Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page
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Can you be taught how to write for vaudeville? If you have the native gift, what experienced writers say about its problems, what they themselves have accomplished, and the means by which it has been wrought, will be of help to you. So much this book offers, and more I would not claim for it.

Although this volume is the first treatise on the subject of which I know, it is less an original offering than a compilation. Growing out of a series of articles written in collaboration with Mr. William C. Lengel for The Green Book Magazine, the subject assumed such bigness in my eyes that when I began the writing of this book, I spent months harvesting the knowledge of others to add to my own experience. With the warm-heartedness for which vaudevillians are famous, nearly everyone whose aid I asked lent assistance gladly. "It is vaudeville's first book," said more than one, deprecating the value of his own suggestions, "and we want it right in each slightest particular."

To the following kindly gentlemen I wish to express my especial thanks: Aaron Hoffman, Edwin Hopkins, James Madison, Edgar Allan Woolf, Richard Harding Davis—the foremost example of a writer who made a famous name first in literature and afterward in vaudeville—Arthur Hopkins, Taylor Granville, Junie McCree, Arthur Denvir, Frank Fogarty, Irving Berlin, Charles K. Harris, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Ballard MacDonald, Louis Bernstein, Joe McCarthy, Joseph Hart, Joseph Maxwell, George A. Gottlieb, Daniel F. Hennessy, Sime Silverman, Thomas J. Gray, William C. Lengel, Miss Nellie Revell, the "big sister of vaudeville," and a host of others whose names space does not permit my naming again here, but whose work is evidenced in the following pages. To Alexander Black, the man who made the first picture play twenty-one years ago, I owe thanks for points in the discussion of dramatic values. And for many helpful suggestions, and his kindly editing, I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. J. Berg Esenwein. To these "friends indeed" belongs whatever merit this book possesses.



It falls to the lot of few men in these days to blaze a new trail in Bookland. This Mr. Brett Page has done, with firmness and precision, and with a joy in every stroke that will beget in countless readers that answering joy which is the reward of both him who guides and him who follows. There is but one word for a work so penetrating, so eductive, so clear—and that word is masterly. Let no one believe the modest assertion that "Writing for Vaudeville" is "less an original offering than a compilation." I have seen it grow and re-grow, section by section, and never have I known an author give more care to the development of his theme in an original way. Mr. Page has worked with fidelity to the convictions gained while himself writing professionally, yet with deference for the opinions of past masters in this field. The result is a book quite unexcelled among manuals of instruction, for authority, full statement, analysis of the sort that leads the reader to see what essentials he must build into his own structures, and sympathetic helpfulness throughout. I count it an honor to have been the editorial sponsor for a pioneer book which will be soon known everywhere.





1. The Rise of Vaudeville

A French workman who lived in the Valley of the Vire in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, is said to be vaudeville's grandparent. Of course, the child of his brain bears not even a remote resemblance to its descendant of to-day, yet the line is unbroken and the relationship clearer than many of the family trees of the royal houses. The French workman's name was Oliver Bassel, or Olivier Basselin, and in his way he was a poet. He composed and sang certain sprightly songs which struck the popular fancy and achieved a reputation not only in his own town but throughout the country.

Bassel's success raised the usual crop of imitators and soon a whole family of songs like his were being whistled in France. In the course of time these came to be classed as a new and distinct form of musical entertainment. They were given the name of "Val-de-Vire" from the valley in which Bassel was born. This name became corrupted, into "vaux-de-vire" in the time of Louis XVI, and was applied to all the popular or topical songs sung on the streets of Paris. Then the aristocrats took up these songs and gave entertainments at their country seats. To these entertainments they gave the name of "vaux-de-ville," the last syllable being changed to honor Bassel's native town [1] And gradually the x was dropped and the word has remained through the years as it is to-day.

[1] Another version relates that these songs were sung on the Pont Neuf in Paris, where stands the Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, and thus the generic name acquired the different termination.

As the form of entertainment advanced, the word vaudeville expanded in meaning. It came to comprise not only a collection of songs, but also acrobatic feats and other exhibitions. Having no dramatic sequence whatever, these unrelated acts when shown together achieved recognition as a distinct form of theatrical entertainment. As "vaudeville"—or "variety"—this form of entertainment became known and loved in every country of the world.

Vaudeville was introduced into this country before 1820, but it did not become a common form of entertainment until shortly before the Civil War when the word 'variety' was at once adopted and became familiar as something peculiarly applicable to the troubled times. The new and always cheerful entertainment found the reward of its optimism in a wide popularity. But as those days of war were the days of men, vaudeville made its appeal to men only. And then the war-clouds passed away and the show business had to reestablish itself, precisely as every other commercial pursuit had to readjust itself to changed conditions.

Tony Pastor saw his opportunity. On July 31, 1865, he opened "Tony Pastor's Opera House" at 199-201 Bowery, New York. He had a theory that a vaudeville entertainment from which every objectionable word and action were taken away, and from which the drinking bar was excluded, would appeal to women and children as well as men. He knew that no entertainment that excluded women could long hold a profitable place in a man's affections. So to draw the whole family to his new Opera House, Tony Pastor inaugurated clean vaudeville [1]. Pastor's success was almost instantaneous. It became the fashion to go to Pastor's Opera House and later when he moved to Broadway, and then up to Fourteenth Street, next to Tammany Hall, he carried his clientele with him. And vaudeville, as a form of entertainment that appealed to every member of the home circle, was firmly established—for a while.

[1] In the New York Clipper for December 19, 1914, there is an interesting article: "The Days of Tony Pastor," by Al. Fostelle, an old-time vaudeville performer, recounting the names of the famous performers who played for Tony Pastor in the early days. It reads like a "who's who" of vaudeville history. Mr. Fostelle, has in his collection a bill of an entertainment given in England in 1723, consisting of singing, dancing, character impersonations, with musical accompaniment, tight-rope walking, acrobatic feats, etc.

For Pastor's success in New York did not at first seem to the average vaudeville manager something that could be duplicated everywhere. A large part of the profits of the usual place came from the sale of drinks and to forego this source of revenue seemed suicidal. Therefore, vaudeville as a whole continued for years on the old plane. "Variety" was the name—in England vaudeville is still called "variety"—that it held even more widely then. And in the later seventies and the early eighties "variety" was on the ebb-tide. It was classed even lower than the circus, from which many of its recruits were drawn.

