Theatrical Animals: 1890, 1904

Papier-mache animal heads in the theatrical workshop.

Papier-mache animal heads in the theatrical workshop.

GROTESQUE ANIMALS FOR STAGE PRODUCTIONS

How Ideas of Actors are Worked out by Men Who Use Papier Mache and Wires with Skill

With the increase of popular interest in musical extravaganzas on the stage an art unusual and almost uncanny has sprung into being. With costumers and decorators the stage folk have long collaborated, but with the artisans who now, with a few wires, some papier mache, much skill and more patience, convert a good looking actor, as actors go, into either a laughable parody of some well-known domestic animal or some beast truly hideous and repulsive the stage is yet not well acquainted.

“But they’ve got to have us; they can’t get along without us,” commented one of the foremost in this particular line of art the other day. And there was more truth than fiction in the remark. When shows such, for instance, the “Babes in Toyland,” now at the Majestic Theatre, come upon the stage, these men who work the seemingly impossible in wire and papier mache are almost as essential to success as the audiences themselves.

Probably not one in ten of those who have seen the “big black spider sit down beside her and drive Miss Muffet away” at the Majestic has sympathized with the spider, or even given a rap how he came to be a spider, anyway. Those overgrown frogs with their awkward hops have a wonderfully lifelike appearance, but they owe it all to the artist in wire and papier mache.

Persons witnessing a performance in which several of these extraordinary creations are produced together cannot realize the amount of study and work required to make each move as smoothly and naturally as it does.

“There’s an awful amount of detail in this work<” said an artist in an uptown shop the other afternoon, as he rested for a moment in his endeavors to make a huge donkey head as lifelike in every particular as possible. “That’s right,” agreed his assistant, as he straightened his back and shifted the close-fitting head he had been wearing while his chief adjusted it.

“Now, take this head for instance. It’s to be worn by—by—who’s this—why, that Jack in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’—you know who I mean.”

“Well, now, look here. See those strings?” and he pointed to two rows of thin, but very strong cord hanging at either side of the donkey’s neck.

“Now, watch them,” and he pulled first one and then another, until all of the twelve had been pulled. As each was worked the papier mache donkey did the unexpected. His lips rolled back in a broad grin, his mouth flew open in a hearty, “ha! Ha!” his ears turned in every conceivable position and entirely independent of each other, his eyelids blinked naturally, and he made “goo-goo” eyes, in response to the twitching of another string in a manner to excite the envy of the author of that art.

“Now, that was no fool of a job,” explained the chief, as he relieved his assistant of the cumbersome headgear, “to work out hat thing. Of course, this isn’t dressed up yet. This is just the foundation; just wire and papier mache. This has to be coated with hair and painted up to make it look natural.

“Took a whole lot of figuring to get that thing right. You see, the actor gets an idea; he comes to us and outlines what he wants. We get together on it. Of course, the actor generally has big ideas about what can be done. We know, however, and just do the best we can.

“Yes, it is pretty expensive work. For instance, that head there we’ve just been looking over is worth, roughly, about $50. These others,” and he pointed to the array of apes’ faces, lions, tigers, elephants, and other animals grinning down from the rafters and from nearly every side, “are also very expensive things, some of them costing more than this head and some of them less.

“Just before the theatrical season opens is our busy time. Then they come in on us with a flood of new ideas, and they are always in a great hurry for us to work them out.”

To many of the actors taking animal or kindred parts on the stage much credit is due for the ingenuity they display in devising and carrying out their parts. One of the most striking illustrations of the amount of study that can be put into such a part is afforded by the spider in the “Babes in Toyland.” Off the stage the spider is Robert Burns—“Bobbie” Burns his friends call him when in poetical mood. Unlike the poet, however, this Mr. Burns is an athlete. When Julian Mitchell conceived the idea of having a giant tarantula gyrating about the stage during the scene laid in the spider’s forest, Mr. Burns was called upon. His costume as first designed was two legs short, according to the fashions prevailing in the best tarantula society. Mr. Burns proved this by purchasing a tarantula brought from California. This tarantula he kept in a bottle in his room. To perfect his imitation of the insect’s movements he studied its motions closely. His imitation of the slow, hesitating movement of the insect is now said to be as near perfect as it is possible to get.Theoretically, the imitation of a huge spider is easy; in actual practice it is not so easy.

“It is a hard strain on a man’s arms and legs,” says Mr. Burns, “to move about supporting the weight of the body upon them, spread out as they must be to imitate the legs of a spider.”

