Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler

As life tamped down in 1921 under Prohibition, people sought to live vicariously through the uninhibited characters of stage and screen, characters this New York Times Magazine article called “the masher and swashbuckler.”

“The leaden lid of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ has been hammered down on us so tightly that the explosion of our suppressed healthy animality may become a classic example of Dr. Freud’s dictum: the way to revitalize an instinct is to suppress it.

Don Juan, d’Artagnan, and Bluebeard have invaded New York from beyond the artistic three-mile limit. [Those first two are references to the 1921 Broadway productions of Don Juan and The Three Musketeers, though I couldn’t ascertain the Bluebeard reference with certainty.] In film circles… there is talk of screening the life of that philanthropic highwayman, Robin Hood. [1922’s Robin Hood would star Douglas Fairbanks.]

The columnist Benjamin de Casseres then added this kicker:

If there is anybody missing, I haven’t heard of him. Satan?

One wonders if something of the opposite has happened these days. Part of the reason The Jerry Springer Show was cancelled in 2018 after 27 years was because audiences no longer felt the same need to turn towards the entertainment world to see deubachery like cheating on your spouse with an adult film star or vile language, when the president was doing the same. As Springer himself said, Donald Trump “took my show and brought it to the White House.”

And one of the most popular television shows to emerge in 2020 was the wholesome Ted Lasso.

 

Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler (PDF)

Published: Sunday, October 9, 1921

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

October 10th, 2021 at 8:01 am

Heavens a Hippodrome and All the Actors Airplanes

In 1919, some predicted that the future realm of acting would be not the stage nor the screen, but the sky with airplanes.

This is the key to the great Futurist drama. The Sardous, Gus Thomases, Ibsens, Sam Shipmans and Barries of the future will write for a stage whose wings will be Arcturus and Halley’s comet, whose footlights will be the electirc bulbs and lamp-posts of all the earth — even unto Philadelphia; whose roof will be heaven itself, whose actors will be airplanes cut and painted to resemble the characters of the play, driven and manipulated by hooded and goggled drivers. Instead of a prompter, a wig-wag aviator sitting on the edge of the moon. The stage manager will thunder his directions for rehearsals from a giant super-megaphone-telephone from the top of the Matterhorn or in a giant Caproni anchored to Mars.

What of the naysayers?

Do you believe it? No? Well, there were once those who believed the earth was flat, that the heavens were a series of blue-china saucers glued together, that Bryan was a radical and that booze was immortal.

Well, after Prohibition was repealed a few years later, it turns out booze was immortal. And similarly, the skeptics of “the theater of the sky” were right in their predictions, too.

That being said, it sounds super fun. Maybe it should take off. I’d watch it.

 

Heavens a Hippodrome and All the Actors Airplanes: Drama of the Futurists Where the Gestures Are Tail Spins, and the Waiting World Lies Flat on Its Back and Looks Up at the Busy Sky (PDF)

Published: Sunday, November 30, 1919

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

November 29th, 2019 at 1:01 pm

Collective Bargaining for Actors’ Wages

Theater actors in July 1919 wanted higher pay for extra performances. When managers refused, the first strike in American theater history occurred.

The old contract had specified eleven national holidays in the year on which the actor was required to play a matinee without additional salary… The actors demanded that they be paid upon a basis of eight performances a week, and that all performances over that number, for whatever cause given, should be paid for proportionately.

The managers, in reply, said that it was a financial impossibility; that it was at variance with all the established customs of the theatre and would mean simply that the players must accept smaller salaries; that actors often had been paid for full week when only six or seven performances had been given in place of the scheduled eight — and refused.

The next month, this resulted in the first strike in American theater history. According to the Actors’ Equity Association, “The strike lasted 30 days, spread to eight cities, closed 37 plays, prevented the opening of 16 others and cost millions of dollars.”

In the end, the actors won.

Collective Bargaining for Actors’ Wages: Equity Association Demands, Not an Eight-Hour Day, but Pay for Overtime, and Managers Refuse to Recognize the Union — Possible Effect on Playgoers (PDF)

Published: Sunday, July 13, 1919

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

July 12th, 2019 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Business,Theater

Puritan Attacks on the Stage and Its Clothes

Revealing clothing was becoming more popular at social events in 1919 — more revealing by the standards of the day, at least. Acceptable clothing in the staid theater, however, changed much more slowly.

