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Collectibles and the Theater

I’ll admit this subject may seem WAY off topic for Antiques and Collectibles readers, but stick with me – you’ll see the connection!  This autumn I joined a community theater group with my husband, who has been acting in community theater for almost 40 years. Aside from the fact that I have enjoyed the experience tremendously, I have also gained from the exposure to a number of wonderful antiques and vintage items which are used for props. Most theaters, professional and amateur, have a never-ending need for such things as clothing from many historical periods, furniture and décor that is multi-purpose, and household items such as telephones, dishes, advertising signs, toys and so on, which may be used over and over throughout several seasons of productions.

In our case, we were performing “It’s a Wonderful Life”, based on the Frank Capra movie which is televised in the US every Christmas season. It’s a familiar story to most people, and covers the years from 1919-1945. There are characters in every age group from pre-schoolers to elderly, so we needed costumes in all sizes and genders and ages, covering the Roaring Twenties, Depression and World War II.

The telephone as a prop was essential to our story. We were fortunate to acquire a candlestick –style, an ornate 1930’s style, and a 1940’s style phone from the personal collections of several employees of our local telephone company. We also needed a vintage wooden wheelchair, which was found at the Theater Department of the local university. We had a humidor with real cigars, and a local print shop made us a “newspaper” with the headline “Harry Bailey Wins Congressional Medal”.

Clothing and wigs were a real challenge. I was able to raid a charitable organization’s thrift shop for the grey wig, orthopedic shoes and lace-collared blouse to transform me into an old woman. Seven little girls needed 1940’s style winter coats – again we found those at local thrift shops and second-hand stores. Where do you find appropriate military uniforms, police and postal uniforms? Members of the group were able to borrow those from friends and family. And we needed at least a dozen pairs of ladies’ white gloves, without which no proper lady appeared in public in that era!

Of course, the generation of folks who donate clothing from the 1930-1950 time period is passing away, and very soon we won’t find them at any price…

As our stage design was very spartan, most scenes were mere suggestions of interiors of a bank, business office, pharmacy, and private homes. This was accomplished with perhaps a chair and table strategically placed – but in one case the furniture was wicker (for a porch), another case it was wooden and more massive, to suggest an office. Our theater carpenter came up with a multi-purpose table on wheels which, when facing the audience one way appeared to be a desk, but turned the other way was a kitchen table!

Many people are accustomed to donating used articles of furniture and clothing to various relief agencies such as the Salvation Army, Red Cross, or Rescue Mission. In the United States, these agencies will provide a receipt so that the donation may be claimed on one’s income taxes. I’m going to suggest that, every once in a while, you seek out your local community theater or university drama department and ask if they can use your vintage articles in their props department. They may be very happy to provide a similar receipt if you need one. It may be a great solution for collectors and dealers who periodically go through and weed out the duplicate, not-so-valuable-after-all, and slightly damaged “stuff” that just isn’t going to sell after all.



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