'Mad Men' Prop Master Scott Buckwald Explains How He Re-Creates the '60s

October 15th, 2009

Scott Buckwald has been the prop master on a variety of popular movies and television programs, including Race to Witch Mountain and The Prestige. Recently, Buckwald spoke with us about his experiences as a prop master for AMC’s hit show Mad Men. He discussed what life was like in the early 1960s, when Mad Men takes place, and the lengths he had to go to to source and create authentic period props for the show.

I always wanted to work in film, but I didn’t have anybody in my family who worked in the film business. I’ve been a major movie buff since I was a child, and I’ve always been very meticulous. I’ve always been a collector. The Beatles are definitely my main thing, but my wife and I collect old metal lunch boxes and I’ve always just been good at holding onto things.

I have a fairly nice collection of movie memorabilia. For example, I like collecting police badges. I did the first props for The Shield, so I have Michael Chiklis’ detective badge. I’ll also collect autographs of all the actors I’ve worked with, which is something I started very early in my career. Usually I’ll have them sign a photograph or, if they have them, a lunch box or an action figure. I’m kind of geeky in that respect.

I studied history in college, which was great training for doing prop research. When I got out of school, I started pursuing film. I started out as a production assistant. It was like going to summer camp—you see all the different activities, and you just decide which direction you want to head in. I’ve always been good at tinkering and building things, making little toys and trinkets, so I was attracted to the props department. I started doing movies that had budgets that you and I could probably put together with our spare change. But 20 years later, here I am, so it found me as much as I found it.

“On a feature movie, you have 10 weeks of prep before the first day of shooting begins. On a TV series, you have a week.”

There are many steps to it. It’s not just going out and finding the props; it’s also maintaining them, putting them in the actor’s hand, making sure that the continuity is correct, and making sure the props are always available. So it’s very much a full-time job. I went to work yesterday at noon and got home this morning at 5:00 am. It was a very long day.

It’s also a lot of fun. We were in the process of wrapping a movie last night, so I just got Betty White’s autograph, which was a kick. She signed a picture of herself firing a handgun from a recent TV episode she did. It’s a very uncharacteristic picture. It’s a funny photo. She was just amazing to work with.

In 1995, I was working with Kevin Pollak. We took continuity pictures every time he came into a room wearing eyeglasses and a watch and what not—we take a picture in every scene just to match it. Every single time we took a picture of Kevin, he would flip us off. He would just give us the middle finger. I decided this would be my constant. So, since 1995, I’ve made sure to get at least one picture of every actor I’ve worked with flipping me off, except Betty White. Having 86-year-old Betty White giving me a grimace and a middle finger would be worth the price of admission. I would love to do that.

One of the nice things about doing props on set is that I have a one-on-one relationship with the actors. Because I have physical contact with them we get to talk, so a relationship can develop.

Collectors Weekly: What sets Mad Men’s focus on historical accuracy apart from other shows set in a particular time period?

Buckwald: I don’t really know that anything necessarily does. First of all, I think that the promotion of the show has really highlighted its historical accuracy. Mad Men exists in a world that people still remember. You’ll have people who were working in 1960 going, “Oh, my God. I remember that item.”

Most people are not historians. Most people are not totally geeked out about any one time in history, so they really don’t know. If you do a Revolutionary War movie and you put in a weapon that didn’t come about until the War of 1812, the majority of people aren’t going to know. But part of the charm of a show like Mad Men is that it’s about our life. I wasn’t alive in 1960, but I was born in 1963, so I remember a lot of that stuff from when I was a little boy in ’68 and ’69. History doesn’t just change on a dime. Things that existed in 1960 also existed in 1970, and are still easily accessible thanks to photos. It’s still within our grasp.

Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a little bit about that Mad Men advertising world of the early 1960s?

Buckwald: It was definitely a transitional time when America was losing its innocence. Mad Men takes place right before The Beatles. When most people say, “Oh, the 1960s were such a great time,” they’re talking about the period after February of 1964. Before February of 1964, Elvis was in the army, and popular music meant Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon, and that kind of bubblegum, wimpy rock.

Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and Jeffrey Graves (Miles Fisher) in Episode 3.

A period lamp helps set a historically accurate tone in this scene from Episode 3 of Mad Men.

Rock and roll was on the way out and anybody who said Elvis was a fad was about to be proven right. America had experienced World War II and the Korean War, and now, thanks to the Cuban missile crisis, global destruction was pretty much at our doorstep. We were on the verge of nuclear destruction, more so probably than at any time in this country’s history. Vietnam was coming up and there was lots of sexism and racism—the world was a pretty scary place.

In response, I think we tried to see the world as we wanted to see it, not as it really was. That’s where advertising came in. For the first time, people realized that you could harness TV and radio to put out advertising—you could use these new mediums to try to convince people to do things that common sense would normally dictate they should run away from. For example, major actors advertised cigarettes, saying they soothed the throat.

Mad Men shows all of that. They’ve done episodes in which the ad men are trying to sell the virtues of smoking at a time when the surgeon general is about to release a report saying that the habit isn’t healthy. Still, Mad Men is a TV show, and TV shows are on the air to make money. Their principal mission is not to educate. If you get educational value out of a show that’s great, but it’s only a secondary benefit.

The 1960s aren’t as different from today as people may think. A lot of times people have the misconception that it’s totally different, and I know we had it from members of the crew. They’d say, “I didn’t know they had ballpoint pens in 1960.” I wanted to have T-shirts made that said, “This is 1960, not 1860.”

If you were born in 1987 and you and I joined hands and jumped into a time machine and went back to 1960, you would feel totally comfortable there. The cars were different. They only had seven channels on the TV as opposed to 500. The movie theaters usually only had one screen instead of 21. But the world was pretty much as it is today. People had the same hopes and desires, the same fears. Things that made people laugh then make people laugh today.

You had supermarkets, you had cars, you had airplanes. It was pretty much modern America, just styled differently. Hop on a jet in New York and you’re in Los Angeles six hours later. You can go to the supermarket and fill your grocery cart with 20 different brands of paper towels and four brands of shampoo. Same with dishes: There were different colors and different styles, but they were still basically the same dishes as today. Forks and knives and spoons didn’t look any different.

Collectors Weekly: Did you use vintage items on Mad Men or were they reproductions?

Buckwald: Usually if it was paper, like a magazine or a newspaper, I would reproduce it. I do a lot of my own graphics. I’ve remade Volkswagen ads on my computer, and I remade “Advertising Age” magazine. I’ve redone “TV Guides,” even if they don’t exist anymore or they’re very hard to find.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) in Episode 6.

Buckwald recreates a lot of magazines for Mad Men, such as the copies of Life and Time in this scene from Episode 6.

When I get hired for a feature movie, I have 10 weeks of prep before the first day of shooting begins. On a TV series, you have a week. I get the script for the next episode and I have one week to start prepping it, so I don’t have the resources to find an issue of “Advertising Age” that looks now like it looked brand new in 1960. So usually the quickest, most direct route is to reproduce it. We’ll find pictures of it, or we might find an old pattern issue of a magazine, and then I’ll redo it.

I’m constantly redoing book covers. In one scene, a couple is reading in bed, and I couldn’t find a copy of the book that looked brand new—the pages were yellowed or it was faded—so I found a new book and remade the cover based on the original. But with hard goods like watches and rings, or if someone is supposed to carry a briefcase or have a gun, that stuff is easier to find, and I have sources for that.

There’s a prop house called History For Hire, but even there, we very often have to take the prop and make it look new again. For example, we may have to take an old bicycle and have it repainted and spruced up because sometimes things that sit on a prop-house shelf look like they have 50 years of age on them. If the show takes place 50 years ago, the item can’t show that amount age. It needs to look new, like it did back in the day.

So it’s a combination of vintage and reproduction items. A lot of times I’ll go on eBay and look for things. When I know I need a period item, I’ll buy it from another collector. One thing nice about working for the movies is that there have been times when I’ve called up somebody and said, “Look, I need this in three days, it’s for a movie.” And they’re like, “Wow. My thing is going to be in a movie,” and they get excited.

