General Press Representatives
( Originally Published 1916 )
THE person in charge of the general publicity work is the general press representative. Under him may be divers other agents out on the road ahead of touring attractions controlled by the same management, or even in the very city where the general press representative has his head-quarters, each promoting publicity for one or more of several plays sponsored by the firm.
Competition between press representatives for newspaper space has made newspaper appeal the bulk of office routine; and that routine has become so elaborate that it has left little room for initiative beyond.
Beginning at the beginning, probably the first announcement to be made to the papers is that a play, by So-and-So, has been accepted. This may seem a meager bit of information; but the press agent, figuring by the likelihood that he will have to secure fresh publicity for the attraction for an entire season or more, husbands his material so as to disclose but one fact at a time. The title of the play, then, becomes a separate item for publication another day.
In some offices, the aim is to supply a new story every day in the week. A " story," in the newspaper sense, is anything intended for publication, from a line to a page or more of material. Other offices contend that editors resent being " flooded " with bales of " copy," and give out no statements to the press save those sought by re-porters or absolutely imperative to public understanding.
Julian Johns0n, at present editor of Photoplay Magazine, was exponent of the former idea when press representative to Comstock and Gest at the Princess Theater, New York, several seasons ago, and wrote an almost unbelievable amount of matter about his management and their attractions. Of the latter, John D. Williams, before becoming a producer on his own account, and as author then of practically all the important special articles and. announcements issued by the Charles Frohman Company, probably stands foremost.
Acceptance of a play and its title having become separate items, the press representative finds other details in painting of scenery, gathering of properties, and engaging the cast, with individual names of leading players as distinct notes, and unimportant names grouped by twos and threes. Beginning of rehearsals is another point; so is composition or arrangement of incidental music; so are any interesting incidents at rehearsal, or in the daily lives of any important persons concerned. Date of opening is a big point, and date of beginning seat sale is bound to be printed here and there.
REGULAR ADVANCE NOTICES
About a week before the opening—assuming that there is to be no out-of-town tryout, and that the engagement is likely to be unlimited, or, at any rate, of several weeks' duration—the metropolitan agent prepares opening notices for publication the Saturday and Sunday preceding the first performance, these being the days when display space is usually given to theatrical affairs. In cities like New York and Chicago, these notices may be duplicated for all papers; in smaller places, each must be written afresh, although embodying the same material.
Ordinarily, they must reach the dramatic editor before noon on Wednesday, Thursday morning being last call. This is the time when Saturday and Sunday pages are made up, with " layout " of pictures and quantities of text. And, naturally, early applicants get preferred positions, unless the late offering is of sufficient importance to displace them.
This is also about the time that advertising begins; but details of that will be considered later. It also is the time to prepare copy for signs before the theater, at either side of the entrance, and that beside the box office window, which holds the scale of prices, and for the electric sign, if there is any, and for the program. The hand-painted signs are generally attended to by some local artist who charges a certain rate per letter, and merely fits new boards in the frames after removing the old.
Program copy is sent to the printer in time for him to submit proof for correction. In New York, fire laws compel the manager to head his programs with admonitions to the audience on how to act in case of fire, to locate exits, by comparison with the theater diagram at back of the program, and walk, not run, to the nearest.
The text copy for the opening notice, covers from one to one and one-half typewritten pages. At the top, at left, it says, " From John Jones, General Press Representative to George Blank," assuming that Blank is a well-known producer. Otherwise, the office address and telephone number may follow. At top, at right, it says, " Released for Saturday and Sunday, January 5-6 "—or whatever the dates may be. Room is left then for the editor to write in his own headline—although a striking suggestion now and then by way of a tentative " head " may not be amiss, provided room is left for another should it prove inadequate—and the story is begun.
It proclaims that George Blank will present a new play by Henry Dash at This-or-That Theater on such-and-such an evening. The play, it continues, details the story of a man who, returning from an auto trip, discovers his wife in the arms of another. She calmly announces that in the stranger she has found an affinity to whom he must yield place, granting her divorce that the newer union may be consummated. Finding himself powerless to prevent, the husband arranges divorce, but plans to compel the co-respondent to marry the woman—which the interloper had not intended doing. The outcome is said to be a thrilling sequence of scenes, offering a possible solution of a life problem to persons unhappily married. The cast is headed by So-and-So, and includes the following players. The first matinee will be given Wednesday afternoon.
Many editors decline to carry more than this routine matter in their columns until the play has had its opening performance and has demonstrated that it is likely to re-main. Later, however, they welcome anything printable. This is an inflexible rule of Alexander Woollcott, dramatic editor of the New York Times.
