Last night, Showtime premiered Masters of Sex, a new hour-long drama set in the fifties about real-life sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. (I wrote the recap, which you can find here.) Their methods were unconventional — they eventually wired themselves up as sexual guinea pigs and participated in their own research — but their lengthy partnership resulted in the debunking of centuries worth of sexual superstitions. We spoke with prop master Jeffrey Johnson, a Hollywood veteran whose twenty years in the industry have spanned projects from Sweet Valley High to Parenthood, about tracking down the vintage machines that fill the show's hospital-room sets, building Ulysses (a transparent dildo with a magnifying glass on the end), and the inevitable comparisons to Mad Men.
So about Ulysses, is that something you can just buy online?
I was able to buy some vintage vibrators and dildos, but when you consider the time it takes to get the device sent to you and to discover if it works, it’s not practical. Also, when you send an e-mail and say you’re from a show called Masters of Sex, people are put off. My kids are in Little League and for a while I was sending e-mails to other parents that had the name of the show at the bottom. Now that the show’s out, they’ve been saying, “Oh, so that’s a TV show! Got it.”
For vintage sexual aides, the real problem is trying to find ones that look new. We made a lot of them ourselves. Ulysses was very complicated. It’s clear hard plastic with a light inside and it vibrates, though it has no reason to, since you can add that noise in postproduction. It was based on a real device they made in 1957. My manufacturing vendor, who’s the best in Hollywood, he was quite interested in what this show was about.
What kind of thought goes into making that type of prop?
At one point in a later episode, Masters demonstrates how to use a condom and the thing he unrolls it onto [a kind of green plastic dildo] was completely manufactured. It took a lot of time to figure out what diameter wouldn’t be offensive to a lady in a doctor’s office in 1957 — at that time, it was still against the law in many states for a married woman to even use birth control.
For a scene like that, do you need to procure special old-fashioned condoms or can you just use the ones sold today?
Oddly enough, condoms didn’t have reservoir tips in 1957, so you can’t just go to the drugstore and buy condoms with vintage appeal. But I found one collection that was beautifully maintained. Somebody had closed a drugstore and had fifteen small boxes of condoms that I was able to purchase.
Then I had to say to the director, “Here are the condoms and you can do ten takes, but I can’t guarantee they won’t break.” I actually don’t think any broke. As a prop guy, you get lucky sometimes. The stars align and you’re like “Thank God!” I was prepared to make them.
Was there a conscious effort to try to keep the show from resembling Mad Men too closely?
St. Louis in the late 1950s is such a different style. It’s the Midwest, a very conservative part of the country. We spent a lot of time researching that period. Though with certain items like [the Bakelite dildo], it was hard. They were so taboo it was hard to find research drawings. People didn’t even put them in writing. In another later show, there’s a diaphragm-sizing kit — it was incredibly difficult to find research about that.
How does one produce a retro diaphragm kit?
It turns out that to procure diaphragms without a prescription in 2013 is remarkably difficult. I was only able to get two from a manufacturer, then I borrowed a sizing kit from Planned Parenthood, built them all a little tray, and added labels. You can see in the show that the diaphragms I used actually all have holes in them. That’s because when I got the diaphragms from Planned Parenthood they said they put holes in the demonstration ones so nobody steals them! I was like, “Wow, that’s brilliant.”
What about the machines people get wired up to while having sex or masturbating, where did those come from?
I found a guy in New York that deals in vintage medical gear and through him was able to get EEG and EKG machines (one tracks heart rate, the other tracks brain waves). These are highly sensitive pieces of equipment from the forties, but the guy is a collector and his father was a cardiologist, so he was able to find these things and make them practical.
In those scenes, the people are hooked up to so many wires!
Most of the wires weren’t even connected to anything. They just run off camera. Then the machines were faked to spit out tape that had been preprinted on a different machine. When you need two working simultaneously it’s that much more difficult. Plus, one of the directors wanted them used on their sides and they’re old and temperamental, so when you do that there’s oil that drips — they would start to smoke. The technology is such that people who know how to make those machines work are sadly not around anymore. Nobody thinks to save technology. I did a movie about the nineties and even finding retro computers is difficult. Where do you find an old Apple?