Collectors Weekly: Besides the paper items, what were some of the hardest props to find for Mad Men?

Buckwald: We had a wardrobe, which is essentially a big vinyl plastic bag that you would put your clothes in. It has a wooden hanger, and it hangs in a closet. You can still buy them at Target but the design is different. There was one scene in which the actress takes this wardrobe out of her closet, lays it on the bed, and pulls her dress out of it.

The problem was that these wardrobes were made out of very thin vinyl. Really, it was just a big vinyl bag, and it’s not collectible like an old Coca-Cola sign or a Barbie doll. It’s not the kind of thing that someone would put away and preserve. It’s as glamorous as the tube inside of a roll of toilet paper. When you’re done with it, you throw it away. There is no collectible value to it.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Episode 7.

Props from Mad Men, Episode 7, include beer bottles, paper packaging for a six-pack, and a hobnail milk glass lamp.

So I have to find one of these wardrobes, which is not an easy thing. Unlike a paper product, I can’t just print one off my computer, and we don’t have the time to rebuild one from scratch. I searched everywhere, called every prop house, every wardrobe house, every costume house. It looked like we weren’t going to find it, but at the last minute, I found one on eBay.

Somebody had one and I e-mailed him and I said, “Look, I need this right away.” So he sent it to me right away, and it was brand new in the package. It was from 1959 or 1960 and the package had never been opened. I got it, opened the package, and the plastic was all dried up. The thing was falling apart in my hands! But it did give me a pattern. We took it to a manufacturer and they were able to take new vinyl plastic that was the same color and texture as the original and build that over the old, rotting-out one. So, $500 later, we had a new wardrobe, and it was vibrant. And there you have it. It was remade.

Again, on a feature film, you have more time to do it. It’s not as much of a crunch, but that’s part of being a prop master—ultimately, we are Aladdin’s lamp. All the director needs to say is, “Scott, I need one,” and then I find it.

There’s a prop house near Los Angeles called ISS; I don’t think you’ll find a better one on the planet. They have full manufacturing facilities, and there’s literally nothing they can’t build. I can’t even remember all the things I’ve had them build for me over the years.

They don’t just reproduce things. They made weapons for Star Trek. They made gadgets used in Race to Witch Mountain. They built all of these weapons and gadgets for me from scratch. Their facility is second to none. Taking a tour of their facilities would just blow you away.

The Changeling, the Clint Eastwood-directed movie with Angelina Jolie, is a period film, set in the 1930s, I believe. Angelina Jolie is a telephone operator, and you see the room with the patch board and all this old electronic equipment. ISS built it all, and they made it look brand new. To me, they created that scene. The set decorator might win an Oscar for creating the set, but it’s certainly a place like ISS that does the actual hands-on work to recreate the items.

Collectors Weekly: So it’s a collaborative process?

Buckwald: Of course—no one possesses all the skills to do everything. With a show like Mad Men, the writer comes up with the idea, the producer will work with his vision, and then it’ll come to me. I’ll draw it out, take photographs, find pictures of the thing when it existed, and talk to a production designer. Then the two of us will finalize what it should look like. Because Mad Men is realistic, coming up with the pictures and the design was usually more my responsibility because I didn’t need to have someone help me create what it should look like. If the item had existed, I would do the research and find a picture of what it looked like.

I’d submit a picture and say, “Here it is.” And then I would bring it to ISS, for example, and they would build it for me. But if it’s for a fantasy show, like if it’s a sci-fi movie and there is no intergalactic walkie-talkie in real life, the production designer and I will come up with concept drawings, and then we’ll make an initial model of it. The director will look at it and approve it or not approve it or make little changes to it, and then, finally, we’ll have one built based on the prototype. By the time it’s done, it looks like something real and off-the-shelf.

Collectors Weekly: Besides the wardrobe, what were some of the most obscure items you’ve had to find for Mad Men?

Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Shelly (Sunny Mabrey), Lorelai (Annie Little) and Jack (Joel Lambert) in Episode 1.

