You may think you have a lot of stuff. But not compared to Leslie Madsen.
The owner of Mount Pleasant Furniture in Vancouver runs a prop house for the film industry that is filled with antiques and collectibles.
We’re talking two buildings with over 35,000 sq. ft. of space, brimming with about a million items.
Thousands of chairs, hundreds of tables, countless statuettes.
Old radios, old TVs, old luggage — old everything, really.
“I specialize in vintage and antique stuff,” said Madsen. “There’s other prop houses that don’t, that specialize in different things, so there’s not a lot of crossover. I’m the person they come to for pretty well everything.”
Artist and filmmaker Paul Wong said Mount Pleasant Furniture has been “the go-to place for me and the creative community for decades for our sets and props.”
“An insane collection of hundreds of thousands of unique and everyday objects from hundreds of years ago to the present.”
Walking through the props is a sensory overload. Postmedia photographer Jason Payne said he was exhausted after a recent shoot because there was so much interesting stuff.
He filed 66 photos of Madsen’s collections, which include vintage toys, violins, hat boxes, cash registers, wooden chests, Tiffany-style lamps, and bikes.
Is Madsen still buying? At the moment no, but if somebody comes in with a cool item …
“My kids are like (she drops to an exasperated raspy voice), ‘Mom! You’ve got to stop!’”
Most of the collection is the real deal, but some are props that were made for specific productions, which Madsen then purchased.
“They know that I look after stuff, so they want to make sure it comes to a prop house so they’ll have access to it again, rather than losing it,” she said.
There are four giant floor lamps from the movie A Night At The Museum, for example, and a 10-foot-tall statue of Lady Justice, the blindfolded goddess who holds a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other.
It looks like brass that has weathered for a century, but it’s actually made of styrofoam. It’s so realistic it could grace most any courthouse, save for one problem — Lady Justice’s left arm has been severed at the elbow, leaving the scales of justice at her feet, still attached to her fingers.
“We bought that off a show,” Madsen said.
“We usually only rent to film productions, but we do certain commercials. This guy said, ‘I’m doing a commercial for a lawyer.’ So my kids said, ‘You have to give a deposit.’
“When he came to pick it up he had a pickup truck and the kids go, ‘Ooh, that’s going to break.’ He took it away and brought it back with a broken arm.
“He pulled up here into the bay and my staff came to get it and said, ‘The arm’s broken off.’ He says, ‘Sue me, I’m a lawyer! And sped off.’”
Most of the stuff comes back in good shape, though, so it can be reused.
This is key because there is usually a big demand for film props.
But the strike by actors and writers in Hollywood has cut drastically into the local business.
“At this time of year, we’d probably have about 50 productions running,” she said. “But now we have zero.”
She is renting items out for commercials, however, and has also opened a small antique store in her building at 36 East 4th in Vancouver.
The new store is filled with “smalls,” antique-speak for small collectibles such as an ARP (Air Raid Prevention) helmet from the Second World War, antique duck decoys or colourful miniature totem poles.
Madsen started off in the antiques business, running two stores with her ex-husband on Main Street, Mount Pleasant Furniture and Alice’s Old Furniture.
“We bought this building in the early ’80s, renovated it and started this prop house,” she said.
“It started off small and it got bigger and bigger. Once the tenants moved, we filled ‘er all up. It was like a size 13 in size 5 pants, we were all jammed, so we leased the building across the street almost 30 years ago.”
Her three-storey building is perfect for props because it was built as a soft drink factory by Cross and Co. in 1911, with large open spaces and tall ceilings.
Cross. and Co. aren’t the only historic connection. The legendary Vancouver weightlifter Doug Hepburn lived in a storefront in the building for decades. Hepburn once held the title of the world’s strongest man — in 1954 he lifted six members of the Vancouver Canucks on his back as a stunt.
The owner of Cross and Co. also lived in the building, and his second-storey living room was once Madsen’s office. The space has a handsome art nouveau fireplace and a quartet of leather club chairs that are popular rentals.
But she eventually moved her office to the first floor.
“I moved downstairs because the Teamsters hated coming up the stairs,” she said.
“I’d make cookies for them because they’d complain about all the stairs. Decorators and buyers (from films) come in and choose what they want to rent. They tag it, and (the Teamsters come in later) and pack it up.”
She still makes cookies for her clients.
“If I go on holiday and the Teamsters arrive and there’s no cookies in the office, they get really upset,” she said.
Madsen’s office is now in Hepburn’s old storefront. Her enormous old desk is now across the street, and is also a popular rental.
“It was a broken-down piano, and I loved its legs,” she said.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can get my woodworker to make me a desk.’ Twelve years later, he finished it. It has big wheels on it because it’s too low, but that thing rents a lot. (The top is) inlaid green leather, you have to bring it in from England.”
She rents to so many films and TV shows that she has a hard time remembering who rented what, but she does remember action star The Rock used her old desk.
All the items for rent can be viewed on the Mount Pleasant Furniture website. An “armless chair” goes for $35 a week, a big cabinet might be $1,000 a week.
She has nicknames for parts of the collection. A wall of old phones is “the wall of communication.” The wall on a stairway is “the wall of death” because it’s filled with hand-coloured photos in oval frames of people from the early 1900s.
But the wall of death will have to move. Her light-industrial neighbourhood in lower Mount Pleasant has been rezoned for higher density, and the building she rents across the street recently sold for $30 million. It’s slated to become a 14-storey tower.
She has been looking for new warehouse space, but hasn’t been able to find anything. So she may sell the props business, although she plans to hang on to her own building.
She hopes the collection can stay together.
“I would hate to break it all up, because it’s 40-some-odd years of collecting stuff,” she said.
“To break it all up and let it go … film will never see that again, it will be gone. It’s a collection that’s my whole life, my whole family’s life, what we’ve been doing here.”
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