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General Managers

( Originally Published 1916 )



THE number of workers employed in a theater is deter-mined mainly by one or another or all of three considerations : finances, size of the institution, and nature of production. Members of the personnel tend to specialize only when all other things are in due proportion.

Repertoire naturally requires more services than the single " long run " production with a company of exactly the same number of players, and the opera reasonably calls for a longer salary list than the " intimate " theater. There-fore, it is rare indeed to find members of a theater staff each of whom specializes in just one department. This is generally excepting those who are governed by union or association rules.

Producers are frequently their own general managers and stage directors, as Arthur Hopkins, producer of " The Poor Little Rich Girl " and other plays; general managers are often press representatives, too, as Edwin A. Weil, nephew of A. R. Cazauran, was for H. H. Frazee prior to his own embarkation as a producer, and as James Shesgreen was for Margaret Anglin; or a press representative may be playreader in addition, as Samuel Hoffenstein, quondam dramatic editor of the New York Evening Sun, became for A. H. Woods.

As his title implies, the general manager is in charge of all theatrical business affairs of the producer. These include leasing the theater—assuming the producer is to have one of his own—rentals, overhead expenses, initial outlay for scenery, properties, costumes, and so forth; contracts with authors, actors, and so on; engagement or dismissal of workers; conformation to workmen's, building, and fire laws; exclusion of undesirables; obviation of nuisances; stock leasing and routing, and exercise of power of attorney in business agreements. Business departments of the theater are loosely known as the " front of the house," probably because auditing is done in the box office.

Usually the general manager is relieved of the burden of bookkeeping by an auditor; if the matters of stock leasing and routing have developed into large issues, as with A. H. Woods, whose list of plays available for stock production is remarkably long, and whose road companies at times number in excess of thirty, a department may be instituted and a special officer placed in charge. In the case of Woods that man is Victor Leighton, the former Woods press representative and a worker of marked efficiency, with physical and economic conditions of literally hundreds of long-run, week and night-stand theaters at his fingertips. Mr. Leighton's position and thoroughness make him one of the best informed men on the immediate theatrical situation in America.

SOME EXPENSES OF PRODUCTION

In summarizing the various expenses incurred in making a production, one may but reiterate the statements made by George C. Jenks in the Theater Magazine some few seasons ago. Mr. Jenks, equipped with intimate knowledge of his subject, prepared a table showing approximate costs of an average three-act drama with three settings and a cast of seven to ten persons before the curtain rises on the first performance. This table follows:

Author's advance royalty 500
Cast (advance) 300
Scenery 1,500
Printing (paid) 1,000
Properties 200
Rehearsal hall 100
Working force 600
Stage director or "producer" 500
Billposting 50
Newspaper advertising 1,000
Sundries (not named) 5,000
$6,750

An accompanying explanation details accumulation of these items. The cast is engaged, a process of elimination covering rarely less than two weeks, and involving dead-locks over salaries. The salary list of a first-class company of seven to ten persons runs from $1,200 to $2,000 per week. The advance is given because most of the persons engaged need money with which to purchase wardrobes and so forth. Three settings will appear on the scenic artist's bill as at least $500 each. The stage director's fee will come to about $500 for four or five weeks' service, or more if his reputation is great. Then with inauguration of rehearsals begin wages of the working force—carpenter, electrician, property man, and their assistants—adding about $150 per week to preliminary expenses. At dress rehearsals the stage hands get about sixty-eight cents an hour, with double pay at special hours and on Sundays. At performance the rate is about " $2 per show," or fifty-six cents an hour.

It must be remembered that these costs represent outlay before the curtain rises on the first public performance, and that the customary out-of-town " tryout " in the United States, swells the total to much more because this is anticipated generally as serious if not total financial loss. The gain comes in constant revision of the production. Pro-vision is made, indeed, for possible loss during the first two weeks after the metropolitan premiere, for many a dubious play has achieved success after this crucial time. It takes that long for the public to get acquainted.

There always is a salvage of some sort from a failure, or even from a production that has worn its life out on the road. Scenery may be repainted, or frames recovered with canvas, and the properties disposed in new arrangements, while skilful dressmakers or wardrobe mistresses (there is a remarkable wardrobe mistress on the staff of Margaret Anglin) may furbish up the costumes. Therefore, a manager who has been in the business long enough to present two consecutive attractions, probably makes his second production at much less expense approximately than his first.

THEATER LEASES

Leasing the theater—quite different from booking it—is a comparatively simple matter. The document which records the transaction, is in nature not unlike the lease marking the transfer of any other bit of real estate. It particularizes the purposes to which the structure is to be put—sometimes even confining it to one type of attraction—and rounds it out with customary legal phraseology.

