Writing for Vaudeville (B)
by Brett Page

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Chapter XXV - How a Vaudeville Act is Booked

While an understanding of how a vaudeville act is transformed from a manuscript into a commercial success may not be necessary to the writing of a good act, such a knowledge is absolutely necessary to the writer who hopes to make money by his work. For this reason I shall devote this final chapter to a brief discussion of the subject.

Permit me, therefore, to take the manuscript of an act, assuming for my purpose that it represents a monologue or a two-act, a playlet or a musical comedy, and trace its commercial career from the author’s hands, into a producer’s, through a booking office, to success. Anyone of the famous examples printed in this volume could be so taken and its history told, but no one would combine in its experience all the points that should be given. So I shall ask you to imagine that the act whose commercial story I am about to tell represents in itself every kind of act to be seen in vaudeville. I shall call this act by the name of “Success.”

When Mr. Author, the writer of “Success,” received a letter from Mr. Producer accepting the act and requesting him to call at his office to discuss terms, Mr. Author was delighted and hurried there as fast as he could go.

The office boy ushered him into Mr. Producer’s private office, and before the caller could get his breath Mr. Producer had made him an offer. He accepted the offer without haggling over the terms, which seemed to Mr. Author very satisfactory. To tell the truth, he would have accepted almost anything, so eager was he to get his first act on the stage, so it was lucky for him that the terms were really fair.

He had hardly folded up the contract and stowed it, with the advance royalty check, in his bosom pocket, before Mr. Producer plunged into business. He pressed a button for the office boy and told him to tell Mr. Scenic Artist to come in. Now Mr. Scenic Artist was the representative of a great scenic studio, and he sketched a design for a special set in a jiffy; then he thought of another, and then of a third. And Mr. Producer and he were so interested in combining all their good ideas into one admirable set that Mr. Author was startled when they shoved a sketch under his nose and asked for suggestions. He made two that were pertinent to the atmosphere he had imagined for his room, and when they were incorporated in the sketch, Mr. Producer O. K’d it and Mr. Scenic Artist bowed himself out, promising to have a model ready the next day.

Mr. Producer then rang for Miss Secretary, and told her to have Mr. Star, Miss Leading Lady and other performers in the office next morning at eleven o’clock, gave her a list of the characters he wished to cast, and handed her the manuscript with an order to get out parts, and to have them out that night. He turned to Mr. Author with a request for the incidental music for the act. Mr. Author told him he had none. Then Mr. Producer reached for the telephone, with the remark that the music could wait, and called up the United Booking Offices of America.

After a few minutes wait, Mr. Producer got the special Mr. Booking Manager for whom he had inquired, told him he had an act for which he wanted a break-in week, and as he hesitated and named a date three weeks later, Mr. Author was sure the act had been booked. Mr. Author marveled that the act should be contracted to appear when it was not even yet out of manuscript form, but when he mentioned this with a smile, Mr. Producer wanted to know how he ever would get “time” for an act if he didn’t engage it ahead. He explained that he had a regular arrangement with Mr. House Manager to play new acts in his house at a small “break-in” salary. It was an arrangement convenient to him and gave Mr. House Manager fine acts at small cost.

After this, Mr. Producer rose from his desk and Mr. Author went out, promising to be on hand that evening at eight to go over the manuscript and make some changes that Mr. Producer promised to prove were necessary to the success of the act. And as he passed through the outer office, Mr. Author heard Miss Secretary explain over the telephone that Mr. Producer wished a hall at eleven o’clock two days later to rehearse a new act.

Promptly at eight o’clock that night Mr. Author presented himself at the office again, and found Mr. Producer busily engaged in reading the manuscript. A tiny paper model of the mimic room in which the act was to be played stood upon the desk. When he stooped he saw that the walls were roughly colored after the sketch they had discussed and that the whole scene bore an amazing likeness to the place of his imagination. Mr. Producer explained that he had had the model rushed through to make it possible for them to “get down to brass tacks” at once. The act needed so many little changes that they would have to get busy to have it ready for the morning.

