a kick out of little details in things, which is why I often spend too much time on small prop details that likely won’t be noticed by anyone but myself. Today’s example? The certified cheque prop needed for Bygone Theatre’s upcoming production of His Girl Friday.

Really, it’s a pretty simple one, and since we’re seeing the cheque before it’s cashed, I’m not going to the trouble of embossing it, I did however want something from around the right date, and double-sided.

Since this show will be on a real stage, and not something that requires the same accuracy as was needed for shows like Rope, which practically happened in the audience’s lap, I just searched for 1930s or 1940s certified cheques and settled on one from 1933;

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I found this through a memorabilia site – it works great as it doesn’t have a big distracting logo, its from around the right time, the right place, and has the fun added detail of being signed by a Walter (it comes from our character, Walter Burns). Again, chances are none of these details will be seen on stage, but still fun to note. I did want it double-sided, so that took a very small amount of photoshopping, about 3 minutes worth.

I opened the image in photoshop, and then selected the general colour using the eye dropper tool. Then, I did a new “fill layer” (Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Colour) so that I had a solidly coloured piece the same size as my cheque. The original image had a speckled appearance, so to do that I simply applied a filter (Filter > Filter Gallery > Reticulation).

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I chose the “reticulation” filter because, after browsing through a few like “film grain”and trying the “dust and scratches” one, I thought this looked the closest to what the front of the image looked like. So, voila! The back of my cheque.

I’m sure there are other (better?) ways to do this, but as I wanted to print quickly I just dragged both the front & back images into Word to print. I did 3 on a page (these will be for rehearsal, for the show I will of course have one for each performance, plus a couple back-ups), and since they are the same size just placed them in the same spots on 2 sheets.

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Then printed double-sided and there you go! Quick, easy, and I think certainly worth the few extra minutes to get something that isn’t white (and super-fake looking, imo) on one side.

All for now,

-E.

Designing His Girl Friday, Part 1: Vintage Office Desks

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While His Girl Friday won’t open for another 4 months I’m already busy prepping things on the production side. The budgets are set, fundraising & marketing scheduled, so now I get a little time to spend on one of my favourite parts of putting together a show (and part of why I started Bygone in the first place); designing.

Anyone who’s seen a Bygone Theatre production knows that we always do things set in the 20th century, and while there are of course budgetary restraints that don’t make 100% accuracy possible, I do work hard to get an authentic period feel to our shows, both with props and costumes, and when possible, set.

His Girl Friday is set in 1940 and takes place primarily in a newspaper office, which means that I have to find a lot of period office supplies. The good thing is, since it’s an office (as opposed to, say, the house of a trendy socialite), I can play with the time period a bit; supplies from the 30s or even 20s could easily still be showing up, as long as they do have modern necessities like typewriters and phones. So let’s start with the most basic part of an office…

Desks

There’s a few key styles of desk you will come across if researching those from the first half of the twentieth century; secretary desks, rolltop desks, typewriter desks and tanker desk.

The secretary desk is the oldest style in this list, and despite its name, would not be very useful for most secretaries, as it forces the user to sit staring into a bookshelf, rather than outward towards visitors. The base is made with wide drawers which have above them a hinged desktop surface, allowing it to be opened when a writing surface is needed, or closed to save space and protect documents when it is not. The top half of the desk features a bookcase – sometimes with some drawers – often covered by glass. All-on-all the secretary is a tall, heavy piece of furniture with a shallow depth. Once again, not very practical for a modern office, certainly not a shared space.

The rolltop desk was a staple of the turn of the (20th) century office. First designed in the late 1800s, it became popular throughout the end of the Victorian era as it was quite easily mass produced. Its signature element is the roll down top, wooden slats on a tambour that allowed the user to cover the desktop and drawers. While practical for a small office with minimal correspondence, the desks grew out of favour as large elements such as the typewriter required more desk space, and the small drawers and compartments grew unusable due to an increased volume of paper (again, thanks to mass production).

