Managers Begin Their Activities
( Originally Published 1916 )
IT is paradoxical that managers, the most undeniably commercial persons in the theater, generally conclude their worldly obligations as poor men, while stage artists, upon retirement, often rank as nabobs. Augustin Daly, Lester Wallack and A. M. Palmer, the three grand managerial figures of the " good old days " of the drama in this country, and Bronson Howard, the first native playwright of distinction, provide early cases in point, for the first three died comparatively poor and the last left a considerable estate. Without taking the circumstance as text for defense of commerce in the theater, it yet may help to illustrate the certainty that playhouse control by bread-and-butter standards is not necessarily a money-grabbing system.
In fact, the tendency in the theater seems ever and inevitably to be toward business organization; those who essay management with high ideals and altruistic intentions, arrive sooner or later, at merely some modification of accepted method. The actor, as a salaried artist, is free in advocating an untrammeled institution; but, as the responsible head of personal enterprise, he promptly becomes conservative like radical critics of government—stock speculators, for instance—elected to office.
" The commercial instinct has been found to be so much keener and more correct in its ability to gauge public taste than the more artistic judgment and experience 0f the actor," wrote A. M. Palmer January 3, 1896, in a private letter replying to some authoritative objections to contemporary theater management, " that the former everywhere has been substituted for the latter throughout America." And in this dictum may be found a summing-up of the attitude toward the theater which gives title to this book—or to the present adventures in playdom.
An indictment of this view seems constituted in those constant fluctuations in prosperity which characterize the business side of the theater. But these take place frequently because most men proceed into the business upon the untrained supposition that the whole thing is a gamble any-way, or because managers of ability, tried and true, grow negligent in press of work, and, having their better judgment biased by personal feeling, fall into the slough of bankruptcy.
Of course, play production at best ultimately depends upon that curious quantity known as public favor, which has swift, complex and generally unaccountable shifts; but it remains that more successes are achieved through careful marshaling of those known elements that go to make up plays, playhouses and playgoing, than through random " hunches."
Any way the manager is placed, he remains the hub of the entire scheme of activity, and so stands to win or lose more than any of his associates. Therefore, when a failure is heavy, he frequently totters on the verge of bankruptcy —or actually enters it, dragging minor associates, like players and mechanical workers, into the vortex. These may get not even carfare back home.
However, a roll of honor has been kept in America, of a few leading producers whose reverses have driven them temporarily to relief afforded by bankruptcy statutes, preferring to devote renewed effort to full payment of all creditors, and succeeding to the slightest obligation. Of this group, Harrison Grey Fiske is conspicuous. When it came to sale of assets, he threw his fine library and other private property of value into the balance with the holdings and equipment of his business, while his creditors rallied to his side as friends.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE PRODUCER
Inquiry into the process which evolves a successful manager, draws the conclusion that he has experienced dramatic inclination long before, and that his vicissitudes have covered big theatrical lessons from which he has had good sense to profit. Marc Klaw was dramatic editor of the Louisville Commercial, and Abraham L. Erlanger was in the box office of a Cleveland theater when they decided to combine for inception of the so-called Theatrical Syndicate; the Shuberts were ushers in theaters of Syracuse, N. Y., before beginning their business as haberdashers in that city, and subsequently their national careers as managers; William A. Brady early was known as a call boy in a San Francisco playhouse; and Oliver Morosco was chief assistant to his father, a celebrated acrobat in his day and founder of an early " one-to-two-bits " popular-price stock company in the Golden Gate city.
That Frederick Edward McKay started as manager through his marriage to Blanche Ring, is a mere high light in his career. He previously was an advance man for the Empire Theater Stock Company of New York, a staff writer on the Dramatic Mirror, on the New York World, and subsequently became dramatic editor of the Evening Mail in the same city. Similarly, Maurice Campbell was on the staff of the New York World before directing the stage appearances of his wife, Henrietta Crosman. George C. Tyler, one of the noted American producers, left the Mirror as an advance man for an obscure musical comedy company, and then directed the tour of Charles Coghlan in " The Royal Box," a venture which marked practically the beginning of the Liebler Company—Theodore Liebler having been a theatrical printer.
The Dramatic Mirror long has been a stamping ground for embryo dramatic celebrities because its early profits financed the first starring tours of Mrs. Minnie Maddern Fiske, and so established affiliation with the producing end of the game. Harrison Grey Fiske, distinguished as a producer and husband of this lady who now is known as the most intellectual actress in America, was for many years editor and proprietor of the weekly.
David Belasco toiled from an humble position as an actor, but from an acting family, and learned his lessons at the butt end of a vigorous experience. Winthrop Ames rose theatrically from traditions of the attic playhouse of his childhood and his father's ownership of the first Booth Theater, New York, to become, first, manager of a musical and dramatic stock organization at the Castle Square Theater in Boston, then chief executive of the New Theater, then director of his own Little Theater, and also manager of the new Booth Theater, which books outside attractions. Thus, his experience covers neighborhood, national, " intimate," and " commercial " institutions. It contributed much to an already remarkable education in matters theatrical that had included a post-graduate course at Harvard in history of the drama and allied subjects, and a twelve-month first-hand study of construction, equipment, plan, scope, and policy of the representative theaters of Germany, France, and England, and, of course, America.