When Mr. Producer began discussing various points about the act, Mr. Author could not for the life of him imagine what all these changes could be. But when Mr. Producer pointed out the first, Mr. Author wondered how he ever had imagined that the heroine could do the little thing he had made her do–it was physically impossible. Point after point Mr. Producer questioned, and point after point they changed, but there was only the one glaring error. A motive was added here, a bit of business was changed there, and as they worked they both grew so excited that they forget the time, forgot everything but that act. And when the manuscript at last dropped from their exhausted hands, it looked as if an army had invaded it.

Mr. Author glanced at the pile of nicely bound parts and sighed. All that work would have to be done over! “Only another one of my mistakes,” smiled Mr. Producer as he scribbled an order to Miss Secretary, attached it to the manuscript, together with these now useless parts, and laid them on her desk, as he and Mr. Author went out into the cool night air. “See you tomorrow at eleven," said Mr. Producer as they parted. And Mr. Author looking at his watch wondered why he should take the trouble to go home at all.

At eleven Mr. Author found the little outer office crowded with actors and actresses. Miss Secretary was busily directing the typing of the new manuscript and parts. Mr. Producer was late. After Mr. Author had waited an hour in the private office, Miss Secretary came in and said he should wait no longer, because Mr. Producer had been called out of town to straighten out some trouble which had developed in one of his acts and had just telephoned that he would not be in until late that afternoon. Rehearsal would be as scheduled next morning, Miss Secretary explained. The performers would be on hand, and she hoped to goodness they would have some idea of their parts by then. Mr. Author wanted to know how the cast could be engaged when Mr. Producer was away, and Miss Secretary told him that Mr. Producer knew the capabilities of everyone who had called and had even directed her to engage the ones he named.

The following morning Mr. Author saw his characters for the first time in the flesh–and was disappointed. Also, the rehearsal was a sad awakening; it wasn’t anything like he had imagined it would be. They all sat around on chairs and Mr. Producer told them what the act was all about. Then he suggested that they go through it once, at any rate. Chairs were placed to mark the footlights, chairs were used to indicate the doors and window, and chairs were made to do duty as a table, a piano and everything else.

Finally they got started and limped through the lines, reading their parts. Then Mr. Producer began to show them how he wanted it done, and before he had finished he had played every part in the act. They went through the act once more with a myriad of interruptions from Mr. Producer, who insisted on getting things right the very first time, and then he knocked off, calling it a day’s work.

The next morning Mr. Author was on hand early with some suggestions: one Mr. Producer adopted, the others he explained into forgetfulness–and rehearsing began in earnest. They worked all morning on the first quarter of the act and went back at it late that afternoon. Miss Leading Lady unconsciously added one line and it was so good that it was kept in the act. Then Mr. Star did something that made them all laugh, and they put that in. Of course some pretty lines in the dialogue had to come out to make room, but they came out, and Mr. Author never regretted their loss. And the next day it was the same, and the day after that, and the seventh day, and the eighth day.

Then came a day when Mr. Author saw the act taking shape and form, and when he spoke to Mr. Producer about it, Mr. Producer said he thought that after all the act might whip around into something pretty good.

A few days later when Mr. Author arrived at the rehearsal hall, there were three strange men facing the company, who were going through the act for the first time without interruptions from Mr. Producer. Mr. Author wondered who they were, and watched their faces with interest to see how they liked his act. After a while he came to consider as great compliments the ghosts of smiles flickering across their jury-like faces. And when it was all over the performers gathered in one corner, and Mr. Producer came over to him, and the three men whispered among themselves. Mr. Producer explained that they were booking managers, and then Mr. Author sensed the psychological reason for the unconscious drawing together of the different clans.