In a recent play a young actress engaged in a game of “strip poker” in which she “lost” large quantities of her hosiery and lingerie. Certain case-hardened first nighters were shocked; but, as it happened, she went from the theatre to a costume ball in the identical disarray, and there created not a ripple of protest.

Even today, one is usually expected to dress up to attend a theatrical show. Theatergoers, then as arguably now, generally tended to be a little more prim and proper than the average person on the street. That might explain why, despite the proverb “sex sells,” such tactics generally didn’t attract theater audiences in 1919.

That the exploitation of nudity has at times been a serious evil is obvious to every right-minded playgoer. But the remedy is not so obvious. … Certain managers have gone so far in catering to the roving eye as to shock the man in the street, not to mention his wife and his daughter. The result has been financially disastrous.

Nowadays, we see more nudity in theater than ever, asNew York Times theater critic Ben Brantley would write nearly a century later in 2013:

Full nudity has been a customary part of the mainstream Western theater since the 1960s and ’70s, while avant-gardists were regularly disrobing for public consumption a good decade earlier. But I have never been confronted with as many chests, buttocks and genitalia as I have in visits to Broadway and West End theaters during the last six months.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Puritan Attacks on the Stage and Its Clothes: Plays Which Offended Fundamental Morality Are Not Successful Nowadays, Despite What Reformers Say of Lingerie Displays and Scanty Skirts (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 1, 1919

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

June 2nd, 2019 at 10:26 am

Posted in Theater

Troublous Times for the Theatre Business

 

“In fact, the last week has been about the worst week in the history of the American theater.” That was the worry gripping Broadway in December 1917. What was causing this?

“Pro Bono Publico writes to his favorite paper that it is because the plays presented nowadays are so inferior that intelligent people won’t tolerate them.” This is similar to the main explanation for why movie box office in summer 2017 had its lowest-selling summer since 1997: that almost every summer release besides Wonder Woman and Dunkirk was terrible. (It wasn’t competition from Netflix and the like; Netflix was almost as massive in 2016 and 2015, which were comparatively stronger box office years.)

Other explanations offered included a wartime tax on theater tickets, and the fact that war started to become more “real” for Americans outside of combat round October due to several factors such as a sugar shortage, even though America had entered the conflict in April.

Troublous Times for the Theatre Business: All Sorts of Suggestions for Remedying War Slump Are Being Considered by the Managers — The Question of Prices and Ticket Speculators (PDF)

From Sunday, December 16, 1917

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

December 16th, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Real Theatres in Every National Army Camp

Decades before the USO tours started in 1941, a prototype version called the Liberty Theaters was started in 1917.

Marc Klaw, a member of the Commission on Training Camp Activities, was tasked with building 16 such theaters for up to 600,000 soldiers to view. “We will have eight companies on the road all the time, four dramatic and four vaudeville,” Klaw said. “Plays will be up to date, and only first-class performers will be engaged.” Irving Berlin was one of the first performers to sign up.

The modern version, the USO, has 160 locations around the world and has entertained an estimated 75 million Americans throughout its history.

Real Theatres in Every National Army Camp: Soldiers in the Cantonments Will See Best Plays and Leading American Actors Each Week — Highest Ticket PRice Twenty-five Cents (PDF)

From Sunday, November 4, 1917

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

November 3rd, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Shifting Tastes of the Theatergoers

Theater critic John Corbin lamented the rise of the anti-hero on the stage in 1917:

“Clever trickery wins delighted applause, while the ancient law, moral as well as statutory, is scorned and derided. The phenomenon is interesting and rather disquieting… Like government, the drama is best when it is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As the literary critics say, it should portray the life and express the mood of its time. Yet the American drama of today has largely reversed Lowell’s apothegm. It pays to call old notions fudge and bend our conscience to our dealing. The Ten Commandments love to budge, and fortune ever follows stealing.”

Corbin surely would not approve of many modern-day critics’ ranking of The Godfather as the greatest film of all time.

Shifting Tastes of the Theatergoers: Decline of European Influence Has Been Followed By “the Sub-American Drama,” with East Side Flavor Dominant and Crooks as Leading Characters (PDF)

From Sunday, September 30, 1917

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

October 1st, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Theater

The Funniest Things in the Current Plays

What were the most uproarious lines in theatrical productions from a century ago? Reading most of them mostly confirms my belief that people weren’t funny until the late 1970s or early 1980s.

