In most movies or TV episodes, characters are bound to eat, at least once. Whether that happens in a pivotal scene or just provides a delicious-looking background, these scenes need highly specific ingredients in order to be brought to life: 36 identical bar stools or a cotton candy machine, maybe; possibly a fro-yo dispenser, or hundreds of fake fruits and vegetables. That’s where a place like Prop Heaven comes in.
Keith Marvin currently runs the show at Prop Heaven, the large independently owned prop house in Burbank, California. His father, Lennie, founded the business over three decades ago, turning a passion for antiques into a prop rental business. And among nearly 100,000 square feet of set-decorating gems currently housed at the company’s HQ, a significant portion — nearly 25 percent — of the furniture and smaller items are devoted to restaurant and food scene-setting.
“In the early days of our company, a loyal customer told my father, ‘In the history of Hollywood, food and drink are always part of the conversation piece,’” Marvin says. “You can’t work in film and not have experience creating [projects, scripts, stories] around food or drink. In the early days, my parents were doing a lot of ’50s-type shows, so we had a diner counter, jukeboxes, a drive-in set dressing. Those were our first real restaurant props we had: We could do a ’50s diner set, but not much else.”
Since then, the business has grown exponentially. On a pretty ordinary Tuesday afternoon, by 2 p.m., Prop Heaven had already shipped pieces to over 30 shows, including How to Get Away with Murder, The Young and the Restless, The Middle, Champions, Lethal Weapon, and Life in Pieces — and there are still a few more hours in the day to get more orders out.
“For shows that are filmed in LA, you can’t name one that doesn’t work with us,” says Dan Schultz, Prop Heaven’s vice president. Over the years, that roster has included the likes of Will & Grace (both the original and new versions), Ballers, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, American Housewife, and Black-ish as well as its spinoff, Grown-ish. Every restaurant featured on How I Met Your Mother had pieces from Prop Heaven, although the gang’s go-to bar, MacLaren’s Pub, was a permanent set. Similarly, while Central Perk was a permanent set on Friends, basically any restaurant scene outside that beloved, fictitious coffee shop included rentals from Prop Heaven. Television shows and commercials comprise 80% of its business.
Now, the company’s expansive array — from a small countertop item to a full-scale, room-sized build-out — is organized thematically in the warehouses that comprise Prop Heaven’s campus-like HQ. Building 1 houses some of the bar props, while Building 2 is the most food-centric: It includes props for a farmers market, fish market, deli, wine store, and grocery store. Buildings 3 and 4 feature props for department stores, a hardware store, a casino, and music-related props.
Here, the younger Marvin talks about how real-life food trends make their way to television, the most difficult portable set to build, and what happens when your fake hanging chickens end up going missing.
How exactly do films and TV shows go about designing a set and sourcing what they need?
Set decorators, who are usually freelancers that jump between shows and movies, will have a project and often peruse our website to make a rough list of what they need. There are probably 200 to 300 people that know our inventory really well and go from show to show. The set decorator’s assistants, who are called shoppers or buyers, are the eyes and ears of the industry, and they’re the ones who often come by. Sometimes we email photos to the set decorators or production designers, but largely, we’ve built the mountain and they just come. It’s taken a long time, many decades, to get to this stage, but we’re there now. We’re a regular stop on their circuit.
Most of our customers have [house] accounts, and they typically want to get as many pieces as possible from one prop house. The production designer, who’s oftentimes an art director, will make a blueprint showing the layout: the spacing between tables, the color scheme. Many shows are very color-specific. A few days to a week ahead of filming is the average, but we’re ready for the “take it with you,” day-of rentals.
How did your fake food collection come about?
The first fake food place I ordered was from a company called Iwasaki, in the early-mid-’80s. Now, we have hundreds of fake cakes, fake cotton candy, and all sorts of ice cream pieces — the real stuff melts on set. We also have fake raw meat, and a meat packaging machine so we can wrap it ourselves, just to make it look good.
We have 40 or 50 hanging chickens, like you see in Chinatown windows, and we rent them out all the time. Usually we’re renting out 20 at a time, and 19 will get returned. Then, a show lost, like, 15 of the chickens, and now, we don’t have enough chickens to fill a set. Those can be hard to find; years ago, after the initial order, we contacted the manufacturer of the “fake hanging Asian market chickens” and they were no longer in business. Fake duck is tough to find, too. We just ordered four faux whole roast pigs, and 12 Peking ducks for a customer from a company in Florida, Display Fake Foods: Lately, we’ve been buying mostly from there. The pigs were almost $500 a piece, and the Peking ducks were like $175 each.
