By Louis Lotito
When a man sees to it that every part of a theatre is clean, fresh and gleaming, he’s doing part of the work of a house manager – but only a part of it. For a house manager is more than a mere overseer of the theatre in which an attraction is housed.
I don’t want to under-rate the importance of keeping a playhouse polished up in every last little corner. The enjoyment of audiences, out of which comes the all-powerful “word of mouth” that means prosperity for everybody concerned, depends not only on the quality of the show but also on the sense of comfort and cleanliness afforded by the theatre in which they see it. The streaked pane of glass in a door, the dust in the corner of a stair-landing, the absence of soap in a washroom, will give a theatergoer a sense of shoddiness in his evening, no matter how excellent the show may be. Certainly the vital factors of proper ventilation and temperature during a performance, which are finally the responsibilities of a house manager, are of first importance to the pleasure of a visit to the theatre.
A house manager is really the host of the audience. A thousand or so guests a night can thank him for their entertainment. If he’s an independent manager – that is, if he does his own booking – all the credit for a successful dinner belongs to its host, though the artistic triumph belongs to the chef who prepared the food, for the host chose the chef and the menu.
If he manages a house without having a voice in its bookings, he’s then like the host who lets a caterer provide the food and drink, but he’s still responsible for his guests having a good time.
This figure of speech may seem a bit stretched, and a little too general to have much meaning to most people. And it’s certainly not meant to overlook the indispensable role of the producer. But the fact is that a house manager has so many duties and responsibilities that it’s hard to be more concrete. About everybody else in show business has a simple position in what the Army calls “the chain of command.” The responsibilities of these others go in a straight line, coming from someone in a higher echelon and passing straight on to the next rank.
But the house manager is the hub of theatrical presentation (as contrasted with production). Obligations come in to him from all directions, and authority goes out from him in just as many spokes.
HIS CHORES ARE MANY AND DIVERSE
For he’s the liaison man between all these factors: 1.) the owner or lessee of the theatre; 2.) the staff of the theatre (treasurers, ushers, cleaning and maintenance people, stage crew, etc.); 3.) the vendors and repairman who furnish the scores and scores or goods and services a theatre requires, from electricity to sweeping compounds, from brass polish to upholstery, from paper cups to spare parts for vacuum cleaner; 4.) the producer of the show and his staff; 5.) the players and their stage management; 6.) the public.
A lot of it seems routine – the checking of box-office statements, the endless paying of bills, the inspections of the building, the coping with the irritatingly slow and expensive repairs (something needs fixing all the time!), the handling of complaints from everybody. But there’s seldom a dull moment because there is such a lot of it.
There’s a creative, non-routine part, too. It takes initiative and diplomacy to persuade a woman who’s tripped over her own feet on a stair from the balcony that she did not catch her foot in some loose carpeting and that she ought to postpone bringing a million dollar suit until she finds whether she’s really broken her leg, as she believes for five minutes.
Then too it’s very satisfying to see how actors respond to a house manager’s efforts to see that their dressing rooms are comfortable and attractive. Care in this regard will show up in the performances, and these in turn are reflected in those pretty little forms called box-office statements.
The biggest scope for a manager’s taste and judgment, of course, is in booking attractions. But if the booking is done for him, his ripe experience of show business is still needed in all sorts of considerations about the run of the play. The producer and his staff have the decision about publicity and advertising, about cast changes, about price changes, about how long the run is to continue, and many other such matters. But they will welcome advice on these matters from a house manager who has enthusiastic interest in his job of being a host. Certainly his encouragement when a play gets off to a doubtful start, can be of the highest value.
For that’s the final test, I think, of a good house manager – that he still will think show business is exciting, that he never will let his job become a monotonous routine, that he will always retain his enthusiasm. A good house manager will constantly prefer his job, with all its insecurity and long hours that interfere with family life, to a job in the potato business, the rug business, the insurance business, or any other business.
This article originally appeared in ATPAM’s 1948 Benefit for Welfare Fund Souvenir Book