Part of the fun of watching a movie is in being able to see how the props influence a character’s journey. Can you imagine Dorothy without her ruby red shoes? The job of film and TV property master requires a person who is passionate about aesthetics. And even more important, the job demands someone passionate about historical accuracy.
For example, I am both impressed and charmed by the way alien botanist E.T. from Steven Spielberg’s 1985 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial interacts with toys and children’s television. As Gertie (protagonist Elliot’s sister) imitated Sesame Street, E.T. repeated her and soon he learned to speak English. Later, E.T. read a comic strip featuring Buck Rogers, a character credited with presenting ideas about space exploration and technology to mainstream America. In the strip, Rogers used a makeshift radio to call for help. Inspired, E.T. decided to build his own device out of a Texas Instruments’ Speak and Spell to phone home. E.T.’s interaction with popular toys and media portrayed ideas about not only 1980s American consumer culture, but about generations past.
Prop masters of The Muppet movie encountered a unique set of challenges (please note that a Muppet is not a prop, but anything he touches falls into that category). Property master Gallaher Gleen told NPR reporter Susan Stamberg that “everything the Muppets touch has to be specialized—either made very lightweight, or sometimes they’re ‘rodded.’ They’ll attach a rod to it so that a puppeteer can actually move the object, because Muppets can’t grab hold or lift anything.” Speaking of rods, the Swedish Chef’s rolling pin in the film is not composed of glass, acrylic, brass, marble, or copper like the ones the pros use, but instead it’s made of rubber! And can you guess what Gleen improvised as the Muppets’ stand-up bass? A cello. Gleen collected more than a thousand props for the movie. As someone who remembers the late 1980s and 1990s, I appreciated the amusement I heard throughout the theater when Kermit’s robot used a dial-up modem to find directions.
A few years ago, the admired TV show Mad Men aired an episode in which the protagonist’s wife Betty gives their daughter Sally a Barbie Doll. In this episode, the doll comes to symbolize family dynamics and the ways in which children use inanimate objects to express emotions. The pairing of Barbie and Mad Men is also interesting because they share a history—the doll was introduced in 1959 and the show revolves around the employees of a Madison Avenue ad firm in the early 60s. Recently, Mattel released a series of Mad Men dolls. Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, told The New York Times, “Mad Men represents so beautifully the universe that created Barbie”—the selling of American consumer society. Though this Barbie Collection is intended for adults, Mattel refrained from accessorizing the dolls with the cocktail shakers and ashtrays so popular with the show’s characters.
Once a Mad Men prop master called The Strong to ask about the historical accuracy of a 1960s Teddy bear snout. This attention to detail and care sounds a lot like the work done by The Strong’s curators and exhibit designers who, like the property master, have to pick just the right toy for an exhibit. When I think about all the foregoing and about some of my favorite toys, I dream of making a movie. And I may do just that!