Do you want to overhaul any specific fake-food categories?
I’m having a hard time finding good-looking fake fish that looks large: not cut into filets. A lot of times, companies make small fish that are eight to 12 inches long. I want big-ass fish — 18, 24, 36 inches — and statement things that read “fish market.” And I need to order 50 to 100 on top of that, so it gets expensive.
What are your larger-scale pieces for restaurant or bar settings?
There are seven or eight modular bars that we had made; most of them are on wheels. They’re 5 or 6 feet long, built in sections that can be connected, so on film they look like the real thing. We have tiki bars, a ’50s diner, a Cheers-type bar, a cowboy bar, a seafood restaurant, and a juice bar set. Those are all pretty regular players. That farm-to-table look is in demand, and Starbucks-esque cafe and frozen yogurt places are always really big, too.
How about sets for food shopping, not just dining out?
We have an entire farmer’s market section set up in its own building, with tens of thousands of fake fruits and vegetables. We’re always doing farmer’s market sets, it’s pretty much the style right now. We have tens of thousands of bananas, oranges, and cherries, you name it. We’ve moved away from the big, heavy grocery store shelving and fixtures, and are doing more of a lighter farmer’s market look because of customer demand.
Have dining trends, like farm-to-table spaces, communal tables, backless seats, and Edison light bulbs, and influenced what you buy?
I remember going to a furniture trade show in Las Vegas in 2005 or 2006 and noticing a distinct trend in steampunk, industrial furniture, with lots of copper and brass. So in 2007, I started buying fixtures and furnishings that are in that style, not even specifically for restaurant sets. I thought, “This isn’t going to last that long,” but it just kept going. I also started buying communal tables and rustic-looking lighting for a farm-to-table-type restaurant. That industrial vibe has been going strong for 10 or so years now, and each time I go to a furniture show, I’m waiting for something new, and I don’t see it! It’s still a really strong [aesthetic].
When a dining fad tuckers out, like, say, cupcake shops or fro-yo spots, how does that impact prop rentals?
We bought a bunch of fake cupcakes for a while, but we didn’t think that was going to be long-lived, and it wasn’t. It was more faddish. Certain things, like frozen yogurt, have actually had more staying power [rentals-wise]. When Starbucks first opened, I had no idea they’d be as big as they are. When there’s a new trend, commercials are usually the first to be on top of things and are the quickest to respond: They’re writing their scripts up until the last possible moment. Then, a trend filters down to TV and film.
Has a certain type of restaurant set been trickier to nail?
We wanted to do a sushi bar for years. That’s a particularly tough one to do right. We had those refrigerated, six-foot-long sushi cases, and tables and chairs [for a sushi bar], but we didn’t have the bar or counter. We were getting ready to build our own, and then [we bought a whole sushi bar set from] a show that got canceled. Also, we have free-standing yogurt machines to rent out, but we don’t yet have one of those frozen yogurt walls yet. We’re talking about building one out, but that equipment is very, very expensive.
How much does accuracy matter to your clients?
It’s not always about accuracy, especially in TV. Ten years ago, a customer came in because they were doing a Disney kids’ show that took place somewhere in the Midwest, and they needed a Target-type store. The decorator picked out all the props, dressed the set, and the producers said, “No, no, this isn’t what we want.” They brought it all back and rented really expensive, high-end fixtures from Spain that would be in at least a Crate & Barrel. It’s not about reality. They’re trying to elevate, which gets advertisers interested.
What tricks of the trade do you notice when watching TV or movies?
Most of the bars have very low wheels, and on film, they rarely show the ground much; they don’t show the base of a table. Sometimes, a client will rent out a huge set or restaurant, and then when you see the scene on screen, it’s just a close-up shot on the characters’ faces. You might see a fork move toward a mouth, and they spent $10,000 renting stuff [for that one moment]. [Laughs]
I think the quality [of sets] has gotten so much better now — not so much on feature films, but on TV. Commercials have always had to be good, so you really don’t see any imperfections: They’re representing Fortune 500 companies, so the production value and the money spent per second in a commercial is greater than any feature film. [Imperfections were] much more noticeable on TV shows in the ’80s or ’90s, but now, people screenshot or freeze-frame stuff, they’re live-streaming [and can pause]; you can’t make a mistake anymore. Everyone has to be on their game.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Ilyashov is a writer and editor based in New York. Jakob Layman is a food photographer is Los Angeles who regularly dines at, and mispronounces, Cosa Buona.