Food is considered a prop on Mad Men, so Buckwald works with Michael McDonald to create dishes for restaurant scenes such as this one from Episode 1.

Buckwald: There was one time when January Jones, one of the lead actresses, was supposed to be putting together a birthday celebration but she didn’t have a birthday cake, so she goes to her freezer and defrosts a Sara Lee cherry cheesecake. The cheesecake wasn’t hard to reproduce, but we had to make the box that it came in.

Getting the Sara Lee logo from 1960 was easy, but finding an actual cheesecake box was hard. Again, that’s not very collectible. Pretty much the second after the cake was taken out, the box would have been thrown away, so I looked through pictures of kitchen scenes, hoping to find a cherry cheesecake box sitting there. After looking through 3,000 pictures, I was able to capture every angle of the box and I was able to redraw it on Illustrator and tweak it on Photoshop and then print it out and rebuild the box.

Packaging often takes a lot of work because sometimes the original source material just isn’t readily available. It’s really hard to remake something when you don’t have pictures of what it actually looked like. There was an episode in which we had to redo a Volkswagen ad from “Life” magazine. That was easy because Volkswagen ads are collectible. You go to Google and you type in “classic Volkswagen ad 1960” and you get pictures of them. The source material is there, so it’s easy.

You also have a time clock ticking over your head with the producer tapping you incessantly on the shoulder saying, “Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Is it done yet?” Not only do you have to make the cheesecake box, a hundred other props are also needed for that episode.

Collectors Weekly: You mentioned looking at images of kitchens. How many different rooms from the 1960s did you have to study?

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Episode 6.

This period barber shop from Mad Men, Episode 6, is prop heaven.

Buckwald: The rooms are more set decorating, but the set decorator would certainly take the same steps that I would for each room. I own a lot of period movies from that time. I wouldn’t watch a modern-day movie about the 1960s, I would go back to original source material from the era.

“Life” magazine is great for that. “Playboy” magazine is fantastic for research, too, because unlike other magazines of that genre, “Playboy” was always very much into fashion. It really was a magazine that you could honestly buy just for the articles, and the articles in “Playboy” have always been terrific. They would publish articles about the latest and greatest stereo equipment and cars and fashion. It’s just a wonderful resource for stuff like that.

You have to go back and recreate the past. The nice thing about 1960 is that it wasn’t that long ago, so the world was photographed in color. There were movies and TV shows. There’s an amazing amount of information without having to dig too deep. You go back to a show I did like The Prestige, which I think is far more stylized than Mad Men, and the research material is not as readily available because it takes place in 1890s London. You can’t just go find movies of magicians that take place in the 1890s. It’s a great deal more work.

Collectors Weekly: So do you deal mostly with the hand props?

Buckwald: Yes. If you pick it up, it’s a prop. Also, for some reason, I don’t know why, decals on a vehicle are considered props. In Mad Men, if we did a 1960 police car, the transportation coordinator would get the actual vehicle, but it would be up to me to put all the police stickers on it. I have to make sure that the graphics are all period correct. If it’s an ambulance or a fire engine, all the decals on it are mine.

Food also falls into props. In Mad Men, there’s an amazing amount of food. Every episode would have a high-end restaurant and a home-cooked meal, and that’s totally mine to cook. You want to have food that’s right for the time period. You might have a burger, but probably not a bacon cheeseburger, because that just wasn’t in fashion yet. A white American family wouldn’t be going out for burritos and tacos in 1960. It just wasn’t there yet. So there’s an amazing amount of research just for food.

Collectors Weekly: Do you cook the food yourself?

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) in Episode 5.

Props in this scene from Mad Men, Episode 5, include a trivet, an egg carton, and food prepared by Buckwald himself.

Buckwald: It depends what it is. If it’s a home-cooked meal and it’s a smaller scene, I tend to do it. I’m a fairly competent cook for short-order food, but if the food is more stylized, like if it’s from a really nice, high-end restaurant, I have a very brilliant chef I work with. His name is Michael McDonald, and we’ve been working together for years.

