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- Writing for Vaudeville - 6/95 -


or in a gallery right over it, or perhaps on the other side of the stage, stands the electric switch-board. From here all the stage lights and the lights in the auditorium and all over the front of the house are operated.

From the footlights with their red and white and blue and vari-tinted bulbs, to the borders that light the scenery from above, the bunch-lights that shed required lights through windows, the grate-logs, the lamps and chandeliers that light the mimic rooms themselves, and the spot-light operated by the man in the haven of the gallery gods out front, all are under the direction of the electrician who sits up in his little gallery and makes the moonlight suddenly give place to blazing sunlight on a cue.

It is to the stage-manager and the stage-carpenter, the property-man and the electrician, that are due the working of the stage miracles that delight us in the theatres.

III. THE SCENERY OF THE VAUDEVILLE STAGE

In the ancient days before even candles were invented--the rush-light days of Shakespere and his predecessors--plays were presented in open court-yards or, as in France, in tennis-courts in the broad daylight. A proscenium arch was all the scenery usually thought necessary in these outdoor performances, and when the plays were given indoors even the most realistic scenery would have been of little value in the rush-lit semi-darkness. Then, indeed, the play was the thing. A character walked into the STORY and out of it again; and "place" was left to the imagination of the audience, aided by the changing of a sign that stated where the story had chosen to move itself.

As the centuries rolled along, improvements in lighting methods made indoor theatrical presentations more common and brought scenery into effective use. The invention of the kerosene lamp and later the invention of gas brought enough light upon the stage to permit the actor to step back from the footlights into a wider working-space set with the rooms and streets of real life. Then with the electric light came the scenic revolution that emancipated the stage forever from enforced gloomy darkness, permitted the actor's expressive face to be seen farther back from the footlights, and made of the proscenium arch the frame of a picture.

"It is for this picture-frame stage that every dramatist is composing his plays," Brander Matthews says; "and his methods are of necessity those of the picture-frame stage; just as the methods of the Elizabethan dramatic poet were of necessity those of the platform stage." And on the same page: The influence of the realistic movement of the middle of the nineteenth century imposed on the stage-manager the duty of making every scene characteristic of the period and of the people, and of relating the characters closely to their environment." [1]

[1] The Study of the Drama, Brander Matthews.

On the vaudeville stage to-day, when all the sciences and the arts have come to the aid of the drama, there is no period nor place, nor even a feeling of atmosphere, that cannot be reproduced with amazing truth and beauty of effect. Everything in the way of scenery is artistically possible, from the squalid room of the tenement-dweller to the blossoming garden before the palace of a king--but artistic possibility and financial advisability are two very different things.

If an act is designed to win success by spectacular appeal, there is no doubt that it is good business for the producer to spend as much money as is necessary to make his effects more beautiful and more amazing than anything ever before seen upon the stage. But even here he must hold his expenses down to the minimum that will prove a good investment, and what he may spend is dependent on what the vaudeville managers will pay for the privilege of showing that act in their houses.

But it is not worth spectacular acts that the vaudeville writer has particularly to deal. His problem is not compounded of extravagant scenery, gorgeous properties, trick-scenes and light-effects. Like Shakespere, for him the play--the story--is the thing. The problem he faces is an embarrassment of riches. With everything artistically possible, what is financially advisable?

1. The Successful Writer's Attitude toward Scenery

The highest praise a vaudevillian can conjure up out of his vast reservoir of enthusiastic adjectives to apply to any act is, "It can be played in the alley and knock 'em cold." In plain English he means, the STORY is so good that it doesn't require scenery.

Scenery, in the business of vaudeville--please note the word "business"--has no artistic meaning. If the owner of a dwelling house could rent his property with the rooms unpapered and the woodwork unpainted, he would gladly do so and pocket the saving, wouldn't he? In precisely the same spirit the vaudeville-act owner would sell his act without going to the expense of buying and transporting scenery, if he could get the same price for it. To the vaudevillian scenery is a business investment.