Rent is claimed for usually forty weeks in the year, this presumed to cover the period of the theatrical season; and in this clause is found the reason so many attractions are able to subsist on moderate business until late in the summer, and why so many others are begun while the weather remains warm. Not paying the landlord is a material reduction of expense, for yearly rental of theaters in large cities, runs staggeringly far into the thousands. To be sure, an owner of theatrical real estate is careful to compute his earnings during the paying period so as to recompense him amply for the time the house is technically closed —in professional jargon, " Playing ` A Bunch of Keys,' or a new play called ` Darkness.' "

A theater lease usually is for a long term—twenty-one to ninety-nine years—so it almost implies ownership. Some-times the manager enters into the agreement because the playhouse has been erected by the owner solely in consideration of his becoming its tenant; again, a desirable site in a playgoing center may not be for sale. It is this latter handicap that restrains so many managers in New York's theater district. Property is held largely by the Astor estates ( John Jacob and William Waldorf) ; and the policy which has obtained for years is not to sell.

THEATER SITES

Success of a play is not dependent altogether upon site of its theater. The public will throng to an out-of-the-way playhouse to hear Arnold Daly in " Candida " as the maiden American offering of the struggling Shaw, or to see the Washington Square Players disseminating propaganda of the " new movement." But site may be a contributory factor of success. If the offering chances to be merely " just-as-good," accessibility will help much to determine its patronage. See, for illustration, the subscription lists of neighborhood stock or one-week houses. Producers in search of sites upon which to build their theaters bear these facts in mind.

In the first place, a theater, while desired by many residents in a locality, may not be welcomed at all by owners of adjacent property. Primarily, it raises their insurance rate. Next, it is in bad repute with most merchants of other things than beverages, confectionery, and cheap novel-ties, because it occupies considerable space, and, for the greater part of the business day, maintains a blank and deserted exterior.

Its performances are so gauged that they allow patrons little more than time to arrive and time to depart, while the traffic at such periods surges by the nearby store windows, hiding display and making doors inaccessible to regular shoppers. Then, where there are but two or three matinees a week, chances of possible trade with theatergoers is comparatively slim, while evening performance comes when most shopkeepers have switched off their lights and called it another day—perhaps, in the ironical scheme of things, even gone to the theater themselves. All this is very galling to admit in contemplating a plan of unalloyed public betterment through institution of a theater, but, after all, if one is willing to regard the theater as a business, active in commercial competition, survival of the fittest there becomes an admirable policy.

One sop of satisfaction to adjoining property holders comes in the circumstance that higher real estate valuations by the front foot have led the architect to keep his theater auditorium and stage to the rear, and the lobby to the front as a narrow passage flanked by rent-paying stores. So the front area of the theater proper, being smaller, is not nearly so drear, although the lobby, not being as spacious as formerly, compels the management (now and then) to form its lines to the box office out on the sidewalk.

To this one may oppose pictures of magnificent facades of the theaters of Continental Europe; but from the shop-keeper's viewpoint—which I am not assuming by any means —no unendowed tradesman would esteem it an advantage to be set up in business beside the long, imposing front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This suggestion can work no mischief, because that New York institution is situated in a park, with no likelihood of the hypothesis ever being substantiated in fact. And, indeed, managers themselves are not inclined to have their theaters beside blanker spaces, like churches, public parks, or schools.

THEATER POLICIES

In the course of events, the general manager is confronted by opportunities to rent the theater while not in use for rehearsals or the regular attractions—mornings, or afternoons when there is no matinee. And, naturally, he here finds a way to pay something off on the rent, and to aid in carrying out the usual aim of making ten per cent. on the house investment in ten years. However, he has to avoid conflict with the specific policy of the house.

This means not the policy dictated by the lease, but that established or intended by the producer. For instance, A. G. Delamater has won some attention of late seasons by billing himself as the " producer of clean plays," and, when having a theater of his own, would not want, of course, to have even a single performance of an outside play the moral appeal of which is open to question. Lectures, recitals, and most benefits are generally acceptable for brief special rentals; but other plays are sometimes regarded as cases of the manager blunting his chances and confusing his public by competing with himself in his own house. Even when the notices specify no interference with the current attraction, the situation is liable to be misconstrued.

The commoner interpretation of the term policy, as applied to theaters, primarily has to do with mere types of attraction. A theater may be a " stock " house, implying weekly change of bill constituted by outworn road or metropolitan attractions, with a resident company of players. This may be musical stock, " dramatic " stock, or both. The repertory theater also has a standing company, but attempts new or individual productions, which, if successful financially or artistically, may be kept on " in repertoire " for occasional revival.

A repertory theater is generally regarded as an ideal form. It is commonest in Europe, where it often enjoys civic or court subsidy; but America boasts of a few important repertory organizations on tour, such as that of Margaret Anglin.

A " one-week " or " week-stand " house is a theater used for week engagements of traveling organizations. A " night-stand " or " jump " explains itself. There appears to be no generic term to indicate a metropolitan theater that produces its own play and presents it for an indefinite series of performances, or that books a success originally produced elsewhere, for a " run." Fundamentally, this theater is precisely like the night and week stands ; it sustains a longer engagement because its situation gives it a larger drawing population.

