Prop Culture

Area shops get into the picture supplying film companies with sets
Marisa Gaggino in her Royal Oak shop, Heritage Co. II. // Photograph by David Lewinski

In The Shawshank Redemption, Red was a man who could get things. It has been 16 years since Morgan Freeman starred in that highly acclaimed film. Today, moviemakers want metro Detroit-ers who know how to get things. Local resale/vintage shops and prop studios are supplying set designers with all manner of objects, from neon signs to mattress springs.

The best finders are definitely keepers when movie crews come calling. Marisa Gaggino is among a core of resourceful types whose moxie helps satisfy often esoteric and oddball prop needs. “I got myself registered on the resource list for the Michigan Film Office,” Gaggino says. “But mostly it’s word of mouth. They find me; they’re used to looking for things.”

When her Royal Oak shop, Heritage Co. II, can’t fill a request from existing stock, she and her “picker” go on a scavenger hunt. For All’s Faire in Love, which was filmed in part at the Renaissance Festival grounds in Holly, Gaggino helped decorate a witch doctor’s tent. “They wanted weird stuff,” she says. She supplied a full-sized stuffed bear, a boar’s head, and a mounted owl.

Gaggino researched the standard rates for prop rentals, submitted her invoice, and was happy for the business. “It’s keeping my doors open,” she says. She also supplied visuals for Red Dawn, Crave, and Vanishing on 7th Street.

“Red Dawn was blowing up a lot of stuff, so they didn’t rent, they bought,” she says. “They were looking for things you’d find in a mining shaft. They were super particular.”

The Red Dawn crew requested a telephone pole, an old-fashioned padlock, and mattress springs.

For Vanishing on 7th Street, she provided a giant vintage neon sign and then crossed her fingers that it would emerge unscathed from the shoot.

Gaggino’s resourcefulness led to her being discovered, Hollywood style. “I’ve had two or three people ask me if I want to do set decoration,” she says. “But the hours are amazing. Do I want to be up at 3 in the morning?”

When she visits movie sets around town, Gaggino says she sees 20-year-old hands getting $80 a day along with some excitement and a line for their résumés. “The young people are back-slapping, and the energy is incredible. They party. They go to bars and restaurants. Right now in Detroit when we’re bleeding young people like crazy, I don’t know how you can calculate the value of that.”

The more quantifiable value of Michigan moviemaking is being felt at Vogue Vintage in Pleasant Ridge and Sam’s Prop House in Hazel Park. And the owners of the Madison Heights Proprietary School Center for Film Studies have just bolstered their business with the acquisition of Scenic Prop and Design. Scenic Prop, formerly known as Scenic Design, produced props for rock groups and TV programs.

“Right now, the majority of props are trucked in from Los Angeles at high prices,” says president Mort Meisner. “Once [we] get into full swing, the props will be made here and hundreds of jobs will potentially be gained.”

Servicing movie shoots is also just fun. Vogue Vintage rented props to The Irishman, among others. Set designers tapped owner Steve Humphreys’ 20th-century treasure trove for ’50s-era green-velvet luggage and a pair of bright-orange awnings.

When The Irishman hits theaters, Humphreys likes to say he’ll be doing a version of Where’s Waldo?, scanning scenes for the objects of his affection.

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