A sort of tacit understanding exists between editors of illustrated newspapers and publicity men, that a picture pertaining to the new attraction will be printed the Saturday or Sunday before the opening, and another the morning or afternoon following the first performance, to supplement the review. As the first set of pictures are required usually before the first dress rehearsal, when flashlights of the characters and scenes are made, the agent commonly pre-pares the set for distribution from the quantity of personal and individual portraits he has solicited from the several members of the company, or has had taken at some neighboring studio. Effort is made to avoid duplication, for each paper prefers to have its material exclusive. Text may be rewritten by the editor, but not much may be done to disguise pictures.
Perhaps Sunday afternoon preceding the opening, which is scheduled for Monday evening, a dress rehearsal is held, and flashlights are taken of characters and scenes in the play. Dispatch is necessary, mainly because the stage hands, waiting for the photographer to complete his work before " striking " the scene, are being paid for all time on duty, whether active or not.
At conclusion of each act, the photographer, with a couple of assistants, erects his heavy tripod in the auditorium at about the middle of the eighth or tenth row of the orchestra, so as to give his camera proper range for comprehension of the entire stage. Then, in swift succession, by instructions from the producer or stage director, the actors arrange themselves in poses from the preceding action.
First a " record " of the scene itself is made, without any characters upon it. This will be useful later to the stage carpenter and property man as a guide, and to the stock company director in the dim future in duplicating the original setting.
All pictures of individuals and groups are made to show the figures as large and as close together as possible, for newspaper pictures, like newspaper text, must make every bit of space count. From the press agent's point of view, photographs of large groups are not generally worth the paper they are printed on. They are usually full of superfluous detail; and the important figures are so small that they are utterly lost in reproduction.
Usually from twenty to thirty flashlights are taken at rehearsal. However, " Anatol " had but about ten, while " Town Topics," produced by Ned Wayburn at the Century Theater, New York, in 1915, had more than three hundred. The usual price is four dollars per plate, six sets of prints being included in the amount. This does not mean necessarily six prints of each picture, but a total of prints on the whole order, equaling six sets. An active press department soon exhausts six sets, and then additional prints are delivered to the manager at a special rate of forty cents each. It is not expected that the six sets will be delivered immediately, but the number is soon made up by repeated orders.
DELIVERING THE STORY
Mention has been made of sending stories to editors with-out description of the magic process. The box of tricks is incorporated in a boy or young man, usually assistant to the press representative, who inserts in envelopes addressed to the various dramatic editors, stories and pictures to be submitted, and leaves them in person at the respective editorial rooms. He may show an assortment of pictures to the editor, who thereupon selects what he is likely to use. But the story is left on the editor's desk, or with the boy in the outer office, or thrust in the editor's compartment of the mail box.
The daily story is usually sent out in time for the boy to cover the route between 4: 30 and 7 P. M. Comfortably to make the rounds of the eighteen or so leading New York dailies takes about two hours. The less important local papers, and those issued weekly and monthly, receive their stories by mail. Editors of both morning and evening papers are usually to be found in their offices around 5 P. M., remaining there until 6 or thereabouts, although the former commonly arrive at their offices around midday, and happen in and out on no particular system throughout the afternoon. These editorial habits seem the rule in news-paper offices the country over. And the observation is found useful by the agent when he takes to the road.
FIRST AND SECOND NIGHT LISTS
The day of the opening usually sees in the papers in " theatrical notes," a brief announcement that the given manager will hold the premiere of a certain new play at some theater tonight, the principal part to be taken by this or that star.
It may be during the course of this very day that the dramatic editor receives his two complimentary tickets for this performance. When possible, he should receive them not less than three days prior to the opening, for previous engagements may interfere with his coming, in which case he should have time in which to return the coupons. Incidentally, the critic's eleventh-hour worry that the management has neglected him is not conducive to his indulgence during the performance should things go wrong.
Sending tickets to the New York critics involves the taking of rarely less than 180 from the box office. These are for the first and second nights, the second night reservations for critics not compelled to write immediate reviews, their publications being generally weeklies or monthlies. Some deviations from this rule exist. Editors of the more important weeklies and monthlies are frequently represented in the first night crowd.
Seats are carefully arranged by the theater diagram, each critic being made as comfortable as possible. One is far-sighted; he is placed at appropriate distance from the stage. Another is near-sighted; another cannot hear well; a fourth must be seated on an aisle because he suffers from fainting spells, and must be able to get out into the air quickly. And so on. Because this adjustment is necessary to the critics' satisfaction, each has the same seat at every first night in the same theater. Dramatic editors of the big dailies are perforce given the best locations, and practically all on aisles. Therefore, on a New York first night, one may see in a couple of rows from front to back, practically all of the city's critical experts.
