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.

Top 10 Jazzy Halloween Songs

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Part 2 of my Top 10 Halloween songs, this list features some fabulous jazz numbers, great for you guys and ghouls who like hosting a classy Halloween shindig.

I Put a Spell On You (Because You’re Mine)
There have been a lot of renditions of this one, but I don’t think any can top Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

2. That Old Black Magic
Another classic that has been done in about a dozen arrangements, from beautiful ballad to upbeat swing. Sammy Davis Jr. did one of my favourite versions, though Judy Garland would be a close second.

3. Skeleton in the Closet
Who doesn’t love Louis Armstrong? This number is from the film Pennies From Heaven.

4. The Boogie Man (A Jazzy Halloween)
Admittedly, this has a bit of a creepy stalker feel to it, but maybe that just adds to its charm..? “Bad little girls” better watch out for this one.

5. Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
This slow jazz is sure to fill the air with ghostly romance.

6. Ghost of Yesterday
No jazz playlist is complete without Lady Day.

7. Haunted House Blues
This one is a real oldie, from 1924. I came across Bessie Smith when I was looking for music for Rope last year – she’s got an amazing voice for the Blues.

8. Witchcraft
Looking to slow things down and get a little cozy with that certain someone? Throw on Old Blues Eyes and you’re set.

9. Murder at Peyton Hall
This has an amazing swing beat, for all you jitterbugs out there.

10. Ghost of Smokey Joe
Ok, so the man only has one tune, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great one. Switch out Minnie the Moocher for Smokey Joe on your Halloween playlist.

Top 10 Retro Halloween Dance Songs

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I started to make a simple “top 10” list for my favourite Halloween songs and it grew so quickly I decided to split it up. Here are my top 10 (in no particular order), 1950s/60s dance songs that are sure to make your retro Halloween bash a smash hit.

1.Sinister Stomp
Including The Monster Mash would be too easy, but we can’t have a list like this and not feature something from Bobby Pickett, so enjoy this lesser-known hit.

2. The Mummy’s Bracelet
Gotta love that bass line. Check it.

3. The Transylvanian Twist
Can’t have a retro dance party without the Twist!

4. She’s My Witch
This groovy, bluesy number is sure to be a hit later in the evening.

5. Graveyard Cha Cha
If you are looking for something to dance to I don’t think you can beat this – “now shut up and get back in your tomb!”

6. Spooky
I have always loved this song, but this is the first time I’ve heard the Dusty Springfield version – I think I like it better than the one I’m familiar with. 

7. Love Potion Number 9
Another great dance number for your retro bash.

8. He’s a Vampire
Great do-wop number.

9. I’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch
Eartha Kitt in all of her devilish wonder, this has got to be the best witchy number yet.

10. The Monster’s Hop
Let’s end this list with another great upbeat, rockabilly tune. This one is for all you young guys & ghouls.

Like these? Follow Bygone Theatre on Youtube to hear our entire Halloween playlist!

Million Dollar Props on a Dollar Store Budget: Faux Food Made With Wax

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Since Rope is in a site-specifc venue and doesn’t have any glaring, boiling hot stage lights to worry about, I thought I’d play around with a very cheap and easy medium when making my prop food; wax.

I went to the dollar store and wandered the aisles until I found some candles I liked the colour of and some molds I wanted to try out; I could have gotten better quality ones at Michael’s, but these were dirt cheap and good for a first go.

Here’s some simple step-by-step instructions:

1. Chop up the wax you want to use. I had in mind something like a cherry or tomato so I wanted it to be a little translucent. I mixed a red candle along with a semi-opaque one – both were from the dollar store.

Dollar store candles

Dollar store candles

1. Chop up the wax in a heat-able container

1. Chop up the wax

2. I put the wax in a pie tin and melted it in the oven. You could also put it in something microwaveable, and I’ve even done some small bits with a lighter.

2. The mixed melted wax

2. The mixed & melted wax, after being in the oven

3. Pouring the wax into an ice cube tray

3. Pouring the wax into an ice cube tray

3. I got an ice cube tray from the dollar store, one that has the rubber bottom so you can easily pop them out. This one had nice rounded bottoms so I thought it could make a good cherry mold. I poured them in, using an oven mitt.

4. The cooled wax

4. The cooled wax

4. I stuck them in the fridge for a bit to cool them faster. They hardened quickly, but were a bit concave on the top.

5. They came out of the mold easily, unfortunately the rubber bottom gave them a rough look on top (the sides came out smooth like I had wanted).

5. Removed from the mold

5. Removed from the mold

With my new little wax blobs I started playing around, seeing what they could be used for. Here are some of the results;

Mini h'orderves made with salt dough, spackling, fake leaves and wax

Mini h’orderves made with salt dough, spackling, fake leaves and wax

Mini tart made with salt dough, styrofoam, wax and gel medium

Mini tart made with salt dough, styrofoam, wax and gel medium

Mini h'orderves made with wax, styrofoam and fake leaves

Mini h’orderves made with wax, styrofoam and fake leaves

Mini h'orderves made with salt dough, spackling, fake leaves and wax, as well as fake caviar made with beads

Mini h’orderves made with salt dough, spackling, fake leaves and wax, as well as fake caviar made with beads