Writing for Vaudeville (B)
by Brett Page

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Public Domain Books

Chapter XXIV - Manuscripts and Markets

It is in the hope of directing you to your market that this chapter is designed. But there is no form of writing for which it is more difficult to point out a sure market than for vaudeville material. Even the legitimate stage–with its notorious shifting of plans to meet every veering wind–is not more fickle than the vaudeville stage. The reason for this is, of course, to be found in the fact that the stage must mirror the mind of the nation, and the national mind is ever changing. But once let the public learn to love what you have given them, and they will not jilt your offering in a day. The great advantage the writer of vaudeville material today has over every one of his predecessors, lies in the fact that the modern methods of handling the vaudeville business lend him security in the profits of his success.

1. Preparing the Manuscript

(a) The acceptable manuscript forms into which all vaudeville material may be cast may be learned by consulting the examples of the different vaudeville acts given in the appendix to this volume. A moment’s examination of them will show you that there is no difference between the manuscript ways of presenting the different acts. All are made up of the names of characters, business and dialogue. Therefore they may all be discussed at the same time.

(b) Have your manuscript typewritten. This suggestion has the force of law. While it would seem self-evident that a manuscript written out in long hand has a mussy appearance, however neat the writing may be, the many hand-written manuscripts I have tried to read suggest the necessity for pointing out this fact. You surely handicap your manuscript by offering it in long hand to a busy producer.

(c) The two recognized methods for the typing of stage manuscripts. First, the entire manuscript is typed in black, blue or purple. Then, after the manuscript is complete, the name of the character above each speech is underlined in red ink, and every bit of business throughout the manuscript is also underlined in red. This method is illustrated below.

[Here, text originally underlined in red appear in all CAPS.]



  GRAVES.  Yes.  (TURNS TO DICTIONARY) That’s all.

  GRAVES.  Burton!

  BURTON.  Yes, sir.

  GRAVES.  Where’s Sam?

  BURTON.  He went out, sir---

  GRAVES.  Went out?

  BURTON.  Y-yes, sir.  About a quarter of an hour ago.

  GRAVES.  Where to?

  BURTON.  He didn’t say, sir.


  MEAD.    Anything wrong?

  GRAVES (LAMELY) No, no.  Don’t mind me.  Marlin’s
proposition’s all right---

                   SIGHT OF GRAVES’S EMOTION)



  MEAD.    Christopher!

Second, a typewriter using two colors is employed. The name of the character above each speech is typed in red, and red is used to type the bits of business. The speeches alone are typed in black, blue or purple as the case may be. The following example illustrates this method.




Heavens!  It reads like a fairy tale, doesn’t it?


I don’t know; does it?


Yes; and many thanks.  I’ll do my best not to let you
regret it.---Only, in the old fairy tale, you know, it always
ended with the---the young man’s marrying the---the rich
old geezer’s daughter!


And I’m the rich old geezer, eh?  Well, I mightn’t ’a’ been
half as rich this minute if it wasn’t for you!---Heigho!

Now, I suppose my cantankerous daughter wouldn’t have you,
Piercy; not if I said anything to her about it.  But if she
would---and you was willin’---


---why, you’re just about the feller I’d want her to have.



Say, Boss, put her there again!

Do you know, you and I are getting to be better friends

Either of these methods serves the same purpose equally well. The aim is to separate the names and business from the dialogue, so that the difference may be plain at a glance. The use of either of these ways of typing a manuscript is desirable, but not absolutely necessary.

(d) Use a “record ribbon” in typewriting manuscript, because a “copying ribbon “ smudges easily and will soil the hands of the reader. Observation of this mechanical point is a big help in keeping a manuscript clean–and respecting the temper of your judge.

(e) Neatness is a prime requisite in any manuscript offered for sale. Be sure that the finished copy is free from erasures and penciled after-thoughts. “Do all your after-thinking beforehand," or have a clean, new copy made.

(f) Re-copy a soiled manuscript as soon as it shows evidence of handling. Keep your “silent salesman” fresh in appearance.

(g) Bind your manuscript in a flexible cover to give it a neat appearance and make it handy to read.

(h) Type your name and address in full on the outside of the cover, and on the first white page. Thus you stamp the manuscript as your act, and it always bears your address in case of loss.