Among the men who came to vaudeville's rescue, because they saw that to appear to the masses profitably, vaudeville must be clean, were F. F. Proctor in Philadelphia, and B. F. Keith in Boston. On Washington Street in Boston, B. F. Keith had opened a "store show." The room was very small and he had but a tiny stage; still he showed a collection of curiosities, among which were a two-headed calf and a fat woman. Later on he added a singer and a serio-comic comedian and insisted that they eliminate from their acts everything that might offend the most fastidious. The result was that he moved to larger quarters and ten months later to still more commodious premised.

Continuous vaudeville—"eleven o'clock in the morning until eleven 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 rule, but by feeling.

3. The Writer's Part in a Vaudeville Show

In preparing the raw material from which the manager makes up his show, the writer may play many parts. He may bear much of the burden of entertainment, as in a playlet, or none of the responsibility, as in the average dumb act. And yet, he may write the pantomimic story that pleases the audience most. Indeed, the writer may be everything in a vaudeville show, and always his part is an important one.

Of course the trained seals do not need a dramatist to lend them interest, nor does the acrobat need his skill; but without the writer what would the actress be, and without the song-smith, what would the singer sing? And even the animal trainer may utilize the writer to concoct his "line of talk." The monologist, who of all performers seems the most independent of the author, buys his merriest stories, his most up-to-the-instant jests, ready-made from the writer who works like a marionette's master pulling the strings. The two-act, which sometimes seems like a funny impromptu fight, is the result of the writer's careful thinking. The flirtatious couple who stroll out on the stage to make everyone in the audience envious, woo Cupid through the brain of their author. And the musical comedy, with its strong combination of nearly everything; is but the embodied flight of the writer's fancy. In fact, the writer supplies much of the life-blood of a vaudeville show. Without him modern vaudeville could not live.

Thus, much of the present wide popularity of vaudeville is due to the writer. It is largely owing to the addition of his thoughts that vaudeville stands to-day as a greater influence—because it has a wider appeal—than the legitimate drama in the make-believe life of the land. Even the motion pictures, which are nearer the eyes of the masses, are not nearer their hearts. Vaudeville was the first to foster motion pictures and vaudeville still accords the motion picture the place it deserves on its bills. For vaudeville is the amusement weekly of the world—it gathers and presents each week the best the world affords in entertainment. And much of the best comes from the writer's brain.

Because mechanical novelties that are vaudeville-worth-while are rare, and because acrobats and animal trainers are of necessity limited by the frailties of the flesh, and for the reason that dancers cannot forever present new steps, it remains for the writer to bring to vaudeville the never-ceasing novelty of his thoughts. New songs, new ideas, new stories, new dreams are what vaudeville demands from the writer. Laughter that lightens the weary day is what is asked for most.

It is in the fulfilling of vaudeville's fine mission that writers all over the world are turning out their best. And because the mission of vaudeville is fine, the writing of anything that is not fine is contemptible. The author who tries to turn his talents to base uses—putting an untrue emphasis on life's false values, picturing situations that are not wholesome, using words that are not clean—deserves the fate of failure that awaits him. As E. F. Albee, who for years has been a controlling force in vaudeville, wrote: [1] "We have no trouble in keeping vaudeville clean and wholesome, unless it is with some act that is just entering, for the majority of the performers are jealous of the respectable name that vaudeville has to-day, and cry out themselves against besmirchment by others."

[1] "The Future of the Show Business," by E. F. Albee, in The Billboard for December 19, 1914.

Reality and truth are for what the vaudeville writer strives. The clean, the fine, the wholesome is his goal. He finds in the many theatres all over the land a countless audience eager to hear what he has to say. And millions are invested to help him say it well.



"I became a writer," George Bernard Shaw once said, "because I wanted to get a living without working for it—I have since realized my mistake." Anyone who thinks that by writing for vaudeville he can get a living without working for it is doomed to a sad and speedy awakening.

If I were called upon to give a formula for the creation of a successful vaudeville writer, I would specify: The dramatic genius of a Shakespere, the diplomatic craftiness of a Machiavelli, the explosive energy of a Roosevelt, and the genius-for-long-hours of an Edison: mix in equal proportions, add a dash of Shaw's impudence, all the patience of Job, and keep boiling for a lifetime over the seething ambition of Napoleon.

In other—and less extreme—words, if you contemplate writing for vaudeville for your bread and butter, you must bring to the business, if not genius, at least the ability to think, and if not boundless energy, at any rate a determination never to rest content with the working hours of the ordinary professions.

If you suppose that the mere reading of this book is going to make you able to think, permit me gently to disillusion you; and if you are imbued with the flattering faith that after studying these chapters you will suddenly be able to sit down and write a successful playlet, monologue, two-act, musical comedy libretto, or even a good little "gag," in the words of classic vaudeville—forget it! All this book can do for you—all any instruction can do—is to show you the right path, show precisely how others have successfully essayed it, and wish you luck. Do you remember the brave lines of W. E. Henley, the blind English poet:

Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.

And again in the same poem, "Invictus":

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

There sings the spirit that will carry a writer to success in vaudeville or in any other line of writing; and it is this inspired attitude you should assume toward the present book of instruction.

These chapters, carefully designed and painstakingly arranged, contain information and suggestions which, if studied and applied by the right person, will help him to a mastery of vaudeville writing. But they should be viewed not as laying down rules, only as being suggestive. This book cannot teach you how to write—with its aid you may be able to teach yourself.

Are you the sort of person likely to make a success of writing for vaudeville? You, alone, can determine. But the following discussion of some of the elements of equipment which anyone purposing to write for vaudeville should possess, may help you find the answer.

1. Experience in Other Forms of Writing Valuable

Let us suppose that you have been engaged in writing for a newspaper for years. You started as a reporter and because of your unusual ability in the handling of political news have made politics your specialty. You have been doing nothing but politics until politics seems to be all you know. Suddenly the sporting editor falls ill, and at the moment there is no one to take his place but you. Your assistant takes over your work and you are instructed to turn out a daily page of sporting news.

If you knew nothing at all about writing you would find the task nearly impossible to accomplish. But you do know how to write and therefore the mere writing does not worry you. And your experience as a special writer on politics has taught you that there are certain points all special newspaper work has in common and you apply your knowledge to the task before you.

Still you are seriously handicapped for a time because you have been thinking in terms of politics. But soon, by turning all your energy and ability upon your new subject, you learn to think in terms of sport. And, if you are a better thinker and a better writer than the old sporting editor, it won't be long before you turn out a better sporting page than he did. If you were the owner of the newspaper, which, in the emergency, would you choose to be your sporting editor: the untried man who has never demonstrated his ability to write, the reporter who has no knowledge of special writing, or the trained writer who has mastered one specialty and, it may reasonably be supposed, will master another quickly? The same care you would exercise in choosing another man to work for you, you should exercise in choosing your own work for yourself.

