Inside the Prop House Where the George Clooney-Julia Roberts Film 'Money Monster' Gets Its Antiques
NYC-based shows and films — from 'Vinyl' to 'The Girl on the Train' — turn to Newel Antiques for just-right period pieces to set the scene.
This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When an ad for a 1939 theatrical production of Pygmalion caught prop runner Meyer Newman's eye, the Russian immigrant called the set decorator and offered to dress the sets — with antiques he didn't have. Purchasing stock from local shops, which Newman complemented with items from his own home, was a gamble that paid off as the 10- week deal turned into a two-year Broadway run. Little did he know this would be the birth of one of the largest prop houses in the country.
Now known as Newel Antiques, the family-run business has dressed film and TV sets with global antiques and eclectic curiosities for some 70-plus years. Run by Newman's grandson Jake Baer, who is now CEO, the company has an extended collection of antiquities in Long Island City — just a stone's throw from Kaufman Astoria and Silvercup studios in Queens — and a new showroom in Manhattan. Newel's period pieces — from English tufted chairs and a popular birdcage (pictured above) from the set of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet — have been loaned to shows like Boardwalk Empire and such films as Chicago and Sleepy Hollow, both of which won Oscars for art direction. "Religious and Gothic items are always popular, as are French, English and Victorian set pieces that have been around forever," notes Baer. And with an inventory of 10,000 decorative items — rivaling collections at some of the world's largest museums — Newel is considered the national go-to resource for set decorators. It also has benefitted from the boom in New York-based production, which now boasts 90 series — including The Americans, Mr. Robot, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife and Gotham — as well as films like Money Monster and The Girl on the Train, all of which are shooting in and around the city. "We are proud of the growth in New York City's film and television industry and will look at every way possible to ensure that it continues," says Julie Menin, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment. "There is simply no better place than New York City to film, thanks to its iconic locations, diverse neighborhoods and deep talent pool."
Newman's son Lewis Baer, who serves as managing principal, has witnessed firsthand the progression from the early golden age of television. "Newel really took off in the '50s when many of the shows were live, such as Hallmark Hall of Fame and Perry Como," he says. "TV at that time was Broadway on steroids. Soap operas were king," he adds, citing such daytime staples as All My Children and One Life to Live.
Lewis Baer credits the growth in New York production to "physicality, tax incentives and talent," adding that Newel has brought its business into the digital age with an online catalog. "There's a new generation of set decorators who don't have to come in anymore," Jake Baer says. "We understand their budget and make sure they get what they need."
Rental fees are 10 percent of an item's sale price, and with pieces ranging from a $25 Art Deco letter opener to a $950,000 set of Jensen Palms, Newel is a key resource for set decorators who "are sparing no expense to get that next big hit," says Jake Baer, citing HBO's Vinyl as an example. For the '70s music industry drama, set decorator Ellen Christiansen used Newel pieces to bring to life Andy Warhol's Art Deco loft and a Las Vegas Hilton Presidential Suite. "Newel is the place to find those special elements that help tell a story," she says.
Much like New York production, "Newel is enjoying a robust boom," Jake Baer says. "As the need for content in the many new mediums — such as Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and Amazon — continues to grow, the need for merchandise is growing exponentially. It's an exciting time."
Creating Dramatic Scenes Piece by Piece
Newel supplied the English Georgian- style mahogany three-piece salon set in green upholstery on which Chuck Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn ) sits in this scene. Valued at $45,500, it has carved lion arms and heads.
To bring to life a '70s-era Las Vegas Hilton Presidential Suite, set decorator Ellen Christiansen used several Newel pieces, including a bronze Bronco Buster figure valued at $6,250 (behind Bobby Cannavale's Richie Finestra).
Set decorator Andrew Baseman picked several Newel pieces, including this $22,500 French Victorian faux bamboo maple triptych cheval mirror, used by Gotham City mayor and series antagonist Theo Galavan (James Frain).