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February 29, 2016

Prime Time Capsule

A supersize prop shop casts the past.

Gina Piccalo
  • These RCA TK-11 studio cameras, circa 1952, began life on The Ed Sullivan Show and Howdy Doody. Lately they’ve appeared in period episodes of FX’s American Horror Story and Fox’s Grease: Live.

  • Replica Revolutionary War equipment — used in the new History-Lifetime-A&E adaptation of Roots — sits behind a 1963 black-and-white TV camera to be seen in HBO’s upcoming Lyndon B. Johnson biopic, All the Way.

  • An early-1960s boom mic featured in AMC’s Mad Men and the features Argo and Selma.

  • Early- and mid-century phones were needed in HBO’s Bessie and ABC’s Agent Carter.

  • A vintage American Bandstand sign from the 2014 film Jersey Boys leans on mid-century prop TVs from Showtime’s Masters of Sex. A mannequin rests behind a 1946 RCA TK-30 television camera used in the Starz series Magic City and the film Good Night and Good Luck. Experts at History for Hire rebuild much of the classic equipment.

  • History for Hire began supplying military gear in 1986, for Oliver Stone’s Platoon. British, French, German and U.S. garb from World War I and II is available, as well as from the Vietnam War. Uniforms, bugles, canteens, military maps and stacks of duffle bags were used in the HBO series The Pacific.

  • Some 200 vintage guitars and amplifiers, 60 drum sets and three-dozen keyboards stock a corner of the warehouse. “We send everything but the musician,” says owner Jim Elyea. “We even built some vintage instruments from scratch.” Pieces from this collection have appeared in NBC’s 1960s drama Aquarius, Fox’s Glee and TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland.

  • A wall of radios from the 1920s to ‘40s.

  • Shelves packed with vintage TV sets.

  • Stereo equipment from the 1960s through the ‘80s.

  • Thirty years’ worth of TV remote controls. Some of the items have been used on ABC’s The Goldbergs and Cinemax’s Quarry.

Imagine a 35,000-square-foot time capsule, packed two stories high with every imaginable piece of cultural ephemera from the past 150 years.

That’s the scope of the prop warehouse History for Hire.

The company's vast space sits in a nondescript corner of North Hollywood, California, where owners Jim and Pam Elyea have served prop masters and set decorators with period-correct offerings for three decades.

From providing the 1950s TV cameras for the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck to turn-of-the-century apothecary bottles for Cinemax's The Knick to the vintage staplers used in a flashback episode of Fox's Bones to virtually every liquor label and cigarette package seen in AMC's Mad Men, the Elyeas and their in-house team of graphic designers and prop makers take their history seriously.

"For better or worse, people get their history from TV and movies," says Jim Elyea, who grew up working in his mother's antique stores. "So we feel an obligation to get it right."

Jim started the business in 1985 (with his brother Bob) from his personal cache of military memorabilia; some of those items were supplied to the 1986 film Platoon, which won four Oscars that year, including best picture. (Bob subsequently left the operation, and Pam joined her spouse.)

After the couple bought the contents of a 25,000-square-foot Paramount Studios prop warehouse in 1989, the business took off. One year later, hundreds of items from their collection were seen in the biopic Chaplin (including a Prestwich camera for the Mack Sennett Studios, period-correct champagne bottles and vintage makeup). Jim says the film is still noted for its historical accuracy.

More recently, History for Hire has supplied pieces and research services for Fox's Scream Queens, ABC's The Goldbergs, Showtime's Masters of Sex as well as FX's American Horror Story and The Americans.

"At some point during a tour of our warehouse, everyone asks, 'Is that the real thing?'" Jim Elyea says, standing in front of a mid-century TV boom mic, similar to what was used on The Ed Sullivan Show [for a scene from the film Mr. Saturday Night]. "And we say, 'If you have to ask, we've done our job.'"

PHOTOS BY Rocco Ceselin

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