It makes me shudder just to think about it.
Of all the tools available to an actor to help with the transformation into other characters, spirit gum, the horrid substance used to mostly attached false mustaches and hair to the face, is the most loathsome.
Chaplin suffered it every time he played The Tramp. Groucho Marx, however, avoided the horror of spirit gum, and carried his trademark mustache over to film from vaudeville by painting his on. Yes, even in the movies. In close-ups. Somehow we buy the grease painted 'stache in the Marx Brothers universe. Odd to see Groucho sport real nose bristles later in his life...
WHAT IS IT? AND HOW CAN I AVOID IT.
Spirit Gum, to the best of my knowledge, was invented, as we know it, use it and loathe it today, around 1895. It's a vile compound of ether (the spirit) and resin (the gum), that works as a temporary glue and is applied to the face to attach lace mustaches, beards, hair and prosthetic make-up appliances. Rubber appliances are things that add and change the facial features; think Bert Lahr's nose in The Wizard of Oz or Roddy McDowell's ape face for Planet of the Apes.
There are other adhesives used nowadays to apply facial prosthetic make-ups, but spirit gum is still in everybody's kit.
The first brand I ever used was made by Zauder Brothers, when I first experimented with stage make-up around the time I was ten years old or so. Prior to that, my dad once painted a mustache on me for Halloween one year for my cowboy costume, using water colors (when I was three or four) and I painted on a Groucho a couple of Halloweens later myself, using something from my mom's make-up table. Maybe mascara. I can't remember.
The Zauder's spirit gum was pungent, and burned slightly as it dried. That's my first memory, and the one that always haunts my sense-memory banks, regardless of how many times I've used spirit gum over the years, and it's been hundreds since those first experiments applying crepe wool hair to my tender young skin. To me, it just smelled bad, and made my eyes water slightly. Today, after a century of only limited brands like Zauder's and Stein's, there are other mixtures from companies like Mehron that smell better; but the essential properties of the stuff are the same.
I hate the stuff so much (but also chose to use it for characters so much) that there is an alarming trend that I've had to watch out for when doing a long run of a play. In the dress rehearsals I've always left enough time to prepare myself and the make-up so I'm not rushed and panicked before the first entrance. But as the run of a play progresses, I have found that, dreading the application of the spirit gum, I put off starting the make-up later and later (staring in the mirror at my upper lip), dangerously close to needing to be on stage. Not a good thing. But I've never missed an entrance because I wasn't mustachioed-up and ready!
The only way to avoid the stuff, professionally or at Halloween, is to grow the real thing. Or go the Woody Allen route in Bananas and slip a beard with wire hooks over your ears. But that's easier said than done. And not very realistic, unless realism isn't the desired effect.
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
First, a word to men. (Being male, I speak from experience, so we'll start there. Also, it's usually men who have to glue stuff to their upper lips...)
Shave the night before. I can't stress this enough. Unless the skin of your upper lip and below the nostrils is as tough as an old dried ostrich skin wallet, shave early. You can get away with a lot on stage, and a wee bit of stubble won't be seen. I've made the mistake of shaving just before I've had to glue a mustache on, and it's uncomfortable and sometimes burns. So shave many hours before, if possible, and let your skin "heal" a bit before applying spirit gum.
For women, be particularly careful around areas with fine hair, especially the jaw line. Spirit gum is best removed with spirit gum remover (made by all the same manufacturers that make spirit gum), and it will dissolve with soap and water and regular make-up remover, but still and all, be careful about certain hirsute areas. Perhaps this is more important when using liquid latex on a woman's face, but one nasty substance at a time. On with more fun with spirit gum...
Removal of the false hair and spirit gum. Getting a tad ahead of myself, but NEVER just rip off your mustache. As funny as that is in the movies, it will tear and damage your skin. And you don't want to do that especially if you have to re-apply the mustache the next night, for the next performance. If applied correctly, a mustache will stay on for some time and withstand rigorous facial movement. Always work a little spirit gum remover under a loose edge of the mustache, and gently work it away from the skin. Treat the skin, after washing gently, with a good moisturizer.
Applying the mustache, beard or false hair. I won't go into preparing wool crepe hair for making beards and mustaches, that's a whole other ball of hair--er--wax, but simply the application of the spirit gum. Frustration often comes from applying the adhesive right out of the bottle with a swab or two on the lip and finding the mustache then won't stick at all, while one's fingers get stickier and stickier, worse than a maple syrup-covered flap jack eating contest winner. Take your time.
If you're applying a base make-up, try to leave the area you'll glue the mustache to clean. (It will help make attachment easier, and with a lace hair piece, keep the lace clean).
First, the brush. The small bottles of spirit gum often come with a little brush attached to the inside of the bottle cap. I like to use a better, wider brush with a longer handle (from the art supply store) to apply the spirit gum. Open the bottle and, in a plastic or small glass dish (a petri dish is perfect) pour out a small amount. This lets the gum begin to breathe. Then with the brush, paint a layer of the gum only on the area of the skin the loose hair (or lace, if your using a good lace piece, store bought or specially made) will touch. Let this breathe a few moments.
I often fan the wet spirit gum (usually with the program of the play I'm doing--a superstition, but I digress). This "airing" action helps make the gum sticky. I tap that wet gum with the brush slightly. If you can see the "stickiness" of the gum pull away slightly, and feel the pull, then apply a second coat. Repeat the "airing" fanning.
The gum should be nice and sticky. If I can help it, I never touch the gum with my finger tips, as that creates problems touching other materials. Take the hair piece and then carefully put it in position, and press gently. It should stay in place long enough for you to then take a lint less towel, and press firmly and strongly. The mustache or hair piece should be left alone for several moments letting the gum really grab hold. Repeat pressing into the skin with the towel until you feel it's good and stuck.
Oh, and if, like me, you can't stand the smell of the stuff, breathe through your mouth during the entire gluing ordeal. You won't be "stung" by the ether, and your eyes won't water...
It'll feel warm as the resin is activated and becomes "gummy". I've found that after a few moments, and the warmth passes, it feels better and somewhat comfortable.
Wearing the fake mustache. There's always a strange glass-eyed, uncomfortable look that comes over a persons face as this foul stuff is applied and the unnatural caterpillar of a mustache is worn. Getting used to a fake mustache comes from only two things. The first is using it enough times that one can start to actually forget one is wearing it and it becomes second nature, and the second (which helps with the first point) is trust. You simply have to trust that it will stay on your lip and you must force yourself, at first anyway, to speak, move and make facial movements as you would normally do. Simply by wearing one enough (and as early in dress rehearsals as possible) you'll soon forget about it in the heat of battle. I mean, on stage.
The most important thing is to not allow yourself to freeze your upper lip, and impede your speech, or give your face a stiff, funny look. Wear the mustache. Don't let the mustache wear you.
In case of emergency--what to do if it comes loose or, god forbid, OFF during performance. Well, you're on your own.
Knock wood, but that's never happened to me yet on stage, in front of an audience.
Clean up's a breeze. If it's a lace mustache you're using, always clean the lace with spirit gum remover after you take it off. Don't procrastinate and put off the cleaning of the lace, no matter how anxious you are to hit the bar after the show. Otherwise the lace will get gunked by the gum, and won't look as realistic. I use an old soft tooth brush, dip it in the remover, and carefully work the remover into the gum and fleck it away, over a paper towel. Let the piece air dry. Then, hit the bar and have a drink. You're done.
Photo (above): Mark Redfield with every inch of his head spirit gummed and liquid latexed as the Chinese character "Chaing" in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2002). Make-up designed, sculpted and applied by Robert Yoho.