 

One of the modern marvels becoming appearing in turn of the century offices was the typewriter (I’ll go into more details on those later), and with that came the necessity for a new type of desk. Just as you would today want to have a different desk for your computer than say, writing or sewing, workers then found they needed something not only lower (for ease of typing) but sturdier than the hinged tops commonly used before; typewriters were heavy and required hard pounding on the keys. In addition to that, early typewriters were finicky and expensive, so it was important to keep them covered and safe from dirt and dust. Many initially considered them an eyesore as well, so the cover had an aesthetic value too.

1946 saw the introduction of the Tanker Desk, a new form of the pedestal desk made of steel, with a sheet metal surface. These utilitarian style desks were popular in institutions such as schools and government offices, and have a distinctly retro feel. They remained popular until the 1970s, and are often sought after now for a “industrial” look. However, as I mentioned previously, this show is set in 1940, so these are a little too modern. Plus, they are expensive and heavy; not a great choice for a show.

So what to use? Before even doing any research I knew I preferred the look of wood desks to wooden, and I knew I would need some that could support a typewriter. This play also calls for a rolltop desk. Given that we have a budget to stick to, and keeping in mind how difficult these can be to move and store, my plan is to get a larger, slightly older desk for Walter Burns (the editor) to have in his private office, and to use a small typewriter desk for his secretary.

The reporters will likely share a large table with just their own phone and small work station, and the back of the office will have a few older desks set aside, including our necessary rolltop desk. I’ll post photos when we have them all purchased, but for now, here’s an idea of what I’m looking for;

All for now, more to come soon!
-E.

Building Prop Food for Wait Until Dark – Part 1, Research

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I usually try to do posts throughout rehearsals and leading up to a show but this past month has been too busy. On top of my work at Tarragon and rehearsals for Wait Until Dark, I have been prepping for Vaudeville Revue, have run another Retro Radio Hour, and moved into a new apartment only 2 weeks before opening. Now that the dust has settled, I’d like to go back and highlight some of the work that went into the show, starting with one of my favourite things, prop food.

I’ve done a post on vintage labels before, a brief one that highlighted using public domain images and another with the focus on old liquor labels, but what I needed for WUD was a little different.

A key piece to the set was a fridge, and knowing it would have to be open a lot, I wanted it to be stocked full of vintage goodies. As well, there is a point in the show where the characters have emptied everything out searching for something, and I need some things to make a mess with – seeing a kitchen as half of the set, I figured food and cleaning supplies as the way to go.

As often happens I planned more props than I actually had time for, but as these are relatively easy to make I may just make this one of my evening hobbies, maybe build a faux cereal box while the BF is watching football or something. At any rate, here’s a few tips if you’re looking to do some retro prop making of your own.

1. Decide on a decade

I’m a little odd. I often pick an exact date for my show and go to great lengths to make sure that everything in it is VERY period accurate – it goes without saying that this is not necessary, simply narrowing down a decade (or part of a decade) is enough to give the feel of the period, and what’s more important than knowing the EXACT date you’re looking for is knowing what’s characteristic of that time.

See the Rice Krispies packages above, ranging from 1928-1984,  the key change is the introduction of the elves and addition of bolder, brighter colours that would be more attractive to children. The image on the far left is from 1928, and the font-only package existed only a few years, as the elves were created in the early 1930s. However, if you were dressing a set for a play in the 30s, or if you were looking to dress an adult’s kitchen, you may want to use that style box a bit past when it was really used, as it immediately reads as old and has a great no-nonsense, grownup style. In the same vein, if you wanted to create a family kitchen, you would likely look for some “children’s cereal” and source some boxes with a fun cartoon character, like the third one above from 1965.

2. Narrow down a style & colour scheme, OR decide on the types of products your characters would buy

Another important decision in regards to your props is whether they are there to just enhance the look of the set, or if they are meant to add to the story or character. If, for example, you were going for something stylized and wanted a wholly monochromatic set, you could search for period packaging to fit your colour scheme.

Google makes this very easy. Go to images, search tools and you will see a dropdown for colour; the images above show what comes up for “retro packaging” with no search filters, and then with selected colours. Makes for a very easy starting point.

