Some Experiences as an Acting Manager
by Howard Paul, 1888
The position of an acting-manager cannot be said to be altogether a happy one. It has its pleasant side, no doubt, but if Messrs. Jecks, Kelly, D’Albertson, and their fellow officials in front told the whole truth, they would own up to a multitude of minor worries inflicted by a voracious army that infests London. I mean the case-hardened, iron-clad order-seekers.
I was recently acting manager of a theatre that kept its doors open just a month with a Scotch melodrama, about which there was considerable difference of opinion, and in that period I received over a thousand letters from persons requesting free admission. They poured in from all parts of the Metropolis, some enclosing stamped envelopes, some couched in the most beseeching terms, others airily demanding stalls and boldly requesting private boxes as though the theatre were kept open entirely for their gratuitous delectation, and were not the most expensive establishments in the world to conduct. It is a curious phase of the sagacity of the perpetual and chronic order-seeker that he divines by instinct the theatre that is not enjoying good business, and he calmly calculates that his chances of tickets are surer than if he applied to houses that are in the thick of a great success.
The number of people who ‘write in’, as the locution goes, and who represent themselves as members of travelling companies, is enormous. I took the trouble to look into the claims of some of these applicants, The modus operandi is to have a card engraved with a fancy theatrical sounding name – say Augustus de Beaufort as a male, or. Miss Ilma Amina as a female – and then write in the corner ‘The Fearful Surprise Company’, ‘The Great Blue Diamond Company’, or something of that sort. On careful investigation I found that many of the companies disbanded years ago, and others were sheer impudent inventions. The ingenious but dishonest exploiters of this bogus pasteboard business trust to the notion that acting managers are too much occupied to ascertain the correctness of their representations, and knowing also that a theatre doing a mild business is desirous of ‘keeping up the house’ and ‘managing a show in front’. Then there is the stamped and directed envelope to hand, and so the irrepressible ticket cadger achieves his purpose.
Then the women and girls of all ages and conditions who present themselves at the box office and call themselves actresses is sufficient to stagger the stoutest nerves. Of course, they all desire good seats, notwithstanding that they are unkempt, ill-dressed, utterly h-less, and inartistically made up with bold mourning lines around their eyes. A percentage of these females I found had been chorus girls in the dim past, or in the ballet; and some, when younger, had coruscated as third-rate suburban music-hall figurants – but they all stuck to it they were actresses. Acting, like charity, would seem to cover a multitude of sins, and the way the word actress is bandied about, dragged in the mud, and made ignoble use of, in one disreputable way and another, is, well, a sign of the times. It is sufficient for a girl now-a-days to have passed through a stage-door and faced the footlights as one of a group for a few weeks, and ever afterwards she declares herself as a member of the profession, and resents any doubt you may entertain on the subject.
Women in this respect arc greater offenders than the sterner sex. There are men who, finding they can no longer obtain theatrical engagements, will look up some humble occupation, such as keeping small cigar shops in back streets, or are not above soliciting custom for wine merchants, or becoming clerks. But a woman who once absorbs the virus of the stage in her veins will cling to it until the last moment. She cannot shake off the fascination. Some years ago, when acting manager of the Alhambra, a splashy damsel called 0n me (she came in a brougham, and was expensively attired) and offered a sum of money per week to allow her to go on the stage in the chorus.
‘Do you sing?’ I naturally asked.
‘I do not,’ she replied.
‘Then may I enquire why you desire to enter the chorus?’
‘Well’ said she, ‘to be frank, I wish to print ‘Alhambra’ on the corner of my card. It gives one prestige to hail from an establishment like this, and it looks well to have a profession. Suffice it to say it will answer my purpose to pay so much a week to be in this theatre’.
I need hardly say I bowed the lady out with effusive regrets that I was unable to make an accession to her rather doubtful desire for prestige. Her chariot rolled away and I saw her no more.
In every other business or profession in the world it is clearly understood that a reasonable preparatory training is required – rudiments are at least mastered. But there are hundreds of girls ready at any moment to bounce upon the stage without a single accomplishment, or the faintest notion of the culture or qualities required to make an actress. From the front it all looks so easy, and must be so jolly; that is what these damsels think, and hence the torturing desire, Then there are girls who think if their faces are pretty, and their legs shapely, their stock-in-trade is complete.
