From ‘Mad Men’ to ‘Chicago,’ antiques dealers find new money in film and TV prop rentals

“And the Oscar goes to ‘Chicago.’”

Indeed the 2002 film won the Academy Award for best picture, but it also won five other Oscars including Best Art Direction, for the musical’s Jazz Age look. While the film was set in 1920s Chicago, the props that provided its unique look came from an longtime enterprise in New York.

Lewis Baer Newel movie prop house Manhattan
Lewis J. Baer runs Newel LLC in Manhattan. His grandfather, Meyer Newman, founded the company as a Broadway prop house in 1939.

A legend in the movie prop business is Newel LLC in Manhattan. Owner Lewis J. Baer runs the company his grandfather Meyer Newman founded in 1939 as a “prop house” for Broadway shows. The company’s six-story building at 425 E. 53rd St. is stacked with furnishings, from 17th-century European Renaissance through mid-20th century designs. Keeping track of it all allowed little consideration for selling.

“In the fall, you had all your Broadway shows starting up, and the television series were starting to shoot. He just didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to cater to the selling trade,” said Baer, recalling working for his grandfather as a boy.

Baer majored in accounting and graduated with a degree in business administration at Lehigh University. While in college he became more familiar with antiques and fine art working three summers at the family business.

“My one regret was when I started working at Newel was in 1969. My college roommates called and said, ‘Let’s go to this thing called Woodstock.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, I have to work.’ Missing out on Woodstock was my biggest regret,” he said.

After graduating, Baer worked for a major accounting firm in New York for a year, but he was called back to Newel by family members upon the death of his grandfather. 

It wasn’t until Baer took over operation of the company shortly thereafter that Newel began regularly selling inventory.

“We became more accommodating to buyers because we had this vast, huge inventory,” said Baer, acknowledging the most of the sales are to interior designers.

Baer sees the biggest difference in renting props and selling antiques is the time element.

“In movies and television, there are all these sets that have to be put together within a week. Doing an interior design for a home could take weeks or months to finish a room. (Set decorators) are magicians. They have to get the job done.”

Baer’s years of experience doing business with the entertainment industry gives his company a distinct advantage.

“Most people aren’t really set up — especially antique dealers — in terms of the logistics involved in the rental business. For example, we know the studios, we know how their billing systems work, how to process the purchase orders to the right people and open accounts for each production company that wants to rent from us,” said Baer.

A visit to Newel’s website, gives an indication of how active the company is in renting props to the entertainment business. The company’s credits range from the original Broadway production of “My Fair Lady” to the current HBO television series “Boardwalk Empire,” which is set in 1920s Atlantic City. Newel has provided props for historical dramas like the Steven Spielberg film “Amistad” set in 1839 to the modern-day ABC television comedy “Ugly Betty.”

“There really isn’t any competition. An antique shop may have a piece, but when someone wants a complete set, they have to get the whole set. They can’t be going around to 20 antique shops to put together a period set,” said Baer, claiming that Newell is probably the No. 1 source in the country for quality pieces for all periods. “We have it all,” he said.

The perceived importance of being located in Hollywood is a misconception, said Baer. “The movie industry is everywhere now.”

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, major film studios owned their prop houses, a structure that changed with the breakup of the studio system in the 1950s.

 “The studios have pretty much liquidated their prop houses. They needed the money and couldn’t maintain them,” said Baer.

He also noted that New York has tax incentives for production companies to operate there. “New York, just like California, has tremendous studios. The facilities are actually here. So we don’t have to be out in California,” said Baer.

Broadway has also seen major changes over the years. 

“When we were establishing ourselves Broadway was king; there was no television, of course. Broadway was a tremendous live performance, and the furnishings were really period pieces,” said Baer. Doing so today is largely cost prohibitive.

Recalling the 1956 Broadway production of “My Fair Lady,” Baer said, “You look at all the incredible English furniture on the stage that would never be there now. They couldn’t afford it now.” Baer said the Broadway sets today are almost like secondhand furniture. “They’re not very high quality.”  Movies and television continue to be Newel’s bread and butter.

Newel’s searchable website boasts: “Own a piece of movie history today.” And any item with movie provenance carries a premium price.

“I have a dozen items in this inventory — and only a dozen — that I would be foolish to sell only because they just rent and rent and rent. Not that they’re expensive, but they’re just so generically perfect,” said Baer.

A prime example is a pair of English Regancy-style marble-top rosewood tables, each supported with a large spread eagle figure on the front. The tables can be seen in more than a half dozen movies from Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” and most recently in the HBO film “Too Big to Fail,” Andrew Ross Sorkin’s exposé on the 2008 financial crisis.

While Baer doesn’t consider himself a movie buff, he takes satisfaction in knowing his company’s furnishings are contributing to the success of the productions in which they appear.

“We have been involved with a lot of movies that have been nominated and several have won Oscars,” said Baer. One he is especially proud of is Woody Allen’s 1978 film “Interiors,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Set Direction, but lost to “Heaven Can Wait.”

Another memorable Oscar winner for Best Art Direction to which Newel provided props was “Sleepy Hollow,” the 1999 Tim Burton film based on the Washington Irving story. The film was set in 1799 upstate New York and loaded with primitive country furniture and other period pieces.

Through the years, Baer’s respect for set designers and set decorators has grown.

“I take my hat off to them. They get these jobs done so quickly and so well. It’s incredible how well they can make it look on the screen,” said Baer.

Learn how other dealers are getting into the prop rental business

Antiques Centre expanding into movie prop rentals

Retro fans go ‘mad’ for ‘Mad Men’s’ Mid-century modern TV show props

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