(i) Have your act copyrighted is a bit of advice that would seem needless, but many performers and producers refuse to read an act unless it is copyrighted. The copyright–while it is not as good proof in court as a public performance–is nevertheless a record that on such and such a date the author deposited in the Library of Congress a certain manuscript. This record can be produced as incontrovertible evidence of fact. The view of the performer and the producer is that he wishes to protect the author as much as possible–but himself more. He desires to place beyond all possibility any charge of plagiarism. Therefore, copyright the final version of your act and typewrite on the cover the date of copyright and the serial number.

(j) How to copyright the manuscript of a vaudeville act. Write to the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., asking him to send you the blank form prescribed by law to copyright an unpublished dramatic composition. Do not send stamps, as it is unnecessary. In addition to the blank you will receive printed instructions for filling it out, and full information covering the copyright process. The fee is one dollar, which includes a certificate of copyright entry. This covers copyright in the United States only; if you desire to copyright in a foreign country, consult a lawyer.

(k) The preparation of a scene plot should not be a difficult task if you will remember that you need merely draw a straight-line diagram–such as are shown in the chapter on “The Vaudeville Stage and its Dimensions"–so as to make your word-description perfectly clear. On this diagram it is customary to mark the position of chairs, tables, telephones and other properties incidental to the action of the story. But a diagram is not absolutely necessary. Written descriptions will be adequate, if they are carefully and concisely worded.

(l) The preparation of property plots and light plots has been mentioned in the chapter on “The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions," therefore they require a word here. They are merely a list of the properties required and directions for any changes of lighting that may occur in the act. For a first presentation of a manuscript, it is quite unnecessary for you to bother about the technical plots (arrangement plans) of the stage. If your manuscript is acceptable, you may be quite sure that the producer will supply these plots himself.

(m) Do not offer “parts” with your manuscript. A “part” consists of the speeches and business indicated for one character, written out in full, with the cues given by the other characters–the whole bound so as to form a handy copy for the actor to study. For instance, there would be four “parts” in a four-people playlet manuscript–therefore you would be offering a producer five manuscripts in all, and the bulk of your material might deter a busy man from reading it carefully. If your manuscript progresses in its sale to the point where parts are desired, the producer will take care of this detail for you. And until you have made a sale, it is a waste of money to have parts made.

2. The Stage Door the Vaudeville Market-Place

Unlike nearly every other specialized business, there is a market in each city of the country for vaudeville material. This market is the stage door of the vaudeville theatre. While it would be unlikely that a dramatist would find a market for a long play at the “legitimate” stage door–although this has happened–there are peculiar reasons why the stage door may be your market-place. A large percentage of vaudeville performers are the owners of their own acts. They buy the material, produce it themselves, and play in it themselves. And they are ever on the lookout for new material.

Not only is there a market at the stage door, but that market changes continually. Without fear of exaggeration it may be said that with the weekly and sometimes semi-weekly changes of the bill in each house, there will in time flow past the stage door nearly all the acts which later appear in vaudeville.

Offering a manuscript at the stage door, however, should not be done without preparation. As you would not rush up to a business man on the street or spring at him when he emerges from his office door, you certainly would not care to give a vaudeville performer the impression that you were lying in wait for him.

(a) The personal introduction is a distinct advantage in any business, therefore it would be an advantage for you to secure, if possible, a personal introduction to the performer. However, you must be as discriminating in choosing the person to make that introduction as you would were you selecting an endorser at a bank. A stage-hand or an usher is likely to do you more harm than good. The “mash notes” they may have carried “back stage” would discount their value for you. The manager of the theatre, however, might arrange an introduction that would be of value. At least he can find out for you if the performer is in the market at the time.

(b) The preliminary letter is never amiss, therefore it would seem advisable to write to the performer for whom you feel sure you have an act that will fit. Make the letter short. Simply ask him if he is in the market for material, state that you have an act that you would like him to read, and close by requesting an appointment at his convenience.

Do not take up his time by telling him what a fine act you have. He does not know you, and if you praise it too highly he may be inclined to believe that you do not have anything worth while. But do not under-rate your material, either, in the hope of engaging his attention by modesty. Leave it for him to find out if you have an act, first, that is worth while, and second, that fits him.

