The movie: an adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestselling novel “Water for Elephants,” about a veterinary student who quits his studies to join a traveling circus.
The scene: a group of students, circa 1931, on the campus of Cornell University.
Jim Elyea’s task: to make sure the briefcases the students are carrying look authentic when the film begins shooting this May in Santa Paula, Calif.
The co-owner of the History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood combs through a 1931 Sears catalog in his 5,000-book library, finds the correct design and selects the appropriate model among his collection of 400 vintage briefcases.
It’s just another day at the office for Elyea, who could tell you what guitar and amp Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore played, or the type of powder horn used at the Alamo.
Elyea and his wife and business partner, Pam, established their company 25 years ago and have managed to survive in a Hollywood sector that has suffered several casualties over the last decade. Their winning strategies: avoiding debt and specializing in hard-to-find historical props, including Revolutionary War muskets, vintage Rickenbacker electric guitars and film cameras from the dawn of Hollywood.
The company’s props, which fill a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, have been used in films such as “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Aviator” and numerous TV shows, including “The Pacific,” the HBO miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg.
“You don’t just rent a physical item; you rent the research that goes with it,” said Jim Elyea, a 59-year-old Texan. “We know our history.”
The business is a second career for the couple. Pam had worked as a manager for a media buying company and Jim was a courtroom artist, sketching the likes of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, before indulging his passion for antiques, which he developed hanging around his mother’s antique shop in Arlington, Texas. A banner from the shop hangs outside his office.
The Elyeas were still living in their Hollywood apartment when Jim landed his first major job, supplying military gear to Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon.” He shipped 85 boxes of flak vests, helmets, machetes and other gear to the Philippines.
Opening in a small storefront in North Hollywood, the company rapidly expanded after it acquired a warehouse full of props from Paramount Studios in 1989.
A big break came a year later when director Richard Attenborough wanted to rent film cameras, dollies, eyeglasses and beach equipment for his movie “Chaplin.”
“Richard Attenborough told us that people learn their history from the movies, so it’s important to get it right,” Pam Elyea said. “That has been our philosophy.”
Scores of other projects followed, and by 2007 the company’s annual revenue had climbed to about $2 million. History for Hire’s inventory includes about 1 million props, from a 1920s can of peaches that rents for $5 a week to a camera dolly from Hollywood’s silent-film era that goes for $3,500 a week.
Painstaking historical research is a key part of the business. Hope Parrish, a veteran property master who worked with the couple on “The Aviator,” recalls how Jim drew a diagram on butcher paper showing precisely where microphones and cameras should be placed to re-create the actual Senate hearings depicted in the film.
“Their attention to detail makes my job 120% easier,” Parrish said.
Like many other prop houses, however, History for Hire was hard hit by a production falloff triggered by the writers strike, a standoff between the major studios and the Screen Actors Guild, and the recession, which caused studios to make fewer movies and dried up commercial filming.
The downturn led several production support companies to slash payrolls and prompted one of the industry’s largest prop houses, 20th Century Props, to announce that it would close.
History for Hire saw a double-digit percentage drop in sales, but the company had built up enough savings to cover the falloff and has avoided long-term debt. The company cut salaries 15% but retained its dozen employees, including a former U.S. Navy petty officer who is an expert on weaponry and a onetime restoration specialist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
History for Hire also diversified, renting out props not only for films and TV shows but also for commercials, music videos and magazines including Rolling Stone, which rented one of the company’s guitars for a cover that featured Melissa Etheridge.
Rather than renting out larger props like furniture, History for Hire focused on smaller, mostly lightweight props that could be easily shipped around the country. The firm, for example, will ship cooking utensils, umbrellas and other items to New York for “Mildred Pierce,” an HBO series starring Kate Winslet based on the Joan Crawford film set in the Depression.
As the economy recovers and studios ramp up production again, business has begun to rebound for companies like History for Hire. Sales are projected to climb up to 25% this year over last year, said Pam Elyea, attributing part of the uptick to the effects of California’s new film tax credits.
“Things are looking much better as far as production goes, although there is a huge concern about 2011, when the labor contracts expire,” she said. “Another strike would be devastating.”