Of course, no one’s cupboards are really all colour-matching, and so if you are going for realism you will want to think more about the products themselves. Does your character buy only the best? Maybe they want a discount brand, or something in bulk. Do they clean with just water and vinegar or do they have all the latest cleaning supplies, one for everything that could possibly need to be disinfected? Give it some thought and you will make for a very authentic and interesting set.

3. Search for hi-res images, or simple designs

If you are looking to print off labels you find online, you want to be sure you have a high quality image, otherwise you will end up with something blurry or pixelated and that will distract from, rather than enhance your set.

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Check out sites like Etsy for hi-res scans of old labels, and browse for Flickr accounts by collectors as well. I have yet to find a really good, comprehensive collection of labels by decade, but I feel like there is one out there, and if not, I think I need to make one. Some companies that have been around a long time, like Hershey’s, have a history on their website, and that can be a good resource as well.

If you are unable to find enough high quality labels, look for a simple design that you can edit easily in photoshop. The labels above use complex design and typography, and would be difficult to replicate without some pretty serious artistic skill. However, many packages use simple colours and fonts, and with a few minutes of editing can be made into something passable, if not something very authentic. That is in part why I chose Dreft as one of my packages; greta retro colour, very simple design.

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4. Source forms

After you’ve decided on the labels you want, you need to find the forms to build them on. Existing cereal or granola boxes are an easy start, and you can always edit your label in photoshop to match the dimensions (like I did). Alternatively, you could build one yourself and finally use your grade-school geometry training, but honestly I think that takes more time than it’s worth. When looking for something like beer bottles remember that the shape used to be different, shorter and wider, and while it’s unlikely audiences will look at a bottle and say, hey! that’s not the right shape for that decade! when it is right, people do tend to notice. I managed to find something called “Vita Malt” (sounds yummy, eh?) that had just the right shape, AND the right dollar store price.

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5. Remember the magic of theatre

While I always aim for film-quality props, the magic of theatre is that you are generally far from the audience and under bright lights, two things that help to blur some details and let you get away with less-than-perfect props onstage. Found a great old label but it’s scanned from a crumpled original? No worries. Throw it in photoshop and paint out the details, fix only the logo and no one will notice if it’s missing some extra info. Want to alter the colours slightly to better match your set? Go for it. Up the saturation & contrast, adjust the hue, go crazy, no one is going to notice the change but they will notice the final effect.

After you’ve found your forms & your labels, you’re ready to build, a fairly simple process but there’s a couple important things to remember if you want to really nail the look – I’ll go over these next time. For now, goodnight.

-E.

Propnomicon – Vintage Telegrams

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While scanning the web for some vintage mail labels (making props for Wait Until Dark) I came across Propnomicon, a great resource for building some creepy props. They have a ton of posts on telegrams, and even though that pre-dates what I’m looking for, I loved them so much I thought I’d share. Enjoy.

-E.

Vintage Halloween Decor

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With Halloween fast approaching I thought I’d share some great vintage designs sure to give your party that awesome retro flare. Links are in the comments – enjoy!

Cats are a big part of vintage Halloween decor, and thanks to people like Martha Stewart, chances are you are familiar with the classic “scared cat” design. You can find variations of it here from sites like Johanna Parker Designs;

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and The Sum of All Crafts;

Great for wreaths, masks, invites and more! Just print and hang.

Try whipping up some eerie apothecary bottles using vintage medicine labels; you’d be surprised how many household items were poisonous back in the day!

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Turn of the century labels often have beautiful typography and design. Try throwing a few less deadly bottles in your mix (like the bitters one here) to make a more eerily authentic display.

Try throwing some of these onto bottles of brightly coloured punch and let your guests “pick their poison”.

sugar-of-lead Have some old family photos? Swap out your blurry selfies and vacation shots for some with a bit of vintage charm, and try adding a few extra eerie ones as well, like these;

Really, can you think of anything more terrifying?

Post mortem photography was popular in the Victorian era.

Check out the Bygone Theatre Vintage Halloween Pinterest Board for more design ideas!

-E.