Do you know how to write? Do you write with ease and find pleasure in the work? If you do, class yourself with the reporter.

What success have you had in writing fiction? Have you written successful novels or short-stories? If you have, class yourself with the special writer. Did you ever write a play? Was your full-evening play accepted and successful? If you have written a play and if your play was a success, class yourself with the sporting editor himself—but as one who has made a success in only one specialty in the realm of sport.

For, those who have had some success in other forms of writing—even the successful playwright—and those who never have written even a salable joke, all have to learn the slightly different form of the vaudeville act.

But, having once learned the form and become perfectly familiar with vaudeville's peculiar requirements, the dramatist and the trained fiction writer will outstrip the untrained novice. Remember that the tortoise was determined, persistent, and energetic.

2. Ability to Think in Drama and Technical Knowledge of the Stage Required

The dramatist and the trained fiction writer possess imagination, they think in plots, they have learned how to picture vivid, dramatic incidents, and they know a story when it comes up and taps them on the shoulder. Furthermore, they know where to look for ideas, and how to twist them to plot uses. In every one of these points of special knowledge both the dramatist and the trained fiction writer have the advantage over the untrained novice, for the essence of all vaudeville writing lies in plot—which is story—arrangement.

But there is a wide difference between being able to think in a story-plot and in drama, and in this the playwright who has produced a full-evening play has the advantage over even the trained fiction writer when it comes to applying his dramatic knowledge to vaudeville. Precisely what the difference is, and what drama itself is—especially that angle of the art to be found in vaudeville—will be taken up and explained as clearly as the ideas admit of explanation, in the following pages. But not on one page, nor even in a whole chapter, will the definition of drama be found, for pulsating life cannot be bound by words. However, by applying the rules and heeding the suggestions herein contained, you will be able to understand the "why" of the drama that you feel when you witness it upon the stage. The ability to think in drama means being able to see drama and bring it fresh and new and gripping to the stage.

Of course drama is nothing more than story presented by a different method than that employed in the short-story and the novel. Yet the difference in methods is as great as the difference between painting and sculpture. Indeed the novel-writer's methods have always seemed to me analogous to those employed by the painter, and the dramatist's methods similar to those used by the sculptor. And I have marvelled at the nonchalant way in which the fiction writer often rushes into the writing of a play, when a painter would never think of trying to "sculpt" until he had learned at least some of the very different processes employed in the strange art-form of sculpture. The radical difference between writing and playwrighting [1] has never been popularly understood, but some day it will be comprehended by everybody as clearly as by those whose business it is to make plays.

[1] Note the termination of the word playwright. A "wright" is a workman in some mechanical business. Webster's dictionary says: "Wright is used chiefly in compounds, as, figuratively, playwright." It is significant that the playwright is compelled to rely for nearly all his effects upon purely mechanical means.

An intimate knowledge of the stage itself is necessary for success in the writing of plays. The dramatist must know precisely what means, such as scenery, sound-effects, and lights—the hundred contributing elements of a purely mechanical nature at his command— he can employ to construct his play to mimic reality. In the present commercial position of the stage such knowledge is absolutely necessary, or the writer may construct an act that cannot possibly win a production, because he has made use of scenes that are financially out of the question, even if they are artistically possible.

This is a fundamental knowledge that every person who would write for the stage must possess. It ranks with the "a b c" course in the old common school education, and yet nearly every novice overlooks it in striving after the laurel wreaths of dramatic success that are impossible without it. And, precisely in the degree that stage scenery is different from nature's scenes, is the way people must talk upon the stage different from the way they talk on the street. The method of stage speech—what is said, not how it is said—is best expressed in the definition of all art, which is summed up in the one word "suppression." Not what to put in, but what to leave out, is the knowledge the playwright—in common with all other artists—must possess. The difference in methods between writing a novel and writing a play lies in the difference in the scenes and speeches that must be left out, as well as in the descriptions of scenery and moods of character that everyone knows cannot be expressed in a play by words.

Furthermore, the playwright is working with spoken, not written, words, therefore he must know something about the art of acting, if he would achieve the highest success. He must know not only how the words he writes will sound when they are spoken, but he must also know how he can make gestures and glances take the place of the volumes they can be made to speak.

Therefore of each one of the different arts that are fused into the composite art of the stage, the playwright must have intimate knowledge. Prove the truth of this statement for yourself by selecting at random any play you have liked and inquiring into the technical education of its author. The chances are scores to one that the person who wrote that play has been closely connected with the stage for years. Either he was an actor, a theatrical press agent, a newspaper man, a professional play-reader for some producer, or gained special knowledge of the stage through a dramatic course at college or by continual attendance at the theatre and behind the scenes. It is only by acquiring special knowledge of one of the most difficult of arts that anyone may hope to achieve success.

3. A Familiar Knowledge of Vaudeville and its Special Stage Necessary

It is strange but true that a writer able to produce a successful vaudeville playlet often writes a successful full-evening play, but that only in rare instances do full-evening dramatists produce successful vaudeville playlets. Clyde Fitch wrote more than fifty-four long plays in twenty years, and yet his "Frederic Lemaitre," used by Henry Miller in vaudeville, was not a true vaudeville playlet—merely a short play—and achieved its success simply because Fitch wrote it and Miller played it with consummate art.

The vaudeville playlet and the play that is merely short, are separate art forms, they are precisely and as distinctly different as the short-story and the story that is merely short. It is only within the last few years that Brander Matthews drew attention to the artistic isolation of the short-story; and J. Berg Esenwein, in his very valuable work [1], established the truth so that all might read and know it. For years I have contended for the recognition of the playlet as an art form distinct from the play that is short.

[1] Writing the Short-Story, by J. Berg Esenwein, published uniform with this volume, in, "The Writer's Library."

And what is true of the peculiar difference of the playlet form is, in a lesser measure, true of the monologue, the two-act, and the one-act musical comedy. They are all different from their sisters and brothers that are found as integral parts of full-evening entertainments.

To recognize these forms as distinct, to learn what material [2] best lends itself to them and how it may be turned into the most natural and efficient form, requires a special training different from that necessary for the writing of plays for the legitimate stage.

[2] The word material in vaudeville means manuscript material. To write vaudeville material is to write monologues and playlets and the other forms of stage speech used in vaudeville acts.