The guy is an artist. He did all the period food on The Prestige, serving food that people actually ate in the 1890s, even keeping in mind that certain food wasn’t available at certain times of the year. For example, green salad wasn’t popular in the 1890s because they didn’t have a way to keep it fresh and refrigerated. I only learned that because Michael did the research.

A lot of the high-end restaurants served different styles of food in the 1960s than they do today. Michael got all that for me. For You Again, which I’m working on right now, we’re doing a million-dollar wedding, and the set decorator came up with this absolutely brilliant under-the-sea kind of theme. Michael came up with food, it was just gorgeous. Each hors d’oeuvre was a piece of sculpture.

Machine guns, handguns, and shotguns are also props. All weapons on movies are 100% real. When you see Saving Private Ryan or a Sylvester Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie, all those weapons are real. Those are not plastic toy cap guns.

Collectors Weekly: When it came to the Mad Men office scenes, did you have to get vintage typewriters and pencils and pens?

Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Episode 10.

The producers of Mad Men decided to use IBM Selectrics, seen here in Episode 10, even though the typewriter is not true to the period.  Naturally they heard about it from fans.

Buckwald: Well, pencils are pencils. There’s no change in the pencils, and a lot of offices were using ballpoint pens. Fountain pens had largely disappeared. Certainly for formal use, the fountain pen was still there, but not as an everyday office tool.

I thought Mad Men made a big mistake on the typewriters. They knew what the right history was, but they ignored it. The secretaries at that advertising firm would have still been using vintage-style typewriters, but they used IBM Selectrics simply because the producer liked the way they looked and they made less noise on set. So we got many letters about how they were wrong, but, again, that’s his call. And right or wrong, it’s his show. He can do whatever he wants with it.

There was a typewriter repairman in North Hollywood, California. He couldn’t believe it when all of a sudden someone deposited 24 vintage typewriters on his doorstep and said, “Make them look new.” He probably hadn’t had that much work in the last 25 years. He was probably just about ready to hang up the “Going out of business” sign and cursing the arrival of the laptop computer when all of a sudden here I come with 24 typewriters.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the other antique or vintage items that you’ve worked with on Mad Men?

Buckwald: We had a vintage rifle, which was a real gun. And I had to put meters in the taxicabs. How do you find vintage taxicab meters and make them look nice and new? But the show is about advertising, so it was mostly a case of recreating newspapers and magazine layouts more than anything else.

There’s an episode in which the firm was going to be promoting women’s lipstick, so we needed a department store countertop display case. My assistant made a lipstick display case from scratch. He found pictures of it, laid it out, designed it, and made it. It was brilliant. We’ve created little household items, little point-of-purchase trinkets, stuff like that. It was an amazing amount of work. You watch the show and you might not notice it because sometimes the camera doesn’t always capture the little things you do. Hopefully, as a whole, it all kind of adds up. You can’t expect every item that you make to be celebrated.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the advertisements that you recreated?

Buckwald: We created advertisements for Gillette shaving cream. We did advertisements for Volkswagen. We worked the campaign for Nixon versus Kennedy. We did advertisements for cigarettes. We created old Coca-Cola ads and a Coca-Cola ad photo shoot, which was a lot of fun because old Coke memorabilia is something that I’ve always been really fond of. I have a bunch of old Coke signs hanging on my wall. I’m not a super big collector, but I have a nice amount of stuff. It’s more for its beauty than anything else.

Collectors Weekly: You mentioned you are a Beatles collector. Can you tell us more about that?

Buckwald: I’ve been collecting probably since about the time I was 12. I collect both memorabilia and records. I have 25 Beatles Butcher covers in all different conditions. I have a first state of the Beatles Butcher cover album in beautiful condition, still with its original cellophane on it, never been touched. I have toys in the original boxes. I have advertising displays. I have movie posters. I have all the lunch boxes. I go for really good condition stuff. I have like six Beatles record players. I’m always on the lookout for those. That, to me, is really a crown jewel in a Beatles memorabilia collection. The record player is just like none other.