His heart beat rather violently when the three men came across the room, and he felt a great wave of gladness sweep over him when the tallest of the three pulled out a little black book and said, “Mr. Producer, I’ll pencil it in one of my houses for next week at this figure,” and he showed Mr. Producer what he had written.

“And I’ll take you for the second break-in, as we agreed when you ’phoned,” said the shortest man. “And I’ll take the third at that.”

Then it was that Mr. Author felt a great admiration for Mr. Producer, because Mr. Producer dared assert his personality. Mr. Producer objected to the figure, talking of the “name” of Mr. Star.

“That’s every penny he’s worth,” came the adamant answer.

Then Mr. Producer mentioned transportation costs, and the cost of hauling scenery, as additional arguments.

“Why didn’t you say special set at first?” said the smallest man; “I’ll give you this advance.” Then all four looked, and they all agreed.

Then Mr. Author was introduced, quite casually. “Guess your act’ll get by,” conceded one of the jury generously, as they all left.

“So you’re going to open a week earlier?” gasped Mr. Author to Mr. Producer, when they were alone in the interval between the exit of the three and the entrance upon the scene of the performers, who came swiftly across the room to learn their fate. “And you’ve booked three weeks more!”

“Well,” said Mr. Producer, “you know the boys only pencilled those weeks in–pencil marks can be rubbed out.”

The next day as they were on their way to the train to go up to the town where the act was to open, Mr. Producer suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to send Miss Secretary up to the Booking Offices for his contract. He wanted that contract particularly, for he had a feud of long standing with the manager of that particular house. So up he rushed to get that contract, with Mr. Author tagging at his heels.

It was the first time Mr. Author had seen even the waiting room of a booking office–it amazed him by its busy air. A score or more performers crowded its every inch of space. They were thickest around a little grilled window, behind which stood a boy who seemed to know them all. Some he dismissed with a “Come in tomorrow." Others he talked with at length, and took their cards. When he had a handful he disappeared from the window.

But Mr. Producer was calling Mr. Author. Mr. Producer stood holding open the inner door. So in Mr. Author went–to another surprise. Here there was no crush of people–here there was no rush, and little noise. Stenographers stood about, seemingly idle, and at a dozen little desks sat a dozen men quietly bending over rather odd-looking books, or talking with the few men who came in.

One of these men Mr. Author recognized as Mr. Booking Manager, for whom they were to play the second week. He was about to speak to him, when up came a bustling little man who said, “Do you want Miss Headliner for the week of the thirtieth? I can give her to you.”

“Nope, all filled. Give you the week of the twenty-third.”

“All right.”

Mr. Booking Agent made a note in his little book, and Mr. Booking Manager bent over his desk and wrote Miss Headliner’s name in his big book–and a business transaction was consummated.

Then Mr. Booking Agent hustled over to another desk and repeated his offer of the week of the thirtieth.

“Sorry, give you the week of the twenty-third,” said this man.

“Just filled it,” said Mr. Booking Agent. “Can’t you give me the thirtieth? Who’s got the thirtieth open?”

The man at the next desk heard him. “Who for? Miss Headliner? All right, I’ll take her.”

Just then Mr. Producer came out of a little room and Mr. Author followed him in a wild dash to catch the train. In the smoker he asked Mr. Producer to explain what he had seen in the Booking Offices. And Mr. Producer said: “Each one of those men you saw up there is in charge of the shows of one, or maybe three or four vaudeville theatres in different cities. It is their duty to make up the shows that appear in each of their houses. For instance, Mr. Booking Manager, whose house we are playing this week, books the shows in four other houses.

“The man you heard ask him if he would take Miss Headliner for the thirtieth, is Miss Headliner’s business representative. His name is Mr. Booking Agent. Besides Miss Headliner, he is the representative for maybe fifty other acts. For this service he receives a commission of five per cent of Miss Headliner’s salary and five per cent on the salaries of all the acts for whom he gets work. It is his business to keep Miss Headliner booked, and he is paid by her and his other clients for keeping them working.

