Thomas  Gilbert
Property Master,
Lyric Opera of Chicago (1973-2011)

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The Civic Opera House in Chicago, shown from the North end, which
is the Stage Door (rather than the Patron Entrance, which is at the South end).
Notice the columns, which make up a special part of a story told in this interview.

As can be seen from the image below, there was a special series on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, devoted to the backstage personnel of Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This ten-week series ran at the end of 1998, and was repeated at the beginning of 1999.  Each program had portions of one of my interviews, and music that went along with the discussion.


See my interviews with William Mason, Drew Landmesser, Duane Schuler, Bruno Bartoletti, Hugh Pruett, Stan Dufford, and Donald Palumbo

The sixth program featured the Property Master Thomas Gilbert.  We met on the last day of July of 1998.  At the time, he was in the midst of a thirty-eight-year career with the company.  
Being there for such a length of time, he saw things from the perspective of the old, almost original stage-configuration, as well as the newly-renovated space.

The photos included on this webpage have been selected to show props as much as possible.

Though not used to public speaking, my guest quickly became comfortable, and talked knowingly about his specific area.  He recounted problems that arose, as well as hilarious details from his memory.  

As we were setting up to record, Gilbert was thinking of unusual things to tell me . . . . .

Thomas Gilbert:   One time, we needed eighty chairs in the pit for the chorus.  I think it was the Poe opera [The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe by Dominick Argento.]  So, we covered them all in black.  They were the only chairs we could get from what we had, so we didn’t have to buy any.

Bruce Duffie:   [Settling in for the conversation]  What is your title?

Gilbert:   Prop Master of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

BD:   How long have you been in that position?

Gilbert:   This is my fifth year as the Prop Master.  Before that, for about fifteen years I was the Small Prop Man.

BD:   What’s the job of Small Prop Man?

Gilbert:   The Small Prop Man does most of the running around.  I was doing rehearsals, and I did most of the shopping for props, and all the little things everyone needed, and some of the big things, too.

BD:   The Prop Master then oversees that?

Gilbert:   He oversees the whole crew, the whole operation, the staging, all the props on the sets, and the changeovers, and loading in and loading out, bringing shows in, taking shows out.

gilbert BD:   What exactly is a prop man?

Gilbert:   There are different kinds of props.  There are the small props, which are defined hand props.  This means everything they handle on the set.  It varies from baskets, to dish ware, to real food.  If they want real food, we cook it.

BD:   Is a sword a prop, or is that a part of the costume?  [See image at left.]

Gilbert:   A sword is a prop.  It’s considered an armor, and there is a different person for that.  There is an Armory Man here who takes care of all the armory, including the guns and that kind of thing.

BD:   Does that come under your jurisdiction, or is it away from your department?

Gilbert:   He’s separate.  He is by himself, although he is considered part of the crew, but he really isn’t.  We help him if he needs help.  Sometimes he has huge shows, with all the spear carriers, and he needs more help.  But he has the Federal Firearms License, so he can get the guns when we need them.  He’s responsible for the live ammunition, or live blanks when there is assigned firing on stage.  [See image of Tosca firing-squad farther down on this webpage.]

BD:   He’s responsible to make sure that they work?

Gilbert:   Right.

BD:   Are you responsible to make sure that props work, or are they just simply there to be handled?

Gilbert:   I’m responsible to make sure they work.

BD:   What kinds of props have to work?

Gilbert:   It could be anything.  A simple suitcase has to open and close.  Sometimes they find old things they like, and if they don’t work, we have to make them work.  A suitcase, or something as simple as an old writing desk.  A lot of times we have to find things, but most of the time we’ve had to build it from the design from a designer.  He tells us what he wants in it, and that type of thing.

BD:   You build it, and maybe age it?

Gilbert:   Yes.  Sometimes they want things like quills to write.  Then, you put some kind of a ballpoint pen inside the quill and make that work for them.  Sometimes they have insisted it has to write, even when no one can really see if it works or not.

BD:   How much do you have to be aware of the person in the very back row of the top gallery with the huge binoculars that can count the hairs on the guy’s chest?

Gilbert:   We don’t really worry about that too much, because the people up in the back balcony can see a lot of stuff that most of the people don’t see in the theater.  They sometimes can see over the sets, and they see us crawling around in there.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  It’s not your responsibility to cover that?

