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PEOPLE WHO OWN THEATRES.
About Managers. — The Top of the Theatrical Heap. – New York
Managers.--Speculators, Merchants and others as Theatre-Owners.Actors and Dramatists as Managers.—How Expenses are Cut Down.What Managers Should Be, and What, alas! They Are.-Swindling
Agents” Turned Managers.—The Sharks of the Profession.
It will be evident to all who have read the preceding chapters, that Behind the Scenes there is a world—a world with its aristocracy, its wits, its beauties, its rich, its poor, its artists and artisans, much as there is in the outer world.
At the “ top of the heap” is the person who owns the theatre. This is most frequently some capitalist, who rents out his theatre just as he does his other property, and has nothing to do with it except to receive quarterly payments for its use. This, I say, is most generally the case; though in New York there are two theatres owned by a wealthy railroad manager, who it is said also busies himself with the actual management of the theatres he owns. At any rate, he causes his name, as “proprietor," to be placed at the head of the theatre bills. This is Mr. James Fisk, Jr.
Another theatre is owned by a successful actor—Mr. Edwin Booth.
Wood's Museum is owned by Banvard, known throughout the country by his Panorama of the Holy Land.
Niblo's Garden and the New York Theatre are owned by Mr. A. T. Stewart, the dry goods king, who busies himself very little with them, except to see that his rents are collected.
All the other theatres in New York, according to the best of my knowledge, are owned either by stockholders
or private individuals, who let them out to theatre managers.
A theatre manager may or may not be an actor. In former days the theatre manager was invariably an actor; but in New York at the present time there are only two permanent first-class theatres which are managed by actors—one is “ Wallack's,” managed by Mr. Lester Wallack; the other is “Booth's,” managed by Edwin Booth.
Theatres—like newspapers, for the most part—are either immensely lucrative or very disastrous affairs; and the first part of this fact has induced numberless men-outsiders in every sense—to invest their money in theatrical stock as if it were live stock-hogs or cattle.
It is these people who have been chiefly instrumental in bringing upon the stage that hideous disgrace known as the “nude drama," which took its rise with the flimsy absurdity called the “Black Crook," and who have continued it by importing “painted Jezebels,” known as “English burlesque blondes,” to throw still further obloquy on the drama proper, by their shameless can-can dancing, and their perversion of simple nursery rhymes into indecent songs. No actor
manager could have inaugurated this disgrace; for the simple reason that he would be too much in sympathy with his actors to force them to lower their talents to the level of English burlesque; but, of course, once the thing became a pronounced success, it flew all over the country, and many actor-managers found themselves obliged to admit it into their theatres, or be ruined pecuniarily.
It would be a happy day for the drama if these gross speculators could be driven from the management of theatres, and men with true regard for the histrionic artactors like Edwin Booth and Lester Wallack-could everywhere take their places.
In those cases where successful dramatic authors have turned managers, the rule which governs the actor-manager generally holds good. Such managers usually have some realizing sense of the importance of dramatic art; and, though they may not rise to the very highest conceptions of this, yet it is rare indeed for them to seek success through indecent burlesques or leg-displaying spectacles.
One curious fact is noticeable with regard to managers as a class, and that is that whenever it becomes necessary to cut down their expenses, their first attack is made on the salary list. This is often very severe upon the members of the company, but they usually have no option but to accept the reduction, or make room for some one who will.
John Hollingshead, a London critic, lately remarked:
“A manager is entitled to praise if he produces a good drama, and deserves strong blame if he produces a bad one. It is a lame excuse for him to urge, or have urged for him, that he engaged the reputed best author in the market at a fair market price, and left it to him.' This is not the act of a manager, but of a fool; of a man whose greatest successes must necessarily be 'flukes.' It is true that most so-called managers are men of this stamp, who hold scarce properties at the sides of our principal London thoroughfares, and whose whole art of management is to wait for something to turn up.' The critics, most of them, know this, but they never say it."
« There was a time in the story of the drama,” says another critic,—“its most illustrious time,-when men like Sheridan and Byron were at the head of theatres. In this country, too, we have had managers of cultivated taste, and can still point to names of men which carry to the office the feelings of gentlemen and scholars. But of what material are most of our modern managers composed? The spawn of some concert cellar, or taking their
degrees among the diggings, tied to the tusks of some dramatic rhinoceros, and sent round between the acts to gather half-pence, they possess neither cultivation nor refinement, and would sacrifice at any moment for a dollar the dignity of their art."
Low down on the ladder of repute which all actors seek to climb—or at least pretend they do—is a class of soulless, conscienceless, speculating swindlers, who, from having followed the business of theatrical agents, have learned something of the inner life of theatricals, and who aspire to be managers.
These disgraceful persons will have the audacity to gather a company of players together under false pretences, promising them good salaries, and set out to give performances in country towns, trusting wholly to “luck” to carry them through.
If they chance to have good houses, very well; then their baseness lies concealed; but if the first three or four nights of their “season" should fail to bring in money, these swindling “managers ” are forced to disband their companies,-for they have not a cent in their pockets.
The evils growing out of this disgraceful conduct are often deplorable, and serve to cast unmerited reproach on the profession—the “poor players” being sometimes left penniless in a strange town, with hotel-bills to pay, and landlords clamorous.
Adventurers of this stamp, who assume the grave responsibilities of management, knowing well their own inability to cope for a single week with what is technically termed “poor business,” are worthy of execration by all honorable people; and it will be a good day for the theatrical profession when it shall have combined to resist the rascalities of penniless “ agents ” turned managers.