L.A. prop house in tune with nostalgic music films

LOS ANGELES TIMESSeptember 6, 2013 

LOS ANGELES — Inside the North Hollywood prop house History for Hire, a technician clamps down a sheet of pearl finish plastic and cuts a strip to fasten around the wooden hoop of a Slingerland bass drum.

Another worker is busy rebuilding a black Ludwig drum to precisely match the same set — right down to the manufacturer’s keystone logo — used by the Four Seasons during a 1966 performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

It’s one of many tiny details the technicians must get right as the company supplies 18 drum kits, along with 46 guitars and basses, 37 amplifiers, eight keyboards and more than 60 microphones for the movie “Jersey Boys,” a musical biography being directed by Clint Eastwood that spans the four-decade career of the quartet led by Frankie Valli.

“This is probably the biggest music show that we’ve done,” said Jim Elyea, a co-owner of History for Hire.

Hollywood has long turned to musical acts for inspiration in such movies as “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” The industry is once again in a musical groove, producing a string of nostalgic films about industry giants including Brian Wilson and James Brown.

“Jersey Boys” began production last week. This week, the crew was shooting on Vine Street in Hollywood and on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, according to a film permit.

“Love & Mercy,” about the life of the reclusive Beach Boys songwriter and musician Brian Wilson, and starring John Cusack and Paul Dano, started filming in L.A. last month.

Another project is “Imagined,” in which Al Pacino plays an aging rock star who sets out to reconnect with his son after being inspired by an old letter written to him by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “Imagined” wrapped production in August.

Also on the way is an untitled movie about James Brown. Tate Taylor, the Mississippi native who directed “The Help,” announced this week that he will produce and direct a biographical movie about “The Godfather of Soul” in his state this fall.

The activity is music to the ears of History for Hire, which has supplied drum kits, guitars, keyboards and other props for all three films — and hopes to do the same for the upcoming James Brown movie, co-produced by Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger.

Last year, the prop house supplied dozens of guitars, amplifiers, drum kits and other equipment to the movie “The Identical,” which was filmed in Nashville and follows a musical family from the bebop 1950s through the glam-rock 1970s.

“These movies about the music industry are fantastic for us,” said Pam Elyea, who co-owns the prop house with her husband. “They’ve allowed me to hire more people and spend more money locally.”

Established in 1985, History for Hire occupies a 30,000-square-foot warehouse stocked with hard-to-find historical props, such as Revolutionary War muskets and vintage Rickenbacker electric guitars.

About 20 percent of the company’s sales comes from renting out musical props for music videos, commercials, TV shows and films. Weekly rental rates range from $4 for a harmonica to $750 for Hammond electric piano with amplifier. Moviemakers can be lucrative customers: the prop house made $40,000 in rental income from its work on “Identical.”

Elyea declined to discuss the budget for “Jersey Boys” but said the project was the company’s largest to date, surpassing the work History for Hire did on the 1996 Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do!”

The Warner Bros. film is based on the popular Broadway musical of the same name. It features actors who have portrayed the main characters in various stage versions around the world, as well as movie veterans including Christopher Walken and Vincent Piazza.

About half the 17 employees at the prop house are working on preparing the props for the film. Many of them are musicians — including co-founder Jim Elyea, a drummer — who earn extra money restoring vintage instruments for the prop house, making sure they are playable and that they match the period and the venue depicted in the film.

“It’s a lot of work for them because we’re covering such a big stretch of time, from 1951 to 1990 when these guys (the Four Seasons) were inducted into the Hall of Fame,” said Mike Sexton, property master for the project. “They’ve got some fantastic stuff.”

Elyea, who is also an author of a book on the history of Vox amplifiers, uses a color-coded chart to keep track of all the props, the period they are depicting and the scenes for which they are being used. Details such as the style of volume knobs and the bindings of the strings on electric guitars must be historically accurate.

“It all about the details,” he said.

Joe Lamond, chief executive of the National Association of Music Merchants, welcomes Hollywood’s renewed interested in the music industry legends.

“It really demonstrates again the interest that the public has in music and music making,” he said. “Movies like this really help create that desire to play an instrument instead of just watching and being a fan.”

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