Setting the Stage : Plays: Where do theaters turn for those purple pianos, giant teeth and steam elephants called for in their productions? The prop people.


A pulpit that coasts, stops, grows and supports actors who sing and dance in "Elmer Gantry" at the La Jolla Playhouse. A fantasy ray gun that flashes for "The Rocky Horror Show" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Giant teeth big enough for actors to dance in for "A Festival of Christmas" at Lamb's Players Theatre.

Directors, writers and designers come up with ideas to make their visions work. But then its the prop people's job to buy, beg, borrow or invent to make the ideas work. Then they endlessly revise and refine their discoveries--sometimes even up to opening night.

It's a challenge, and they love it.

"It's something different every day," said Ruth Long Krumrey, property mistress of the Old Globe Theatre. "You never do the same show twice. It takes a lot of imagination. You get to be very creative and you get to work with very creative people."

Krumrey fell in love in the prop department--and not just with her job. She met her husband, Ned Krumrey, when he filled in at the Old Globe for another prop person.

Now, Ned Krumrey is property master for Starlight Musical Theatre and assistant property master at the San Diego Opera.

Do the Krumreys help each other out with hard-to-find items? You bet.

There was more than a surface similarity between the jeep in the Old Globe production of "Coriolanus" and the one in the San Diego Opera's "Fidelio."

Ruth Long Krumrey's department found the jeep--a genuine World War II antique. Her husband borrowed it for the San Diego Opera production, after hiding a small golf cart inside so they could drive it around for the duration of the show.

Ruth Long Krumrey is busy preparing props for the upcoming 1992 season. Her staff is building a puppet theater for "School for Husbands," opening Jan. 23 on the mainstage. She's scouting out furniture for "The Old Boy," opening Jan. 18 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

"It might help if you wrote that I'm looking for a real nice leather Chippendale sofa" that can be lent to the theater for "The Old Boy," she said. Of course, like most props, the specifications are specific. The sofa has to be a three-seater, brown, tufted and button tucked.

Her staff plans to make the furniture for "School for Husbands," set in the late 1600s, because "there's just not a lot of that hanging around," she said.

Just like kids on a scavenger hunt, a prop person's job begins with a list.

Erik Hanson, properties director for the San Diego Repertory Theatre, was recently handed a list of 63 items that he has to come up with for "Abingdon Square," opening Jan. 15 at the Lyceum Space.

He calls that a "small" list. The usual one is 100 to 150 items.

The show is set in 1912, and he has to locate, among other things, two sofa chairs, a writing table, a chess set, vases, a noose, a tree in a burlap ball, a crank-up phonograph, a ukulele, a rocking horse, a shovel, a sandbox and "Chester's" old diary.

He bought the ukulele, and he plans to reuse the chess set from "The Life and Life of Bumpy Johnson," but he may have to build the rocking horse. An actual period rocking horse might cost $900, which would put a huge dent in his budget.

"I have yet to experience money is no object," he said.

Part of the required ingenuity goes into finding the most economical way to get the job done. Also needed is a clever idea.

To make the ray gun for "The Rocky Horror Show," Hanson took a Ghostbusters ray gun, added gewgaws, extra devices, tubing and painted it. To make dancing teeth for Lamb's Players Theatre, company member Nathan Peirson brainstormed before getting the idea of designing them out of foam from models of teeth he got from his dentist.

"There's some repetitive things about the job, like gluing leaves on trees, but most of it is real fun," Hanson said.

Most prop pros never lose sight of having to please the director, designer, actors and actresses. As a result, they must be ready for the unexpected.

Right before an opening night, an opera tenor asked Ned Krumrey if he could do something about a slippery wooden plank he had to traverse.

Krumrey quickly emptied a can of Coke in a bucket and mopped the plank, giving it just the right amount of traction.

His Coke-mopping days are over now, however. He found an item called Slip-No-More in time for Starlight's production of "Evita." It did the job for chorus women who had to tango in high heels.

"That was a great day," Krumrey said. "Without exception they came off stage, and they thought I was a god. Now it's in the bag of tricks. And you'll never see a show at Starlight without Slip-No-More again."

Because Krumrey is a stagehand and a prop man at Starlight, he's the first to arrive for setup and the last to leave after all instruments and equipment have been locked away at night.