But not only is there a vast difference between the material and the art forms of the legitimate and the vaudeville stage, there is also a great difference in their playing stages. The arrangements of the vaudeville stage, its lights and scenery, are all unique, as are even the playing spaces and mechanical equipment.

Therefore the author must know the mechanical aids peculiar to his special craft, as well as possess a familiar knowledge of the material that vaudeville welcomes and the unique forms into which that material must be cast.

4. What Chance Has the Beginner?

The "gentle reader" who has read thus far certainly has not been deterred by the emphasis—not undue emphasis, by the way—placed on the value of proved ability in other forms of writing to one who would write for vaudeville. That he has not been discouraged by what has been said—if he is a novice—proves that he is not easily downcast. If he has been discouraged—even if he has read this far simply from curiosity—proves that he is precisely the person who should not waste his time trying to write for vaudeville. Such a person is one who ought to ponder his lack of fitness for the work in hand and turn all his energies into his own business. Many a good clerk, it has been truly said, has been wasted in a poor writer.

But, while emphasis has been laid upon the value of training in other forms of literary work, the emphasis has been placed not on purely literary skill, but on the possession of ideas and the training necessary to turn the ideas to account. It is "up to" the ambitious beginner, therefore, to analyze the problem for himself and to decide if he possesses the peculiar qualifications that can by great energy and this special training place him upon a par with the write who has made a success in other forms of literary work. For there is a sense in which no literary training is really necessary for success in vaudeville writing.

If the amateur has an imaginative mind, the innate ability to see and turn to his own uses an interesting and coherent story, and is possessed of the ability to think in drama, and, above all, has the gift of humor, he can write good vaudeville material, even if he has not education or ability to write an acceptable poem, article or short-story. In other words, a mastery of English prose or verse is not necessary for success in vaudeville writing. Some of the most successful popular songs, the most successful playlets, and other vaudeville acts, have been written by men unable to write even a good letter.

But the constant advancement in excellence demanded of vaudeville material, both by the managers and the public, is gradually making it profitable for only the best-educated, specially-trained writers to undertake this form of work. The old, illiterate, rough-and-ready writer is passing, in a day when the "coon shouter" has given the headline-place to Calve and Melba, and every dramatic star has followed Sarah Bernhardt into the "two-a-day." [1]

[1] The two-a-day is stage argot for vaudeville. It comes from the number of performances the actor "does," for in vaudeville there are two shows every day, six or seven days a week.

Nevertheless, in this sense the novice needs no literary training. If he can see drama in real life and feels how it can be turned into a coherent, satisfying story, he can learn how to apply that story to the peculiar requirements of vaudeville. But no amount of instruction can supply this inborn ability. The writer himself must be the master of his fate, the captain of his own dramatic soul.



To achieve success in any art the artist must know his tools and for what purposes they are designed. Furthermore, to achieve the highest success, he must know what he cannot do as well as what he can do with them.

The vaudeville stage—considered as a material thing—lends itself to only a few definite possibilities of use, and its scenery, lights and stage-effects constitute the box of tools the vaudeville writer has at his command.


The footlights are the equator of the theatre, separating the "front of the house," or auditorium, from the "back of the house," or stage. The frame through which the audience views the stage is the "proscenium arch." Flat against the stage side of the arch run the "house curtain" and the asbestos curtain that are raised at the beginning and lowered at the end of the performance.

That portion of the stage which lies between the curving footlights and a line drawn between the bases of the proscenium arch is called the "apron." The apron is very wide in old-fashioned theatres, but is seldom more than two or three feet wide in recently built houses.

1. One

Back of the proscenium arch—four feet or more behind it—you have noticed canvas-covered wings painted in neutral-toned draperies to harmonize with every sort of curtain, and you have noticed that they are pushed forward or drawn back as it is found necessary to widen or make narrow the stage opening. These first wings, called "tormentors," [1] extend upward from the floor—anywhere from 18 to 25 feet,—to the "Grand Drapery" and "Working Drapery," or first "border," which extend and hang just in front of them across the stage and hide the stage-rigging from the audience. The space lying between the tormentors and a line drawn between the bases of the proscenium arch is called "One."

[1] No one of the score I have asked for the origin of the word tormentor has been able to give it. They all say they have asked old-time stage-carpenters, but even they did not know.

It is in One that monologues, most "single acts"—that is, acts presented by one person—and many "two-acts"—acts requiring but two people—are played.

Behind the tormentors is a curtain called the "olio," which fulfills the triple purpose of hiding the rest of the stage, serving as scenery for acts in One and often as a curtain to raise and lower on acts playing in the space back of One.

2. Two

Five, or six, or even seven feet behind the tormentors you have noticed another set of wings which—extending parallel with the tormentors—serve to mask the rest of stage. The space between these wings and the line of the olio is called "Two."

In Two, acts such as flirtation-acts—a man and a woman playing lover-like scenes—which use scenery or small "props," and all other turns requiring but a small playing space, are staged.

3. Three

An equal number of feet back of the wings that bound Two, are wings that serve as boundaries for "Three."

In Three, playlets that require but shallow sets, and other acts that need not more than twelve feet for presentation, are played.

4. Four or Full Stage

Behind the wings that bound Three are another pair of wings, set an equal number of feet back, which serve as the boundaries of "Four." But, as there are rarely more than four entrances on any stage, Four is usually called "Full Stage."

In Full Stage are presented all acts such as acrobatic acts, animal turns, musical comedies, playlets and other pretentious acts that require deep sets and a wide playing space.

5. Bare Stage

Sometimes the very point of a playlet depends upon showing not the conventional stage, as it is commonly seen, but the real stage as it is, unset with scenery; therefore sometimes the entire stage is used as the playing stage, and then in the vernacular it is called "Bare Stage." [1]

[1] The New Leader, written by Aaron Hoffman and played for so many years by Sam Mann & Company, is an excellent example of a Bare Stage act.

On the opposite page is a diagram of the stage of Keith's Palace Theatre, New York City. A comparison of the preceding definitions with this diagram should give a clear understanding of the vaudeville playing stage.


At audience-right—or stage-left—flat against the extended wall of the proscenium arch in the First Entrance (to One) there is usually a signal-board equipped with push buttons presided over by the stage-manager. The stage-manager is the autocrat behind the scenes. His duty is to see that the program is run smoothly without the slightest hitch or wait between acts and to raise and lower the olio, or to signal the act-curtain up or down, on cues. [2]

[2] A cue is a certain word or action regarded as the signal for some other speech or action by another actor, or the signal for the lights to change or a bell to ring or something to happen during the course of a dramatic entertainment.