But this line from Have a Heart by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse was at least somewhat funny, reminiscent of something Woody Allen might have written in his 1970s slapstick comedy days:

“You’re Michael Robinovitch.”

“Robin – Robin – the ‘ovitch’ is silent. In New York we never pronounce our ‘ovitches.'”

The Funniest Things in the Current Plays: Lines to be Heard Just Now in New York’s Theaters Which Have Succeeded in Getting Heartiest Laughs from Audiences (PDF)

Published Sunday, April 1, 1917

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Written by A Step in the Write Direction

April 5th, 2017 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Humor,Theater

Rich Men Who Have Organs Built In Their Homes

From September 17, 1911

RICH MEN WHO HAVE ORGANS BUILT IN THEIR HOMES

RICH MEN WHO HAVE ORGANS BUILT IN THEIR HOMES: And Who Employ Organists by the Year to Give Them Music at Their Own Firesides — More Than $50,000 Has Been Paid for Some of These Organs. (PDF)

As mentioned in the article, the “largest and costliest organ in the United States” belonged to Frederick G. Bourne’s and was installed in his Oakdale, Long Island home.

According to the Organ Historical Society’s Pipe Organ Database (who knew?) the residence became a military academy after Bourne died, and in 1948 the organ was sold. Part of it went to Detroit, and part went to San Diego.

Today, the largest organ in the United States may be (and I say “may” because I found conflicting details) the Wanamaker Organ currently displayed in a Macy’s Department store in Philadelphia.

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Written by David

September 16th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Is The Moving Picture To Be The Play Of The Future?

From August 20, 1911

IS THE MOVING PICTURE TO BE THE PLAY OF THE FUTURE?

IS THE MOVING PICTURE TO BE THE PLAY OF THE FUTURE? Inventions Which Will Vastly Increase Its Capabilities — How These Dramas Are Obtained and Why Actors Give Up the Stage to Enter This New Profession. (PDF)

In 1911, the motion picture industry was just beginning to boom. Movies were still silent, and black-and-white, but this article predicts how the industry will change once color and sound are added.

Is it too much to say that the moving picture is the theatrical show of the future? Yes, if we have got always to see simple black-and-white pictures, soundless and colorless; no, if the invention is to take the course which it seems destined to take, and to develop hugely into the spoken word, the musical accompaniment, and the hiring of the greatest singers to take part in the humblest of plays.

At the time, movies were churned out like ephemeral novelties. They were shown for one night, and the actors were unknown. But over time, people began to recognize some of their favorite actors who appeared in many films. They would cheer for them when they appeared on screen. But they had no idea who the actors were. Stage acting is where the fame and glory was. But it, too, had its drawbacks.

The moving-picture business is making greater and greater appeals to stage people every day. In most cases the pay is better than that on the stage. Then the employment is steady. The bane of the theatrical business has always been the long season of unemployment. A moving-picture actor works fifty-two weeks in the year, and for him there is no long drought in which he parades the Rialto hungrily and pulls his belt closer to keep his appetite in control and wistfully haunts the booking offices. Besides, he has a chance at family life; he can live with the folks.

There is one heavy drawback, and that is the absence of a chance for fame. Every actor wants to make a reputation, and until now the moving-picture man has merely got the cash and let the credit go. His name appears in no programme, his acting gets only a cash reward. But that is coming to an end. The names of the casts are posted int he Motion Picture Magazine, the organ of the trade; their pictures are painted there, and, as has been said, the Edison Company has started the innovation of printing regular programmes with the full case, just as is done on every stage. When the other companies fall into line the last step in securing the full dignity of the stage to the moving-picture actor will have been taken.

The audiences themselves are compelling it. Where plays by certain stock companies are shown the spectators get to known the faces of the actors and to find their favorites. It is a common thing for an audience in many parts of the country to burst out in applause when the face of some favorite actor appears on the screen or to hiss some well-known villain. Naturally such audiences are consumed with curiosity to know the names of the heroes they are cheering, and the companies must yield to the demand. The publication of the photographs and names of the leading stock actors and actresses is a sign of it.

It’s a fascinating read from a time when people were still experimenting with the business and technology of a new industry. The article ends by noting: “We are just at the dawn of the moving picture as a feature of modern life… It is impossible to conjecture how great a part it may play in our civilization by, say, the dawn of the twenty-first century.”

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Written by David

August 15th, 2011 at 11:00 am