Collectors Weekly: When you collect props, you get them from the set that you worked on, right?

"Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses) in Episode 7.

Telephones and booze, as seen here in Episode 7, are standard props on Mad Men.

Buckwald: It depends. If I have to buy it or build it, it’s being done with the studio’s money, so it’s not mine. My job is to get it for the studio, keep it clean, keep it in good shape, and make sure it’s in the movie. When the movie is over, sometimes I’ll ask the producer, “Do you mind if I keep this?” because we’ll always have doubles, if not triples. When you’re doing period work, if it’s a hero prop (in other words, something that the actor uses throughout an entire film or episode), I make two of them, because if one gets stolen, is lost, or breaks, we are still going to need it in the next scene.

Sometimes an actor walks down the street carrying something, and then he turns the corner and we see him come from another angle, and those two different shots may be filmed a month apart. If the prop gets broken over the course of that month or if the actor drops it in take one, I need to have another one ready to go for take two.

So when the movie is done, if I have a good relationship with the producer, a lot of times I’ll say, “You know what, I love this. Do you mind if I keep it?” and they’ll say yes or no.

I did American Pie 3: The American Wedding. In that movie, when Jason Biggs proposes to Alyson Hannigan, he gives her a diamond engagement ring. That ring is out of my collection. It’s a knockoff fake ring that was valued at $10, but it became famous because it got screen time, so now it’s been put aside and I display it. It’s on a shelf celebrating being a prop from that movie. So if it starts out in my kit and it becomes famous, then I usually set it aside and I don’t use it again in another movie. It’s becomes collectible to me.

Collectors Weekly: Did you get attached to anything in Mad Men?

Buckwald: The Coca-Cola stuff was terrific. Luckily a bunch of that stuff was from my own collection, which was nice. I rent my personal items to the production, and it’s great because it saves them money and it makes me a couple extra dollars. A lot of the things I liked in Mad Men were the household goods, like an old toaster, and the old cars. I just love looking at the old cars. It really brings you into the moment. I like a little bit of everything from Mad Men simply because it’s a period in time that I love. That pop culture, Americana feel is just fantastic.

Collectors Weekly: If someone is drinking Coca-Cola in Mad Men, would you have to get the actual Coca-Cola bottle from 1960?

Anita Olson Respola (Audrey Wasilewski), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and Katherine Olson (Myra Turley) in Episode 4.

Props in this scene from Mad Men, Episode 4, include various magazines, a coffee cup and saucer, and an ashtray.

Buckwald: Yes. Vintage Coca-Cola bottles are pretty easy to get, so I would get the bottles, fill them up with Coke, and use a bottle capper to press the original caps back on. We did an episode when the first canned Coca-Cola was coming out. Coke was trying to promote its first cans, but they were nothing like today’s cans. There’s nothing similar to it. Even the material of the can was different. It was steel as opposed to aluminum. So I had to remake the original Coke can, which was a blast.

Believe or not, we actually found a peanut jar in the New York area that was the same size and shape of a Coke can. It was metal on the top but the sides were cardboard. We made a decal of a Coke label and wrapped it around the jar. By the touch, you could tell that it wasn’t made out of metal, but on camera it looked like a metal Coke can.

It’s always turning one thing into another. That’s what I love about doing this. It’s always last-minute thinking and being innovative—being the mad scientist. It never gets boring because everything is different. In Mad Men, I was a 1960s advertising executive. In The Prestige, I was a 1890s magician. In You Again, I’m a 2009 wedding planner. I’ve been a policeman. I’ve been a doctor. I’ve been a lawyer. I’ve been a gynecologist. I get to step into other people’s lives.

Doing props is like being an actor in the movie because you have to create a character. If I ever went back in time, I might be able to be an advertising executive in the 1960s simply because of the research I’ve done. As a collector, it’s perfect for me because not only do I get to come in contact with a lot of the things I collect and the things I love being around, but I get to play with these things in their original surroundings.

It’s one thing to go to the zoo and see a lion. It’s another thing to go to Africa and run with the lion. And that’s what propping allows me to do.