Gilbert:   Our real responsibility is to take care of what the singer and the director and the designer want.  That’s what’s important.  Our job becomes mostly pleasing the singers, because they’re there the whole time.

BD:   If you give them a basket to carry, and they don’t like the basket, you’d go out and buy a new basket?

Gilbert:   Yes, or if the singer doesn’t like the knife...  I remember one show and one particular singer.  We spent two and a half weeks trying to find the right bread knife for her.  We bought ten or twelve different bread knives before we finally settled on one she would accept, because she had to cut the bread on stage.  She was just not happy with anything because she was afraid she was going to cut herself.  So it had to be preset just perfectly.  The head of the bread had to be already precut halfway and ready to go, and the knife had to be set in a certain spot exactly the way she needed it.  There are some singers that are like that.  They are Method Singers, and they can’t sing unless the Bible is a real Bible instead of a book just covered in black with a cross on it.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  And then open to the right verse?

Gilbert:   Exactly.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Before each performance starts, do you have to make sure that every piece is in the right place?

Gilbert:   Yes. Before we go to dinner at 5:30 or 6:00 o’clock, we make sure everything is there, and it’s already checked in.  We then check it again a half hour before the show starts.  That is the time to catch anything we missed, and it’s the time that anything that can’t be done beforehand is made ready... for instance, real food, or something they may want to drink, such as water or something that looks like wine.  It is always prepared at that time.

gilbert BD:   Do you ever have a caterer bring in real food?

Gilbert:   No, but we have, an occasion, gone out to a restaurant to get the dinner instead of cooking it ourselves.  We’ve had shows which needed whole roast chickens, so we just go and buy it at the store already made.

BD:   Do you have to account for each plate and each knife from the banquet?

Gilbert:   Yes, and we wash them in the dishwasher.  Everything has to be washed in the dishwasher according to the AGMA contracts for the singers and chorus members.

BD:   Oh, it’s going to be real food and...?

Gilbert:   Everything they use
the silverware, dishes, and especially the glasseshas to be done in a dishwasher.  [Notice all the glasses in the photo at right.  That image is for sale by a commercial company, hence their watermark.]

BD:   Even if it’s just for looks?

Gilbert:   No, not if it’s only for looks.  But if they really drink out of it, or eat with it, it does have to be cleaned in a dishwasher.

BD:   What are some of the oddest props you’ve had to deal with or get?

Gilbert:   Right now, in fact, I was out shopping most of today trying to find forty-three chandeliers for Ariadne.

BD:   Forty-three huge chandeliers???

Gilbert:   Different sizes.  Some of them were maybe twelve inches by twelve inches.

BD:   Do you go to Elizabeth
s Fancy Lighting Emporium, or do you go to Joe’s Junk Shop?

Gilbert:   We’re doing all antique shopping.  The designer is insisting it has to be antiques, it can’t be reproductions.  He’s got a certain style in mind.  They’re in the like late 1880’s in brass, in a little pear-shape design.  He comes in next week, so that will be a little easier.  We’ve got twenty-nine out of the forty-three so far, but it’s a tedious process.  We call it
shopping, but what we do is take pictures to send him in New York.  He looks at them, sends back his acceptance or rejection, and then I can go buy the ones he likes.  So, every round is a two-day trip to do that.

BD:   What if one of the one accepts has been sold?

Gilbert:   That’s happened, too.  So we just continue back and forth.  For the Poe opera, I had to spend a day looking for a CO2 bottle.  It was a modern one, but in the old style like a seltzer bottle.  It was for the blood effect.  She was supposed to explode inside the glass case.  He wasn
’t happy with everything they tried to do with makeup and little blood bags and stuff, so we finally got a full quart bottle.  We put a mixture of real blood and water in there, and charged it with carbon dioxide.  We had to make up a whole set of hoses for the girl that had to fit under her costume.  Then we had to connect them with hydraulic quick-connects, so that we could connect it to her, and when she rolled out, she just had to step on a little modified gas pedal that was mounted on the floor.  She had a full quart of blood sprayed instantly all over the inside of the plastic.

BD:   I remember that it worked very well.