There could be plays without the manager—but not so many; appointments probably would not be so lavish, and other workers would have to share his manifold duties. For, contrary to popular notion, he has other important functions beside depositing money in the bank. He really does bother, now and then, to produce plays.
Popular conception of a theatrical manager is so far from that of a busy man of affairs, that he is constantly besieged by trivial persons with imagined claims upon his time. William A. Brady once tabulated a list of such visitors and their purposes, covering a period of less than a week.
It remarked one who wanted him to prepare data for a lecture on the drama to be delivered by the applicant before a private dramatic club; another asked advice to his society on instituting a dramatic censorship; a third wanted $200 advance royalty on a relative's play, unread and unknown to fame; still another urged him personally to conduct a student body about the New York theaters to determine the extent of ticket speculation; a fourth solicited his membership in a society for the advancement of bill-board art; a fifth requested subscription of $100 to an organization for the reading of plays by unknown American dramatists; a sixth calmly stated he came for a 5,000-word article on " defects of our national dramatic tendencies " to be delivered by him next evening at a church sociable; and a seventh, who by no means concluded the list, came for financial support of a high-school dramatic club in a small Connecticut town.
The term manager is applied, like a whole thesaurus of other good words, a bit carelessly, and therefore fits manager and producer equally well. Indeed, preference inclines toward the latter sense, as the producer is the personage more in the public eye. He is the power; the manager is the executive.
Thus, America has producers of the magnitude of Klaw and Erlanger, the Shuberts, Winthrop Ames, David Belasco, the Charles Frohman Company, Charles Dillingham, the Selwyns, William A. Brady, Oliver Morosco, A. H. Woods, and Cohan and Harris, and others in a long list, all known as managers. And there is no quarrel with this application of the word, because authoritative usage is the standard of correctness, and, doubtless, there were managers long before it became necessary to coin the less familiar term. The distinction is drawn here only temporarily to define two estimable officers; in pages past, as in pages to come, there is many a lapse to the ordinary form and sense.
DIFFERENCES IN PRODUCING METHOD
Probably there is no detailed common agreement as to just what a producer is—save on the fact that he is the court of the last resort in all issues pertaining to his theater and attraction, before, of course, the ultimate decision of the theatergoing public. In nearly every in-stance, he is found undertaking particular duties, elsewhere entrusted to special workers.
Winthrop Ames personally directs production of all his attractions from first to last; David Belasco prefers to leave the preliminary rehearsals to a professional director, and then, with fresh perspective, attend to the final " whipping into shape; " Selwyn and Company is headed by a sort of triumvirate, in which Edgar Selwyn, excellent actor and author of " Rolling Stones," " The Country Boy" and " The Arab," guides the staging; Adolph Klauber, for many years dramatic editor of the New York Times, reads and selects plays and engages players—duties for which he is eminently fitted through critically having examined hundreds of plays and thousands of actor-folk over and over again on countless first nights, apart from having been an actor himself; and Archie Selwyn, manager of wide experience, attends to business details. One might supplement this with an amplified account of personal methods throughout the managerial rank and file; and the sum-total of all probably would be no nearer a satisfactory definition.
A producer may not be named even as the man who pays all the bills—assuming that all bills are to be paid—for frequently there enters into the plan a sort of silent partner who furnishes necessary funds. This factor is technically known as the " angel; " and angels here, in contradistinction to heavenly messengers, must be material above all things.
Sometimes they are authors determined on production of their plays, or, like Augustus Thomas with " The Witching Hour," so confident of success that they speculate for a share in receipts—and Thomas later, it is said, refused something like $100,000 for his fifty per cent. interest; they may be monied youths bent on making stars of their Totties Dimpletoe; husbands of stars, aiding personal schemes of success; rich investors seeking bonanzas, or wealthy citizens, like Otto H. Kahn, who, in the importation of the Serge de Diaghileff Ballet Russe, was ready, if called upon, to lose vast sums in the interest of Art.
In all likelihood, the producer passes on the cast; and probably he judges scenery too; but these results are generally specially achieved by subordinates. Consequently, the matters of casting and scene painting have been relegated to more pertinent places. Similarly, separate accounts have been provided of different divisions of theatrical work, because, while the producer may descend at times to share in the labor of his aides, he properly, in his capacity as producer, is a general whose duty is efficient organization, and whose instructions to his subordinates are to do; he leaving them, as trained workers, to find out how.
Therefore, the soubriquet, " Little Corporal of the Drama," originally applied to A. L. Erlanger by, I believe, Rennold Wolf, of the Morning Telegraph, was a singularly apt description of his office—as apt as David Belasco's adoption of Napoleon's emblem of the busy bee (as punning allusion to the initial of his surname), at the suggestion of Marie B. Schrader, lately the " Madame Critic " of the Dramatic Mirror, and then a special writer on the Washington Post.
So one must find the adventures recorded here pervaded by a sense of the producer's omnipresence—just as all columns of the great American newspapers of a bygone generation, were found bristling with ubiquitous personalities of their war-horse editors.