Collectors Weekly: So what was it like to be an ad exec in the 1960s?

Buckwald: Very frustrating because there was never enough time to get my teeth into it as much as I would’ve liked. It was a different world. If you were a sexist swine, you didn’t cover it up. You were a sexist swine. Today, people will try to be far more politically correct and say the things that they think other people want them to say.

But again, it’s a TV show, and it portrays advertising executives the way the producer wants them to portray them. I’m sure there are many advertising executives who’d go, “I was nothing like that. I would never chase women around the office,” and “I would never consider having an affair.” So that’s why I said earlier that it’s is a TV show, not a history lesson.

If you want to learn about advertising in 1960, watching Mad Men might be an okay primer. If I had to write a college thesis on 1960 advertising, Mad Men would be a footnote. I would watch it, look at it, get a little bit of flavor from it, and then do my real research.

Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone who wants to collect props?

Buckwald: If you want to collect new props, going to the prop master is probably best because you want to get it from the person who knows where it was born.

These days, a lot of studios will hire an auction house to sell key items from a movie to help them recoup some of their production costs. Twenty years ago, the studios couldn’t care less what happened to this stuff. Usually after filming, they were happy for me to take everything back because then they didn’t have to worry about storage. Now, whether a prop belongs to a studio or an independent producer, they paid for it, so it’s theirs. I take great care in wrapping it up, inventorying it, and photographing it for possible reshoots or sequels, but at the end of the day, it belongs to the studio.

Unfortunately, even a prop bought from a studio is not an absolute guarantee of authenticity. I remember one movie that came out, it was a big hit, and an item from it was put up for sale. It turned out not to be the original prop. It was purchased from the same supplier, but for whatever reason the real item was no longer available. I don’t know whether the studio did this unintentionally or if they knew. They could’ve had the best of intentions, but that’s an example of why collecting props is so hard. The item was the same as the original, but its history was a lie.

Betty Draper (January Jones) in Episode 7.

No one rocks a prop like January Jones, whose Betty Draper character is outfitted in matching purse and sunglasses for Episode 7 of Mad Men.

Treat buying props the way you treat buying an autograph—even the most honest dealer could be selling you something that they think is original but may not be. Lots of people forge autographs, but forging a prop is even easier because you’re not really forging the thing itself, you’re just forging its lineage, and there’s really no way to trace that. Even with specialty items like a pistol from Star Wars, for example, there are so many people molding and re-sculpting things. I’ve seen items come up for sale when I know I own the only one.

Collectors have to be very careful. You can get props from auctions or from eBay, but most props are not specifically manufactured for a particular movie. Sci-fi props or the Indiana Jones kind of props—items that don’t exist in the real world—are specifically made for a film, but 99 percent of all props are just common household items that all of a sudden get famous. It’s a particular wedding ring that an actress wears, or a particular wristwatch. There’s nothing that gives it uniqueness other than its pedigree in a movie.

I worked on the Terminator TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. There are websites devoted to reproductions of the props I made. I made driver’s licenses and passports, and we made a gun of the future. If you go online, you will find people who have watched the TV show, captured photos from it, and remanufactured different props that I made. You can buy Star Wars light sabers and Star Trek communicators, and even though they’re reproductions, sometimes they look better than the originals.

So really, I think the one key piece of advice is whenever you buy a movie prop, know its source.

20 comments so far

  1. Couture Carrie Says:

    What a fantastic article!

    I would love to be an apprentice to this Mad Men prop master!

    xoxox,
    CC

  2. Oti Says:

    I’m about the same age as Scott, and I applaud his chronological accuracy! Looking at the Sara Lee frozen cake and the Dash laundry detergent box made me a little sentimental. I’m only on season 1 so far and I can’t wait to see more. Well done!!

  3. --jt Says:

    Great article & great show. When I watch the DVDs (just finishing season one) I plug the player into my stereo. So what you may say, but the flatscreen TV on the wall is just above the 1963 Magnavox Stereophonic hi-fi and I can’t wait until the show catches up with my sound system.