Gilbert:   It worked incredibly well.  It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.  I think I had only twenty-two hours to do that.  It was before the final dress rehearsal.  I had to build it and show it to him before the dress rehearsal.  It was after an orchestra rehearsal of that show.  Then we had the changeover for another show that night.  Then we came in the next day to change it over again to be ready for the dress rehearsal.  It was quite an exciting day, especially when we tried to test it in the morning.  I had everything ready to go, and I showed it to the Technical Director so he could see how it would work.  I tried to overcharge it, and when we just touched it, it sprayed all over the inside of the prop room and everybody that was in it.  [Both laugh]  There we about six people watching.  That was about ten years ago, and there’s still blood on the wall which they haven’t been able to get rid of yet.  It was quite a sight.  At that time I was Small Props, and the Prop Manager refused to come in the room for four days after that.  He was so mad at me.

BD:   It must have looked like a massacre.

Gilbert:   It did.  It looked just like it.

*      *      *      *     *

BD:   Does each opera require its own set of props?

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   Do the props then go with the sets and costumes to the next place, or to a warehouse, or can you use the bowl and silver chalice from one show in another show?

Gilbert:   Generally, we do re-use things.  We try to keep them in stock, but it depends on the show because some shows are ours, and some shows are rented.  Even a rented show is supposed to be complete, but invariably the director comes in and changes everything, or there’s a few things he wants to do special that we have to adapt to.  Then we try, and if we have to buy things, we keep them and put them in our stock.  Or we take them out of our stock to use.  We do try and keep our shows together if we can.  We pack the shows, and we inventory everything.  My big thing that I’ve been working on since I became the Head Prop Man is to get everything on computer.  I’ve been able to do a lot, and we’re getting pretty close.  We’re probably 75% on our way there.  Then, with the shows that we take to go to our warehouse, they sit there, and then, if I need something, I know what it is and where it is.

gilbert BD:   Then you borrow it?

Gilbert:   I borrow it from the show.

BD:   Then, does it stay with the new show, or go back the old show?

Gilbert:   It usually goes back.

BD:   Is there a note with that new show saying that you borrowed an item from another show?

Gilbert:   Yes, but it depends.  Some of these newer shows we’ve done as part of the Twentieth Century Project during the last decade we haven’t kept.  We’ve thrown them out, so some of those props I have taken put back into the stock.

BD:   You salvage what you can, and then throw away the rest?

Gilbert:   Yes.  I try to keep everything possible.  Even when we’re shopping and we buy something that doesn’t work out, I save all my mistakes.  That’s different from movie prop men.  I’ve talked with people who do props for movies, and they’ll buy twelve or fifteen items for something, and when the director decides on the one he wants, they take the others back.  But we always keep everything, and we put it in stock so someday we’ll use it.

BD:   Where is all this material stored?

Gilbert:   Most of it is at the warehouse.  The large props are there, and all those small props that are part of those shows are all stored out there.  Here in the Opera House, the sixth floor used to be full with all of that stuff, but it has been cleaned out during the renovation.  I try to keep more room open now to use for storage space for current shows during the season.  So most of the small props are here in the building.

BD:   Is there ever a time when you’re shopping for one prop and you see something in the store that you think would be a good prop sometime, eventually, maybe, perhaps?

Gilbert:   [Laughs]  Yes.

BD:   Do you pick it up?

Gilbert:   Oh yes, definitely.  Just last year, I was shopping for one show, buying a table for Amistad, and it was taking so long for them to find the right person to do the tax-exempt paperwork, that I bought four canes while I was waiting.  Then, just last week, the designer picked all those canes to put in the Mephistopheles production because he wasn’t happy with the ones that San Francisco sent with the show.  So, we’re going to put those canes in our show.

BD:   But the San Francisco canes will go back when the show goes back?

Gilbert:   Yes, and I’ll keep mine.

BD:   Is there ever a little subterfuge, where you keep the better one and send them the other one?

Gilbert:   Occasionally.  [Both laugh]  I’ve been known to keep a few things, and I think they have, too.

BD:   Then this is why you’re making your inventory on your computer, so that you won’t lose a ladle?