Apropos of free admissions, people will resort to astonishing devices to obtain them. When manager of the Alhambra, a well-known nobleman of fair income frequently sent in his card by a messenger to say he desired to see me particularly. He was ushered in, would dilate cheerfully on some common-place topic of the day, perhaps offer me a cheap cigar, and after a decent interval, in order not to disclose his purpose too quickly, he would find his way into my private box, where he spent the rest of the evening. By this mean device he saved his guineas no doubt, but I fear me he had little reverence for the noblesse oblige idea. After I ‘got up’ to his device, and instructed the doorkeeper to say I was out when he called, this self-same nobleman had the audacity to address a formal letter to the Board of Directors, to say that their manager was a strangely absent sort of person, for whenever he called he was invariably out of the way. At a meeting of the Board, I explained this convenient and extemporised self-obliteration to their entire satisfaction.
On one occasion two perky girls, who were coryphées, brought this nobleman’s card with the wish expressed on it to give them a private box. I recognised the girls as associated with the ‘naked drama’, as it had been called, and politely told them they could have seats in the upper boxes.
‘Well, upon my word, do you know we are artistes?’ I smiled. ‘And did you see who the card was from?’ said the bolder and more be-flowered and rouged of the two. I did. ‘And yet, knowing we are artistes (how strongly she emphasised this word) and seeing that the card is a lord’s, you’d send us upstairs?’
‘I can do no better for you.’ ‘Sir!’ said the ruddled one, fairly shook her gloved fist in my face, ‘I’ll report your conduct to his lordship.’
And they flounced into the street in a sulky state of full-blown indignation. A few days after this incident I had this withering note:
‘Lord -------‘s compliments to the manager of the ‘Alhambra’ and begs to say he will never again enter its doors’. My reply was simple, but to the point. ‘The manager of the ‘Alhambra’ compliments to Lord ---------, and is delighted at his assurance’.
And the noble lord of cheap theatrical tastes troubled me with no more cards.
The acting manager is apt to experience collisions with gentlemen of the Press, and it requires the tact of a Talleyrand to steer clear of complications with some of the attachés of the small fourth estate. The representatives of the recognised and important journals are easily accommodated, but there are paragraph-mongers of outside weekly papers the mere titles of which are scarcely known, who make a mighty fuss if they are not allotted the choicest seats. On the first night of the ‘Blue Bells’ – I mean ‘Bells of Scotland’ – I gave a gentleman connected with an obscure journal a seat in the dress circle, and now he goes about with hatred in his heart, and covers me with obloquy when my name is mentioned. I had wounded his amour propre by not permitting him to appear in the stalls among the great dailies and the elite of journalism As an acting manager I had done for myself, as far as that quillster was concerned, and whenever he can splash me with the blackest of ink he will promptly do so. '
I have mentioned the shifts and dodges of the professional ‘deadheads’ and there are people who claim connection with journals who are quite as unscrupulous. The correspondents of papers at home and abroad crop up in confusing numbers at the front of a theatre. One lady at the ‘Novelty’ requested a private box as the special art correspondent of the Poonah Observer. I replied to this modest request that before her criticism would reach India the theatre would be closed. A gentleman who protested that he wrote for a Jewish weekly in New York stated that he had a dinner party and would be delighted to bring his guests to see the play if I would kindly give him two private boxes and, if possible, next to each other. I sent him two complimentary ‘upper circles’, and received in return four pages of the most insolent and lively invective I ever remember to have read. If I had robbed him of his purse, jumped on him, and slaughtered his mother-in-law, the terms of his objurgation could not have been more violent.
So you see the position of an acting manager is not all Pommery sec. and lamb cutlets. There are pleasanter places in the world than the ‘front of the house’. This weather, I should say, the front of the fire is a thousand times more preferable.
From Clement Scott, (ed.), The Theatre Annual, (5th and final edition), London, The Stage Office, 1888, pp. 31-34.