“Mr. Booking Manager, on the other hand, is not paid a commission. He receives a flat salary for the work that he does for his houses. You remember you met him yesterday, when he pencilled ’Success’ in for the house we are on our way to play. Well, that is also a part of his business. For some of his houses that like to make a big showing at little expense, he must dig up new big acts like ours, which are breaking-in.

“Now, the price I get for this act for the breaking-in weeks, is mighty low. But this is customary. That is the reason why the performers have to be content with half salaries, and you with half-royalty. But this price does not affect the future price I will receive. It is marked on the books as the ’show price.’ That means that it is recorded in the book-keeping department by the cashier as the price for which I am showing this act to the managers. When the act has made good, a price is set on the act, and that is the standard price for the other houses that book through these offices. The book-keeper watches the prices like a hawk, and if I tried to ’sneak a raise over,’ he would catch it, and both yours truly and Mr. Booking Manager would be called up on the carpet by the head of the Offices. The only increase that is permitted is when a new season rolls around, or two or three booking managers agree to an increase and consult the office head about boosting the salary on the books.”

That night Mr. Author rather expected to see a dress rehearsal of the act; he was disappointed. But the next morning there was a full dress rehearsal, played in the brand new special set which had come up with them and that now shone like a pretty picture in the dingy theatre.

It rather amazed Mr. Author to note that the emphasis of this rehearsal was not put on the speeches, but upon the entrances and exits, and the precise use and disposal of the various properties employed. A glimmering of the reason came to him when Mr. Star promised to murder anyone who moved a book that he used in his “big” scene. “Unless it is here–right here–I’ll never be able to reach it and get back for the next bit without running.”

And so the rehearsal went on, with no effort to improve the lines, but only to blend the physical movements of everyone of the performers to make a perfect whole and to heighten the natural effect of even the most natural action. Then the dress rehearsal came to an end, and the entire party went out to see the town.

That night, after the performance, they worked again on the act, because Mr. Producer had been seized by an idea. And when they had gone through the act time and again to incorporate that idea, they all went wearily to bed, praying for success next day.

At ten o’clock in the morning Mr. Author was at the theatre. He found that other acts had preceded him. The stage was littered with trunks and scenery, trapeze bars, animal cages and the what-not of a vaudeville show. Each performer as he came in was greeted by the doorman with the gift of a brass check, on which there was stamped a number. This number told the performer in what order he was entitled to rehearse. Vaudeville is a democracy–first come, first rehearsed.

The stage hands were busy rolling in trunks which express-men had dumped on the sidewalk, the electrician was busy mentally rehearsing light effects according to the formula on a printed light plot which was being explained to him by a performer. “Props” was busy trying to satisfy everyone with what he had on hand, or good-naturedly sending out for what had not been clearly specified on the property plot. The spot-light man in the gallery out front was busy getting his lamp ready for the matinee, and consulting his light plot. And the stage-manager was quite the busiest one of them all, shoving his scenery here and there to make room for the newly arrived sets, directing the flying of the hanging stuff, and settling questions with the directness of a czar.

Suddenly through the caverny house sounded the noise of the orchestra tuning up. The leader appeared and greeted the performers he knew like long lost brothers and sisters, and then Brass Check Number One dropped into his hand, and the Monday morning rehearsal began. Then it was that Mr. Author learned that it is not the acts, which are rehearsed on Monday morning, it is the vaudeville orchestra, and the light men and “Props.”

This was borne in forcibly when Mr. Producer arrived with the performers and “Success” went into rehearsal. Although the entire staff of the theatre had been rehearsed the night before at the final dress rehearsal, Mr. Producer wished to change some lights, to instruct “Props” more clearly, and to jack up the orchestra into perfection. Therefore they all went through the act once more. Then the scrub-women appeared and demanded the centre of the stage with great swishes of watery cloths. The curtain came down to hide the stage from the front of the house, and the first early comers of the audience filtered in.