The author wishes to express his thanks to Mr. Elmer F. Rogers, house-manager, and Mr. William Clark, stage-manager, respectively, of the Palace Theatre, for the careful measurements from which this diagram was drawn.

When an act is ready to begin, the stage-manager pushes a button to signal the olio up or raises it himself—if, that drop [1] is worked from the stage—and on the last cue he pushes another button to signal the curtain down, or lowers it himself, as the case may be. He keeps time on the various acts and sees that the performers are ready when their turn arrives. Under the stage-manager are the various departments to which the working of scenery and effects are entrusted.

[1] A drop is the general name for a curtain of canvas—painted to represent some scene and stretched on a batten—a long, thick strip of wood—pocketed in the lower end to give the canvas the required stability. Sets of lines are tied to the upper batten on which the drop is tied and thus the drop can be raised or lowered to its place on the stage. There are sets of lines in the rear boundaries of One, Two, Three and Four, and drops can be hung on any desired set.

1. The Stage-Carpenter and His Flymen and Grips

As a rule the stage-manager is also the stage-carpenter. As such he, the wizard of scenery, has charge of the men, and is able to erect a palace, construct a tenement, raise a garden or a forest, or supply you with a city street in an instant.

Up on the wall of the stage, just under a network of iron called the "gridiron"—on which there are innumerable pulleys through which run ropes or "lines" that carry the scenery—there is, in the older houses, a balcony called the "fly-gallery." Into the fly-gallery run the ends of all the lines that are attached to the counter-weighted drops and curtains; and in the gallery are the flymen who pull madly on these ropes to lift or lower the curtains and drops when the signal flashes under the finger of the stage-manager at the signal-board below. But in the newer houses nearly all drops and scenery are worked from the stage level, and the fly-gallery—if there is one—is deserted. When a "set" is to be made, the stage-carpenter takes his place in the centre of the stage and claps his hands a certain number of times to make his men understand which particular set is wanted—if the sequence of the sets has not yet been determined and written down for the flymen to follow in definite order. Then the flymen lower a drop to its place on the stage and the "grips" push out the "flats" that make the wall of a room or the wings that form the scenery of a forest—or whatever the set may be.

2. The Property-Man and His Assistants

Into the mimic room that the grips are setting comes the Property-man—"Props," in stage argot—with his assistants, who place in the designated positions the furniture, bric-a-brac, pianos, and other properties, that the story enacted in this room demands.

After the act has been presented and the curtain has been rung down, the order to "strike" is given and the clearers run in and take away all the furniture and properties, while the property-man substitutes the new furniture and properties that are needed. This is done at the same time the grips and fly men are changing the scenery. No regiment is better trained in its duties. The property-man of the average vaudeville theatre is a hard-worked chap. Beside being an expert in properties, he must be something of an actor, for if there is an "extra man" needed in a playlet with a line or two to speak, it is on him that the duty falls. He must be ready on the instant with all sorts of effects, such as glass-crashes and wood-crashes, when a noise like a man being thrown downstairs or through a window is required, or if a doorbell or a telephone-bell must ring at a certain instant on a certain cue, or the noise of thunder, the wash of the sea on the shore, or any one of a hundred other effects be desired.

3. The Electrician

Upon the electrician fall all the duties of Jove in the delicate matter of making the sun to shine or the moon to cast its pale rays over a lover's scene. Next to the stage-manager's signal-board, 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.


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 because the rules have been changed, but our act was liable, under the old rules, and I evaded it only by diplomacy. But even to-day every act that carries a full set of scenery—such as a playlet requiring a special set—must carry its own stage-carpenter.

Therefore, to the problem of original cost and transportation expense, now add the charge of forty dollars a week against scenery—and an average of five dollars a week extra railroad fare for the stage-carpenter—and you begin to perceive why a vaudeville producer asks, when you request him to read an act: "What scenery?"

There is no intention of decrying the use of special scenery in vaudeville. Some of the very best and most profitable acts, even aside from great scenic one-act dramas like "The System," [1] would be comparatively valueless without their individual sets. And furthermore the use of scenery, with the far-reaching possibilities of the special set in all its beauty and—on this side of the water—hitherto unrealized effectiveness, has not yet even approached its noon. Together with the ceaseless advance of the art of mounting a full-evening play on the legitimate stage [2] will go the no less artistic vaudeville act. But, for the writer anxious to make a success of vaudeville writing, the special set should be decried. Indeed, the special set ought not to enter into the writer's problem at all.

[1] See Appendix. [2] The Theatre of To-Day, Hiram Kelly Moderwell's book on the modem theatre, will repay reading by anyone particularly interested in the special set and its possibilities.

No scenery can make up for weakness of story. Rather, like a paste diamond in an exquisitely chased, pure gold setting, the paste story will appear at greater disadvantage: because of the very beauty of its surroundings. The writer should make his story so fine that it will sparkle brilliantly in any setting.

The only thought that successful vaudeville writers give to scenery is to indicate in their manuscripts the surroundings that "relate the characters closely to their environment."

It requires no ability to imagine startling and beautiful scenic effects that cost a lot of money to produce—that is no "trick." The vaudeville scenery magic lies in making use of simple scenes that can be carried at little cost—or, better still for the new writer, in twisting the combinations of drops and sets to be found in every vaudeville house to new uses.



1. The Olio

In every vaudeville theatre there is an Olio and, although the scene which it is designed to represent may be different in each house, the street Olio is common enough to be counted as universally used. Usually there are two drops in "One," either of which may be the Olio, and one of them is likely to represent a street, while the other is pretty sure to be a palace scene.

2. Open Sets

Usually in Four—and sometimes in Three—there are to be found in nearly every vaudeville theatre two different drops, which with their matching wings [1] form the two common "open sets"—or scenes composed merely of a rear drop and side wings, and not boxed in.

[1] A wing is a double frame of wood covered with painted canvas and set to stand as this book will when its covers are opened at right angles to each other.

The Wood Set consists of a drop painted to represent the interior of a wood or forest, with wings painted in the same style. It is used for knock-about acts, clown acts, bicycle acts, animal turns and other acts that require a deep stage and can play in this sort of scene.

The Palace Set, with its drop and wings, is painted to represent the interior of a palace. It is used for dancing acts, acrobats and other acts that require a deep stage and can appropriately play in a palace scene.

