So much about movie making is rooted in illusion, and props are integral to that. There’s an entire subculture — and economy — devoted to the acquisition and sale of movie props and costumes after the fact. In 2017, a collection went up for auction that included a fiberglass sword used for camera tests for “Conan the Barbarian,” a James Bond gadget phone from “Tomorrow Never Dies” and the leather billfold carried by Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “Pulp Fiction” with the phrase “Bad Mother (expletive)” stitched on it.
Auctions tend to make news because of the prices people are willing to pay; in 2012 a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” sold for $2 million.
Dan Lanigan, a long time collector from Chicago, is reluctant to talk about monetary value. He is the host of the new Disney+ docuseries “Prop Culture,” and when I asked what he paid for his first big purchase, he said, “I don’t want to really get into the finances of this stuff because to me the cultural value is what’s important to me.”
I think his instincts are right — what these props and costumes are worth is ultimately less interesting than the window they offer into the creative process — but most executives looking for a show about this topic felt otherwise and it took a while for Lanigan to find a place for the series. “We had a few bites of early versions of the show, but it always came back to a financial tangible value of what this stuff is. And that’s not the story I wanted to tell, so the idea for the show never really went anywhere. And then almost two years ago my partner Jason Henry and I went and pitched it to Disney+ and they got it.”
Each of the show’s eight episodes focuses on a film owned (if not necessarily made) by Disney: “Mary Poppins,” “Tron,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “The Muppet Movie.”
Strangely (to me, anyway) the “Mary Poppins” episode — the most “Disney” of all the movies spotlighted here — is surprisingly inert. We see Lanigan enter a warehouse to get a look at one of the carpet bags used by Julie Andrews in the film. But we don’t get enough of the backstories that should be the meat of a series like this, which doesn’t walk viewers through how that famous visual effect, where she pulls out objects far too large to be contained in such a small bag, was achieved.
Presumably the bag had a false bottom. But a show like this shouldn’t leave you wondering. And the objects themselves aren’t that interesting when they’re simply presented as: Here! Look! The thing!
The almost hyper-reverent marketing sheen of the “Mary Poppins” episode relaxes considerably when the focus switches to “The Muppet Movie.” I don’t know if that’s because the film isn’t actually a Disney production (it was made in 1979, decades before the Jim Henson Company was sold in 2004) but the episode itself strikes just the right tone of curiosity and appreciation and it takes the time to explain how effects were achieved and why certain decisions were made.
Miss Piggy’s perpetual strand of pearls? Partly character-based, partly a logistical solution to mask the seam connecting her head to her body. Fozzie’s Studebaker? Driven by a stunt driver crouched back in the trunk using a special steering wheel, while Jim Henson and Frank Oz sat in the front hunched down, performing as Fozzie and Kermit the Frog. Lanigan also talks with Dave Goelz, the creator and puppeteer of Gonzo, and he’s such a lovely, self-deprecating, insightful interview (both in and out of character). The Henson people come across as low-key but sweetly quirky and awkward and nerdy — and that’s really why the episode works so well.
Maybe it’s also because Lanigan (the self-proclaimed “Raider of the Lost Props”) shares many of those traits as well.
Growing up in Tinley Park, Ill., he would take trips to visit Disney World’s MGM Studios and his favorite exhibit was the backlot tour. “It had tons of vehicles and props. And for me, to see this stuff up close and personal really impressed me. You can learn about how these things were used on set by looking at how they’re made. And I just became obsessed with it.”
By his early 20s, Lanigan had begun collecting. “The first big investment I made was what I thought at the time was a screen-used Roger Rabbit toon pistol from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ that Bob Hoskins had used. I bought it in the early days of eBay and I got on the phone to confirm it was a person who had worked on the film, I was able to verify that. Then a number of years later I found out through additional research — because you’re always finding out about this stuff after the fact — that it was not a screen-used piece, it was just a crew gift given to people after the movie.” Though Lanigan doesn’t like to talk money, he did tell me how much this mistake (or, call it an education) cost him: “I paid three grand for it, which was a lot of money for me. That’s a lot of money for anybody. In retrospect it was probably worth 400 bucks.”
At the time he was paying the bills working at the family firm in Chicago, Mi-Jack Products, which makes cranes used for ports and railroads. Later he would open a photo studio in town, before eventually moving into TV production. His first series, which he helped to create, was a reality competition called “Race to the Scene” for the cable channel Reelz, hosted by Dolph Lundgren.
These days Lanigan is based in Los Angeles, but still has a home in Chicago, and he keeps part of his collection here. I was curious what kind of items he has and what he’s drawn to personally.
“I love stop motion animation, so I’ve got a large collection of ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ puppets and set pieces. I’ve got a number of pieces from ‘Coraline’ and ‘Corpse Bride.’”
Anything related to Indiana Jones is also of interest, he said.
“I have one of the original idols from the opening scene of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ That is a really interesting story.” The design for the prop — meant to be a fertility idol made from gold — was based off a similar piece that the filmmakers (and apparently museum experts) thought was a real artifact.
“But after the movie was made — maybe five or seven years ago — they learned that the (museum piece) was a fake. It’s all about the story, right? And the story was wrong! Somebody bought (the fake), thought it was real, it was dated incorrectly and the next thing you know it’s in a museum. So ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ designed a piece — arguably one of the most iconic things from the series — off a fake artifact.”
Once Lanigan acquires a prop, does he interact with it every so often — look at it, hold it — or is it stored aware in a cabinet somewhere until he maybe decides to sell it? “There’s the balance between wanting to experience it and then the reality that these are important pieces that you don’t want to handle. So I don’t handle them. But I have them in spaces that I regularly interact with.
“The end goal for me, and hopefully the show will help me do this, is to put together a traveling exhibit and maybe a permanent exhibit because I want people to be able to experience it.”
There is no standard policy about what to do with props and costumes after a project is made.
“Back in the day, like the ‘Mary Poppins’ era, third-party prop or costume houses would rent stuff out to productions and then it would go back,” Lanigan said. “Some of those props were kept, some were given to people. A lot of stuff got thrown away because it wasn’t considered important; the goal of making the movie wasn’t the props, it was the movie.
“Over time, people have realized these artifacts have this residual magic from the movie, and when you see it in person it’s inspiring and enlightening. They’re works of art themselves, it’s just that it’s art that was made to do a job.”
“Prop Culture” is available to stream on Disney+.