3,800. That’s how many authentic period and custom-made props John Shorter has at his Long Island home. But Shorter isn’t simply a collector: The former English and theatre arts teacher turned his passion into a business, Props Rentals NY, in 2009 and is about to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary.
Over his 30-year teaching career at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York, Shorter directed over 60 musicals and plays for his students. But it was his second musical there, a production of The Pajama Game in 1979, that set him on the quest that would become his second career.
The Pajama Game follows the grievances of factory workers in a pajama factory, and Shorter needed a sewing machine—but he wanted it to be real and for his students to feel the history through details as seemingly minute as the props onstage. Professional set designer and art director Karl Hueglin, who assisted at the high school, agreed. “He felt if we did a show set in the 1940s that I should go out and find a 1940s radio and a 1940s telephone and whatever was appropriate,” Shorter says.
After decades of furrowing out legitimate props for his own school’s productions, Shorter retired, and Hueglin again made a suggestion. “He said, ‘We never know when we’re going to find these things. People don’t know how to work with schools. They don’t know about purchase orders. They don’t know all the hoops you have to jump through to work with a school,’” recalls Shorter. “We need somebody else who understands what schools can afford and so on.” Shorter turned his piles of props into a rental business catering to school drama programs and community theatres.
Shorter strategically accrued a laundry list of authentic props and developed a meticulous catalog system organizing his belongings show-by-show. “I would go to Lincoln Center and watch a play,” he says, “or like [Roundabout’s] Anything Goes, let’s say, and I would make a prop list. Then I would go to yard sales and estate sales and antique stores and start looking for the props that might be appropriate for that show. I was looking for hard-to-find props—things that schools wouldn’t necessarily be able to find easily or were expensive and they couldn’t afford.”
What’s more, renting allows schools to use these props without having to worry about the only thing more elusive than funding: storage. “If you buy a prop, where do you store it? Are you really going to use that sewing machine again?” Shorter asks. “We bought it for The Pajama Game and then 20 years later you get Fiddler [on the Roof], so you need one [for Motel’s tailor shop], but it’s not the same era.”
And because Shorter has been on the other side of the table, embedded in the education system, he knows how to make the process seamless. “We do whatever we can to make their lives easier, because theatre teachers are often wearing a lot of different hats, and this is a little bit of a burden we can help take off.”
From the 1950s Elvis mic and pastel phone handsets for Bye Bye Birdie to ceramic tavern pipes and pewter plates for The Crucible to a piragua cart for In The Heights, the props in his inventory are all available for rent by the week at an affordable price for institutions across the country and overseas. “If it’ll fit in a box, we can ship a prop,” he says.
And, when a prop can’t be found, Shorter builds it. Beauty and the Beast is still one of his most popular shows—no surprise since it was named the most-produced musical in high schools around the country. “The rose prop for Beauty and the Beast that’s in the gold dome and that remote control (in our case) that drops the final petal, we created four of those in [Carl’s] wood shop in his basement, and I got a local hobby shop to wire them,” says Shorter. He’s also built custom props for The Little Mermaid and The Addams Family.
The fact that movies, commercials, and professional event planners rent from him speaks to the quality of his goods, but Shorter maintains 75 to 80 percent of his business serves schools and community groups. And by infusing history into these productions, he hopes students have a better understanding for the stories they’re telling.
“When you have the right props for a production, sometimes that will wow people even more than your set,” he says. “The feedback I get from directors is that the props really made the production.”
To rent from Shorter’s stock or for more information, visit PropRentalsNY.com.