It would be quite possible to seat both first and second night reviewers in one theater on the same evening, but the critical body, even when scattered, is already sufficiently large to dampen enthusiasm of the actors, who are nervous under survey, while its members rarely applaud for the natural reason, among others, that the press agent may see them and record that fact in his advertising. It is not s0 many seasons ago that the billboards cried forth the information that a certain popular melodrama " Made Alan Dale cry ! "
The list prepared for both nights by the New York press agent, and approved by the producer who has a list of his own composed of names of friends and prominent persons likely to wield influence, is given to the theater treasurer. He pulls the needed tickets from the rack, receives the press agent's receipt, and the tickets are mailed, or delivered by messenger.
On both first and second nights, the press agent is on hand about the theater, prepared to minister in every way to the comfort of reviewers. This critic may have brought with him a friend who must be given a seat even if there is danger of violating the fire law by placing him in a chair in the aisle; or newspaper men who are not reviewers, but society reporters, perhaps, getting lists of who's who in the audience, and who must be passed in as standees. Or some busy critic may be annoyed because the curtain does not rise at the time scheduled in the ads.—first-night performances usually are delayed, mainly because the chatty much-acquainted audience is so long getting seated—the " bulldog " or first edition of his paper requiring his review before the play will be over; and he must be palliated.
As a press agent I always tried earnestly to get reviews in that bulldog edition, because it usually stands for the suburban circulation, rushed out to be on the newsstands and read by the commuter coming in on the morning train.
MAKING TIME FOR THE CRITICS
It is important that the performance conclude by I I P. M., or there is little chance of getting extended reviews. Ordinarily the critic must dash madly to his office, record his impression, and get it on the linotype machines before 1 A. M.
When George C. Tyler, as head of the Liebler Company, produced " The New Sin " at Wallack's Theater, New York, he made time for the critics to write adequate reviews by giving them a private showing, their notices not to be released for publication until twenty-four hours after the performance. The arrangement, which had English precedent, became the established convenience for critics at Ames's Little Theater. The Liebler production of " The Garden of Allah," when presented at the Century Theater, New York, was so long in performance that Tyler gave the critics a private showing in the afternoon.
LATER ROUTINE NOTICES
With the opening of the play, publicity routine is extended. Advertising is increased. The daily story goes out as before, but a " week-end notice," stating that on Monday night the attraction begins its second prosperous week, with details of cast and so forth, comes into being for use in the Saturday and Sunday pages under such headings as " Plays That Remain," and " Reigning Attractions." Some agents send out a " midweek," too, stating that the play continues; but this seems to be a convention from the house playing split-week attractions, and to be rather a superfluous effort where the play is fulfilling an indefinite engagement.
The weekend notice virtually completes the routine of the agent as far as the metropolis is concerned. He has yet to consider out-of-town papers, particularly those in cities likely to be played when the metropolitan engagement is over. For this he has his " weekly letter," which consists of his week-end notice, most of his late daily stories amplified, and perhaps a fresh special article or so. At the Little Theater, I planned a " monthly special," in addition, to consist of about a thousand words pertaining to some interesting phase of the production, sent to perhaps fifty selected dailies all over the country, released simultaneously, and never duplicated in the same city.
" DEADHEADS "
Much of the press department routine is replying to requests for passes. Now, while managers are glad to accommodate persons entitled to free admittance, a pass is really a token of a trade—it is one favor returned for another if the person is there for pleasure only, and it is accommodation if the person if there for material—for criticism, for costume hints, or for any other legitimate purpose, it being assumed, of course, that credit will be given the source.
Passes become useful at times in filling the house, for probably nothing tends to discourage patronage more than empty seats. For first nights, the house is practically all " paper," save in instances where the opening is of great importance, the Weber and Fields Jubilee, the " Follies," the Russian Ballet, and so on.
Consider for a moment the difficulty of the press agent who is called upon to distribute many tickets for seats in a large theater. Of course, orchestra chairs are simple to distribute, but everyone will not accept balcony, and particularly gallery, seats. For the last rows in the balcony and the gallery, department stores are convenient points of distribution. Friends of the management give out more. For musical shows, song publishers take whole blocks of seats, instructing their occupants to applaud certain numbers the piano and band parts of which they have for sale; friends of the players take more, and perhaps the manager pays twenty or thirty boys a quarter apiece to whistle refrains from the gallery. It all sounds very simple. But it means considerable effort to get all these tickets distributed where they will do the most good, within very short time.