Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres

1. The Olio

In every vaudeville theatre there is an Olio and, although the scene which it is designed to represent may be different in each house, the street Olio is common enough to be counted as universally used. Usually there are two drops in “One,” either of which may be the Olio, and one of them is likely to represent a street, while the other is pretty sure to be a palace scene.

2. Open Sets

Usually in Four–and sometimes in Three–there are to be found in nearly every vaudeville theatre two different drops, which with their matching wings [1] form the two common “open sets"–or scenes composed merely of a rear drop and side wings, and not boxed in.

[1] A wing is a double frame of wood covered with painted canvas and set to stand as this book will when its covers are opened at right angles to each other.

The Wood Set consists of a drop painted to represent the interior of a wood or forest, with wings painted in the same style. It is used for knock-about acts, clown acts, bicycle acts, animal turns and other acts that require a deep stage and can play in this sort of scene.

The Palace Set, with its drop and wings, is painted to represent the interior of a palace. It is used for dancing acts, acrobats and other acts that require a deep stage and can appropriately play in a palace scene.

3. The Box Sets

A “box set” is, as the name implies, a set of scenery that is box-shaped. It represents a room seen through the fourth wall, which has been removed. Sometimes with a, ceiling-piece, but almost invariably with “borders"–which are painted canvas strips hanging in front of the “border-lights” to mask them and keep the audience from seeing the ropes and pulleys hanging from the gridiron–the box set more nearly mimics reality than the open set, which calls upon the imagination of the audience to supply the realities that are entirely lacking or only hinted at.

The painted canvas units which are assembled to make the box set are called “flats.” A flat is a wooden frame about six feet six inches wide and from twelve to eighteen feet long, covered with canvas and, of course, painted with any scene desired. It differs from a wing in being only one-half the double frame; therefore it cannot stand alone.

Upon the upper end of each flat along the unpainted outer edge there is fastened a rope as long as the flat. Two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the corresponding edge of the matching flat there is a “cleat,” or metal strip, into which the rope, or “lash-line” is snapped. The two flats are then drawn tight together so that their edges match evenly and the lash-line is lashed through the framework to hold the flats firmly together.

While one flat may be a painted wall, the next may contain a doorway and door, another a part of an ornamental arch, and still another a window, so, when the various flats are assembled and set, the box set will have the appearance of a room containing doors and windows and even ornamental arches. The most varied scenes can thus be realistically set up.

In the rear of open doors there are usually wings, or perhaps flats, [1] painted to represent the walls of hallways and adjoining rooms and they are called “interior backings.” Behind a door supposed to open out into the street or behind windows overlooking the country, there are hung, or set, short drops or wings painted to show parts of a street, a garden, or a country-side, and these are called “exterior backings.”

[1] When flats are used as backings they are made stable by the use of the stage-brace, a device made of wood and capable of extension, after the manner of the legs of a camera tripod. It is fitted with double metal hooks on one end to hook into the wooden cross-bar on the back of the flat and with metal eyes on the other end through which stage-screws are inserted and screwed into the floor of the stage.

The Centre-door Fancy is the most common of the box sets. Called “fancy,” because it has an arch with portieres and a rich-looking backing, and because it is supposed to lead into the other palatial rooms of the house, this set can be used for a less pretentious scene by the substitution of a matched door for the arch.

In this plainer form it is called simply The Parlor Set. Sometimes a parlor set is equipped with a French window, but this should not be counted on. But there are usually a grate and mantelpiece, and three doors. The doors are designed to be set, one in the rear wall, and one in each of the right and left walls. A ceiling-piece is rarely found, but borders are always to be had, and a chandelier is customary.

The Kitchen Set is, as the name implies, less pretentious than the changeable parlor set. It usually is equipped with three doors, possesses matching borders, may have an ordinary window, and often has a fireplace panel.

Slightly altered in appearance, by changing the positions of the doors and the not very common substitution of a “half-glass door" in the rear wall, the kitchen set does duty as The Office Set.

It is in these two box sets–changed in minor details to serve as four sets–that the vaudeville playlet is played.

On the following pages will be found eight diagrams showing how the stock or house box sets can be set in various forms. A study of these will show how two different acts using the same house set can be given surroundings that appear absolutely different. These diagrams should prove of great help to the playlet writer who wishes to know how many doors he may use, where they are placed and how his act will fit and play in a regulation set of scenery.


The following diagrams, showing the scenic equipment of the average vaudeville theatre, have been specially drawn for this volume and are used here by courtesy of the Lee Lash Studios, New York. As they are drawn to a scale of one-eighth of an inch to the foot, the precise size of the various scenes may be calculated.

The diagrams are based on the average vaudeville stage, which allows thirty or thirty-two feet between tormentors. The proscenium arch may be much greater, but the average vaudeville stage will set the tormentors about thirty feet apart. All vaudeville stage settings are made back of the tormentor line.

At the tormentor line there will be, of course, a Grand Drapery and Working Drapery which will mask the first entrance overhead.