  4. Rowan Says:

    This is a fascinating interview!
    Sounds like a fun, hard, and rewarding job.
    …and 25 Butcher covers?!
    You know you’re a collector when you own 25 of the same rare thing!
    Right on :)

  5. PWMoore Says:

    Wow, I wish I’d known these guys before I cleaned out my parents house after they passed. There were plenty of those vinyl clothes wardrobes. Now if they want ashtrays, aluminum bar accessories, and china from the late 50′s tell the to give me a call,lol.

  6. Daniel Guidera Says:

    There’s a prop mistake in the episode 7 still of Don looking in the motel room mirror.

  7. DMenerre Says:

    Great show, but I have a problem with it- it loses realism because it contains only early 60s props. It’s an artificial snapshot of the time, like a fashion shoot, rather than the real world, where people have an accumulation of possessions, assembled over time. Didn’t people keep any items from 50s and 40s, even in the trendiest areas of society?

  8. Frank M. Vizza Says:

    I was 18 in 1960 so I remember the era quite well. I really enjoy watching Madmen for that very nostalgic reason. I did find one inaccurate prop though. In the first season, there is a flash back in which Don Drapper as a small boy meets a drifter who happens upon his parents farm looking for work. Don’s mother places a quarter down for the drifter to take. The quarter is of the liberty standing type. Those quarters would have not been in common use at that time and the few that were, most often had the date worn off. The quarter she gave him looked brand new with a date. That quarter would certainly be in someones coin collection and not in circulation in that condition.

  9. L Says:

    Is there any way to find out the origins of some of the props they use? I’m a huge fan of those white sunglasses on Betty and have been trying to track ones of the same make or similar ones down with no luck?

  10. Alexis Ceule Says:

    AMAZING INTERVIEW!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you for sharing!

  11. John Says:

    My dad just died and left us with a huge Coca Cola collection, as well as a large badge collection. It was great reading this article.

  12. Uncle Atom Says:

    Great article! It’s fun to get this kind of insight into such a great show. I think a lot of viewers of a certain age do get a kick out of seeing an item they have in their collection or remember from that time. I have the red Thermaster cooler they used in the picnic scene (when they left their litter on the ground!). But I have to say that the episode where the kids were carrying lunchboxes disappointed me. They didn’t have “cool” lunchboxes, and reading that the propmaster collects lunchboxes, I wish he had given them better boxes to carry. Maybe next season!

    http://atomicuncle.blogspot.com/

  13. Lea Rader Says:

    I have many items from the 50′s and 60′s, furniture, cocktail glasses, I saw some of what I have, being used on the Mad Men show. Just wondering if you ever purchase from private sellers? Love the show and the sets, great job keeping it real.

  14. Jim MacQ Says:

    I love the show, but I’ve spotted a few errors that I find grating. Occasionally signs will have a straight single quote instead of a curly apostrophe. In the last episode, Don and Peggy are looking at a presentation book, and when he turns the page, you can see the image on the page from the back, through the paper; it’s obviously a page from an inkjet printer. If images had appeared in such a presentation, they would have been pasted in, not printed on the paper.

  15. Beth Says:

    Very interesting and exciting. I’ve had some items from my shop used for photo shoots and some other items would make perfect props for movie and tv. I love Midcentury Modern and have been stocking my shop with a lot of it!

  16. Beth Says:

    I forgot to add that my other identity is EdibleComplex or Zeediblecomplex.

  17. Iyan Says:

    Great article! Scott Buckwald gives us insights on works and challenges of prop master. Insightful, informative.

  18. Stephanie Press Says:

    Sounds like fantastic work. It must be consuming to research and then painstakingly rebuild or recreate some of these items. On the other hand, since I like all things vintage, I couldn’t imagine a more interesting job!

  19. FtLee63 Says:

    I enjoy looking back at the 60s decade, born in 63 I have fond memories of tv shows, music and all I experienced as a kid.

  20. Patti Kirkpatrick Says:

    What amazing power you have! Any prop you use on the show instantly increases the value of those real items left in the world!


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