If you do not hear from the performer, you may be sure that he is not interested in your act. He may be out for the first few weeks in a brand new act, and not in the market at all. So if you do not hear from him, wait until another act comes along and you see someone for whom your act is “just made.”

(c) Should you receive a favorable reply to your request for an appointment, you may be reasonably sure that your prospective purchaser at least needs a new act. In meeting your appointment, be on time, and have someone with you. A woman, of course, would have a chaperon, precisely as she would if she were meeting any other stranger. And a man might care to have someone to engage the attention of the performer’s companion and leave him an uninterrupted opportunity to talk business.

(d) Ask for an immediate reading of your manuscript, or at least request it read the next day, when you can be present while he is reading it. Do not leave a manuscript to be returned to you by mail. Vaudeville performers are as honest as any other class of men, but they are busy people and the thing that is put off is forgotten. They are in one town today and miles away tomorrow, and they may leave the manuscript on the bureau of their hotel room intending to mail it at the last minute–and rush away and forget it. Therefore you should ask for an immediate reading. It will take a performer only a few minutes to decide if he cares to consider your act. He knows of what he is in need–and usually is prepared to tell you.

(e) Do not ask for specific criticism, for of all people in the world vaudeville performers are the most good-hearted. They would rather please you than hurt you. They will evade the point nine times out of ten; so save them and yourself needless embarrassment. And thus you may also avoid a false valuation of your manuscript.

(f) If the performer cannot use the act himself, and if the act possesses merit, the chances are that he will suggest some other performer who might want it. If he does not suggest someone himself, ask him. Vaudeville performers know what other performers want, because they are continually discussing plans for “next season.” You may thus pick up some valuable information, even if you do not dispose of the particular manuscript you have for sale.

3. Producing Your Act Yourself

While you are likely at many turns of the sales road to have offered you an opportunity to produce your own act, this method of finding a market is rarely advisable. You would not start a little magazine to get your short-story into print; your story could not possess that much value even if it were a marvel–how much less so if you were unable to find someone willing to buy it!

But there is a still more important reason why you should not rush into producing your act yourself. Producing is a specialized business, requiring wide experience and exact knowledge. Besides, it is one of the most expensive pastimes in the world. Without a most comprehensive experience and peculiar abilities, failure is sure. Do not attempt private production even if you are offered the services of a performer or a producer in whom you have absolute faith. Remember, if they thought your act was really worth while they would be anxious to reap the profits for themselves.

4. Selling an Act to a Producer

While any performer who owns his act is a producer in the sense that he “produces” his act, there are men who make a business of buying manuscripts, engaging people, and producing many acts in which they do not themselves play. Producers who may own a dozen acts of all different kinds would seem to offer to the writer for vaudeville an ideal market. How, then, is the writer to get in touch with them?

(a) Selling through a Play broker is a method that is precisely the same as though you consigned a bill of goods to a commission agent, and paid him for disposing of it. The play broker reads your manuscript and engages to try to dispose of it for you, or returns it as not likely to fit in with the particular line of business of which he makes a specialty. If your act is really good and yet the broker is able to make some suggestions that will improve it, he is likely to offer such suggestions, purely in the hope of earning a commission, and in this way he may prove of distinct value as a critic. In any event, if he accepts a manuscript to sell for you, he will offer it in the quarters he thinks most likely to produce it and will attend to all the business incidental to the making of the contract.

For this service the broker charges a ten per cent commission. This commission is paid either on the price of outright sale, or on the royalty account. If the act is sold on royalty, he will collect the customary advance and also the weekly payments. After deducting his commission, he will remit the balance to you.

On the last page of this chapter you will find a partial list of well-known play brokers. Although I do not know of any who deal exclusively in vaudeville material, any one of the agents who handles long plays is glad to handle an exceptionally fine playlet.

