Kevin Ladson: Property Master
Imagination, creativity and family wisdom guide his Hollywood career
It’s pure magic when your childhood dream, and its accompanying collection of things, become your real adult life where you work with such stars as Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey, and on highly-rated network and cable television shows such as 30 Rock and the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s exactly what happened to the affable and witty Kevin Ladson, who has been a prop master for more than 30 motion pictures and 10 television shows. His latest project, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, premiered on HBO, this past Saturday.
So Here’s The Story
Kevin Ladson was a young boy having fun and dreaming of becoming a toy maker. He was totally unaware his career trajectory was taking root, right there in his head and heart at the family’s Astoria, Queens apartment long before he ventured to Manhattan to study at the School of Visual Arts.
A place to hold one’s ‘stuff’ plays a significant role in maintaining one’s story, ones legacy. During his childhood Kevin took to holding onto things: toys, food packaging, robots, and even a complete World Book Encyclopedia set, with no idea they would one day be invaluable to his work. Kevin’s parents stayed put, and so did his childhood collections. So when a movie called Crooklyn came along, and as prop master Kevin was charged with providing an old school record player to enhance a scene, there was no problem. He marched right over to Queens, dug into his collection and found his old battery-operated portable record player. To deepen the authenticity of the film’s early 70s scenario Kevin added some of his brother’s 45 vinyl records, a chopper bike, spin tops, a Strat-O-Matic baseball game and a Quisp cereal box with a Jackson Five record on the back.
Building and sustaining ones own legacy requires a healthy respect for history, a knowing that you are not the beginning, but an extension of the story. I asked Kevin about his knowing.
“When I was growing up there was no Internet, Wikipedia, or iPad. I had to go the library, Kevin says, as he lets out a laugh filled with reminiscing. Eventually, he began to create his own library, incorporating a strong “making of” theme. To date, this library contains some 2,000 books and is Kevin’s greatest resource. If anyone is ever making a film with a tornado scene and technology fails, Kevin knows simply using a woman’s stocking can create a storm, because that’s how it was done in The Wizard of Oz.
During his career Kevin has not only relied on books to guide him, but also on family wisdom. While working on the film Beloved, he remembered a story, once told by his grandmother, about putting a brick in the fireplace until it was hot, then wrapping it in a wet towel and placing it on the buggy floor to keep their feet warm during winter rides. For authenticity, he did the same for the film. Years later he remembered southern travel with his family when making plans for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. During those trips his father told him and his brother they could only stop at certain places to rest and eat. When he learned about The Negro Motorist Green Book, it clarified and validated what his dad had shared, and he included the book in the film.
Books and family history have been great instructors, but Kevin’s most important lesson arrived early in his career and humbled him greatly. “When I got into the union I wrote a letter to my mother declaring I was the Jackie Robinson of props.” He laughs, reflecting on his naiveté. Shortly thereafter, in early 90s while working on the film Juice, Kevin was called from the set to meet twin brothers, Morgan and Marvin Smith. These black men, who were then in their eighties, had worked as photographers in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the film and television industries as sound technicians during the 1950s and 1960s. A decade later, during the so-called Blaxploitation film era, Morgan and Marvin were prop masters. Morgan died a week after their meeting and Marvin became Kevin’s mentor, teaching him tons about the industry and the roles African Americans had played. Kevin gladly relinquished his self-appointed title of “the Jackie Robinson of props” and bowed down to the brothers Smith.
When asked, who you have to be to do what you do?, Kevin quickly answered, “a jack of all trades and a person with a bag of tricks,” and then quoted Bruce Lee, “move like water.” Over the years he has had to dig deep into that bag and remain fluid. He’s made Jesus appear in a bowl of soup, designed puppets and carved earrings out of hot glue. Clearly, such a career comes with many challenges, and Kevin says being himself has been the greatest. But he’s managed to remain unaffected by the glitz and glamour and as a result has been able to work with many of the same directors continuously. When Kevin embarked on his journey in the eighties there were very few people who looked like him in school or the film business. On many of his jobs he says he was the only black person and not treated well; but he was steadfast and kept as his mantra what he once heard Dr. Martin Luther King eloquently state: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Justice for Kevin is a long career that has come full circle more than once. Earlier this month he found himself on location in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. He looked at the up at the building and thought, “here I am looking at where my dreams and aspirations started.”
· Getting his first job—Pee-Wee’s Playhouse—and being hired again by Paul Reubens almost three
· Working with Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington more than once
· Serving as prop master for the film Beloved which gave him a strong sense of his history
· Nine Spike Lee films
· Seven seasons of 30 Rock
· Two seasons of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
· Two M. Night Shyamalan films
“I give credit to my parents who let me run free when it came to my creativity even though they didn’t always understand it. My father still may not know what I do, but he knows that I’m happy.”
© Jelani Bandele 2017 | Photos: Courtesy of Kevin Ladson