Gilbert:   Yes, something like that, but more stuff like paper props such as letters and documents and things like that.  Sometimes they send some really nice stuff, and I will keep a few of them.  Then I will make copies and send back the rest because that’s a little harder to do.  You need the right person to do that kind of thing.  There’s not many people who do the old script, and some of the designers want it to look authentic, even though no one in the audience can see it.  You can get away with a lot here because we’re so far from the audience.

BD:   Do you want the public to know and appreciate the props, or do you want to just be part of the action that produces a great show?

gilbert Gilbert:   It should be both, really.  The designers want everything usually to be perfect, but they are not standing out in the front row looking at it.  They come up on stage, and stand there looking at things.  I’ve had a designer tell me that a piece of paper doesn’t feel right.  [Laughs]  I told him that he wanted yellow paper, and that was yellow paper.  Sometimes it is a little bit aggravating because it’s over the top.  It’s more than it needs to be.  Some singers insist on having the paper with what they are singing written on the letter, or having what the letter is supposed to say.  They want it written on there.  That’s when someone has to go get it out of the book, and give it to me so we can write it down.

BD:   Are there any props that are destroyed routinely
letters or papers that are torn up as part of the action?

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   If there are eight shows, then do you have to have ten or twelve of them ready to go?

Gilbert:   Yes, usually a couple dozen by the time they get through the rehearsals.  The rehearsal periods are a worse time for props because the singers break them.  As soon as they get bored, and they sit there, they take their prop and they’ll go into the corner and play with it.  They’ll be hitting something with their cane, and break the cane.  Fans are notorious.  I handed one singer a fan one day, and as she walked out to the wing to go on for her entrance, she broke it before she went on stage.

BD:   What happened?

Gilbert:   She just started flipping it.  I don’t remember exactly, but she just started flipping it and flipping it, and it cracked and was broken.  She handed it to me and said, “I need it in one minute.  Can you fix it?”  [Both laugh]

BD:   What did you say to her at that moment?

Gilbert:   You try.  Sometimes you take a little piece of tape, and you tape it together.  That time it was one fold smaller.  You fold it over, put a piece of tape on it, and then later you try to glue it that way and make it right.  Fans are the worst.  Glasses, of course, get dropped all the time and broken, as do dishes.  However, the most spectacular breakages are mine.

BD:   Really???

Gilbert:   Oh, sure.  I’ve dropped a tray of glasses.  The first time I had the dishwasher, I had dozens of champagne glasses to wash.  I was trying to figure out how to get all those glasses in there, so the first time I did it I put about eighteen of them in.  Then I ran the cycle, and when they came out, I only had six whole ones left.  [Laughs]  That’s how I learned my lesson.  You can only do a few at a time.  It may take ten loads, but it’s only during tech week that you might have to do it overnight and do it again.  Once the show starts, you usually have three or four days between shows, so it’s not a problem.  It is just during the tech weeks that it gets to be a little bit of a problem.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you at all concerned with the music?  Does the music influence you in your selection of props, or is that completely dictated to you by the director or the designer?

Gilbert:   Those decisions are mostly from the designer, the director, and the singers.  The music doesn’t come into that.  The singers probably decide the most, because the designers and directors go away after opening night, and I have to live with the singers for seven or eight more shows.

BD:   Is that good or bad?


Gilbert:   I have just learned that’s the way it goes.  On numerous occasions, after the director goes the thing changes because sometimes the director and the singer argue, and I’m in the middle.  You’re trying to please the singer, but the director doesn’t want you to do that, or the designer doesn’t like that, so they insist it has to be this way.  But then, when they’re gone, the singer says, “Now, I want it that way.”  It happens every time we do a show with incense in it.  They want incense.  They want to see it and they want to smell it.  They want to see the smoke, and, of course, the singers start objecting right away.  Inevitably, for the second show it’s gone as soon as director is gone.  [With a grin]  I guess, we shouldn’t tell them that, though.  [Both laugh]

BD:   You
re giving away trade secrets!

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   [Following up, like a seasoned reporter...]  What else shouldn’t we know?  [Laughs]

Gilbert:   There’s not too much.  There’s a few little things, but you don’t like to tell everybody all your secrets...

BD:   Is running properties a fun and satisfying thing to do?

