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- Writing for Vaudeville - 2/95 -


at night"--had its birth on July 6, 1885. It struck the popular fancy immediately and soon there was hardly a city of any importance that did not possess its "continuous" house. From the "continuous" vaudeville has developed the two-performances-a-day policy, for which vaudeville is now so well known.

The vaudeville entertainment of this generation is, however, a vastly different entertainment from that of even the nineties. What it has become in popular affection it owes not only to Tony Pastor, F. F. Proctor, or even to B. F. Keith--great as was his influence--but to a host of showmen whose names and activities would fill more space than is possible here. E. F. Albee, Oscar Hammerstein, S. Z. Poli, William Morris, Mike Shea, James E. Moore, Percy G. Williams, Harry Davis, Morris Meyerfeld, Martin Beck, John J. Murdock, Daniel F. Hennessy, Sullivan and Considine, Alexander Pantages, Marcus Loew, Charles E. Kohl, Max Anderson, Henry Zeigler, and George Castle, are but a few of the many men living and dead who have helped to make vaudeville what it is.

From the old variety show, made up of a singer of topical songs, an acrobatic couple, a tight-rope walker, a sidewalk "patter" pair, and perhaps a very rough comedy sketch, there has developed a performance that sometimes includes as many as ten or twelve acts, each one presented by an artist whose name is known around the world. One of the laments of the old vaudeville performers is that they have a place in vaudeville no more. The most famous grand opera singers and the greatest actors and actresses appear in their room. The most renowned dramatists write some of its playlets. The finest composers cut down their best-known works to fit its stage, and little operas requiring forty people and three or four sets of scenery are the result. To the legitimate [1] stage vaudeville has given some of its successful plays and at least one grand opera has been expanded from a playlet. To-day a vaudeville performance is the best thought of the world condensed to fit the flying hour.

[1] _Legitimate_ is a word used in the theatrical business to distinguish the full-evening drama, its actors, producers, and its mechanical stage from those of burlesque and vaudeville. Originally coined as a word of reproach against vaudeville, it has lost its sting and is used by vaudevillians as well as legitimate actors and managers.

2. Of What a Vaudeville Show is Made

There is no keener psychologist than a vaudeville manager. Not only does he present the best of everything that can be shown upon a stage, but he so arranges the heterogeneous elements that they combine to form a unified whole. He brings his audiences together by advertising variety and reputations, and he sends them away aglow with the feeling that they have been entertained every minute. His raw material is the best he can buy. His finished product is usually the finest his brain can form. He engages Sarah Bernhardt, Calve, a Sir James M. Barrie playlet, Ethel Barrymore, and Henry Miller. He takes one of them as the nucleus of a week's bill. Then he runs over the names of such regular vaudevillians as Grace La Rue, Nat Wills, Trixie Friganza, Harry Fox and Yansci Dollie, Emma Carus, Sam and Kitty Morton, Walter C. Kelly, Conroy and LeMaire, Jack Wilson, Hyams and McIntyre, and Frank Fogarty. He selects two or maybe three of them. Suddenly it occurs to him that he hasn't a big musical "flash" for his bill, so he telephones a producer like Jesse L. Lasky, Arthur Hopkins or Joe Hart and asks him for one of his fifteen- or twenty-people acts. This he adds to his bill. Then he picks a song-and-dance act and an acrobatic turn. Suddenly he remembers that he wants--not for this show, but for some future week--Gertrude Hoffman with her big company, or Eva Tanguay all by herself. This off his mind, the manager lays out his show--if it is the standard nine-act bill--somewhat after the following plan, as George A. Gottlieb, who books Keith's Palace Theatre, New York, shows--probably the best and certainly the "biggest" vaudeville entertainments seen in this country--has been good enough to explain.

"We usually select a 'dumb act' for the first act on the bill. It may be a dancing act, some good animal act, or any act that makes a good impression and will not be spoiled by the late arrivals seeking their seats. Therefore it sometimes happens that we make use of a song-and-dance turn, or any other little act that does not depend on its words being heard.

"For number two position we select an interesting act of the sort recognized as a typical 'vaudeville act.' It may be almost anything at all, though it should be more entertaining than the first act. For this reason it often happens that a good man-and-woman singing act is placed here. This position on the bill is to 'settle' the audience and to prepare it for the show.

"With number three position we count on waking up the audience. The show has been properly started and from now on it must build right up to the finish. So we offer a comedy dramatic sketch--a playlet that wakens the interest and holds the audience every minute with a culminative effect that comes to its laughter-climax at the 'curtain,' or any other kind of act that is not of the same order as the preceding turn, so that, having laid the foundations, we may have the audience wondering what is to come next.