There will be either a set of borders for each scene, or else the borders will be painted to use with any scene, to mask the stage rigging. The borders are usually hung from six to seven feet apart, so that in planning a scene this should be considered. In a few of the larger houses, a ceiling-piece is found, but, as has been said, this is so rare it should not be counted on.

Most houses have a floor cloth, and medallion or carpet, in addition to the properties hereafter described. Reference to the diagrams will show that the tormentors have a “flipper,” which runs to the proscenium arch wall; in the flipper is usually a door or a curtained opening for the entrances and exits of acts in One.

If you will combine with the diagrams shown these elements which cannot be diagrammed, you will have a clear idea of the way in which any scene is constructed. Then if you will imagine the scene you have in mind as being set up on a stage like that of the Palace Theatre, shown in the last chapter, you will have a working understanding of the vaudeville stage.


A well-ordered vaudeville stage, as has been described, possesses Drops for use in One, one or more Fancy Interiors, a Kitchen Set, and Exterior Sets. The Drops in One are omitted from these diagrams, because they would be represented merely by a line drawn behind the tormentors.

The Fancy Interiors may include a Light Fancy, a Dark Fancy, an Oak Interior, and a Plain Chamber set. As the differences are largely of painting, the usual Centre-door Fancy is taken as the basis for the variations–five different ways of setting it are shown.

Two out of the many different ways of setting the Kitchen Set are given.

The Exterior Set allows little or no variation; the only thing that can be done is to place balustrades, vases, etc., in different positions on the stage; therefore but one diagram is supplied.


Showing the usual method of setting a “Fancy.” It may be made shallower by omitting a wing on either side.


The double arch is thrown from the centre to the side, the landscape drop being used to back the scene–the drop may be seen through the window on stage-left. The window of the Fancy Interior is always of the French type, opening full to the floor.


This is a deeper and narrower set, approximating more closely a room in an ordinary house. The double arch at the rear may be backed with an interior backing or a conservatory backing. If the interior backing is used, the conservatory backing may be used to back the single four-foot arch at stage-left.


This shows the double arch flanked by a single arch on each side, making three large openings looking out on the conservatory drop.


The fireplace is here brought into prominence by setting it in a corner with two “jogs” on each side. The window is backed with a landscape or garden drop as desired.


This arrangement of a Kitchen Set makes use of three doors, emphasizing the double doors in the centre of rear wall, which open out on an interior backing or a wood or garden drop. In this and the following setting a small window can be fitted into the upper half of either of the single doors.


Two doors only are used in this setting; the double doors, in the same relative position as in the preceding arrangement, open out on a wood or landscape backing. The fireplace is brought out on stage-right. The single door on stage-left opens on an interior backing.


Many theatres have two sets of Exterior wings–one of Wood Wings and one of Garden Wings. In some houses the Wood Wings are used with the Garden Drop, set vases and balustrades being used to produce the garden effect, as shown here. Some theatres also have a Set House and Set Cottage, which may be placed on either side of the stage; each has a practical door and a practical window. With the Set House and Set Tree slight variations of exterior settings may be contrived.

4. Properties

In the argot of the stage the word “property” or “prop” means any article–aside from scenery–necessary for the proper mounting or presentation of a play. A property may be a set of furniture, a rug, a pair of portieres, a picture for the wall, a telephone, a kitchen range or a stew-pan–indeed, anything a tall that is not scenery, although serving to complete the effect and illusion of a scene.

Furniture is usually of only two kinds in a vaudeville playhouse. There is a set of parlor furniture to go with the parlor set and a set of kitchen furniture to furnish the kitchen set. But, while these are all that are at the immediate command of the property-man, he is usually permitted to exchange tickets for the theatre with any dealer willing to lend needed sets of furniture, such as a desk or other office equipment specially required for the use of an act.

In this way the sets of furniture in the property room may be expanded with temporary additions into combinations of infinite variety. But, it is wise not to ask for anything out of the ordinary, for many theatre owners frown upon bills for hauling, even though the rent of the furniture may be only a pair of seats.

For the same reason, it is unwise to specify in the property-list– which is a printed list of the properties each act requires–anything in the way of rugs that is unusual. Though some theatres have more than two kinds of rugs, the white bear rug and the carpet rug are the most common. It is also unwise to ask for pictures to hang on the walls. If a picture is required, one is usually supplied set upon an easel.

Of course, every theatre is equipped with prop telephones and sets of dishes and silver for dinner scenes. But there are few vaudeville houses in the country that have on hand a bed for the stage, although the sofa is commonly found.

A buffet, or sideboard, fully equipped with pitchers and wine glasses, is customary in every vaudeville property room. And champagne is supplied in advertising bottles which “pop” and sparkle none the less realistically because the content is merely ginger ale.

While the foregoing is not an exhaustive list of what the property room of a vaudeville theatre may contain, it gives the essential properties that are commonly found. Thus every ordinary requirement of the usual vaudeville act can be supplied.