Gilbert:   It’s challenging.  It’s always different, and that’s what I like about it.  You may like or not like the director or the designer, but it’s always challenging.  The hardest part is to please them.  It can be really, really hard.  It can sometimes be a painful experience, especially that last week, tech week, when we are all working and getting everything right.  There’s not many shows like that, but you get through them.  You really feel satisfied when you get it done, and the guy is happy and he thanks you.  He shakes your hand after the opening night, and goes away happy.

BD:   Is it harder to get it up and running the first time, or to keep it running for ten or twelve shows?

Gilbert:   It’s harder the first time.  Once you get through that, things ease up a bit.  Changes inevitably occur during that last week, through the last to dress and orchestra rehearsals.  They are the hardest.

BD:   You’re the Property Manager now for the company, so you do all eight productions?

Gilbert:   Right.

BD:   Have you worked in the same capacity for theater as well as opera?

Gilbert:   Yes.  In Chicago, I’ve done everything in theater.  It’s been about thirty years since I started working when I was sixteen.  My first day in the theater, I worked Sweet Charity at Shubert Theatre.
BD:   Doing what?

Gilbert:   I was on the rail pulling the rope.  So, I’ve done everything.  During my time I
ve been a carpenter, I’ve been the soundman, the electrician.  I’ve done repertory shows.  I spent twelve summers in between opera seasons out at Poplar Creek Music Theatre.  I’ve done everything, including industrials, operas, ballets, the whole thing.

BD:   Then you’re the right man to ask this question.  From your point of view, how is opera different or the same from a rock show, or from an industrial show, or from a musical or a straight play?

Gilbert:   It’s harder... at least here at Lyric, it’s harder because everything is in repertory.

BD:   That means more than one show is running at the same time?

Gilbert:   Right, and it’s constantly changing.  Designers and directors get upset that you can spend twenty-four hours a day working on their show, but at the same time I’m working on their show, I’m working on two other upcoming shows, and I’ve got maybe two more shows running.  So, there’s probably three shows switching around on stage, and one or two more in rehearsal in the rooms upstairs.  You’ve got everything going, and everything is in the air.  They get upset when they have to have this tomorrow, and you tell them they can’t.  We just don’t have time to do it by tomorrow.

BD:   They’ll have it the following day?

Gilbert:   Maybe the following day, maybe tomorrow.  It has to be right, and we do the best we can, but there’s a point where we have to stop and change over to do a show that night.  There’s only so much time every day you can spend on each production.  That’s the hardest part.  Everything else you do outside of this one you’re working.  Your whole focus is to do that show that night.

BD:   In the end, though, does it all get done?

Gilbert:   Oh yes, eventually.

BD:   You’ve never missed a deadline, or failed to get a prop?

Gilbert:   I think there’s only one time...  It was the first time we did the Ponnelle production of Don Giovanni here.  It was something about the food on the table at the end.  He wanted shrimp, and he came up with these ideas, but the singers kept objecting.  He wanted me to get real shrimp and shellac it, because they were complaining about the smell.  It was a whole two-week period of going through every idea I came up with.  It just didn’t work out.  The other big thing was that he wanted them to throw a cup, but didn’t want it to break or shatter.  I finally came up with some pewter cups.  He wanted it bigger and bigger, but I just I couldn’t find anything bigger.  We finally had to settle with that smaller one, but overall he was very happy with everything else.  It eventually came down to what we probably should have done in the first place.  There was a long period of time I spent looking and looking and looking, and ultimately I just wasn’t able to satisfy him.  So, we had to settle for what worked for the singers.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to these new chandeliers, are you given a certain budget, and you have to stay within that budget, or do you just go and buy chandeliers?

Gilbert:   No, they established a budget.  I don’t know what the top number is, but they set a target of $350 per chandelier.  Most of them have been coming under that, but I think we’re getting to point where we’re going to have to look at how much I have spent so far, and figure out how much we have left.  Then, maybe we will spend a little more on some of the chandeliers to get some bigger ones to give them a more varied look, because we’ve gotten a lot of small ones and we got a few big ones.  But the three-foot spreads he probably would like to see are just not cheap.  You can’t find them for under $500, and even then they’re pretty hard to find.  Then, the flyman isn’t too happy about that anyway, because all these have to go up in air during the show.  It’s got to work, because everything else is working.