A policy of any kind is not established readily. The manager may aim for one policy at first, only to have it substantially changed through economic and other demands. Grand opera and burlesque may flourish side and side in a factory town where " problem " plays would unravel to empty benches; a program of one-act plays may come to grief in the vicinity of an amusement park, and a lurid melodrama of full evening's length, win plaudits of thou-sands on the same stage.

Or the usual situation may be entirely reversed. Dainty " Prunella," with the most beautiful mounting in a generation, had dwindling patronage in a Boston theater because next door were the more glittering allurements of " The Queen of the Movies." The policy may change with the rising of the moon, or, more truly, with the passing of the hour. The New Theater, so enthusiastically begun in New York, was compelled to close its doors as such more because of an unattainable policy, a new play every three weeks, than because of the popular notion that it was ill-constructed for its peculiar end.

In Continental Europe there are other classifications of theater, beyond the ordinary commercial or " garden " variety, either entirely unknown here or rarely familiar. These are the " court " theaters, maintained by nobility, and defraying a fraction of their expenses in occasionally admitting the public at slight fees, and the state, civic, or municipal theaters variously endowed.

MINOR DUTIES OF GENERAL MANAGERS

A sort of tacit agreement exists between managers to use one another's theaters, when needed and available, for rehearsals, the only provisos being that properties, or movable objects used in productions, like chairs, tables, and so forth, are to be furnished by the visitor, and any other incidental expenses, such as extra lighting, defrayed. Under such circumstances I have seen in a New York theater, as one of an audience of perhaps ten persons, a fairly complete presentation of a play which was to have its " first performance on any stage " in Chicago. A distinguished and very considerable audience of managers and stars, witnessed the dress rehearsal of " The Eternal Magdalene," in which Julia Arthur returned to the stage, at the Forty-eighth Street Theater, New York, the afternoon of the day before its " initial presentation " at Wilmington, Delaware, October 22, 1915.

The rehearsal arrangement is a slight saving in the expense of mounting a production, as, failing permission to use a stage without charge, a producer is compelled to hire some neighboring gymnasium, roller-skating rink, dance, or so-called " rehearsal " hall, according to his requirements. These needs may include necessity for simultaneous drilling of chorus and principals in separate rooms, or mere quiet direction of a tiny group. The usual charge for such a hall is about $25 per week.

Not a few of the general manager's duties have to do with federal, state, and civic laws in contradistinction to union rules, which in the theater, amount to intricate regulation. Highly important is the workmen's compensation act; but, as this is substantially the same in the theater as elsewhere, details are omitted. Then comes the income tax, which again is general in its application. Yet, it may be noted that not a little confusion has arisen through difficulty of collecting the tax from actors who hold a great many positions of varying remuneration during the year, and the circumstance that the manager is liable in a measure for his employees' non-payment. This is ignoring the detailed regulation concerning alien actors, of whom there are many in the United States.

Local laws have mainly to do with safeguarding human life; and accident and fire insurances here supplement structural precautions, of which some account has already been given, with more to follow.

Then there are licenses theaters are compelled t0 secure. In large cities the fee per theater runs into several hundreds of dollars; and if the season has but one day to run into another legal year, that fee must be paid again for a new permit. In 1915 the end of the New York legal theatrical year came on Friday, May 31st. Some theaters closed for the summer on that day rather than pay so much for the sake of finishing the week. Several others paid for the extra day on the ground that the license would be good in the autumn when they opened again.

Obviation of nuisances may have to do with chasing from the street a crowd of urchins whose noise at play outside the theater, distracts the audience within; it may be politic handling of a contractor, whose excavation to repair a main interferes with the carriage service; it may have to do with ticket speculators, whose leather-lunged obnoxiousness must be overcome.

Another thing : The producer, as a theater owner or lessee, is a responsible person and consequently must be guarded at all points against civil action. The man who rips his coat on a tin sign fastened to the lamp-post outside, may not get his $45 demand for a new garment, but he may get $5 to hush his complaint and release the manager from liability. That curled-up corner of the foyer rug, or that break in the sidewalk which threatens to trip the unwary person, must be remedied before the manager suffers the consequences.

An attempt of a thrifty manager to furbish up his faded carpet with aniline dye, a few seasons ago, resulted in the ruin of at least one evening gown that trailed over it; and he had to pay for that and for the dry cleaning of several others. That explains the managerial anxiety caused by newly varnished seats on a midsummer night. Probably every scheme ever devised to make a manager liable was put into practise at the former New Theater, for the large circle of millionaire founders and directors constituted a possible liability that would have made an injured person independent for life.

These many considerations compel the general manager to be a sort of compendium of useful knowledge; and they explain, too, much of the respect accorded such men as John Brown, business comptroller of the Metropolitan Opera House; John D. Williams, formerly manager for Charles Frohman; Benjamin F. Roeder, general manager for David Belasco, and Edward E. Lyons, general manager for Winthrop Ames. So encyclopaedic and thorough is the astuteness of the last-named that he was taken from the manager's post at Daly's Theater, New York, to be made house manager of the New Theater ; and to his good will and unfailing observation I am indebted for much accurate judgment, and a fund of specific examples from commercial, technical, and literary phases of the playhouse.



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