The special properties that an act may require must be carried by the act. For instance, if a playlet is laid in an artist’s studio there are all sorts of odds and ends that would lend a realistic effect to the scene. A painter’s easel, bowls of paint brushes, a palette, half-finished pictures to hang on the walls, oriental draperies, a model’s throne, and half a dozen rugs to spread upon the floor, would lend an atmosphere of charming bohemian realism.

Special Sound-Effects fall under the same common-sense rule. For, while all vaudeville theatres have glass crashes, wood crashes, slap-sticks, thunder sheets, cocoanut shells for horses’ hoof-beats, and revolvers to be fired off-stage, they could not be expected to supply such little-called-for effects as realistic battle sounds, volcanic eruptions, and like effects.

If an act depends on illusions for its appeal, it will, of course, be well supplied with the machinery to produce the required sounds. And those that do not depend on exactness of illusion can usually secure the effects required by calling on the drummer with his very effective box-of-tricks to help out the property-man.

5. The Lighting of the Vaudeville Stage

At the electrical switchboard centre all the lights of the theatre, as well as those of the stage itself. Presided over by the electrician, the switchboard, so far as the stage and its light effects are concerned, commands two classes of lights. The first of these is the arc light and the second the electric bulb.

The Spot-lights are the lamps that depend upon the arc for their illumination. If you have ever sat in the gallery of any theatre, and particularly of a vaudeville theatre, you certainly have noticed the very busy young man whose sole purpose in life appears to be to follow the heroine around the stage with the focused spot of light that shines like a halo about her. The lamp with which he accomplishes this difficult feat is appropriately called a “spot-light.” While there are often spot-lights on the electrician’s “bridge,” as his balcony is called, the gallery out front is the surest place to find the spot-light.

The Footlights are electric bulbs dyed amber, blue, and red– or any other special shade desired–beside the well-known white, set in a tin trough sunk in the stage and masked to shine only upon the stage. By causing only one group of colors to light, the electrician can secure all sorts of variations, and with the aid of “dimmers” permit the lights to shine brilliantly or merely to glow with faint radiance.

The Border-lights are electric bulbs of varying colors set in tin troughs a little longer than the proscenium opening and are suspended above the stage behind the scenery borders. They shine only downward. There are border-lights just in front of the drops in One, Two, Three and Four, and they take the names of “first border-light,” “second border-light,” and so on from the drops they illuminate.

Strip-lights are electric bulbs set in short strips of tin troughs, that are equipped with hooks by which they can be hung behind doors and out-of-the-way dark places in sets to illuminate the backings.

A Bunch-light is a box of tin set on a standard, which can be moved about the stage the length of its electric cord, and has ten or twelve electric bulbs inside that cast a brilliant illumination wherever it is especially desired. Squares of gelatine in metal frames can be slipped into the grooves in front of the bunch-light to make the light any color or shade desired. These boxes are especially valuable in giving the effect of blazing sunlight just outside the doors or windows of a set, or to shine through the windows in the soft hue of moonlight.

Grate Logs are found in nearly every vaudeville house and are merely iron painted to represent logs of wood, inside of which are concealed lamps that shine up through red gelatine, simulating the glow of a wood fire shining in the fireplace under the mantelpiece usually found in the centre-door-fancy set.

Special Light-effects have advanced so remarkably with the science of stage illumination that practically any effect of nature may be secured. If the producer wishes to show the water rippling on the river drop there is a “ripple-lamp” at his command, which is a clock-actuated mechanism that slowly revolves a ripple glass in front of a “spot-lamp” and casts a realistic effect of water rippling in the moonlight.

By these mechanical means, as well as others, the moon or the sun can be made to shine through a drop and give the effect of rising or of setting, volcanos can be made to pour forth blazing lava and a hundred other amazing effects can be obtained. In fact, the modern vaudeville stage is honeycombed with trapdoors and overhung with arching light-bridges, through which and from which all manner of lights can be thrown upon the stage, either to illuminate the faces of the actors with striking effect, or to cast strange and beautiful effects upon the scenery. Indeed, there is nothing to be seen in nature that the electrician cannot reproduce upon the stage with marvellous fidelity and pleasing effect.

But the purpose here, as in explaining all the other physical departments of the vaudeville stage, is not to tell what has been done and what can be done, interesting and instructive as such a discussion would be, but to describe what is usually to be found in a vaudeville theatre. The effects that are at ready command are the only effects that should interest anyone about to write for vaudeville. As was emphasized in the discussion of scenery, the writer should not depend for success on the unusual. His aim should be to make use of the common stage-effects that are found on every vaudeville stage–if, indeed, he depends on any effects at all.

Here, then, we have made the acquaintance of the physical proportions and aspects of the vaudeville stage and have inquired into all the departments that contribute to the successful presentation of a vaudeville entertainment. We have examined the vaudeville writer’s tool-box and have learned to know the uses for which each tool of space, scenery, property, and light is specially designed. And by learning what these tools can do, we have also learned what they cannot do.

Now let us turn to the plans and specifications–called manuscripts– that go to make up the entertaining ten or forty minutes during which a vaudeville act calls upon these physical aids to make it live upon the mimic stage, as though it were a breathing reality of the great stage of life.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

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By Brett Page
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