BD:   Are you supposed to try to come in under budget?

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Do you get a bonus if you beat the budget?

Gilbert:   [Sadly]  There are no bonuses.  [Both laugh]  This budget is pretty strict.  Most of the time I usually don’t work with the budget.  It usually comes down to a matter of making them happy.  I go out and look, or my assistant goes out and looks, and then we come back and say these are options, these are pictures, this is going to be this, this is this much.  Then, I sit down and talk about it, and it goes all the way up.  They say, okay, yes or no, and you eventually either go back and get that, or you have to settle for something else... or we go down into the shop.  We have a couple of pretty good carpenters downstairs that can whip out in a day or two what you need and make it look aged.  For instance, last year in Amistad, we were trying to find two tables for the two sets of lawyers in the trial scene.  They had to sit on little pallets that could only be so big, and they had to be pushed out with push sticks, and ride in the tracks.  So, they had to be a certain size, and the certain style that he wanted.  We couldn’t find it, and we didn’t have much time, so we made them.  We went through a book with the designer, and he picked out what he wanted to see.  We took that down with the dimensions we had to have, and the carpenters made it.  The next day we brought in the scenic artist to paint it the way he wanted, and he was very happy.  So were we, because it worked!  In the end, it didn’t cost nearly as much as a real antique table that size.


BD:   Are there times when you are asked for an antique, and you give them a reproduction that looks just as good?

Gilbert:   Yes, because sometimes the whole process of going back and forth of what we want to spend, and what you want to do sometimes hits a stone wall a little bit.  It becomes a little war of wills of who’s going to win.  Then it gets down to the end, and there’s no time to complete it.  When you get to the last ten days, sometimes there’s just not time to go out and do the shopping, to spend the time looking.  For a chandelier, we’re in the middle of the summer now, and I can steal a day every week, or two days every week to go looking.  But during the season, when you’re doing changeovers and shows, that’s a lot harder to do.

gilbert BD:   When you’re still down ten chandeliers, can they go without ten chandeliers?

Gilbert:   Yes, or they’ll say we’re going to go get those over there, and that will be it.  We’ll get that, and we’ll live with that, because there comes a time when we’re going to put these together, and the electricians and the carpenters have to make all of these work.  They have got to figure out how they’re going to hang them.  He wants three in each line hanging from a single electric line, and he wants little black socks.  So, until they make all the decisions about where everything is going to hang, it is a process.  We can’t sew the socks until the cables are made, and it is decided exactly how he likes it.  The electricians have got to get the cables, get the right lengths and then finish it all up.

BD:   Being Ariadne, is all this for the Prologue, or the Opera?

Gilbert:   I’m not sure.  I’ve seen the drawings, and we look at them, but I never paid attention to what scene they’re in.  It doesn’t matter to me.  I just have to work and get it for them.

BD:   It really doesn’t matter where they are, just that they are there at the right time?

Gilbert:   Right.

BD:   Do you ever make a suggestion for the use a prop here, or tell them you’ve got something in the warehouse that can be used there?

Gilbert:   Yes, we do that all the time.  We have a pretty good picture catalog of our props
all the chairs, tables, and stuff that we let them look through.  If that fails, then we bring out all our research books and look through them.  They say what they’d really like, but they’ll settle for this.  Then you go out and try and satisfy them.

BD:   What’s the biggest prop you’ve ever had?

Gilbert:   The biggest prop we have is probably the Buddha last year, the one for the Pearl Fishers.  It’s about 20 some feet long.  [Shown at left are photos of the skeletal structure (above), and the finished item (below).]

BD:   That’s a prop, not part of the scenic design?

Gilbert:   Yes.  We consider that a prop, and it’s still in a truck because we don’t know what we’re going to do with it when we get to the warehouse.  They made it one piece, instead of smaller pieces to put together.  I don’t think we can get it in the elevator to get it upstairs where we’d like, because we try to keep the first floor of the warehouse clear for the sets.  Those are the hardest things to handle, the heaviest things, and you don’t want to be taking that stuff upstairs.  You can’t take this piece which is so big, so I don’t know what we’re going to do with it.  So, it’s still sitting in a truck.  I think that’s the biggest prop, along with big statues.