3. The Box Sets

A "box set" is, as the name implies, a set of scenery that is box-shaped. It represents a room seen through the fourth wall, which has been removed. Sometimes with a, ceiling-piece, but almost invariably with "borders"—which are painted canvas strips hanging in front of the "border-lights" to mask them and keep the audience from seeing the ropes and pulleys hanging from the gridiron—the box set more nearly mimics reality than the open set, which calls upon the imagination of the audience to supply the realities that are entirely lacking or only hinted at.

The painted canvas units which are assembled to make the box set are called "flats." A flat is a wooden frame about six feet six inches wide and from twelve to eighteen feet long, covered with canvas and, of course, painted with any scene desired. It differs from a wing in being only one-half the double frame; therefore it cannot stand alone.

Upon the upper end of each flat along the unpainted outer edge there is fastened a rope as long as the flat. Two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the corresponding edge of the matching flat there is a "cleat," or metal strip, into which the rope, or "lash-line" is snapped. The two flats are then drawn tight together so that their edges match evenly and the lash-line is lashed through the framework to hold the flats firmly together.

While one flat may be a painted wall, the next may contain a doorway and door, another a part of an ornamental arch, and still another a window, so, when the various flats are assembled and set, the box set will have the appearance of a room containing doors and windows and even ornamental arches. The most varied scenes can thus be realistically set up.

In the rear of open doors there are usually wings, or perhaps flats, [1] painted to represent the walls of hallways and adjoining rooms and they are called "interior backings." Behind a door supposed to open out into the street or behind windows overlooking the country, there are hung, or set, short drops or wings painted to show parts of a street, a garden, or a country-side, and these are called "exterior backings."

[1] When flats are used as backings they are made stable by the use of the stage-brace, a device made of wood and capable of extension, after the manner of the legs of a camera tripod. It is fitted with double metal hooks on one end to hook into the wooden cross-bar on the back of the flat and with metal eyes on the other end through which stage-screws are inserted and screwed into the floor of the stage.

The Centre-door Fancy is the most common of the box sets. Called "fancy," because it has an arch with portieres and a rich-looking backing, and because it is supposed to lead into the other palatial rooms of the house, this set can be used for a less pretentious scene by the substitution of a matched door for the arch.

In this plainer form it is called simply The Parlor Set. Sometimes a parlor set is equipped with a French window, but this should not be counted on. But there are usually a grate and mantelpiece, and three doors. The doors are designed to be set, one in the rear wall, and one in each of the right and left walls. A ceiling-piece is rarely found, but borders are always to be had, and a chandelier is customary.

The Kitchen Set is, as the name implies, less pretentious than the changeable parlor set. It usually is equipped with three doors, possesses matching borders, may have an ordinary window, and often has a fireplace panel.

Slightly altered in appearance, by changing the positions of the doors and the not very common substitution of a "half-glass door" in the rear wall, the kitchen set does duty as The Office Set.

It is in these two box sets—changed in minor details to serve as four sets—that the vaudeville playlet is played.

On the following pages will be found eight diagrams showing how the stock or house box sets can be set in various forms. A study of these will show how two different acts using the same house set can be given surroundings that appear absolutely different. These diagrams should prove of great help to the playlet writer who wishes to know how many doors he may use, where they are placed and how his act will fit and play in a regulation set of scenery.


The following diagrams, showing the scenic equipment of the average vaudeville theatre, have been specially drawn for this volume and are used here by courtesy of the Lee Lash Studios, New York. As they are drawn to a scale of one-eighth of an inch to the foot, the precise size of the various scenes may be calculated.

The diagrams are based on the average vaudeville stage, which allows thirty or thirty-two feet between tormentors. The proscenium arch may be much greater, but the average vaudeville stage will set the tormentors about thirty feet apart. All vaudeville stage settings are made back of the tormentor line.

At the tormentor line there will be, of course, a Grand Drapery and Working Drapery which will mask the first entrance overhead.

There will be either a set of borders for each scene, or else the borders will be painted to use with any scene, to mask the stage rigging. The borders are usually hung from six to seven feet apart, so that in planning a scene this should be considered. In a few of the larger houses, a ceiling-piece is found, but, as has been said, this is so rare it should not be counted on.

Most houses have a floor cloth, and medallion or carpet, in addition to the properties hereafter described. Reference to the diagrams will show that the tormentors have a "flipper," which runs to the proscenium arch wall; in the flipper is usually a door or a curtained opening for the entrances and exits of acts in One.

If you will combine with the diagrams shown these elements which cannot be diagrammed, you will have a clear idea of the way in which any scene is constructed. Then if you will imagine the scene you have in mind as being set up on a stage like that of the Palace Theatre, shown in the last chapter, you will have a working understanding of the vaudeville stage.


A well-ordered vaudeville stage, as has been described, possesses Drops for use in One, one or more Fancy Interiors, a Kitchen Set, and Exterior Sets. The Drops in One are omitted from these diagrams, because they would be represented merely by a line drawn behind the tormentors.

The Fancy Interiors may include a Light Fancy, a Dark Fancy, an Oak Interior, and a Plain Chamber set. As the differences are largely of painting, the usual Centre-door Fancy is taken as the basis for the variations—five different ways of setting it are shown.

Two out of the many different ways of setting the Kitchen Set are given.

The Exterior Set allows little or no variation; the only thing that can be done is to place balustrades, vases, etc., in different positions on the stage; therefore but one diagram is supplied.


Showing the usual method of setting a "Fancy." It may be made shallower by omitting a wing on either side.


The double arch is thrown from the centre to the side, the landscape drop being used to back the scene—the drop may be seen through the window on stage-left. The window of the Fancy Interior is always of the French type, opening full to the floor.


This is a deeper and narrower set, approximating more closely a room in an ordinary house. The double arch at the rear may be backed with an interior backing or a conservatory backing. If the interior backing is used, the conservatory backing may be used to back the single four-foot arch at stage-left.


This shows the double arch flanked by a single arch on each side, making three large openings looking out on the conservatory drop.


The fireplace is here brought into prominence by setting it in a corner with two "jogs" on each side. The window is backed with a landscape or garden drop as desired.


This arrangement of a Kitchen Set makes use of three doors, emphasizing the double doors in the centre of rear wall, which open out on an interior backing or a wood or garden drop. In this and the following setting a small window can be fitted into the upper half of either of the single doors.


Two doors only are used in this setting; the double doors, in the same relative position as in the preceding arrangement, open out on a wood or landscape backing. The fireplace is brought out on stage-right. The single door on stage-left opens on an interior backing.


