A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Chicago’s Largest Prop House

Last year there were seven movies and 10 television series shot in Chicago, according to the Chicago Film Office. And one thing they all needed was props.

The city's largest vintage prop house is not open to the public, but Jay Shefsky takes us inside.  

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Jay Shefsky: Let’s say you need an old slot machine for your next movie. Or maybe 17 of them. Or a stuffed armadillo. Or a stop sign. Or just about anything “vintage” you can think of. You might want to stop by Zap Props in an old warehouse area on the west side of Bridgeport.

Bill Rawski, owner of Zap Props: My name is Bill Rawski and I'm the owner of Zap Props in Chicago. Not only do we rent out items for movies, TVs, events but we also decorate restaurants, do fabrication of different props for people.

Shefsky: Bill figures there’s more than a million items in this 36,000-square-foot warehouse. Carnival gear? Got it. Typewriters? Lots of them. Old mixers, movies lights, hair salon stuff. And Bill says sometimes having a lot of one item is important.

Rawski: Like if you needed 50 different whiskey barrels, like the scene in “The Road to Perdition” where the guy gets killed and the kid witnesses the killing. All those whiskey barrels came from us. That was almost like 80-100 whiskey barrels.

Rawski: Well, this is our phony neoclassical architecture, Greek items.

Jay:  And sharks.

Rawski: And sharks. You gotta have sharks.

Shefsky: Bill got into the business kind of by accident. His dad distributed jukeboxes and Bill started collecting and refurbishing them. Then he got a call from Hollywood. 

Rawski: Universal called us up for "A League of Their Own." We wound up renting them a jukebox and a game. I started finding out that there wasn't a lot of prop rental places in Chicago of any magnitude.

Shefsky: So Bill began collecting other things that might work as props. 

Rawski: When they started seeing what I was buying at the auction houses, they're looking at me like, "You’re crazy! That stuff won't sell! It's not antique!" But I had my own vision.

Shefsky: Sometimes, he says, people know exactly what they're looking for – like a wall full of old canned goods. Other times, as you roam around the surprisingly well-organized, three-story warehouse, you might find that a life-sized spaceman is what you need, or some old dentures or maybe a dozen globes. And if you're wondering where he gets all this stuff...

Rawski: Oh, that's always the big question. When we do a restaurant, when we decorate a restaurant and bring in all our antiques my buddy and I say, "how long until someone asks us that question, 'where do you get all this stuff?'"

Shefsky: The answer? Mostly flea markets and auctions. Bill says that the prop side of his business is actually not that profitable. Restaurant decorating is where the money is. Chains like Tilted Kilt, Giordano's and Fuddruckers have all bought Zap Props. 

 Bill's daughter Simone is in the business now. Today she's downstairs organizing old auto mechanic stuff. 

Shefsky: Simone, you grew up in this, right?

Simone, Rawski’s daughter: I did.

Shefsky: Tell me about that.

Simone: Before, this used to be a place we'd come and play. Now it's my life and I like to clean and organize it.

Shefsky: And that is music to Bill's ears.

Rawski: My son and daughter are going to take it over. It's their thing. They want to be in it and I know they'll continue and carry on doing what we've been doing. I think it's a real good thing to get it into the second generation. Plus, like I said it's a good service to Chicago too that we have a prop house like this that people can rent from.

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