(b) Seeking a personal interview with a producer is usually productive of one result: The office-boy says, “Leave your manuscript, and he’ll read it and let you know.” Anxious as he is to secure good material, a man who is busily engaged in producing vaudeville acts has little time to spend on granting personal interviews. And there is another reason–he fears you will try to read your act to him. A personal reading by the author is either a most distressing affair, because the average writer cannot read stage material as it should be read, or else it is very dangerous to the listener’s judgment. Many a producer has been tricked into producing an act whose merits a masterly reader has brought out so finely that its fatal faults were forgotten. And so the producer prefers to read a manuscript himself. Alone in his office he can concentrate on the act in hand, and give to it the benefit of his best judgment.

(c) Offering a manuscript by mail is perfectly safe. There has never come to my knowledge one clearly proved instance of where a producer has “stolen an idea.”

(d) Send your manuscript by registered mail and demand a return receipt. Thus you will save losses in the mail and hold a check against the loss of your manuscript in the producer’s office. And when you send your manuscript by mail, invariably enclose stamps to pay the return to you by registered delivery. Better still, enclose a self-addressed envelope with enough postage affixed to insure both return and registry.

(e) Three weeks for consideration is about the usual time the average producer requires to read a manuscript at his leisure. In times when a producer is actively engaged in putting on an act, he may not have an hour in the week he can call his own. Therefore have patience, and if you do not receive a reply from him in three weeks, write again and courteously remind him that you would like to have his decision at his earliest convenience. Impatient letters can only harm your chance.

5. Hints on Prices for Various Acts

What money can be made by writing vaudeville material? This is certainly the most interesting question the writer for vaudeville can ask. Like the prices of diamonds, the prices of vaudeville acts depend on quality. Every individual act, and each kind of act, commands its own special price. There are two big questions involved in the pricing of every vaudeville manuscript. First, of what value is the act itself? Second, what can the performer or the producer afford to payor be made to pay for the act?

The first question cannot be answered for even a class of acts. The value of each individual act determines its own price. And even here there enters the element inherent in all stage material– a doubt of value until performance before an audience proves the worth of the act. For this reason, it is customary for the purchaser of a vaudeville act to require that it first make good, before he pays for it. “Try and then buy,” is the average vaudevillian’s motto. If you are a good business man you will secure an advance against royalty of just as much as you can make the producer “give up.” Precisely as in every other business, the price of service depends upon the individual’s ability to “make a deal.”

The answer to the second question likewise depends upon the vaudeville writer’s individual ability as a business man. No hints can be given you other than those that you may glean from a consideration of average and record prices in the following paragraphs.

(a) The monologue is usually sold outright. The performer nearly always will tell you–with no small degree of truth–that the monologist makes the monologue, not the monologue the monologist. Many a monologue has sold for five dollars, and the purchaser been “stung” at that price. But very rarely is a monologue bought outright in manuscript–that is, before a try-out. A monologue must prove itself “there,” before a monologist will pay any more than a small advance for the exclusive privilege of trying it out.

If the monologue proves itself, an outright offer will be made by the performer. While there are no “regular rates,” from two hundred and fifty dollars to seven hundred dollars may be considered as suggestive of the market value of the average successful monologue.

In addition to this, the monologist usually retains the author to write new points and gags for him each week that he works. This, of course, increases the return from a monologue, and insures the writer a small weekly income.

In very rare cases monologues are so good and, therefore, so valuable that authors can retain the ownership and rent them out for a weekly royalty. In such a case, of course, the author engages himself to keep the material up to the minute without extra compensation. But such monologues are so rare they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There is little doubt that “The German Senator” is one of the most valuable monologue properties–if it does not stand in a class by itself–that has ever been written. For many years it has returned to Aaron Hoffman a royalty of $100 a week, thirty and forty weeks in the year. This may be considered the record price for a monologue.

(b) The vaudeville two-act varies in price as greatly as the monologue. Like the monologue, it is usually sold outright. The performers use precisely the same argument about the two-act that is used about the monologue. It is maintained that the material itself is not to be compared with the importance of its presentation. When a two-act has been tried out and found “there,” the performers or the producer will offer a price for it.

The same rule, that vaudeville material is worth only as much as it will bring, applies to the two-act. From two hundred and fifty dollars to whatever you can get, may be considered suggestive of two-act prices. Although more two-acts have sold outright for less than three hundred dollars than have sold above five hundred dollars, a successful two-act may be made to yield a far greater return if a royalty arrangement is secured.