Many theatres have two sets of Exterior wings—one of Wood Wings and one of Garden Wings. In some houses the Wood Wings are used with the Garden Drop, set vases and balustrades being used to produce the garden effect, as shown here. Some theatres also have a Set House and Set Cottage, which may be placed on either side of the stage; each has a practical door and a practical window. With the Set House and Set Tree slight variations of exterior settings may be contrived.

4. Properties

In the argot of the stage the word "property" or "prop" means any article—aside from scenery—necessary for the proper mounting or presentation of a play. A property may be a set of furniture, a rug, a pair of portieres, a picture for the wall, a telephone, a kitchen range or a stew-pan—indeed, anything a tall that is not scenery, although serving to complete the effect and illusion of a scene.

Furniture is usually of only two kinds in a vaudeville playhouse. There is a set of parlor furniture to go with the parlor set and a set of kitchen furniture to furnish the kitchen set. But, while these are all that are at the immediate command of the property-man, he is usually permitted to exchange tickets for the theatre with any dealer willing to lend needed sets of furniture, such as a desk or other office equipment specially required for the use of an act.

In this way the sets of furniture in the property room may be expanded with temporary additions into combinations of infinite variety. But, it is wise not to ask for anything out of the ordinary, for many theatre owners frown upon bills for hauling, even though the rent of the furniture may be only a pair of seats.

For the same reason, it is unwise to specify in the property-list— which is a printed list of the properties each act requires—anything in the way of rugs that is unusual. Though some theatres have more than two kinds of rugs, the white bear rug and the carpet rug are the most common. It is also unwise to ask for pictures to hang on the walls. If a picture is required, one is usually supplied set upon an easel.

Of course, every theatre is equipped with prop telephones and sets of dishes and silver for dinner scenes. But there are few vaudeville houses in the country that have on hand a bed for the stage, although the sofa is commonly found.

A buffet, or sideboard, fully equipped with pitchers and wine glasses, is customary in every vaudeville property room. And champagne is supplied in advertising bottles which "pop" and sparkle none the less realistically because the content is merely ginger ale.

While the foregoing is not an exhaustive list of what the property room of a vaudeville theatre may contain, it gives the essential properties that are commonly found. Thus every ordinary requirement of the usual vaudeville act can be supplied.

The special properties that an act may require must be carried by the act. For instance, if a playlet is laid in an artist's studio there are all sorts of odds and ends that would lend a realistic effect to the scene. A painter's easel, bowls of paint brushes, a palette, half-finished pictures to hang on the walls, oriental draperies, a model's throne, and half a dozen rugs to spread upon the floor, would lend an atmosphere of charming bohemian realism.

Special Sound-Effects fall under the same common-sense rule. For, while all vaudeville theatres have glass crashes, wood crashes, slap-sticks, thunder sheets, cocoanut shells for horses' hoof-beats, and revolvers to be fired off-stage, they could not be expected to supply such little-called-for effects as realistic battle sounds, volcanic eruptions, and like effects.

If an act depends on illusions for its appeal, it will, of course, be well supplied with the machinery to produce the required sounds. And those that do not depend on exactness of illusion can usually secure the effects required by calling on the drummer with his very effective box-of-tricks to help out the property-man.

5. The Lighting of the Vaudeville Stage

At the electrical switchboard centre all the lights of the theatre, as well as those of the stage itself. Presided over by the electrician, the switchboard, so far as the stage and its light effects are concerned, commands two classes of lights. The first of these is the arc light and the second the electric bulb.

The Spot-lights are the lamps that depend upon the arc for their illumination. If you have ever sat in the gallery of any theatre, and particularly of a vaudeville theatre, you certainly have noticed the very busy young man whose sole purpose in life appears to be to follow the heroine around the stage with the focused spot of light that shines like a halo about her. The lamp with which he accomplishes this difficult feat is appropriately called a "spot-light." While there are often spot-lights on the electrician's "bridge," as his balcony is called, the gallery out front is the surest place to find the spot-light.

The Footlights are electric bulbs dyed amber, blue, and red— or any other special shade desired—beside the well-known white, set in a tin trough sunk in the stage and masked to shine only upon the stage. By causing only one group of colors to light, the electrician can secure all sorts of variations, and with the aid of "dimmers" permit the lights to shine brilliantly or merely to glow with faint radiance.

The Border-lights are electric bulbs of varying colors set in tin troughs a little longer than the proscenium opening and are suspended above the stage behind the scenery borders. They shine only downward. There are border-lights just in front of the drops in One, Two, Three and Four, and they take the names of "first border-light," "second border-light," and so on from the drops they illuminate.

Strip-lights are electric bulbs set in short strips of tin troughs, that are equipped with hooks by which they can be hung behind doors and out-of-the-way dark places in sets to illuminate the backings.

A Bunch-light is a box of tin set on a standard, which can be moved about the stage the length of its electric cord, and has ten or twelve electric bulbs inside that cast a brilliant illumination wherever it is especially desired. Squares of gelatine in metal frames can be slipped into the grooves in front of the bunch-light to make the light any color or shade desired. These boxes are especially valuable in giving the effect of blazing sunlight just outside the doors or windows of a set, or to shine through the windows in the soft hue of moonlight.

Grate Logs are found in nearly every vaudeville house and are merely iron painted to represent logs of wood, inside of which are concealed lamps that shine up through red gelatine, simulating the glow of a wood fire shining in the fireplace under the mantelpiece usually found in the centre-door-fancy set.

Special Light-effects have advanced so remarkably with the science of stage illumination that practically any effect of nature may be secured. If the producer wishes to show the water rippling on the river drop there is a "ripple-lamp" at his command, which is a clock-actuated mechanism that slowly revolves a ripple glass in front of a "spot-lamp" and casts a realistic effect of water rippling in the moonlight.

By these mechanical means, as well as others, the moon or the sun can be made to shine through a drop and give the effect of rising or of setting, volcanos can be made to pour forth blazing lava and a hundred other amazing effects can be obtained. In fact, the modern vaudeville stage is honeycombed with trapdoors and overhung with arching light-bridges, through which and from which all manner of lights can be thrown upon the stage, either to illuminate the faces of the actors with striking effect, or to cast strange and beautiful effects upon the scenery. Indeed, there is nothing to be seen in nature that the electrician cannot reproduce upon the stage with marvellous fidelity and pleasing effect.

