Stock Leasing And Stock Companies
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE great old stock companies, like Daly's and Wallack's, have few surviving prototypes; and stock now commonly means the cheap companies, generally changing their bills every week.
Practically the whole matter of leasing plays for production in " stock " is subject to the more vital consideration of stock manager's requirements. Unlike some other managers, he is not ordinarily compelled to accept attractions he does not want; and, therefore, it is better, perhaps, to approach the subject from his point of view.
Not many years ago, before the advent of motion pictures, the stock company was the final refuge of a worn-out play, and in that friendly shelter it was apt long to remain. But times have changed, although it is said that Augustus Thomas is still drawing royalties from stock productions 0f " Alabama." For twenty years, I understand, he has received royalties from " Arizona."
The average stock company of to-day has for some time been on the wane with competition of cheaper and better amusements ; and the revenue is much reduced. Indeed, the filming of a play hurts stock value, for some local exhibitor is bound to book the " release " at the same time that it is done by the stock, benefit by all the stock advertising, and run it at ten or even five-cent prices, which the stock can by no means afford. The observation about modern stocks being on the wane does not reflect upon the repertoire house itself; it implies only that through sheer insufficiency of financial profit, the stock company, as the small city ordinarily knows it, is unable to achieve real distinction.
But the royalty charged for a drama placed on the stocks, after road seasons are over, is but a small item in the aggregate cost of operating any stock theater. The price runs, in the majority of cases, anywhere from $75 to $1,000 for a week's use of the manuscript and typewritten individual parts. There is no set figure, but it is quite often graded by " what the traffic will bear."
Where there are two stocks in a town, they almost invariably pay more for their releases than an organization with-out a rival, for two companies mean competition and greater demand for real attractions. However, the average price for a big metropolitan success originally produced the preceding or second preceding year, may be given as $500. David Belasco sometimes charges $500 and a ten per cent. share in the gross over a certain amount; but this is fair, because he does not make increased money unless the company profits, too. This is giving the company a fighting chance.
METROPOLITAN FAILURES IN STOCK
New stock releases are often late metropolitan failures, and may be rendered by resident companies within a few weeks after closing on Broadway. Even the Belasco production of " The Man Inside," by Roland B. Molineaux, was bulletined for stock soon after its initial New York engagement. " The New Sin," by B. Macdonald Hastings, after running but one disastrous week at old Wallack's, New York, became a popular stock bill, while " The House of a Thousand Candles," a dramatization by George Middleton, that met with little appreciation on Broadway, is making a small fortune in the humbler field. After failure, this latter play was on a broker's shelves for six months until some Western manager decided to try it. It broke his record for receipts, and from that time on, the play has never been idle.
" Lovers' Lane," " The Marriage of William Ashe," " Janice Meredith," and " The Crisis " are still active in stock. " The Lion and the Mouse," " The Squaw Man," " Paid in Full," and dozens of other successes that metropolitan theaters have forgotten, are being done, sometimes simultaneously, in a number of theaters. " The Man on the Box," " Strongheart," and " Brown of Harvard " thus remain paying attractions to this day.
MEETING DEMANDS FOR PLAYS
As seasons pass stock royalty is reduced, and so a play becomes available for cheaper and cheaper productions until it is worn out completely, unless it happens to be another " Uncle Tom's Cabin," " East Lynne," "'Way Down East," or " Two Orphans," or unless it receives first-class metropolitan revival, like " Arizona," or "Trilby," or " The Liars," or " Lady Windermere's Fan," 0r " The Truth," when the royalty goes soaring again with fresh public interest.
Producers having plays released, keep close watch upon these shifting conditions, for they mean great variance in demand. In printed bulletins, they inform stock managers of the pieces scheduled for production in given theaters over the country, and what other plays are coming, always listing proofs of their timeliness. Details of characters and settings are provided, too, for size and adaptability of cast and quantity of scenery are important items in weekly stock expenses.
Most of the leasing done is handled through large broking concerns. These make a specialty of such service to producing managers. Of them, the American Play Company and Sanger and Jordan are, perhaps, best known. The former has for its bulletin a fair-sized magazine called The Show Shop, while the latter firm has long issued the familiar Tip Folio, with its plots, its schedule for the immediately forthcoming week, and its earnest (withal ambitious) recommendations of good, paying bills.
The stock manager in the small town watches his public with quite as much trepidation as the Napoleonic producer of the metropolis. In large cities, stock patrons come from the neighborhood. They are mainly women and girls who prefer matinees. There, afternoon performances are the money-makers; business falls off at night. Or sometimes trade is good only on certain days, so matinees may be given every day throughout the week save Monday; or the " mat " days may be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Wednesday, for some good psychological reason yet to be determined, Thursday, and Saturday are generally the best " mat " days. In smaller places, where there are not many, if any, competing amusements, evening business is better, for there men attend, too. They come after their day's work is done, and their sweethearts, wives, and daughters wait to come with them. All these considerations have bearing on the possible vintage of plays.
To one mindful of tendencies in the theater, it is striking to note that the most successful plays in stock are melodramas and farces; the subtle things rarely carry, be-cause the director has no time to give to delicate staging, and because there is no room for other than sketchy work on the part of the harrassed actor. In all events, one generally finds the subtle play being discarded by the director, or whoever selects the forthcoming bill, as " talky," which means that it has not enough action. And he is right, because the objective is the most dramatic of play qualities.