Because he can get more money for his act if it is properly mounted in a pleasing picture, the vaudeville producer invests in scenery. But he has to figure closely, just as every other business man is compelled to scheme and contrive in dollars and cents, or the business asset of scenery will turn into a white elephant and eat up all his profits.

Jesse L. Lasky, whose many pleasing musical acts will be remembered, had many a near-failure at the beginning of his vaudeville-producing career because of his artistic leaning toward the beautiful in stage setting. His subsequent successes were no less pleasing because he learned the magic of the scenery mystery. Lasky is but one example, and were it not that the names of vaudeville acts are but fleeting memories, dimmed and eclipsed by the crowded impressions of many acts seen at one sitting, there might be given an amazing list of beautiful little entertainments that have failed because of the transportation cost of the scenery they required.

When a producer is approached with a request to read a vaudeville act he invariably asks, "What scenery?" His problem is in two parts:

1. He must decide whether the merits of the act, itself, justify him in investing his money in scenery on the gamble that the act will be a success.

2. If the act proves a success, can the scenery be transported from town to town at so low a cost that the added price he can get for the act will allow a gross profit large enough to repay the original cost of the scenery and leave a net profit?

An experience of my own in producing a very small act--small enough to be in the primary class--may be as amusing as it is typical. My partners and I decided to put out a quartet. We engaged four good singers, two of them men, and two women. I wrote the little story that introduced them in a humorous way and we set to work rehearsing. At the same time the scenic artist hung three nice big canvases on his paint frames and laid out a charming street-scene in the Italian Quarter of Anywhere, the interior of a squalid tenement and the throne room of a palace.

The first drop was designed to be hung behind the Olio--for the act opened in One--and when the Olio went up, after the act's name was hung out, the lights dimmed to the blue and soft green of evening in the Quarter. Then the soprano commenced singing, the tenor took up the duet, and they opened the act by walking rhythmically with the popular ballad air to stage-centre in the amber of the spot-light. When the duet was finished, on came the baritone, and then the contralto, and there was a little comedy before they sang their first quartet number.

Then the first drop was lifted in darkness and the scene changed to the interior of the squalid tenement in which the pathos of the little story unfolded, and a characteristic song was sung. At length the scene changed to the throne room of the palace, where the plot resolved itself into happiness and the little opera closed with the "Quartet from Rigoletto."

The act was a success; it never received less than five bows and always took two encores. But we paid three hundred and fifty dollars for those miracles of drops, my partners and I, and we used them only one week.

In the first place, the drops were too big for the stage on which we "tried out" the act. We could not use them there and played before the house street-drop and in the house palace set. The act went very well. We shipped the drops at length-rates--as all scenery is charged for by expressmen and railroads--to the next town. There we used them and the act went better. It was a question whether the bigger success was due to the smoother working of the act or to the beautiful drops.

The price for which the act was playing at that breaking-in period led me to ponder the cost of transporting the drops in their rolled-up form on the battens. Therefore when I was informed that the stage in the next town was a small one, I had a bright idea. I ordered the stage-carpenter to take the drops from their battens, discard the battens, and put pockets on the lower ends of the drops and equip the upper ends with tie ropes so the drops could be tied on the battens used in the various houses. The drops would then fit small or large stages equally well and could be folded up into a small enough space to tuck in a trunk and save all the excess transportation charges.

Of course the drops folded up all right, but they unfolded in chips of scaled-off paint. In the excitement, or the desire to "take a chance," I had not given a thought to the plain fact that the drops were not aniline. They were doomed to chip in time anyway, and folding only hastened their end. Still, we received just as much money for the act all the time we were playing it, as though we had carried the beautiful drops.

Now comes the third lesson of this incident: Although we were precisely three hundred and sixty-eight dollars "out" on account of the drops, we really saved money in the end because we were forced to discard them. The local union of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees--Stage Hands' Union, for short--tried to assess me in the town where we first used the drops, for the salary of a stage-carpenter. According to their then iron-clad rule, before which managers had to bow, the scenery of every act carrying as many as three drops on battens had to be hung and taken down by the act's own stage-carpenter--at forty dollars a week. They could not collect from such an act today


Writing for Vaudeville - 6/95

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