The Swanson Pyramid of Greatness is legendary (and still decorates offices and cubicles at EW). But there’s something in every episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation that catches the eye and tickles the funny bone. That’s why we asked the show’s property master, Gay Perello, for the stories behind her five favorite pieces of 2012. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes) coverage.
By: Gay Perello
I should preface that my favorite props to make are ones that I get to collaborate with people who are craftsman in their own field. I not only get a better and more authentic prop, but I get to learn at least a fraction of how to do something I didn’t know before.
1. Groffle the Awful Waffle children’s book
In the Episode “Bus Tour,” Leslie reads a book to school kids titled Groffle the Awful Waffle. This is a book that Leslie writes, illustrates, and publishes.
Even though it was scripted that we only see the cover at the head of the scene before Leslie is interrupted, I knew that I wanted to give Amy [Poehler] a few pages to read and show the illustrations to the class.
Schuyler Telleen, our graphic artist, and I were so excited to create a story line with a bunch of breakfast items as characters and settings in a book.
Writing and conceptualizing came easy. We were inspired by Leslie’s sweet tooth, Ron’s favorite meat items, and the gathering place for the group, JJ’s. The hard part was getting the ideas on paper and getting a book bound in the short time frame we had.
I hired an amazing artist, Abira Ali, to do the illustrations, and she nailed it in the first drawings. Groffle is amazing to look at. He cries syrup tears and has a butter nose!
Next step was paginating, which to me is like math, impossible, so Schuyler was in charge of that, and we got pages to a local book binder, Charlene Matthews. Charlene turned it into an official book, cloth bound and lined.
In the episode, it is on air for a split second, but I have a wonderful little coffee table book I get to look at written, illustrated, and published by Leslie Knope, of course.
NEXT: Sweetum’s voting machine
2. Sweetum’s voting machine
When I first read the beginning of “Win, Lose, or Draw,” when Leslie and Ben show Pawnee’s voting official the absurd touch screen voting machine that Sweetum’s Candy made for the city council election, I was in a little bit of denial — especially when I read it also spits out golden tickets with Bobby Newport’s face on it. I looked around the room during the concept meeting hoping someone would say “I have one of those.” This is one of those props you know doesn’t exist, and you must start finding the main elements that you begin with and hopefully other elements will come together.
After brainstorming about what to begin with, the closest thing I could come up with was to modify an ATM machine. Kim Wannop, our set decorator, found a shell of an ATM at a prop house. It had good bones but needed to be completely overhauled.
To make this work, I needed help from other departments — graphics, video playback, and construction. We all worked simultaneously transforming this fake ATM into a high-tech voting machine, but I still needed a way to spit the tickets out. I had previously rented a rigged printer that ran off remote and could produce prints on cue. I thought I could modify this and have our tickets basically do the same thing.
Plan B was to have our shortest production asst., Lorenzo, climb in the box and push them out of our slot. Thankfully, I was able to hide off to the side of the set and remotely produce the golden ticket that Ben grabs.
NEXT: Ron’s barbeque tool pouch
3. Ron’s barbeque tool pouch
The first episode of Season 5, Leslie goes to Washington D.C. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters have the annual Employee Appreciation BBQ, organized by Ron Swanson.
Anytime you can make a Ron Swanson prop, it’s a good day. Ron Swanson, master of the grill, has to have the proper tools and something to be able to store them. I emailed Nick Offerman and asked his opinion on a box or a leather tool roll. He thought tool roll would be right up Ron’s alley. I had recently met a jewelry and purse maker (coincidently, at a BBQ) who specialized in working with leather. I gave her my drawings, and she said, “Sure, how’s elk hide?” Perfect! I ordered some vintage BBQ tools from Etsy and got to work on the aging of the pouch, using cooking oil, sandpaper, and elbow grease.
Nick was pleased and unfurled his tools like an old pro.
There isn’t any dialogue about a tool pouch, nor was it even scripted, however, I think those character props are just as important in storytelling and sure are a lot of fun to make.
NEXT: Super-sized Sweetum’s soda cups
4. Super-sized Sweetum’s soda cups
The second episode of this season was named “Soda Tax.” The A story was about Leslie wanting to put a higher tax on the newly released super sizes of soda cups.
The cups start with a mere 64 oz., then go up to 128 oz., and then a whopping 512 oz. cup, referred to as Child Size (because it’s roughly the size of a 2-year-old).
Mike Schur, the co-creator of Parks and Rec, really wanted the cups to look as real as possible and to copy the shape of the Big Gulps. Luckily, I could use the actual Big Gulp by painting and wrapping our Sweetum’s logo around it, but that left the issue of how to manufacture cups that look and hold fluid like the 64 oz.
We were married to that two-tier shape and had to figure out how to, and of what to, make them. I had gone to the grocery store and bought at least 20 different kinds of tubs that could stack on each other, it was not coming together.
During my show and tell meeting, I was hoping to have the writers and creators think outside the box with the design, like with a garden sprayer or those giant handheld keg coolers, but those ideas didn’t change their mind.
Once again, time was not on my side. I was quickly losing the option of having a carving and a mold made, but I was preparing to commit to that expense when I got a call from my production designer, Ian Phillips, to hurry and come down to set because he had a solution. Ian was holding two white plastic paint tubs in his hands that he found on an unfinished set the painters left behind. A one gallon bucket and the other a two quart. He stacked the larger one on top of the smaller one and just like magic, there was our shape!
Huge sigh of relief. I quickly gathered all the different sizes I needed to complete the set up to 512 oz., and brought them to the prop manufacturing house SAT and they transformed those buckets into beautiful cups. Finish it off with graphics, little wheels, and giant Pixy Stix as straws, and you got yourself a Child Sized 512 oz. soda cup.
My amazing prop assistants on set tinted a round disk, shoved in the cup, and topped it off with fake crushed ice so it wouldn’t be too heavy with real fluid.
I am very lucky to have the support and vision of the Art Dept. and a crew that problem solves on set.
NEXT: Leslie’s Unity Quilt
5. Leslie’s Unity Quilt
One of my favorite props I have ever made is Leslie’s Unity Quilt. Leslie wants to unify her family with Ben’s family, so each square of the quilt had to represent a family member including Ben and Leslie. Everything from picking out the fabric to coming up with ideas for each square was a blast. Even though you can think of many things that connect them, the image has to be quickly recognized and not too detailed. Working with writers and showing them samples of ideas was the first process. Also, deciding how big it should be and what style and color palette.
Once that was decided, I hired a great sewer who I knew could make this quickly but still have the homemade look and feel of a real quilt. She and I worked around the clock, cutting out patterns and elements for the squares. We used some short cuts with embroidery, but mostly it is handmade.
We had to have a square that gets written on (made into a happy face) and later gets cut off the quilt. I chose a waffle as the square because that would be easiest for Amy to draw on and quickly look like a smiley face due to the round shape.
Jeanie Joe, my seamstress, sewed Velcro around the square and made six backup squares for us to replace on set for each take. It worked flawlessly.
One of the squares, Smallest Park [the place where Ben and Leslie decide to reunite and take their relationship public] — I was told that it would never read on camera. I beg to differ, and it’s my favorite square, even though we ran out of time and they are missing their feet.