"I have shows where I never sit down," he said. "We sweep, we vacuum, we prop, we move in between the scenes, we're always standing by making sure no one falls. It's a constant struggle to get giant things to roll on and off stage through narrow openings, striking the set and storing the instruments. Every show is a new puzzle of technically getting the things, buying the things, finding the things, making my prop shifts work on stage, running out and clearing a room and making your marks in the dark."

And then there's the human element that no one can plan for--like the time one of the kids in "Peter Pan" threw up on stage right after the flying scene.

"Suddenly Cathy Rigby (who played Peter Pan) was off in the wings and said, 'Get me a towel, quick!' I got a towel and handed it to her and she cleaned it up and ran off stage with those two soaking towels and handed them to me. That was probably my most difficult hand-off," he said with a laugh.

"Then in the 90 seconds during the cross scene I was out with my mop and bucket and cleaned it up. That was one of those nights you hope doesn't happen too often. And they don't."

"Elmer Gantry" and its swiftly changing sets posed a series of challenges to Cheryl Riggins, the La Jolla Playhouse shop manager.

First there was the pulpit that had to move and brake and grow and light up and fit into the wings.

Then it took her two weeks just to find matching 1920s-style spigots for the soda fountain. That was just a small detail in a piece that had to be built to break into two pieces so it could be stored backstage, to support people riding on it, to adjust the height so it would be just right for the soda jerk pouring the drinks.

But that show wasn't as big a challenge as "80 Days." She had to come up with a purple Baroque piano with painting on the inside and a champagne-color pouffe that six women could dance on with high heels.

"We make more than we buy because the Playhouse does unusual work," Riggins said.

That sometimes makes the realistic shows unexpectedly expensive because props have to be bought.

"When we did 'Hedda Gabler,' Des (McAnuff, the artistic director) asked me why would it cost so much because it just called for a table and chairs. But we didn't have any in stock. Now if he had wanted a leather-covered cow from 'The Tempest' or a steam elephant from '80 Days' or 3/4-size beds from 'Figaro Gets a Divorce,' that would have been easy."

Animals and food are often a prop person's toughest assignment.

Ned Krumrey looked long and hard for two dogs (a Pomeranian and a Chihuahua) to pull off a sight gag in "Anything Goes." After searching pet stores and pounds, he found a man working in the Starlight office with two dogs that fit the bill.

Sometimes the actors have special dietary needs. In the Lamb's Players Theatre production of "The Diary of Anne Frank," prop man Mike Buckley had to find a lactose-free milk for the lactose-intolerant actress who had to drink a glass of milk on stage.

Sometimes there are unexpected compensations.

In "A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur" at the San Diego Rep, the script called for one of the actresses to fry chicken on stage every night. Hanson said the crew skipped meals because they knew they would get to eat the chicken after the show.

And then there are the hidden challenges.

Take the box of candy that Sada Thompson ate as Mrs. Fisher in the Old Globe's "The Show-Off."

It seemed like a simple order at first. Ruth Long Krumrey got a little box and a lace doily and little candy wrappers for the bonbons. Then Thompson was asked what kind of candy she wanted to eat.

That's when the prop began to get complicated.

"She originally wanted bonbons from See's. She ate those for a while and decided they were too rich. So she asked if they could make it hollow. They couldn't. So (we) went to a confectioner in La Jolla and they made them hollow. But then she said they were too crumbly.

"Then she thought she would have half of a See's bonbon but she wanted it sugarless. But See's didn't make them sugarless. Over two or three weeks, we got notes every single day about the candy, about the box, about the paper. Finally we thought we would make our own candy. The place in La Jolla gave us the recipe. It was powdered sugar and butter and a little food coloring and a little mint extract. I made it at home and she loved it for a while and then we were all set. I made enough to go through the whole run and then we got into tech rehearsals and she decided she didn't want to eat candy after all.

"So we took flour and salt and a little bit of water and a little bit of Elmer's glue, rolled them into balls and sprayed them with a glaze so that they looked shiny. And she pretended to eat them."

Krumrey laughed when asked how she survived the candy crisis.

"If you can't be flexible, you really have to work in another business," she said.

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