Lights, camera — city props supplier has that and more

By Brian Boyd
New Bedford Standard-Times
August 26, 2009

NEW BEDFORD–When a character was electrocuted in a bathtub in a recent “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” episode, viewers probably weren’t focused on the bathroom’s sink, radiator or lights. Still, background props can lend authenticity to a scene and, in this case, the items came from a New Bedford company.

New England Demolition & Salvage, which buys and sells used building materials, has been selling and renting antiques and materials for movie and television productions for the past couple of years. “It’s very exciting,” said Jeanine James, who owns the Cove Street business with her husband, Harry.

Like a successful television series, this business resulted in a spin-off several months ago: a separate prop-rental business. The new venture is called That’s a RAP — short for “rent-a-prop” — and it fills the third-floor of the salvage business with a wide range of bric-a-brac, from a telephone booth and vintage washing machines to children’s bicycles and furniture.

“They like it because it’s one-stop shopping,” said Harry James during a Tuesday tour he gave to city officials. “They used to go all over looking for different stuff to find what they needed, but now they come here, and they can get all of their shopping done in one place.”

That’s a RAP aims to capitalize on the state’s growing movie business, including the new studios planned for Plymouth and South Weymouth.

“What better opportunity to get ahead of the game?” said Norm Smith, a partner with Harry James in the rental company.

New Bedford is a convenient location to serve movie productions in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, Smith said. The James’ film credits list 26 movies or television shows, including the crime drama “Gone Baby Gone,” the comedy “Bride Wars” and the Showtime series “Brotherhood,” which was filmed in Rhode Island.

For example, they sold the materials used to build an old-fashioned train station ticket booth in a movie with Richard Gere called “Hachiko: A Dog’s Story,” Harry James said. The couple had discussed the prospects for a prop rental business. When Showtime canceled “Brotherhood,” the filmmakers offered to sell them props.

Harry James reached out for a partner in a new business and Smith came aboard. The props from “Brotherhood,” including an FBI seal, provided the starting inventory for the new rental-only business, and the company keeps buying more props, according to James and Smith. “You never know what they want,” Smith said.

There is a growing demand for businesses that serve the film industry, said Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office. “It’s one of the few areas in a dismal economy where opportunities are expanding,” Paleologos said.

When filmmakers produce films in Massachusetts, they look for local services, he said. “They don’t want to try renting props from California and ship them across the country,” he said.

Anne Marie Lopes, New Bedford’s director of tourism and marketing, said more film location scouts have been visiting the city, and some of them are already aware of Harry and Jeanine James’ business. Even though the scouts might not choose the city, they are raising awareness of the city. “We may not fit the project they’re working on, but they go back with pictures of what we have,” Lopes said.

The James like to look out for their items on the screen, and they are interested in which actors are tied to the productions they assist. “We always want to know who is in the movies,” Jeanine James said. “I love movies.”

Besides the excitement of show business, props give the couple another source of revenue. “We feel it will help us survive,” she said. “It will have an impact on both businesses.” They started their salvage business in 1998 in Wareham and relocated to the city two years ago, moving into a former Berkshire-Hathaway mill building.

Mayor Scott W. Lang held a press conference Tuesday to mark the second anniversary of the business moving to New Bedford. The conference was followed by the tour. “This is the type of business in New Bedford that we spent an awful lot of time attempting to cultivate, which is a destination business for a wide variety of audiences,” Lang said.

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