Whether it is a two-act, or any other vaudeville act, the royalty asking price is ten per cent of the weekly salary. This rate is difficult to enforce, and while five per cent is nearer the average, the producer would rather pay a definite fixed figure each week, than a percentage that must be reckoned on what may be a varying salary. Usually a compromise of a flat amount per playing week is made when a royalty is agreed on.

(c) The playlet varies in returns amazingly. While one small-time producer pays no advance royalty and a flat weekly royalty of from ten dollars to fifteen dollars a week–making his stand on the fact that he gives a longer playing season than his average competitor–many a big-time producer pays a good round advance and as high as $100 a week royalty.

Edgar Allan Woolf has said: “The desire for the one-act comedy is so great that even an unknown writer can secure an advance royalty as great as is paid to the author of a three-act play, if he has written a playlet which seems to possess novelty of story and cleverness of dialogue.”

George V. Hobart is reported to have had a variously-quoted number of playlets playing at the same time, each one of which returned him a weekly royalty of $100 a week. And half a dozen other one-act playwrights might be named who have had nearly equal success.

On the other hand, Porter Emerson Brown is quoted as saying: “The work of writing a playlet is nearly as great as writing a three-act play, and the returns cannot be compared.”

One of the collaborators on a famous big-time success received forty dollars a week for three seasons as his share. Another playlet writer was paid one hundred dollars a week for one act, and only twenty dollars a week for another. And a third was content with a ten-dollars-a-week royalty on one act, at the same time that another act of his was bringing him in fifty dollars a week.

These examples I have cited to demonstrate that the return from the playlet is a most variable quantity. The small-time pays less than the big-time, and each individual act on both small- and big-time pays a different royalty.

When a playlet–either comedy or straight dramatic–is accepted for production, it is customary, although not an invariable rule, that an advance royalty be paid “down.” When the act proves successful, one or more of three propositions may be offered the writer: outright sale at a price previously agreed upon; outright sale to be paid in weekly royalties until an agreed upon figure is reached, when ownership passes from the author to the producer; the more customary weekly royalty. As I have said before, what price you receive for your act finally depends upon your keenness in driving a bargain.

In nearly every case, outright sale has its advantage in the fact that the author need not then worry about collecting his royalty. Of course, when a recognized producer puts out the act there need be no concern about the royalty, so in such instances a royalty is preferable. But in some cases, as when the performer is making long jumps and has a hard time making railroad connections, a weekly royalty has its disadvantages in causing worry to the author.

(d) The one-act musical comedy is usually bought outright–after the act “gets over.” While many a “book” is contracted for in advance at a small figure, to be doubled or trebled on success, it is also true that royalties are paid. In this case, the custom is to divide the royalty equally between the writer of the book and lyrics, and the composer of the music. When a third person writes the verses of the songs and ensemble numbers, the royalty is usually split three ways. It would be misleading to quote any figures on the musical comedy, for the reason that circumstances vary so greatly with each that there are no standards.

(e) The burlesque tab pays about the same rates as the one-act musical comedy, its kindred form.

(f) The popular song, unlike the other material treated in this volume, has a well established royalty price: one cent a copy is the standard. Of this, half a cent goes to the writer of the lyric, and half a cent to the composer of the music.

As a popular song, to be considered successful, must sell anywhere from half a million to a million copies, it is easy to estimate the song-writer’s return. If the same man writes both the words and the music he will receive from five to ten thousand dollars–or twenty-five hundred to five thousand dollars if he divides with another–for being able to make the nation whistle. Of course, many song-writers have two successful songs selling in a year– therefore you may double the figures above to estimate some successful song-writers’ incomes. But it may safely be said that the song-writer who has an income of twelve thousand dollars a year is doing very well indeed! There are many more professional song-writers who work year after year for the salary of the average business man in every other line of endeavor. Don’t count your royalty-chickens too soon.