The precise theme of a play, to become successful in stock, should conform, it seems, to the demands of " human interest." Heart-throbs are best. Plays of laughter and tears without compromise, are perennial in stock ; the bizarre or subtle pieces commonly fall flat. " Madame Sans Gene " plays to crowded houses, while " Peter Pan " and " The Servant in the House " usually fail.
COST OF OPERATION
Inquiring now into actual figures of operating the stock in a town of perhaps thirty thousand, one may do no better than to revert to the data prepared by William Parke, a former director for Richard Mansfield, who in 1912 undertook, with a guarantee of $5,000 a year to make up possible deficit, to open a stock at the Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, Mass. Pittsfield is a New England town, and New Englanders do not often take kindly to the playhouse; but Mr. Parke made good, a fact attested by expressed satisfaction of that group of leading citizens who owned the house.
Mr. Parke first pointed out that there is no city of thirty thousand where competition for a stock organization is lacking. In Pittsfield there were five other theaters, three playing vaudeville. And with competition, Mr. Parke said further, either the manager must lower the standard of his company or run the risk of annual deficit. With his guarantee Mr. Parke, of course, preferred to run the risk, but yet tried in every conceivable way to safeguard the investment.
Throughout the season his company comprised from twelve to fourteen persons. Four of them he paid weekly salaries of $100 or more, these being probably leads and players of " second business," or parts next in importance. The leading lady usually gets most because of her costume requirements; but in the East she gets less than in the West, where the modern stock company is better patronized, and where, indeed, it is an older institution. She may receive $125 in the East as opposed to $200 in the West. As Adolph Klauber has often said, the compensation is not high, for the labor is tremendous. " The average leading woman of an average stock company will play twelve new parts in as many weeks. That means memorizing from 1,200 to 2,000 pages of manuscript text averaging say 150 words per page, including cues, or an equivalent of 180,000 to 300,000 words."
The leading man probably receives $100 to $125. The second man and woman often are content with $75 each, the woman probably receiving a little more on account of her gowns, while the rest of the players on regular salary, get amounts ranging down to $35 and $40. No one in Mr. Parke's company received less than $25, save an occasional extra who may have gotten $10. Actors are willing to work for less when they are to be located in one place, for they may board in the vicinity at a monthly rate, or even set up light housekeeping. Aggregate salaries of Mr. Parke's organization came to about $700 per week.
As to royalties, Mr. Parke paid none on two plays in his season's schedule, " The Taming of the Shrew " and " The Rivals ; " but on the rest he never paid less than $75 apiece or more than $250, averaging $150. In a large city he would have had to pay more, perhaps $r,000 for one that here cost him his top figure. He opened the season with " Arms and the Man." The remainder of the year he played a series of popular pieces from which the following titles are taken as representative : " The Little Minister," " Are You a Mason?" " The House Next Door," " Wild-fire," "Fifty Miles from Boston," " Madame X," " David Harum," " Mrs. Temple's Telegram," " The House of a Thousand Candles," " The Man of the Hour," " Alias Jimmy Valentine," and one new play never before produced, " If You're Only Human," by Earl Derr Biggers. " The Rivals " and " The Taming of the Shrew " were purposely played one immediately after the other because the next week Mr. Parke planned to put on " Forty-five Minutes from Broadway," on which there was a royalty of $250 and an additional cost of $150 for a chorus. Yet, as a little illustration of stock patrons' likes and dislikes, he made more from the last than from either of the preceding two. This in contrast to the statement of John Craig, several seasons before, that his stock experience at the Castle Square in Boston, had convinced him that the public wants Shakespeare.
A matter of $100 per week covered scenery, because, for an outlay of about $1,000, Mr. Parke was able to purchase enough cloth and frames for the entire season, to be used over and over again. As the artist could be obtained for about $2,500 per season, and needed the assistance of only a low-salaried paint boy, the allowance was ample. Advertising cost him only about $75, which he spent mainly on billboards, with posters obtained from New York, for the semi-municipal character of the theater brought him newspaper advertising gratis. Lumping other expenses, office help, rent, printing, and so forth, brought the total to about $1,300 per week, which therefore was given as the real cost of a good stock.
Mr. Parke's maximum receipts averaged abut $1,350 at ten, twenty, and fifty cent prices—although capacity would have been $3,000 at the same rates. The first night's business generally was slow, and he had to make up his profits at the end of the week, and with Wednesday and Saturday matinees. During summer months he made money rapidly' in winter he frequently found loss—not easy to explain.
I have drawn my illustrations from the Pittsfield company mainly because I had their details convenient. The celebrated Northampton Theater, run along similar lines by Jessie Bonstelle and Bertram Harrison, I do not mean to ignore, because it has done much to raise the standard of good stock companies in America.
A stock company operated a few seasons ago at an amusement park in Maine by Bide Dudley, writer of the splendid theatrical column in the New York Evening World, in conjunction with Nat Royster, an advance agent, paid for its newspaper advertising, but secured its billing gratis. The theater was owned, with the rest of the amusement park, by the local traction company which made it a source of profit by running trolley excursions from outlying districts; and in the contract it was stipulated that cars running to and from the park, should carry advertising cards front and back.