BD:   Do you remember The Love for Three Oranges?

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   Do you still have the ladle for the Cook?

Gilbert:   No, they threw that out during the renovation, along with the rest of those sets.  That was part of the auction for the Opera Center.  We cleaned up the third floor of the warehouse because no one knew what was in there.  There were two rooms as you got off the elevator on the third floor, and you looked down and some of it was cleared out.  We had some stuff there, but you look back down that room and then the next room, this is two hundred feet long and twenty-six feet high, and all you can see is crates.  It looked like the ending shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no one knew what was in that stuff.

BD:   There were no labels???

Gilbert:   There were labels, but a lot of them were empty.  Some of them had stuff inside, and some didn’t.

BD:   Maybe your predecessor liberated things for other productions?

Gilbert:   It might have been that, or maybe there was never anything in there since the time they stored them there.  Those crates were leftover from the original Chicago Opera Companies which used to do a lot traveling back in the early 1900s.  [Most of the years and destinations are enumerated in my articles on Massenet and Wagner by the Chicago Opera Companies before Lyric (1910-1946).]  So, we went through all of that stuff and found some antiques, and some really nice antique furniture we didn’t know we had.

BD:   Did you save all that?

Gilbert:   Yes, we saved all that.  We found a complete set of the original production of Three Oranges.  The carpenter knew it when he saw it because he was here then.  It was all huge, huge furniture, way oversized, and it’s all orange.  There was lots of stuff like that.  Of the stuff we didn’t throw out, we donated a lot of it to the auction.  I don’t know how well that went, but there were some pretty unwieldy pieces in that Oranges show, like all those big Plexiglas bubbles that go in little valleys and roll all over the stage, and those three oranges that open with the peels.  There was a lot of big stuff, like the Cook
s ladle you asked about.  He was on a dolly.  It was a big hoop-skirt steel frame with wheels.  He got in it, and then they put the skirt around them and wheeled them all over the stage.  It was pretty funny.

gilbert BD:   Oh, it was a great scene.

Gilbert:   That was a fun opera.  I liked that a lot.

BD:   What’s the smallest prop you have?

Gilbert:   I’ve been dealing with earrings.

BD:   [Surprised]  That’s not considered part of the costume?

Gilbert:   Sometimes it is, but sometimes they use them as props instead of wearing them.  I get a lot of costume props, too, and I wind up having to take care of that stuff.  I’ve had earrings, glitter, coins...

BD:   Will the director tell you exactly how much money the character’s supposed to have in his hand?

Gilbert:   Yes, and a deck of cards has to be exactly a certain way, with the ace of spades on top, and then the deck has to deal out exactly this way.  [The famous poker scene in La Fanciulla del West was significant enough to be used on a poster, as seen at right.  Her
winning hand (after sneaking cards from her stocking) is three aces and a pair.]

BD:   So, you have to fix it up and make sure it all works?

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   I assume you wouldn’t trade this job for anything.

Gilbert:   No.  It’s a lot of fun.  Sometimes it
s very aggravating, but it’s a good job.  It’s always different, and that’s what I like.  It’s not a 9:00 to 5:00 job.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How long have you been with the company in some capacity?

Gilbert:   This is my twenty-fifth year.  I started in 1973 right after I finished college.  I came in to work the first season as an electrician.  I took a year off to try to get a job in the real world, and then I decided that wasn’t too good an idea.  I came back to Lyric and worked three years as a carpenter.  I was switching to props when the job for Small Prop Man opened up.  That was in 1978, and I’ve been here ever since.

BD:   I hope you’re here for many more years.

Gilbert:   I hope so, too.

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.  It’s fascinating getting to talk to the people back stage who are actually making the show work.

Gilbert:   It’s more interesting, sometimes.  I’ve often said it
s a better show backstage, watching us change the sets, or do the scene changes.  [Laughs]  They should sell tickets to that.

BD:   Should the public really be aware of how difficult it is to run a show?

Gilbert:   I think they would appreciate seeing how some changes are made, especially something like La Bohème.  The change from Act One to Act Two we do as a pause now [instead of a full intermission].  In five minutes we change from the interior Garrett to the outdoor of Café Momus.  It is a pretty amazing change.

