Take Two

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Alex Cohen & A Martínez

Odd Hollywood Jobs: Vintage prop master

by Take Two

History for Hire is a vintage prop house in North Hollywood. Mae Ryan/KPCC

Jim Elyea's prop house, History For Hire, is a 35,000-square-foot warehouse stacked to the rafters with with vintage items. Everything from pay phone booths to typewriters, technicolor cereal boxes from the 1950s to eyeglasses from the 1800s. 

"The number of items we have probably approaches a million," said Elyea. "We have a barcode system so that we can track things and we found that on a good week we'll send out a thousand to 1,500 individual props."

Every section of the labyrinthine warehouse is carefully organized by category, like a massive department store frozen in time. There are housewares, military items (like replicas of the fat man and little boy nuclear bombs that well on Hiroshima and Nagasaki),  and a medical section so comprehensive it even includes three different replicas of FDR's wooden wheelchair in various finishes.

"When we did 'Pearl Harbor', the director knew that most people nowadays don't know that Franklin Roosevelt was a polio victim, so they stained the chair to match the desk he was sitting at and started off the scene where he was at the desk and then there was the big reveal where all of a sudden he wheels out," said Elyea.

Some of the medical props can get a little gruesome. Like the jar of fake eyes, and then of course, there are the medical tools.

"In the movie 'Master and Commander' when the little boy gets his leg cut off, it was our saws that did the job," said Elyea.  

There are fees for clean up, props are charged by the week and you've got to be in the industry to check them out. So, sorry if you had your eye on that Spinal Tap Stonehenge for your next theme party. In showbiz, this is the place to go for all your period piece needs, no matter how esoteric or macabre.

"Now we've come across our most rented item, which is our electric chair. In it we've grilled Robert Shapiro, Steven Ray, Billy Bob Thornton, Quentin Tarantino, Snoop Dogg and Madonna," said Elyea. 

Madonna wound up in the chair for her video for the title track for the James Bond flick "Die Another Day"

So how do you wind up with a gig like this? Collecting odds and ends from the past few centuries? 

"I got into this area I was doomed from the start. My mother had an antique shop and we went out on weekends junking as we called it said Elyea. "So I would buy things and put them on consignment in my mom's shop so I was always doing little businesses."

As an adult Elyea started renting items out of his overflowing garage, but eventually his collection grew so large he moved it to a warehouse. With almost 30 years in business, he's really got a knack for this stuff. He's built an impressive collection, parts of which can be seen in the current crop of awards movies. 

"I haven't seen 'Saving Mr. Banks', but we did a lot for it. I'm told that here's one of our tape recorders that plays over the credits and then stops so it's featured," said Elyea. "We're like stage parents with our stuff. We did specialty props for the movie 'Oscar' and all went to the theater to watch it and when the case came on we all applauded and everyone in the audience went, 'What? What is it?' but we were applauding the props."

Check out the other entries in the Odd Hollywood Jobs series:

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