6. Important Lists of Addresses


AMERICAN PLAY COMPANY, 33 W. 42d St., New York
MARY ASQUITH, 145 W. 45th St, New York
ALICE KAUSER, 1402 Broadway, New York
DARCY AND WOLFORD, 114 W. 39th St., New York
KIRKPATRICK, LTD., 101 Park Ave., New York
MODERN PLAY CO., Columbus Circle, New York
LAURA D. WILK, 1476 Broadway, New York
GEORGE W. WINNIETT, 1402 Broadway, New York
PAUL SCOTT, 1402 Broadway, New York
SANGER AND JORDAN, 1430 Broadway, New York
MRS. M. A. LEMBECK, 220 W. 42nd St., New York


The producers given here offer a market which varies so widely in each instance that no attempt has been made to list their needs. Some are interested in other lines of the amusement business as well; and their activities elsewhere must be taken into consideration as determining factors in their special market needs. No division of these producers into big-time and small-time producers is made, because such a distinction would be likely to be misleading rather than helpful.

ARTHUR HOPKINS, 1493 Broadway, New York
JOSEPH HART, 1520 Broadway, New York
JESSE L. LASKY, 120 W. 41St St., New York
B. A. ROLFE, 1493 Broadway, New York
JOE MAXWELL, INC., 360 W. 125th St., New York
HARRY RAPF, 1564 Broadway, New York
PAT CASEY, 1499 Broadway, New York
BILLIE BURKE, 1495 Broadway, New York
JOE PAIGE SMITH, 1493 Broadway, New York
ALF. T. WILTON, 1564 Broadway, New York
JOHN C. PEEBLES, 1564 Broadway, New York
JAMES PLUNKETT, 1564 Broadway, New York
C. M. BLANCHARD, 1579 Broadway, New York
LEWIS AND GORDON, Columbia Theatre Building, 7th
Ave. at 47th St., New York
MAX HART, 1564 Broadway, New York
JAMES J. ARMSTRONG, Columbia Theatre Building, 7th
Ave. at 47th St., New York
WILLIAM A. BRADY, The Playhouse, 137 W. 48th St., New York
BART McHUGH, Land Title Building, Philadelphia
MENLO E. MOORE, 22 W. Monroe St., Chicago
MINNIE PALMER, 35 Dearborn St., Chicago


The following vaudeville circuits, while they may not maintain regular producing departments, produce acts every now and then.

Broadway, New York. This organization books
the B. F. Keith Theatres and allied small- and
big-time houses
ORPHEUM CIRUIT COMPANY, 1564 Broadway, New York
POLI’S CIRCUIT, 1493 Broadway, New York
Majestic Theatre Building, Chicago
GUS SUN CIRCUIT, New Sun Theatre Building,
Springfield, Ohio
BERT LEVEY CIRCUIT, Alcazar Theatre Building, San Francisco

To these markets nearly every booking agent and manager in the vaudeville business might be added. Each one has a list of acts he handles that need new material from time to time. And often the agent or manager will add to his list of clients by producing an exceptionally fine act himself.

The reason such a list is not given here is that it would require a small volume merely for the names and addresses. Consultation of “The Clipper Red Book"–a handy directory of theatrical agents, sold at ten cents–will supply this information. A knowledge of the special kinds of acts handled by each agent or manager, and the producers previously given as well, may be gathered by a careful reading of the various theatrical specialized journals. This knowledge can only be acquired a bit here and a little there through persistent attention to the notices of new acts and announcements of plans.


SAMUEL FRENCH, 28 W. 38th St., New York
T. S. DENNISON, Chicago


VARIETY, 1536 Broadway, New York
THE DRAMATIC MIRROR, 1493 Broadway, New York
8th Ave., New York
THE NEW YORK STAR, 1499 Broadway, New York
THE CLIPPER, 47 W. 28th St., New York
THE BILLBOARD, 1465 Broadway, New York
THE DRAMATIC NEWS, 17 W. 42d St., New York
THE NEW YORK REVIEW, 121 W. 39th St., New York
THE THEATRE MAGAZINE, 8 W. 38th St., New York
THE GREEN BOOK MAGAZINE, North American Building,


Chapter XX - Putting Together the One-Act Musical Comedy With Hints on Making the Burlesque Tab  •  Chapter XXI - The Musical Elements of the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXII - The Elements of a Successful Lyric  •  Chapter XXIII - Writing the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXIV - Manuscripts and Markets  •  Chapter XXV - How a Vaudeville Act is Booked  •  Appendix - Nine Famous Vaudeville Acts Complete  •  Glossary