"For number four position we must have a 'corker' of an act--and a 'name.' It must be the sort of act that will rouse the audience to expect still better things, based on the fine performance of the past numbers. Maybe this act is the first big punch of the show; anyway, it must strike home and build up the interest for the act that follows.

"And here for number five position, a big act, and at the same time another big name, must be presented. Or it might be a big dancing act--one of those delightful novelties vaudeville likes so well. In any event this act must be as big a 'hit' as any on the bill. It is next to intermission and the audience must have something really worth while to talk over. And so we select one of the best acts on the bill to crown the first half of the show.

"The first act after intermission, number six on the bill, is a difficult position to fill, because the act must not let down the carefully built-up tension of interest and yet it must not be stronger than the acts that are to follow. Very likely there is chosen a strong vaudeville specialty, with comedy well to the fore. Perhaps a famous comedy dumb act is selected, with the intention of getting the audience back in its seats without too many conspicuous interruptions of what is going on on the stage. Any sort of act that makes a splendid start-off is chosen, for there has been a fine first half and the second half must be built up again--of course the process is infinitely swifter in the second half of the show--and the audience brought once more into a delighted-expectant attitude.

"Therefore the second act after intermission--number seven--must be stronger than the first. It is usually a full-stage act and again must be another big name. Very likely it is a big playlet, if another sketch has not been presented earlier on the bill. It may be a comedy playlet or even a serious dramatic playlet, if the star is a fine actor or actress and the name is well known. Or it may be anything at all that builds up the interest and appreciation of the audience to welcome the 'big' act that follows. "For here in number eight position--next to closing, on a nine-act bill--the comedy hit of the show is usually placed. It is one of the acts for which the audience has been waiting. Usually it is one of the famous 'single' man or 'single' women acts that vaudeville has made such favorites.

"And now we have come to the act that closes the show. We count on the fact that some of the audience will be going out. Many have only waited to see the chief attraction of the evening, before hurrying off to their after-theatre supper and dance. So we spring a big 'flash.' It must be an act that does not depend for its success upon being heard perfectly. Therefore a 'sight' act is chosen, an animal act maybe, to please the children, or a Japanese troupe with their gorgeous kimonos and vividly harmonizing stage draperies, or a troupe of white-clad trapeze artists flying against a background of black. Whatever the act is, it must be a showy act, for it closes the performance and sends the audience home pleased with the program to the very last minute.

"Now all the time a booking-manager is laying out his show, he has not only had these many artistic problems on his mind, but also the mechanical working of the show. For instance, he must consider the actual physical demands of his stage and not place next each other two full-stage acts. If he did, how would the stage hands change the scenery without causing a long and tedious wait? In vaudeville there must be no waits. Everything must run with unbroken stride. One act must follow another as though it were especially made for the position. And the entire show must be dovetailed to the split seconds of a stop-watch.

"Therefore it is customary to follow an 'act in One' (See below) with an act requiring Full Stage. Then after the curtain has fallen on this act, an act comes on to play in One again. A show can, of course, start with a full-stage act, and the alternation process remains the same. Or there may be an act that can open in One and then go into Full Stage--after having given the stage hands time to set their scenery--or vice versa, close in One. Briefly, the whole problem is simply this--acts must be arranged not only in the order of their interest value, but also according to their physical demands.

"But there is still another problem the manager must solve. 'Variety' is vaudeville's paternal name--vaudeville must present a _varied_ bill and a show consisting of names that will tend to have a box-office appeal. No two acts in a show should be alike. No two can be permitted to conflict. 'Conflict' is a word that falls with ominous meaning on a vaudeville performer's or manager's ears, because it means death to one of the acts and injury to the show as a whole. If two famous singing 'single' women were placed on the same bill, very likely there would be odious comparisons--even though they did not use songs that were alike. And however interesting each might be, both would lose in interest. And yet, sometimes we do just this thing--violating a minor rule to win a great big box-office appeal.

"Part of the many sides of this delicate problem may be seen when you consider that no two 'single' singing acts should be placed next each other--although they may not conflict if they are placed far apart on the bill. And no two 'quiet' acts may be placed together. The tempo of the show must be maintained--and because tragic playlets, and even serious playlets, are suspected of 'slowing up a show,' they are not booked unless very exceptional."

These are but a few of the many sides of the problem of what is called "laying out a show." A command of the art of balancing a show is a part of the genius of a great showman. It is a gift. It cannot be analyzed. A born showman lays out his bill, not by


Writing for Vaudeville - 2/95

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