St. Louis theater rents out extensive prop collection
ST. LOUIS (AP) — On a recent cold morning at the Lemp Brewery complex, Ace, an Australian cattle dog, stood sentinel in a red sweater over a ridiculous stockpile of stage props.
Try to imagine thousands of period pieces — anything from a gargoyle on a telephone booth to a toy Tommy gun in a violin case — strewn across 13,000 square feet of storage space on two floors.
Other than a piano that’s too heavy to move, Ace is the only item not for rent.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis accumulated the collection through donations and producing some of the region’s leading musicals and plays since 1966. Its prop warehouse is now a side business for the nonprofit organization that reported $9 million in total revenue in 2016, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
“This is not a big, professional rental company,” said Sheila Lenkman, 51, warehouse and rentals manager. “This is an active producing theater that rents things when they are not using it. We are not Western Costume. We are not a big Chicago prop house. We are the Repertory Theatre, and this is our stuff.”
Some 30,000 hanging costumes have been available for a long time. Until recent years, prop stock was an unorganized mess, squirreled away in darkness at the 14-acre former brewery, whose own collection of more than 100 tenants is equally eclectic. In addition to the Rep warehouse, there’s a private wrestling club, a paranormal investigations firm, an architectural parts dealer and artist studios.
Sensing a niche market and an opportunity to help other theaters, Lenkman brought in her friend Jennifer Horton and other volunteers to sift through the prop arsenal. First, they aired the space out and had boards taken off the windows to allow more light.
“We wore masks over our faces because it was just so musty,” said Horton, 49. “Everything was scattered to the four winds. It was just piled everywhere. You had no idea what you were going to find in every pile.”
She said organizing the collection resembled grown women playing show-and-tell at the end of every day.
Surprises lingered in each area. A silver teapot and sugar bowl buried in silk flowers in one box. A crystal chandelier hidden below others.
This went on for about three years. Now that almost everything has been discovered, display is the challenge.
Large appliances and furniture are on the bottom floor, including Greek goddess statues, hospital beds, 1930s refrigerators, Oriental rugs, stools, tables and a pile of chaise lounges. A 1920s dental chair off in a corner was used at four high schools in 2017 for productions of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Nearby, a custom-made “Sweeney Todd” barber chair was ready to slide the next murder victim under stage.
Smaller items are on the second floor, including Victrolas, bottles of fake whiskey, transistor radios, colorful suitcases, pill bottles and dishes. A set of hair spray shields were ripe for “Steel Magnolias.”
“If you needed a stage to look like a whole entire store, we have just about everything you need,” said Horton. “Or we could do a whole house.”
Horton was eventually hired to help run the warehouse part time. She said her talent for prop supply, design and maintenance was honed by being a stay-at-home mother with a “splash of creative DNA.”
“There’s something about this place,” she said. “It gets in your pores and just sinks in.”
So much so that she says good morning to a foam rubber dummy she named “Manny Quinn” that was recently used in a Mercy Hospital commercial.
“I accidentally pulled his thumb off the other day,” she said. “I need to fix him.”
She also originates items. Her son, now 15, and his friends have learned not to question what’s in her vehicle.
“One day it could be a giant spinning wheel, the next day it could be body parts,” she said.
Without an electronic database, she helps clients find what they are looking for. Items have been shipped across the country. A recent call came in from a community theater in Maine for Lego models of London used for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
Most customers are local. At least 50 professional theaters put on plays and musicals in 2018 in the St. Louis region. There are also numerous community theaters, high schools and colleges, as well as photographers and filmmakers, who need props.
On the day Ace stood guard in his red sweater, Sean Gartner, 32, an artistic director and production designer, pulled up in a moving truck. He loaded a large rug, wooden barrels and other things for a farmhouse den he was creating for a beer commercial.
Previously, he helped make a music video for the Struts, an English rock band, and the artist Kesha. He picked up a few skulls from Blue Coyote Design Studio in Granite City and rented an old telephone and a large throne from the Rep. The “Body Talks” video has 11 million views on YouTube.
“It’s pretty epic,” he said of the throne. “I think they use it for Santa.”
He estimated that renting props is a 90 percent discount over buying.
“If you are trying to do this on a budget, you can’t afford to be buying, you know, 40 objects for your stage from the 1970s that are now considered collectible,” Lenkman said.
Still, it’s getting more difficult to find new material.
“One of the problems we have with modern society right now is that everybody throws away things,” Lenkman said. “If you were trying to decorate a play that takes place in the 1970s, everybody has gotten rid of all that stuff already.”
Even big-shoulder blouses and boom boxes from the 1980s are disappearing.
Should the Rep warehouse, which accepts donations, take off, there’s more than 300,000 square feet of available rental space left at Lemp, the brick fortress next to Anheuser-Busch.
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com