Mr. Author has never been able to recall just how “Success” played that first performance. He has dim memories of a throbbing heart, fears that lines would be forgotten or the whole “big” scene fall to pieces; and finally of a vast relief when the curtain came down, amid–applause. The curtain went up and came down a number of times, but Mr. Author was too busy pinching himself to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming, to count how many curtains the act took.

It seemed to him like a tremendous hit, but Mr. Producer was in a rage. There were scores of points that had not “got over,” half a dozen of his finest effects had been ruined, and he was bound those points should “get over,” and those effects shine out clear and big.

Looking back on that week, Mr. Author recalls it as a nightmare of changes. They cut out speeches, and changed speeches, and took out bits of business, and added new bits–they changed everything in the act, and some of the changes they changed back again, until by Saturday the act was hardly to be recognized. And then they played two more performances to crowded houses that applauded like madmen; and Mr. Producer smiled for the first time.

Then they moved to the next theatre, and the first performance showed even Mr. Author that all the work had been wise. Now he was even more anxious than Mr. Producer to make the many changes by which this week was marked. And by the end of the week “Success" looked like–success.

They were preparing for a week of great things in the next town, when Wednesday night a cancellation notice came for that precious week. Something had gone wrong, and the pencilled date had to be rubbed out. Of course, by all the laws of the legislatures that week should never have been rubbed out, because there was a contract fully binding on both the theatre and Mr. Producer. But the week was rubbed out of sight, nevertheless, and Mr. Producer–knowing vaudeville necessities and also knowing that only the most dire necessity made Mr. Booking Manager “do this thing to him"–forgave it all with a smile and was quite ready to get back to town when Monday morning rolled around.

But Monday morning there occurred a “disappointment” at another theatre in a town only a few miles away. The act that was to have played that date was wrecked, or had overslept itself. Anyway. the resident house manager telephoned to the Booking Offices that he was shy one act. Now it happened that the act that “disappointed," was of the same general character as “Success.” The Booking Manager knew this, and remembered that “Success” was within a few miles and with an open week that ought to have been filled. Therefore, just as Mr. Producer and Mr. Author were leaving the hotel to join the other members of “Success” at the railroad station. Mr. Producer was called to the telephone–long distance.

In less time than it takes to recount it, the resident manager who was suffering from a disappointment, and Mr. Producer, suffering from the lack of a playing week, were both cured of their maladies at the same time. And so, instead of going back to town, “Success" rushed to the next city and played its week.

Now, in this last week of breaking-in, Mr. Author realized one fact that stands out rather prominently in his memory; it is a simple little fact, yet it sums up the entire problem of the show business. Perhaps the rush of events had made it impossible before for the truth to strike home as keenly as it did when there suddenly came to him a tiny little bit of business which made a very long speech unnecessary. He explained it to Mr. Producer, and Mr. Producer seized on it instantly and put it into the act. That night the act went better than it had ever gone before. This little bit of condensation, this illuminating flash which was responsible for it, “punched up” the big scene into a life it had never had before. Then it was that there also flashed upon Mr. Author’s mind this truth:

A dramatic entertainment is not written on paper. It is written with characters of flesh and blood. Strive as hard as man may, he can never fully foretell how an ink-written act will play. There is an inexplicable something which playing before an audience develops. Both the audience and the actors on the stage are affected. A play–the monologue and every musical form as well–is one thing in manuscript, another thing in rehearsal, and quite a different thing before an audience. Playing before an audience alone shows what a play truly is. Therefore, a play can only be made–after it is produced. Even in the fourth week of playing–the first week of metropolitan playing–Mr. Author and Mr. Producer made many changes in “Success” that were responsible for the long popularity it enjoyed. Mr. Author had learned his lesson well. He approached his next work with clearer eyes.


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