But the purpose here, as in explaining all the other physical departments of the vaudeville stage, is not to tell what has been done and what can be done, interesting and instructive as such a discussion would be, but to describe what is usually to be found in a vaudeville theatre. The effects that are at ready command are the only effects that should interest anyone about to write for vaudeville. As was emphasized in the discussion of scenery, the writer should not depend for success on the unusual. His aim should be to make use of the common stage-effects that are found on every vaudeville stage—if, indeed, he depends on any effects at all.

Here, then, we have made the acquaintance of the physical proportions and aspects of the vaudeville stage and have inquired into all the departments that contribute to the successful presentation of a vaudeville entertainment. We have examined the vaudeville writer's tool-box and have learned to know the uses for which each tool of space, scenery, property, and light is specially designed. And by learning what these tools can do, we have also learned what they cannot do.

Now let us turn to the plans and specifications—called manuscripts— that go to make up the entertaining ten or forty minutes during which a vaudeville act calls upon these physical aids to make it live upon the mimic stage, as though it were a breathing reality of the great stage of life.



The word monologue comes from the combination of two Greek words, monos, alone, and legein, to speak. Therefore the word monologue means "to speak alone"—and that is often how a monologist feels. If in facing a thousand solemn faces he is not a success, no one in all the world is more alone than he.

It appears easy for a performer to stroll into a theatre, without bothersome scenery, props, or tagging people, and walk right out on the stage alone and set the house a-roar. But, like most things that appear easy, it is not. It is the hardest "stunt" in the show business, demanding two very rare things: uncommon ability in the man, and extraordinary merit in the monologue itself.

To arrive at a clear understanding of what a monologue is, the long way around through the various types of "talking singles" may be the shortest cut home to the definition.

1. Not a Soliloquy.

The soliloquy of the by-gone days of dramatic art was sometimes called a monologue, because the person who spoke it was left alone upon the stage to commune with himself in spoken words that described to the audience what manner of man he was and what were the problems that beset him. Hamlet's "To be or not to be," perhaps the most famous of soliloquies, is, therefore, a true monologue in the ancient sense, for Hamlet spoke alone when none was near him. In the modern sense this, and every other soliloquy, is but a speech in a play. There is a fundamental reason why this is so: A monologue is spoken to the audience, while in a soliloquy (from the Latin solus, alone, loqui, to talk) the actor communes with himself for the "benefit" of the audience.

2. Not Merely an Entertainment by One Person

There are all sorts of entertaining talking acts in vaudeville presented by a single person. Among them are the magician who performs his tricks to the accompaniment of a running fire of talk which, with the tricks themselves, raises laughter; and the person who gives imitations and wins applause and laughter by fidelity of speech, mannerisms and appearance to the famous persons imitated. Yet neither of these can be classed as a monologist, because neither depends upon speech alone to win success.

3. Not a Disconnected String of Stories

Nor, in the strictest vaudeville sense, is a monologue merely a string of stories that possesses no unity as a whole and owns as its sole reason of being that of amusement and entertainment. For instance, apropos of nothing whatever an entertainer may say:

I visited Chinatown the other evening and took dinner in one of the charming Oriental restaurants there. The first dish I ordered was called Chop Suey. It was fine. They make it of several kinds of vegetables and meats, and one dark meat in particular hit my taste. I wanted to find out what it was, so I called the waiter. He was a solemn-looking Chinaman, whose English I could not understand, so I pointed to a morsel of the delicious dark meat and, rubbing the place where all the rest of it had gone, I asked:

"Quack-quack?" The Chink grinned and said: "No. No. Bow-wow."

Before the laughter has subsided the entertainer continues:

That reminds me of the deaf old gentleman at a dinner party who was seated right next to the prettiest of the very young ladies present. He did his best to make the conversation agreeable, and she worked hard to make him understand what she said. But finally she gave it up in despair and relapsed into a pained silence until the fruit was passed. Then she leaned over and said:

"Do you like bananas?"

A smile of comprehension crept over the deaf old man's face and he exclaimed:

"No, I like the old-fashioned night-gowns best."

And so, from story to story the entertainer goes, telling his funny anecdotes for the simple reason that they are funny and create laughter. But funny as they are, they are disconnected and, therefore, do not meet the requirement of unity of character, which is one of the elements of the pure monologue.

4. Not a Connected Series of Stories Interspersed With Songs and the Like

If the entertainer had told the stories of the Chinaman and the deaf old gentleman as though they had happened to a single character about whom all the stories he tells revolve, his act and his material would more nearly approach the pure monologue form. For instance:

Casey's a great fellow for butting into queer places to get a bite to eat. The other evening we went down to Chinatown and in one of those Oriantal joints that hand out Chop Suey in real china bowls with the Jersey City dragoons on 'em, we struck a dish that hit Casey just right.

"Mither av Moses," says Casey, "this is shure the atein fer ye; but what's thot dilicate little tid-bit o' brown mate?" "I don't know," says I.

"Oi'll find out," says Casey. "Just listen t'me spake that heathen's language."

"Here, boy," he hollers, "me likee, what you call um?"

The Chink stares blankly at Casey. Casey looks puzzled, then he winks at me. Rubbing his hand over the place where the rest of the meat had gone, he says:


A gleam shot into the Chink's almond eyes and he says: "No. No. Bow-wow."

It took seven of us to hold Casey, he felt that bad. But that wasn't a patchin' to the time we had dinner with a rich friend o' ours and Casey was seated right next to the nicest little old lady y'ever saw. . . .

And so on until the banana story is told, with Casey the hero and victim of each anecdote.

But an entertainer feels no necessity of making his entire offering of related anecdotes only. Some monologists open with a song because they want to get the audience into their atmosphere, and "with" them, before beginning their monologue. The song merely by its melody and rhythm helps to dim the vividness of impression left by the preceding act and gives the audience time to quiet down, serving to bridge the psychic chasm in the human mind that lies between the relinquishing of one impression and the reception of the next.

Or the monologist may have a good finishing song and knows that he can depend on it for an encore that will bring him back to tell more stories and sing another song. So he gives the orchestra leader the cue, the music starts and off he goes into his song.

Or he may have some clever little tricks that will win applause, or witty sayings that will raise a laugh, and give him a chance to interject into his offering assorted elements of appeal that will gain applause from different classes of people in his audience. Therefore, as his purpose is to entertain, he sings his song, performs his tricks, tells his witty sayings, or perhaps does an imitation or two, as suits his talent best. And a few end their acts with serious recitations of the heart-throb sort that bring lumps into kindly throats and leave an audience in the satisfied mood that always comes when a touch of pathos rounds off a hearty laugh.

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