While acting his part Mr. Burns wears a tight-fitting jersey suit, colored and posted to imitate the body of a spider. About his waist is strapped what may be styled an elongated bustle. This is colored and spotted to represent part of a spider’s body. Fastened to the sides of his suit are three long, padded legs or claws. These rest upon the floor as he crawls about upon his hands and feet and give him the appearance of a huge spider, having five legs on either side of the body. All of the legs on each side are made to move in union by means of rubber bands passing from the actor’s hands over and around the artificial legs back to his own legs. To the neck of the suit is fastened a hood, shaped and painted to imitate the head of a big spider, while a face mask of mosquito netting does away with the necessity for making up. In the dull green light which follows him about the stage, Mr. Burns looks extremely spiderlike, and the tropical growth of scenery overhanging the stage makes the little ones in the audience tremble in ecstasy of mingled fear and delight. A cross piece of tough wood, on which are fastened cleats two feet apart, furnishes the grasp needed by the athletic spider to suspend his weight aloft.

Hardly less interesting than the big spider are the ten frogs figuring in the show. When the curtain is up and the performance on, they are ten of the most sedate frogs to be encountered anywhere in New York City. When the curtain is down, however, they are just mischievous boys, glad of a chance to frolic after sitting froglike inside big papier mache cases, made in the shape of and painted to imitate a frog’s body. They wear tight-fitting jerseys, colored like a frog’s legs, and on their hands and feet are big webbed frog feet.

spider and frogs on stage

No self-respecting frog would act as these frogs at the majestic act at times. Their respect of the huge spider vanishes with the fall of the drop curtain, and they like nothing better than b out with him. It is a funny spectacle which is presented when three or four of the frogs, with their slim little legs, great green bodies and tea saucer  eyes, run about standing erect and pummeling the spider, with their webbed front feet in an extremely unfroglike manner. The spider, his head covering thrown back, his artificial legs flip-flopping back and forth, and his body bustle bobbing up and down in a laughable manner, is a sight to throw any well-ordered spider community into hysterics. Should a naturalist come along just at the moment one frog is hanging around the spider’s neck, another tangled up in his artificial legs and still another belaboring the bustle part of his anatomy, he might well be pardoned for thinking himself the victim of some terrible nightmare. Occasionally the big bear “butts in,” and then the whole order of natural history is indeed upset. The limit is reached when the bear or the spider “treats,” and the frogs are obliged to devised ways and means of getting chocolate drops safely through their yawning frog maws into their own personal mouths.

But though it may have some pleasant features, the task of those actors taking animal or insect parts on the stage is by no means easy.

“It’s no cinch,” admits the spider, as he sheds his belegged and padded suit.

“The song and dance for mine,” chimes in a precocious youth, as he wriggles clear of one of the big frog body cases.

While the comment of children in the audience is: “My, but wasn’t it fine!”

New York Daily Tribune 6 March 1904: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil understands that there was an American comic, one W.C. Fields, who declared that he would not work with children or animals. A sensible fellow! Leaving aside the question of finding, let alone training, a giant spider and life-sized frogs, animals, delightful though they may be in the wild at a shooting party, or on a silken cushion in the boudoir, pose certain difficulties on the stage. Mrs Daffodils offers a single, telling anecdote:

Someone connected with “The Soudan,” the English romantic drama which has already surpassed every theatrical record in Boston, thought that a live lion led on the stage among three other beasts of prey which are rolled on in cages in the wake of the British regiments, representing the return from the Soudan engagements, would be a strikingly effective addition to the play’s realistic features. It was soon discovered, however, that no lion could be found humble enough to submit to such an indignity. A way out of the dilemma quickly suggested itself and was quickly adopted. A big St. Bernard dog attached to the theater was pressed into service and a commission given to a celebrated taxidermist of the Hub to costume the dog in all the ferocity of a huge jawed lion .The taxidermist’s work was a masterpiece. When the St. Bernard issued from his dressing room preparatory to making his entrance on the stage he resembled a perfect specimen of the dread beast of the jungle. Nature was perfectly counterfeited. Everyone interested in the work fairly reveled in satisfaction at the great result. The play progressed and the time for the triumphal procession arrived. The procession started. The time came for the entrance of the unfettered lion. Success was sure. The lion started. Two steps more and he would be in full view of the audience—when lo, the bottom dropped completely out of the chimera. The fierce, fiery jawed king of the desert suddenly and altogether unexpectedly revealed a cruel flaw in his armor—he barked.  Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 28 December 1890: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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