The prop master - Coeur d'Alene Press: Local News

The prop master

Hayden's John Barton spent 50 years in Hollywood film industry

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Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2014 12:00 am

HAYDEN LAKE - The plot that was John Barton's Hollywood career is thick.

Having made a living for 50 years in the industry, his list of screen credits runs longer than a "Lord of the Rings" movie script.

Now 76 and retired, Barton has spent the past 14 years living quietly in Hayden Lake with his wife of 52 years, Joy. Barton doesn't mind reminiscing about his time working with Hollywood greats, and moments he shared with them off-camera.

Like that time on the set of the 1969 Western comedy film "The Great Bank Robbery," when he helped actress Kim Novak get prepared for a bubble bath scene.

"There's a scene where she's in the bathtub, and she looks at me," Barton recalled recently at his home. "She says, 'You know, instead of this wash rag I'd like to have a natural sponge.'"

Barton, a props master at the time, knew he had one in his truck. He got it and returned.

"She says, 'Well, I've decided I'll go with the wash rag,'" he said.

No problem.

"She says, 'John, my hands are made up and I think I've lost the wash rag in the tub,'" he said. Barton didn't know he was being pranked.

Novak told Barton she thought the rag was down by her feet. Barton swooshed his hand through the water around her feet. No rag.

Novak told him to work his way up, which he did. He got near her hip on one side, but no rag.

"'Now, John, just relax, don't get nervous,'" he recalled her saying.

He works his way up her other side to the hip, but, again, no rag.

"Well, you know where she put it," he said. "She said, 'Why don't you start at my ankles and work up.'"

Soon the whole crew was laughing.

"The backbone of this industry is really the people behind the camera," Barton said. "There's a lot more characters behind the camera than you'll ever see in front of it."

He said his career as a prop master was demanding work, but he stuck with it for a long time because of the frequent challenges and different experiences.

One day he was working on a futuristic movie about outer space, and the next day it was a movie set in the 10th Century.

"The biggest thing we have is research," he said. "Every studio had their own library."

Barton worked on major hits likes "Cool Hand Luke" with Paul Newman, "The Way We Were" with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, "Wait Until Dark" with Audrey Hepburn, and "Father Goose" with Cary Grant.

How Barton got into the business is a story in itself.

At age 6, Barton had polio in his left leg. His dad managed a Safeway in Burbank, Calif., and knew the head of the commissary for Columbia Pictures Ranch.

The commissary head invited the Bartons to the studio during filming of "Counter-Attack," starring Paul Muni.

"When I saw those explosions and everything, that grasped me as a kid," Barton said.

His parents divorced and he moved to Big Bear Lake, Calif., in 1949 with his father. One day, a Screen Gems truck and a bus went by his house.

Barton took off after it and found out filming was underway for "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok," starring Andy Devine.

He ran into the man who ran the Columbia Ranch commissary, who then helped Barton get a job as a night watchman on the off-site set of the "Wild Bill" production.

"That was my first paycheck," said Barton, who wasn't old enough to drive at that point.

In his early 20s, Barton began work as a mail boy at Walt Disney Studios. Soon he was assigned to the third floor of the animation building.

"When you're on the third floor, you're Walt's personal mail boy," he said. He also delivered items from the commissary to Disney's office back-bar, including Black and White Scotch Whisky, orange juice, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Hershey's chocolate bars.

"So one of these days, I'm up there putting this stuff out and I see a script on the desk called 'Mary Poppins,'" Barton recalled.

Barton plopped down at Disney's desk and started thumbing through the script, having no idea Disney was about to walk in.

"And he opens the door," Barton said. "He says, 'Good morning, John.'"

Casually, Disney asked what Barton thought of the script, and Barton replied that he just started reading.

"He says, 'You look good behind the desk there, do you think you could ever grow into it?'" Barton said.

Too big of a desk, Barton replied.

"That's the way (Disney) was, he was a really great guy," Barton said. "He was a very grounded individual."

Soon, Barton was assigned to character merchandising, sales and publications, which was the Disney division handling all the new toys and publications.

He had his sights set on being a director, though, but knew it would take time to work his way there. He also knew there were a lot of people ahead of him.

Barton got a job in the props department at Universal Studios, with help from his father-in-law. He would later work with other studios, too.

Initially at Universal, Barton worked on shows like "Wagon Train," "McHale's Navy," and "The Virginian." Then he got some movie assignments, including "Send Me No Flowers," with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and "Shenandoah" and "The Rare Breed," both with Jimmy Stewart.

After that work he moved on to movies like the "The War Lord" with Charlton Heston and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" with Mary Tyler Moore and Julie Andrews, and then it was one movie after another.

"My dad was into firearms, and I had a lot of knowledge about firearms," Barton said. "So I became a prop master."

As a prop master, he was responsible for anything an actor touched, "From a wristwatch to a battleship," he said.

"They started assigning me to action movies dealing with guns," he said.

Most of the guns used were not meant to fire blanks, they were made to fire live rounds, so the weapons required proper handling.

Many of the movies he worked were Westerns, like "The Wild Bunch" with William Holden and Ernie Borgnine, and "There Was a Crooked Man" with Kirk Douglas.

"You work directly with the actors, because you're responsible if they have rings, or wallets, or ID, or if they have guns," Barton said. "We're responsible for all that. And when you break down a script you see all these props in there."

The props are found either with the studios or they are rented.

Barton handled plenty of action props for characters played by John Wayne. Barton specifically worked with Wayne on "The Green Berets" and the 1976 Western film "The Shootist."

"(Wayne) was the first guy on the set every morning, and the last guy to leave," Barton said. "And if you didn't do your job right, he had no patience for people who didn't take an interest in what they were doing."

He has fond memories of working with Paul Newman in the 1967 hit movie "Cool Hand Luke," and particularly a scene in which Newman's prison character eats 50 hard-boiled eggs on a bet.

"So Paul's laying on this table and he told me, he says, 'God, John, I hate eggs,'" Barton recalled. Barton had 80 eggs cooked up, and he had 80 more being cooked. (Spoiler: Newman didn't really eat the eggs.)

During the shooting of the scene, a piece of ceiling, 8 feet by 8 feet, fell on top of Barton, hitting him in the head. Barton was taken to Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. Newman went to the hospital to check on Barton, which Barton really appreciated.

"He loved Porsches and VWs, and he loved his beer," Barton said.

Newman asked that Barton line his ice chest with alternating layers of ice and beer.

Barton also was able to get an up-close, live, view of Hollywood greats in action.

He pointed to Audrey Hepburn's performance as a blind woman in the 1967 suspense-thriller "Wait Until Dark."

He recalled Hepburn's ability in the film to avoid expression in her famously expressive eyes.

"And her eyes were absolutely gorgeous," he said. "That's how good she was."

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  • Haydenresident posted at 12:02 pm on Wed, Jun 11, 2014.

    Haydenresident Posts: 15

    What an interesting and exciting life...I would read a book about this life...

  • oscar posted at 11:38 am on Wed, Jun 11, 2014.

    oscar Posts: 1665

    I''ll bet that was an interesting career. It is fascinating to hear about the different careers available that I hadn't even thought about.

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