BD:   What about the snow in Act Three [shown below].  Is that the props department?


Gilbert:   We fill the bag, and we sweep it up.  The carpenters run the pipes to make it work, because that’s in the fly system.  So, it’s kind of a mixture.  When they screw up and dump it on the floor, we have to clean it up.  We have a lot of those prop-sets.  We have a snow drop, a paper drop, a confetti drop, and the streamer drop.  There is all kinds of stuff coming out of the sky in that show, and they’re all in different scenes.  The streamers are in the parade, and the paper drop is the end of the act.  The snow is in the next act.

gilbert BD:   Speaking of snow
this time real snowyou mentioned having to store sets outside of the building.

Gilbert:   Yes, on Washington Boulevard and on Wacker Drive in between the pillars.  We hid them.  Sometimes during the changeovers [between afternoon rehearsals and evening performances], we would take all the pieces out and fill up the spaces between the pillars before the rush hour.  The people going to the train station were coming by to go home.  Then, the next day we would change them back before the rush hour.  We’d bring them all back in again.

BD:   You said earlier that some of them were starting to move???

Gilbert:   During the blizzard we had that problem.  I think the production was Capuleti.  The scenery was all covered with tarps, and they caught the wind and broke loose from the bridge.  Everything started to shift on the sidewalk towards Wacker Drive.  The carpenters had to run out and bring everything back and retie it.  Then, we had a problem one year with Onegin.  The bottom of the tree was a hard piece, and the rest of the tree flew [up into the space above the stage].  The top part would come in, and to make it look like one complete tree the bottom part gave it a depth, and a little seat.  I forget if it was her or him who sat on it, but there were also all the flowers.  Over the course of the year, we had to make little flowers by hand and wire them into the set.  One day, during a kid’s show, that piece was sitting out by the stage door, and after all the kids went by, there were no more flowers on the tree!  [Both laugh]  They were all gone.

BD:   They had become souvenirs of their afternoon at the opera!

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   You also mentioned storing things in trucks?

Gilbert:   After we had experienced the stuff blowing away, we had the same problem again with the huge set of Parsifal.  It went up about twenty feet at the back, and all those parallel pieces were big and unwieldy.  So, we rented trucks and brought them in.  We took each section, which was probably eight feet by eight feet by twenty feet high, and laid them over and put them in the truck.  We put two pieces in each truck and sent it out, then brought another truck in, and keep going like that to get rid of half the set that way.  The rest of the set we were able to store on the stage and live with it.  That’s the way the carpenters achieved those changeovers.  That’s the advantage of having a big storage space back there now, because what happens is we still get jammed up a little bit.  The big difference is that now when we do an opera, even from opening night to closing night, the backstage arrangement during the show is the same.  No matter what other show is taken in and put on, it looks pretty much the same if we’ve got the room.  If we have to put the entire hundred-and-some chorus in one offstage spot to sing, there’s a spot to put them in, and that spot stays there all the time.  An offstage-band spot sometimes gets pretty unwieldy and big, and that’s a problem getting in there.  In the old days, you could never count on it.  We would do one show, and the maestro would say,
“This is a beautiful nice spot here for the chorus, and a nice spot for the band, and everything is great.  Three shows later, we bring in another opera and set all the pieces up, and all of a sudden, he walks in at 7:30 and looks around, and wonders, “What happened to the room we had here?  We can’t do this.  I had to say, “Sorry, maestro, but we have to have this set here, too.  That was a big problem.  That was the biggest thing we were relieved by having that big garage area which builds into storage, so that on stage every night is pretty consistent.  It’s a big advantage.

BD:   That’s what you really want, then, is consistency from performance to performance?

Gilbert:   Yes.  I remember... especially when there wasn’t enough room between the cyclorama and the scenery offstage for the people to walk without brushing the cyclorama and making the sky move.  That made the lighting designer very unhappy because everything is moving, with ripples in the sky, and clouds moving, and the sun going away.  There were some pretty horrendous times back then, especially in the
70s and 80s with things like that.  It’s a lot easier, much better now.

BD:   Thank you f
or the conversation.

Gilbert:   You’re welcome.


The theater at rest, with its traditional single light, awaiting the activity of the following day . . . . .

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 31, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.